Pollex Christi is a curious affair, even by the standards of The Residents. It is a boutique release, the first from their resurrected Ralph Records label, now named Ralph America. It’s a limited edition probably for two reasons: first, it’s an experiment in merchandising (Ralph America is not an actual record label, but a specialized mail order outfit), and secondly the content itself is not the (un)usual Residents fare. Here they have taken to reinterpreting pieces of classical music, giving them a Residential slant.
But they have explored this area before, most explicitly with their version of Fur Elise, but really every time they have appropriated and recontextualized any work. Their Beatles edit, their Dick Clark medley, their finest flowers – all were instances in which existing music was repurposed to create something new. The message implicit in this action does contain an element of “destroy your idols” but that’s not nearly as fun as “art is alive and survives by feeding upon itself.” I think that early on the balance was more on the destructive side, but the mature, constructive side of The Residents was always present and has only grown stronger through the years. The difference is most apparent when compared to one of their earliest efforts, The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll. The musicianship there was sloppy and often jarring, and here it has a cold precision (though that exactitude renders it far more jarring when something unexpected happens). The former featured Dick Clark wearing an SS uniform, and this features the music of Carl Orff, often suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer, but fails to make any mention of it. From drawing swastikas where they didn’t belong to not even considering that kind of bold exploitation is a stark contrast in how The Residents operate.
But even this new interpretation is not a Residents composition. It is the work of N. Senada, a collaborator from their earliest days. It is described as a house built of bricks, the bricks being existing music with which builders realize the architect’s vision. The more I think about it, Pollex Christi really does seem to be a sequel to The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll: the same idea but with twenty years of growth and maturity added to the mix. Perhaps this is The Residents’ way of saying “we misunderstood what he meant when we started out, and this is what that album really should have been.” It’s just as simultaneously strange and familiar, but has none of the “stoned kids goofing off” feel. This is a work of art without an image of the artist intruding upon it, and that seems more in line with what this group has been trying to express.
Now about N. Senada. As a supporter of what The Residents are doing, I must fully believe in his story. To do otherwise would mean undermining their concept altogether, and at that point they may as well step into the spotlight, say their names, and write a tell-all book. And while I admit that part of me is still curious about what kind of people they are, I recognize that the concept of The Residents – an entity that exists only in the art world with no ties to the day-to-day – is strange and beautiful and something we would be worse off for not having.
That said, I believe N. Senada is a fictional construct of The Residents, an amalgam of their influences. I see shades of Harry Partch, John Cage, Frank Zappa, and others all rolled up into this ideal musical mentor. And if N. Senada is really everyone who has been an inspiration, then it stands to reason that The Residents are really everyone who has ever been inspired, making every one of us a potential part of this great art collective. We’ve all received their mail, haven’t we? What further proof of global community could we possibly need? A hippie message brought on by musical anarchists playing classical music? That is pure Residents.