Part 1 of 2Not Available
D Howland Abbott
One night in the summer of 2000, I found myself standing in the corner of a tiny room which served as the broadcast booth for the college radio station at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. I had been dragged there by my girlfriend at the time, a woman named Bethany, who had developed a crush on the night-time DJ. It was 11:00pm, and as far as I could tell the three of us were the only people on campus.
“This is B.C. Sterret, and you are listening to Oddity Rock Radio on Weber State Eighty-Eight.” The DJ was speaking into the microphone, and partially obscured behind a wall of tape racks and soundboards. “Welcome once again to the single oasis in the vast cultural wasteland that we call the Beehive State.” I flinched. I had used those precise words in the moments before he went on the air, and he had stolen them.
I hated Blair – as I knew him – and his cool-sounding DJ name. I hated his pristine porkpie hat. I hated his accordion, which sat in the corner and which was distinctly shinier than mine. Really what I hated was that he was cooler than me, and that Bethany was sitting there making cutesy eyes at him.
“In that last block, we heard ‘Thank You, Dr. Heimlich’ by the Happiest Guys in the World; we followed that up with ‘Succeed’ from Barnes & Barnes, who most of you probably know better as ‘those assholes responsible for ‘Fish Heads’ – that timeless staple of the immortal Dr. Demento – and we closed out the set with one of my personal favorites, ‘Figaro’, courtesy of Optiganally Yours.”
I hated that I loved the music he was playing; that it spoke to me, deeply and profoundly. I hated how, during a 45-second station ID break, he quickly gathered his hated shiny accordion, a hand saw, and a bow such as one might use to play a violin, and by employing a loop pedal then proceeded to perform a one-man duet with himself which quickly reduced me to tears. I may not yet have known how much Optiganally Yours would eventually mean to me, but I did know that I was an unabashed sucker for the combined sounds of an accordion and a singing saw. If I had known that he’d had this trick up his sleeve, I would have stayed far away from Weber State and its oasis of culture. But then I wouldn’t have been there, still wiping hated tears of resentment from my cheeks, when B.C. Sterret pushed the button on his hatefully rad DJ panel that would change my life.
“That last selection was one of my own compositions, ‘The Lament of the Unsharpened Saw’, and I thank you all for indulging me. Up next, a little palette cleanser: here’s The Residents, with their cover of Elvis Presley’s ‘Teddy Bear’. I hope you enjoy it, because if you do there is something seriously, seriously wrong with you.”
And then he pushed the button.
The Residents are a collective of musicians and performance artists which has been operating out of San Francisco since 1972. Over the course of the last forty years, they have recorded over one hundred albums, undertaken nine world tours, and have made groundbreaking excursions in every conceivable format from CD-ROM to open-sourced digital media. Additionally, the Residents are credited with inventing the contemporary music video format: their collection of ‘One Minute Movies’, filmed to promote The Commercial Album in 1980, were among the first clips to be in heavy rotation on MTV when it launched in 1981 and now reside in the permanent collection at the New York Museum of Modern Art.
Remarkably, however, the Residents were conceived as – and continue to be – a completely anonymous band. At no point during a career that has clocked four decades (and counting) have they ever revealed their names or shown their faces. The Residents refuse to grant interviews and only ever appear in public in disguise. In performance, they are most well-known for wearing tuxedos – replete with dashing white gloves, wingtip shoes, immaculate bowties and top hats with enormous masks shaped like staring lidless eyeballs peering out from underneath.
The matter of the Residents’ anonymity is more than a clever high-minded gimmick. Originally formed roughly two years after the breakup of the Beatles, the Residents were determined to be the ideological opposite of the Fab Four. The problem, as those enigmatic bloodshot eyeballs saw it, was that the Beatles career had been undone by the collision of strong, disparate personality types within the group – personalities which were subject to relentless public scrutiny from the time the Lads from Liverpool were very young men. The Residents noticed that in spite of the fact that the majority of the Beatles’ songs were credited jointly to Lennon & McCartney, a point came in their too-brief career where a clear division became noticeable in the group. The songs became distinctly identifiable as either John’s or Paul’s, and as different factions of fans became equally adamant that one or the other of them was the true genius of the Beatles so did the individual Beatles themselves begin to assert themselves over the group as a whole.
As a result, the four Beatles were recording material for Beatles albums independently of one another by the time they were in the studio laying down their 1968 opus, simply titled The Beatles but generally referred to as The White Album. Although the songs were still incredible, the war of wills behind the scenes was evident and generally detracted from the overall statement the Beatles were attempting to make. Anyone who has spent any time with The White Album can attest to the fact that although the cosmic brilliance of the Beatles was at its unprecedentedly sustained peak during those sessions, the resulting two discs’ worth of material conspicuously lacks any semblance of consistency.
For the Residents, this was an unacceptable sacrifice. The Residents’ anonymity constitutes their effort to divorce their artistic output from the personalities of the men responsible for creating it. All of their songs are credited to ‘The Residents’, and because literally nothing is known about who, precisely, the Residents are, this forces the listener to judge the material solely on its content and artistic merit.
The founding notion of the Residents was a home-grown philosophy which they called the Theory of Obscurity. The Theory of Obscurity posits that art – the truest and purest art – is made without the intention of ever being displayed for an audience. Although the Theory of Obscurity ultimately proved itself to be flawed and inherently unstable (primarily from a financial standpoint), it was fully realized in the recording and eventual release of their 1978 masterpiece Not Available. The recording sessions for Not Available took the form of intensive drug-fueled group therapy as the Residents locked themselves in a warehouse for six months and, through the enactment of an elaborate immersive psycho-drama in which they adopted fantastical alternate personalities, attempted to exorcise acute political and interpersonal tensions that had even then begun to form between the core members of the group.
The music on Not Available sounds like nothing you have ever heard. It is surreal, emotionally raw and other-worldly. The finer points of the narrative it attempts to convey remain a mystery thirty-five years after its release. The Residents themselves don’t offer up any clues – as usual, all you’ll hear from them on the matter is contained on the record itself. The result is even more obfuscating than the Residents generally tend to be – which is a lot – because under the Theory of Obscurity, Not Available was never supposed to be heard by anyone but the Residents themselves.
As legend has it, once Not Available was finished the master tapes were taken directly to a safe deposit box and locked away. The Residents’ intention was that it should remain there forever, a monument to the Theory of Obscurity. However, in 1978, as the Residents were completing their landmark album Eskimo, the master tapes for Eskimo suddenly and briefly vanished, apparently absconded with by one of the Residents’ drug-addled friends. Their record label, insisting that the Residents were required to hand over something they could release to fulfill a contractual obligation, caught wind of the Not Available recordings, retrieved them from their hiding place and released them without the Residents’ permission. The Residents ultimately decided that this amusing turn of events did not violate the Theory of Obscurity in any fundamental way, but as a result they determined that the Theory was essentially non-functional and abandoned it.
Even so, the Theory of Obscurity remains, in some form or another, at the heart of all of the Residents’ endeavors. Anyway, it must, because after forty years how many people have even heard of the Residents?
Anonymity and obscurity. A peculiar business model for anyone, let alone a group of whacked-out hippies producing art which would have a difficult time finding an audience somewhere in the outposts of Jupiter, where presumably the Residents’ refusal to adhere to the traditional scales found in the music of the Western hemisphere sounds marginally less alien. Those goofy old bastards must know that what they do will hit home for someone, else they certainly could not have perpetuated themselves for the better part of half a century. In this particular moment, that someone was me, sitting awe-struck in a cramped room with a man who I could not stand and my companion who, in light of recent circumstances, I could only assume intended to have sex with the hated man. Probably with his accordion strapped to his shoulders. Bastard.
The Residents’ cover of Elvis’s ‘Teddy Bear’ is a terrifying thing. The Singing Resident’s ferocious roar – sounding something like gravel-throated songwriter Tom Waits, if Tom Waits had been raised in the deep south before dropping critical amounts of LSD as a teenager and subsequently being sucked into an alternate dimension – lays bare the misogyny, desperation and general instability that exemplify the lyrics of nearly every song the King of Rock and Roll ever recorded. The Singing Resident alternately whines, pleads and threatens the object of his affection, his ‘teddy bear’, over a miasma of unnatural-sounding analog synthesizers and cruelly distorted guitars.
To my ears, it was like receiving a secret and essential transmission from Somewhere Else. When ‘Teddy Bear’ ended and B.C. Sterret began muttering into his cool-guy microphone again, announcing the next block of music, I felt as if I had been swept up in a funnel cloud and deposited safely on the ground miles and miles from where I had begun. I didn’t even really know for sure if I had actually enjoyed what I had just heard, but nevertheless I was enthralled. I reached into the pocket of my jacket and pulled out a McDonald’s napkin which I had most recently used to blow my nose and, utilizing one of Bethany’s eyeliner pencils, scribbled the word ‘residents’. I underlined it twice.
Over the course of the ensuing decade, my initial fascination flowered into a legitimate obsession. As I began the arduous task of slowly piecing together my personal collection of Residents records, I began to get a feel for the Residents’ confrontationally bizarre sensibilities. Music which at first sounded patently unlistenable began to unfold and reveal its beauty and complexity. Each successive release proved to contain its own tiny, fully realized world and – further – each seemed connected to all, as if every statement the Residents chose to make was a piece in an impossibly large jigsaw puzzle.
The Residents were a mystery to me, and I was determined to solve them. The clues were scattered and many but fortunately for the searcher, they were almost always emblazoned with that iconic Eyeball. As the ‘R’ section of my nominally alphabetized record shelf began to bow under its own weight, my focus would often narrow from trying to parse the meaning of a particular record to attempting to figure out just one song, and then narrow further still to the point that I was grinding my gears over a single turn of phrase. I didn’t know if I was on the trail of the Maltese Falcon or just enduring the interminable setup of a joke for which the punchline was forty years overdue. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. All I knew was that there was something to know; something to understand, and that whatever and wherever it was, I was going to find it.
One day, as I was making another in a series of concerted efforts to acclimate myself to the Residents’ blistering 1981 concept album, Mark of the Mole, which sounds more like the grindings and rumblings of titanic subterranean machinery than anything that most people would classify as ‘music’, my thoughts suddenly broadened and my mind irrevocably latched onto the biggest mystery of all: Who the hell are these people?
I have always had a tendency to latch onto things that interest me; to focus all of my energy on them until they are consumed whole. Growing up, my father used to call me, ‘The Amoeba’, because when I would begin feeding on something I would wrap myself around it from all sides and not let go until I had broken it down to its cellular levels and absorbed it. I would draw from these sources of intellectual nutrition until they had become a part of me, only moving on to the next when there was nothing left to learn.
For a while it was Star Wars, before the structural integrity of that most common of geeky fixations had been compromised by a second trilogy of films. After watching The Empire Strikes Back over seventy-five times, I began reading encyclopedias and studying fabricated Death Star diagnostics and watching every ‘making of’ documentary out there. After I had finished with that – after that universe began to seem common and low – I began dining on the Beatles. I committed every last song they ever wrote to memory; I watched their films, I read song-by-song deconstructions of the recording process for each of their records. Pulpy tell-all manuscripts of ‘the last days of John Lennon’. Trading cards. Side-by-side comparisons of stereo and mono mixes of the first five albums. Trips all over my little town to find a record player with a direct belt drive so that I could carefully spin ‘Revolution #9’ backwards to hear for myself John’s cryptic request to ‘Turn me on, dead man’.
It was this tendency to chase my fascinations down every possible avenue that eventually made the Residents the brightest star in my sky. They had been producing art for nearly thirty years by the time I found them and were still doing so at top speeds when I did. I had decades’ worth of personally assigned homework to catch up on before I could even begin to start figuring out what their current context was. First, I had to find all of their records one by one – not easy and not cheap: with such a limited fan base, the Residents had started releasing material in limited pressings of 1000 copies or less sometime in the late 80s. Residents collectors are persistent and fierce, and wrenching a twenty-five year old collectors’ item from some die-hard Rezhead on German eBay is precisely as difficult as it sounds.
I would then have to actually listen to the material, which especially at first was a chore on its own. The Residents intentionally make their output difficult and disorienting, to the extent that one can hear one of their compositions a dozen times before it even begins to sound familiar, and a dozen times more before any real enjoyment can be taken from it. It was work, but the most satisfying kind of work: sometimes after weeks of bombarding my brain with recordings that sounded for all the world like a sick cat trying to fuck a broken lawnmower, it would suddenly make sense and the Amoeba would feed.
Eventually, even collecting the recordings wasn’t enough: the Residents will print that damned Eyeball on literally anything. T-shirts, posters, coins, scarfs, thermometers, windshield scrapers for the winter months, aspirin, sponges, hand towels, pizza stones… I once spent forty dollars on a moist towlette issued to promote Mark of the Mole in 1981. It is in a tiny frame on my wall, and I often wonder if it is still moist.
I needed all of it. I STILL need all of it – nearly half of my life, I have been collecting this useless, beautiful garbage and I am only a fraction of the way there. For the Amoeba, the Residents are an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The Residents are human, which is a fact that I frequently need to remind myself of. They are men who have mothers and dental records and mailing addresses in San Francisco. They have names, and I had to know what they were. Fascination, having given way to obsession, had further mutated into a stoned, scholarly approach to the Residents’ seemingly endless discography. More than ten years after that evening in Ogden, Utah, I was deeply entrenched in the process of studying them in earnest. As a result, their knotted philosophies had expanded to fill my mind and had eventually come to reconfigure and redefine my entire world view. At the risk of detestable hyperbole, these men were my heroes. But I didn’t know their names.
This fixation persisted in my mind for many years, until a Saturday morning just a couple of weeks before the expiration of the Mayan calendar when my dear Residents suddenly and unexpectedly announced their 40th anniversary tour. They were coming to Portland. They were playing the unrivaled toilet of the Rose City’s menagerie of live music venues, the hideous and unwanted Hawthorne Theater. The Hawthorne Theater, where the stage door lets directly onto the street corner of SE 39th Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard, where a curious and devoted fan might stake out the tour bus in the moments after those mysterious old codgers finished their performance.
In other words: I was going to get to the bottom of this.
[To read the rest of this article, go here. David Howland Abbott is a freelance writer based in Portland, OR.]