Friday, March 17, 2023

Weirdness Within: the Residents 50th Anniversary Vancouver Return, this Saturday, with a Welcome from Some Fans, also featuring (mostly previously unseen?) photos by Bev Davies, Bob Hanham, Erik Iversen and others!

1. On Interviewing Members of the Cryptic Corporation: Hardy, Homer, and, uh, Bubba?

I have interviewed two, or possibly three, members of the Cryptic Corporation, depending on who or what Bubba Hodges is (more on this below). Much of this has been because of my brief time contributing to the Georgia Straight, where I was getting paid to write about bands coming to town. Truth is, I am not actually that far down the Residents rabbithole. My introduction to them happened when I got the Third Reich 'n Roll off Ty Scammell at the Vancouver flea market somewhere in the late 1980's or early 1990's; from the over-the-top, Dick-Clark-as-Hitler cover art to the genius of sending up 50's pop music in a way that counts both as savage satire and deranged, mirthful, intoxicated, quasi-ritualistic celebration, the album has a richness that immediately appealed to me, even as I gaped in youthful horror, wondering what the exact fuck Ty had turned me onto. It remains my favourite Residents album, the album that would earn the band my lasting respect and admiration even if it had been the only thing they'd done, and the only one that has been more-or-less consistently in my collection in some form or another since those days (though it has had, and presently has, a fair bit of company). 

But I don't listen to the Residents every day. I have ventured just far enough into the weird world that the Residents curate to realize that, as with a very small handful of other bands (Swans, anyone?), they are a band of whom it may be said, the more you listen to them, the more you WANT to listen to them; and the more you WANT to listen to them, the less you want to listen to anything else. At some point you have to forcibly extract yourself, lest you start turning up at parties with an eyeball on your head; it's not just a rabbithole, it's a rabbithole with SUCTION, and you - or I, anyhow - actually find it a little unnerving. But you have to respect them for it: The Residents are truly one of the most unique bands in American popular music. A band like no other. I can see why some folks become obsessed, and why their brand should have 50 years worth of longevity. 

Hardy Fox - the deceased composer and musical director of the band - spoke with me for the Georgia Straight in 2011, prior to an amazing show at the Rickshaw (the Talking Light tour) circa Lonely Teenager. When Hardy's illness was announced, I posted some outtakes from that conversation on my blog, as well. He denied being a Resident, at that point, but was, at some point between his retirement from touring in 2015 and departure from this bardo in 2018, officially outed as a member of the Residents - though the New York Times was content to leave this matter ambiguous in his obituary. I'm sure Hardy would have enjoyed this fact - that confusion about his actual role in the band survived him in the press, even after the band itself has fessed up. It's a triumph of self-obfuscation that really has very little else to be compared to in popular culture... just like the Residents' music.

In truth, I had assumed throughout our conversation that the assurance that Hardy would not be onstage that night at the Rickshaw, when the show went on, was nothing more than a ruse, a posture, a game. Of COURSE Hardy Fox was one of the musicians who would be playing that night, I thought. But the challenge of the interview was not one of tricking him into confession, PROVING that he was a Resident - I realized I couldn't, not could I see the point - but of finding a way to ask someone about their music so that they could answer in an interesting and revealing way, while still being able to deny involvement in the making of it. How do I play by the Residents' rulebook, and still have an interesting and readable article? It's a fairly unique challenge for a journalist - a hard game to master, but also a somewhat fun one to play, and I suspect that many journalists have worked harder than I to rise to the challenge. There are probably people who have gotten very good at interviewing the Residents, but I am not one of them. 

To return to the point: never did I doubt, during the interview, that Hardy really WAS a member of the Residents. Except at that very show - which he did say he would be at, just not onstage - he did something that completely convinced me that he had truly not been up there, after all, since when I was exiting the venue after the show, coming up from the theatre into the foyer, I bumped into Hardy and a friend who were apparently coming in from the street, when most musicians would surely be chilling in the green room in back. I still have no idea what magic exit he had used to materialize around the front when the band had barely gotten off the stage - surely he didn't go out into the alley and do a three-quarters circumnavigation of the Rickshaw so as to pop in the front JUST IN CASE someone who knew his face might see him - no one would do such a thing, especially not given the neighbourhood, would they...? But there he was. I recognized him immediately. "You're Hardy Fox, aren't you?" I said. "I interviewed you. You really WEREN'T on stage, then!" 

Hardy just smiled. 

We chatted there for a few minutes in the Rickshaw lobby, with no one making a big deal of his being there, his anonymity apparently secure (because, y'know, he wasn't wearing a giant EYE on his head or anything; how interesting that he had the privacy and freedom to move un-harassed through his fans, afforded him because of the band's anonymity. It would take an obsessive and well-informed fan indeed to spot his face in the crowd, and I only did so because I'd been speaking to him a couple of weeks before, and had Googled his image). No one asked him to sign anything. No one snooped on our conversation. No one who heard me say "You're Hardy Fox, aren't you?" turned to observe us, as if they'd heard a name they had recognized, even though everyone around us had paid to get in there and was to some extent a fan. No, no one paid us any mind at all. I could have been talking to Wayne McCarthy (a Facebook friend who I run into from time to time at the Rickshaw; he's no more famous than I am, as far as I know). 

Anyhow, Hardy seemed affable, gentle, smart, grounded and relaxed, without a trace of "rockstar ego" or whatnot. I genuinely liked him, based on our interview and this brief personal encounter, and liked that a man so seemingly normal could still contain such a phenomenal amount of weirdness within, and channel it into his art. (It added a whole other level of fascination and admiration to read in obits that he had a husband, who - who knows? - might have been the man he was with that night; but I don't even begin to know how to write about that; Googling "Queering the Residents" nets only articles on LGBTQ+ housing). 

Talking Light tour at the Rickshaw 2011, photo by bev davies; is that Hardy on the left? (Not to be reused without permission)

Then I interviewed Homer Flynn, back in 2016, when the band played the Rio on the Shadowland tour. Hardy was still alive, at that point, I believe, but very ill, and had ceased to perform. As of the days of Theory of Obscurity, Flynn is described as the "secretary" or, uh, the "Captain Doc" of Cryptic; he is also sometimes described as the band's manager; and publicly known to be their graphic designer - the man responsible for that amazing Dick-Clark-as-Hitler cover previously mentioned. As far as I know, he has not been officially and publicly identified in any other role in regard to the band, but, again, he does tour with them. I agot to speak with him after that show, at somewhat greater length than I had with Hardy, and he also seemed a surprisingly relaxed, no-nonsense fellow, a very ordinary man, really, considering his association with one of the strangest, most outlandishly creative bands in American musical history. As with Hardy, you would not think anything if you looked over and saw him at the restaurant we went to, after the show (Dosa King on Kingsway; after his traumatic attempts to find food in the city by walking around the neighbourhood of the Rickshaw, he was game to be brought to a restaurant by a helpful journo). 

Homer Flynn by yours truly, not to be reused without permission

Much of that conversation will remain unreported by me - you kind of want to play by the Residents' rules - but besides his confirming that Hardy had been onstage at the Rickshaw, and not being able to explain my surprise encounter with Hardy at front of venue, Homer did mention another person of musical association with the band: Eric Drew Feldman, whose musical history includes playing with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, Pere Ubu, Snakefinger, and Black Francis. (The Residents Wiki article on him goes into more detail about his career).

Eric Drew Feldman, maybe? Photo by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission; Residents at the Rio, 2016

I do not know what the rules are about outing Eric Drew Feldman as having replaced Fox in the Residents, but Wikipedia pretty much goes there, and Bubba Hodges, the person (or possibly AI) from Cryptic who responded to a recent email, when asked if Feldman can be named as being involved with the Residents, says that indeed, "Eric is involved, primarily as The Residents' producer and architect of their recorded sound."

I do not know if Eric is in the touring band this time around, but, uh, it seems at least possible, though with a tour as postponed and reconfigured as this, who knows? You won't be able to recognize him onstage, anyway! 

Randy of the Residents, 2016. Photo by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

I had a couple of other quick questions of Bubba, who identifies as "the Cryptic version of ChatGBT, struggling to find my own identity in a vast sea of misinformation." (The B in ChatGBT may or may not be a typo, as there is also a Chat GBT, in addition to the more famous ChatGPT. Nothing, it seems, is simple when it comes to Cryptic). For example, I asked, with this twice-postponed show, if the set list had evolved much since the original Dog Stab tour - cancelled by COVID - was conceived?

Bubba: The show has evolved quite a bit. It started primarily as a promotional vehicle for the Metal, Meat & Bone album which was new at the time. The entire album was to be played in that version with added selections from Duck Stab, mainly for the fans. When that one was cancelled, it evolved toward the 50TH anniversary with less MM&B, more Duck Stab and even a Third R'nR encore. That tour was cancelled except for three California shows in 2021. The next version - the one you will see in Vancouver - has retained a handful of both MM&B plus some Duck Stab songs and added quite a few "classics" to make it an authentic 50TH Anniversary show.

For those who missed it, the Metal, Meat & Bone album contains both demos and modern reworkings of what, in their original form, present as somewhat rude, harsh blues songs allegedly recorded by a figure identified as Dyin' Dog, a forgotten Louisiana bluesman who sounds very much like the Residents' vocalist at times, albeit in a rough, Tom-Waits-y growl not generally heard on Residents albums, like the singer had been gargling with razorblades and tequila. There is enough musical complexity to some of those raw demos to make one wonder if perhaps even the alleged timeframe of their recording - the early 1970's - might be as false as the other circumstances reported by the band (the Residents are not, after all, above what Hardy called "a lot of lying." The truth is out there, no doubt, but when it is surrounded by so much falsity, you won't trust it when you see it). Granted the allegedly contemporary reworkings are more sophisticated, musically, and have their own artful appeal, though they lack the shockingly rough charm of the so-called "early" versions (though I'd in fact be delighted to discover that the timeframe between versions was a matter of weeks, not decades). The whole idea of the Residents taking on the blues is pretty appealing, too. It works pretty damn well.

There are other surprises. The video for "Die Die Die" gets a bit more directly topical than one expects of the Residents, with COVID viruses and the face of Donald Trump appearing, all singing (with help from Black Francis) that they want you to die. There's plenty of other violent imagery in the lyrics on the album, as well as sexual double-entendres. Take, for example, "Bury My Bone." (The rock video for the reworked version has honest-to-Jeezus tits in it (there are quite possibly tits in other Residents videos, too, but not that I've seen myself). The Residents are not really ever safe for work, unless you really trust your coworkers or have tenure or something, but this video, shared with a co-worker, could probably get you fired, which, say, would probably not happen with "Moisture." People would just look at you funny, for that one.

Anyhoo... seeing that the costumes have changed since the twice-cancelled Dog Stab shows here - wise, considering the original costumes (above) are a little less inviting than the ones at the top of the page - I asked Bubba if Homer designed them.

Bubba: The masks are British and were found online - perhaps at Etsy. The costumes were designed by Homer.

And since I had no idea what else to ask, not knowing if Bubba would even be able to engage me, I threw a random catch-all at him for the hell of it: "Any comments I can use are welcome. Seen any good movies lately?"

Bubba may or may not be an AI, but he sure did sound like Alexa in how he - they? it? - framed his answer: "I hear that RRR (Netflix) is a terrific movie. While I haven't seen it personally, several of THEM have seen and raved about it." Good to know! 

The Singing Resident n 2018, Bob Hanham photo, not to be reused, etc. I missed this show! 

A final note of some relevance, re: movies, for those who have not heard, the showtimes for the night at the Hollywood have changed, to accommodate the screening of a feature film directed and written by Homer Flynn, Triple Trouble, presumably so entitled because this is the Residents' third attempt to conduct this tour (but I don't really know). Doors will be at 5pm, and the evening will commence at 5:45. The actual concert begins at 7:25, apparently. I have done nothing to prepare myself for the experience of watching the film, have not seen it, have not even read that description I linked, so I will not describe it... because why do I want to know what I'm in for? I hereby license Homer, the people of Cryptic, and the Residents themselves, whoever they might be, to surprise the hell out of me. 

2. The Residents: Bev Davies' story, plus Snakefinger! 

From the Residents 2011 show at the Rickshaw, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

Vancouver cultural treasure Bev Davies has photographed the Residents, Captain Beefheart (see here), and Snakefinger (a sometimes Residents-collaborator who toured through town with the aforesaid Mr. Feldman back in 1982). Earlier this week, she told me a story involving a musician named Paul Young, who is NOT the Paul Young of this horrifyingly lachrymose earworm (exposed to it, I feel compelled to revise the lyrics, changing "me" to "cheese," to make the experience more tolerable). This other Paul, Bev explained, was nicknamed "Eazy Teeth" by Beefheart because he was always smiling. (Bev points out that there is a record by Captain Beefheart called "Eazy Teeth," but the only thing I can find on Youtube is not by Beefheart - it sounds more like the Residents, in fact, but is not them, either). 

Drawing by Don Van Vliet of "Eazy Teeth," provided by bev davies

Bev's story:

Paul Young, who is a friend of mine - or was a friend of mine; I haven't seen him in years. He used to be in the entourage for Captain Beefheart. And Paul told me a story about the Residents; when the Residents lived in San Francisco, there was a warehouse district in the neighbourhood where their studio was. Everyone knew they were there. And Paul said that the Residents were always a bit apprehensive of Devo, and felt that Devo were going to steal their thunder if they weren't very careful about it. They felt a competition between Devo and themselves, that they hadn't initiated, but maybe Devo had initiated. It was this edgy thing that happened. 

Sometimes Residents-collaborator and Ralph Records bandmate Snakefinger by bev davies, not to be reused without permission. April 10, 1982 at " In Concert" 315 Carrall Street

Bev, continued: So some people got together that were friends of the Residents, but not the Residents themselves, and postered the neighbourhood right around where the studio was. And the posters were of Devo with giant heads, with big eyes on their shoulders. The Residents hadn't released the record yet, the record where they had the eyeballs, what is that?

Allan: Maybe Eskimo?

Bev, continued: But they were Devo posters that had the eyeball, and the Residents came out and they went, "Oh my god, they stole our idea!" And they were hysterical about it. But it was just a joke. Devo had no idea, had nothing to do it.

Allan: That might be in the film!

Bev: It might be!

Allan: How did you know Paul?

Bev: Just met him here probably at the Railway when he came to town with Beefheart. And when Beefheart came here, he stayed at a hotel in the West End, on Burrard, there, on the west side of the street. And when I went to photograph him, Paul went, "I have to show you something, but you cannot tell anyone." And he took me to the top floor of the hotel, which was all burnt out. And he said, "Beefheart just is terrified of fire, and would not stay at this hotel if he knew the top floor was burnt. Don't tell him! Don't tell him..."

Eric Drew Feldman with Snakefinger in Vancouver, 1982, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

Allan: Apparently Captain Beefheart hated the Residents. This is something I've talked to the Residents about. 

Bev: That history I don't know, other than, that's a good story. 

Allan: Do you have any history with the Residents? A first moment discovering them?

Bev: No, but Snakefinger was on the same record label, Ralph Records, and I have that t-shirt, "Buy or Die." That's where I probably met Paul first, was at Snakefinger. I saw him a few times. Really liked him! And I have the Snakefinger t-shirt with the finger and the snake coming out of it...

Snakefinger in Vancouver, 1982, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

3. The Residents by uber-fan Erik Iversen

All photos in this section are copyright by Erik Iversen (except the Snakefinger gig poster) and not to be re-used without permission.

Photographer Erik Iversen is a "long time fan" of the Residents, a man much deeper down the Residents rabbithole than I, who first saw them over 20 years ago at the Commodore on the Icky Flix tour. He'll be in attendance on Saturday as well, but less to shoot than to focus on the music and performance, he tells me. During a brief interaction on Facebook, however, he mostly communicated his fandom through images - which is possibly wise when trying to talk about the Residents.

Here are a couple of snaps that Erik shot that night the Commodore - a photograph of photographs. As you see, Erik got to see an eyeball mask (something we did not get to see here in 2011 or 2016). He further explains that "Molly Harvey is the singer in the pink wig;" she apparently no longer tours with the band, but plays with them when they come through Georgia. You can also see some really striking shots taken by Eric on the Concert Addicts website from that Rio show of 2016.

Erik's first encounter with the Residents was on the Vancouver cable access show Nite Dreems, "when John H. Tanner showed videos for 'Moisture' and 'Hello Skinny.' That's how I also first heard Snakefinger's 'Man In the Black Sedan' and was instantly hooked. I love the early music, but their recent albums are excellent as well."  (Doug Smith - of "Hell is a Microwave" fame - also reports early exposure to the Residents on Night Dreems - "Hello Skinny" and "Constantinople," in particular.  Meanwhile, I was probably seeing these on a different cable access show, Soundproof, out in the suburbs, where I also first heard Snakefinger's "I Gave Myself to You," which you could buy on 7" at Collectors' RPM. The earliest Residents video I can recall from those days is "Simple Song," but there were a few that played fairly often back then, so who knows?). 

Erik still has his first Residents LP, which he got some 45 years ago; it was also my first Residents' LP, as previously mentioned. Erik apparently has also had The Commercial Album (and the single below) since his high school days. And he saw Snakefinger at the Luv-a-Fair, at a later show than Bev was at, adding - knowing that I am a NO FUN fan - NO FUN opened that night.

Except they didn't. Responding to a query for Snakefinger memories, David M. of NO FUN - who did see the Residents with me in 2016, who tells me he has "been playing 'Birthday Boy' from Duck Stab at midnight on my birthday every year since I bought the E.P. (with t-shirt) at Black Swan Records in 1978," and who is known to occasionally cover "Santa Dog" during his Christmas shows (and who gave me a CD of his interpretations of that song to pass on to Cryptic) - responded via text that, "Once again I see that it is being suggested we opened for Snakefinger. Which we did not. No one ever asked us to play with Snakefinger, and our name was never on a Snakefinger poster, so I'm not sure where the persistent rumour came from, other than that Black Swan was the one record store to carry a wide range of Residents/ Snakefinger/ Ralph Records product thanks to my friend Tim [Keenliside, though I cannot confirm the spelling; I know him from avant-garde gigs around town] who ran their rock/ punk/ new wave section. He was the guy bringing in all the non-jazz stuff, and his tastes ventured further than the au courant punk and new wave stuff that was teaching kids how to dress in those days. Because of Tim, our second EP, "NO FUN at the Disco," was exclusively available at Black Swan (we provided them with a large Werewolf record rack for both EPs that they had on the counter). So in 1979, people would probably have associated Residents and us with Black Swan, and a lot of people remember the Snakefinger performance in Vancouver at that time."

Incidentally, apparently Kent Lindsay of NO FUN's new label Atomic Werewolf has a "short musical message from Hardy Fox" inserted into a bonus track - "boner track," in NO FUN speak - on an album by his band New Heads (but that's a link to the Spotify page; he mentions Bandcamp, but I can't find the New Heads page there...). 

And Doug Smith, who was at the Snakefinger show in question, says it was "insane," adding that he "always thought it was crazy that [Snakefinger] was in a Pub Rock band with Martin Stone and Pete Thomas! Ace musicianship or what!" 

4. Graham Peat (best known for his association with Videomatica)

Graham Peat is another notable Vancouverite with a history with the Residents, who will be present at the Hollywood Theatre on Saturday. He tells the history thus:

In Videomatica's early days we imported music videos taped in San Francisco like the Cramps, Throbbing Gristle, Bauhaus, Dead Kennedys and the Damned.

But the most disturbing and compelling videos to me were from Ralph Records' The Residents. They were sinister, funny and so cinematic. Every video was an elaborate production that you just couldn't forget.

How can I shake off "Hello Skinny," "Songs for Swinging Larvae" or "Third Reich 'n Roll"? And then there was the mystery. The group was so perfectly impenetrable then. Astounding that they are still around 50 years later.

The Residents in Vancouver, 2018, by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

5. Jordan of Nomeanswhatever: the Residents by PowerPoint

I do not remember Jordan's real name. I know him from a long-since mothballed Nomeansno discussion forum where we both used to post under aliases. We are also now Facebook friends, and we chatted at that Invasives/ Rong/ Pet Blessings show I wrote about a few months ago. I think in each instance he has used a different name; this also seems like something the Residents might approve of. They would probably also enjoy knowing that Jordan "did a PowerPoint presentation about them for my grade 11 media arts class. Been a big fan since I was about 13 or 14, though I'm not too into a whole lot of their stuff after Mark of the Mole."

Another favourite, that was the second Residents album I bought, possibly from Ty, as well, but I found it too weird at the time (I find it deeply fascinating now). Apparently it was recorded close to the time of a rupture between factions in the band, and seems in fact a metaphor for it, telling a veiled tale about the tension between those members of the band who wished to remain "underground," as it were, "working down below," and those who wished to move "up" in the world, with all that implies - success, fame, money, and so forth. The liner notes for the Mole Trilogy in those fancy hardback CD reissues that came out a few years ago are uncharacteristically informative in this regard, and are a must-read for Residents fans (as I recall, the notes to Tunes of Two Cities are particularly revealing). 

Jordan continues:

Here's a little more context to that Residents anecdote... I first got into the Residents when I was around 13 I think. My two favourite bands at the time were NoMeansNo and Primus, both of whom had each covered the Residents, so I knew I had to check them out. My brother ended up special ordering The Third Reich 'n Roll from our (terrible) mall CD store in Nelson, BC and the first time I listened to it I wasn't sure if I liked it exactly, but I definitely thought it was compelling (and certainly the most jarring, bizarre music I'd ever heard at that point). I spent some time on the library computer reading more about them (my family didn't have internet while I lived at home) and was really fascinated by their concepts and mythology. 

A few months later I got The Commercial Album which I instantly loved, and I started trying to acquire everything from them I could get. In my grade 11 media arts class we were tasked with designing a PowerPoint presentation to give to the class. I can't remember what the parameters were regarding the topic we could choose but whatever it was I was able to shoehorn the Residents into it. I gave a presentation highlighting their career at that point - releases, tours, artwork, and innovation in the mediums of music video and CD ROM, as well as fan theories about their identities. My presentation was the first given and my teacher was actually quite impressed and told me that I'd set the bar very high and that I had piqued his curiosity about the group. He had me launch the splash page again at the end so he could listen to the first 30 seconds of "Constantinople" again, now that he had just learned about the group. 

One other kinda funny side note - my dad was also familiar with the Residents, though he was never the major fan that I was. He told me that at one point many years prior he owned a dub of a Ralph Records VHS compilation. One night when he and my uncle were watching some low budget horror movie that they had rented, they got the idea (probably while stoned) to hook up another VCR so that they could splice in a brief clip from the video for "Simple Song," of The Residents dancing around the rotating pig. He insisted it looked seamless. I wonder if the video store ever found out.

The Residents in Vancouver, 2018, by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

That's all I've been able to amass in the time allotted. Tony Balony of the Rubes, the Real McKenzies, and some incarnations of Rude Norton, as I recall, also is a big Residents fan, but didn't really have a story - save that he "was a big fan in the early 80's. I met Penn Jillette" - who toured with the Residents for a time - "and he was wearing a Residents shirt with a top-hat eyeball." 

Still, as of this writing, there are still tickets left for Saturday's show at the Hollywood. There are not many opportunities to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a band so storied and significant. Even if you don't know what to make of the Residents - even if you figure they are just "weird for weird's sake," as another friend of mine observed - the experience of seeing them live is singular, spectacular, and very, very entertaining. Like the guy says - 

Bev's Buy or Die t-shirt, art by Gary Panter, photo by bev davies

See here for more.

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