Music » Music Feature

The Residents: In the eye of the beholder

How avant-garde rock icon the Residents changed pop music, and singer Molly Harvey's life, forever

by

5 comments

In the winter of 1993, Molly Harvey was lost. She was 21 years old, and shortly after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond with a BFA in Theatre, had landed on the streets of San Francisco. She came not in pursuit of an acting gig, but to be with her father, who was dying of cancer. When he died just a few months later, she had nowhere to go. Homeless and couch-surfing, she took a job at the first place she saw a help-wanted sign, a café in the South of Market Street district called Elsie's. "It wasn't a cool San Francisco coffee hangout, either," Harvey says. Elsie's was a dive in what was then a derelict warehouse district before the dot-com boom transformed the area into luxury lofts and live/work condos. "The place was owned by a cop who had hair plugs," Harvey says. "The coffee was terrible and we were still serving it in Styrofoam cups. I was stuck there at a time when my life had no direction, and I had no idea how I was going to move on."

But within the first few hours of her first waitressing shift, a chance meeting at the cash register changed her life forever. An unassuming, middle-aged man came in to buy a latte and when he went to pay, Harvey noticed a small but colorful medical painting of an eyeball on his wallet. For reasons that she still cannot fully explain, she blurted out the question, "Oh! Are you a fan of the Residents?"

She was vaguely familiar with the mythologized avant-garde performance art band, mostly because she'd heard friends talking about the group in high school. But all she really knew about the Residents was the group's iconic image: four faceless, genderless beings with oversized eyeballs for heads, dressed in tuxedos and top hats. The customer hesitated, then he replied, "Well, yeah ... kind of."

He didn't let on at first, but she soon learned he was Residents co-manager Homer Flynn. Since 1976, Flynn and his Cryptic Corporation partner Hardy Fox have split duties managing the Residents and overseeing the affairs of the group's long-standing independent label, Ralph Records. Their warehouse-size office space was just three doors down from Elsie's on Folsom Street. Being in such close proximity to each other in an otherwise desolate part of town, Harvey and Flynn were bound to see a lot more of each other.

Although they had no way of knowing it at the time, their fateful exchange marked the beginning of a long-lasting friendship that would lead to Harvey joining the Residents. For more than a decade, she toured the world singing with the group and serving as a creative catalyst during a crucial chapter of the band's ongoing evolution.

Since the group's formation in 1972, the Residents have remained an anonymous enigma, an icon in American music's freaky fringes, where performance art, punk, new wave, and the avant-garde collide with unbridled creativity and experimentation. The group's surreal musical theatrics and twisted narratives have generated nearly 80 albums, all of which wreak havoc on the senses. They bear such curious titles as The Third Reich 'N Roll, God in Three Persons, Eskimo, and Demons Dance Alone. In the early days, the group's primitive anti-rock 'n' roll clatter synthesized the influences of everyone from John Cage to Sun Ra, while deconstructing such '60s pop standards as "Land of a Thousand Dances" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." The Residents challenged the notions of what noise is, and what pop music could be. Along the way, the group's fiercely self-reliant tactics laid the foundation for everything from the world of homespun record labels to the flood of self-conceived and -produced music videos that flood the Internet today. Across the board, DIY music owes a debt to the Residents' early efforts to create a fun-house-mirror view of the world — a protocol that continues to evolve in the face of social media as the group embarks on its 40th anniversary Wonder Of Weird Tour.

According to legend, the group's members originally hailed from Shreveport, La., and they adopted the name "The Residents" in 1971 after a reel-to-reel demo tape they'd sent to Warner Bros. agent Hal Halverstadt (best known for signing Captain Beefheart) was mailed back with a rejection letter made out to "the Residents." By neglecting to include a name with their return address, a mysterious legacy was born.

Undeterred by Warner Bros.' rejection, the group took matters into its own hands and launched Ralph Records to release its debut single, a double 7-inch set titled "Santa Dog." As Fox explains, starting an independent label was not about taking a stance in defiance of the record industry as much as it was an act of self-preservation. "Founding Ralph Records was the result of necessity," Fox says. "Truthfully, most people hated the Residents, still do."

THE RESIDENTS REVEALED: Bob (left), Randy, and Chuck. - POOR KNOW GRAPHICS

The men (or possibly women) behind the Residents have successfully kept their identities concealed for decades, and do not grant interviews. Their dedicated anonymity created a mania. Perhaps "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening said it best when he penned a bio for the group's now-defunct W.E.I.R.D. fan club circa 1979: "There is no true story of The Residents. You should know that right off. The secrets of The Residents will never be revealed by anyone but The Residents themselves, and so far they aren't saying much."

When it comes to talking with the press, Fox and Flynn serve as the voices of the Residents, their plainspoken approach giving rise to even more speculation and mystery.

"The Residents are actually fairly normal people, and they wanted to maintain some separation between their public lives and their private lives," Flynn says. When he speaks, there is no denying that his languid, Cajun drawl bears an uncanny resemblance to the voice that can be heard singing, screaming, growling, and warbling throughout so many of the Residents' records. Yet he maintains that he is not a member of the group. "I have connections to the band prior to 1976, when Cryptic took over, but it was all fairly informal. My area of expertise is graphics," Flynn says. "I've done all or most all of the Residents' album covers and promo materials and that sort of stuff. I consulted with the Residents on a few things before we started the more formal relationship."

As punk and new wave become dominant cultural influences in the late '70s, the public became curious about the Residents. "Most of the time the market is controlled by market forces, but every once in a while the gate swings open and a lot of crazy people get to come to the party for a while," Flynn says. "That's what the punk and new wave era was; the music business had become stagnant, and all a the sudden there was a lot of new life and energy in music."

Over the years, the group has continually embraced new technologies. When music video became a viable format for pop music, the Residents were among the first to add visual accompaniments to songs. The group gained some notoriety via the USA Network's late-night variety show "Night Flight," circa 1981. During its weekly Friday- and Saturday-night broadcasts, videos for Residents numbers such as "Hello Skinny," the "One Minute Movies" — minute-long films meant to be watched repeatedly — or the stark black-and-white, Eraserhead-esque "Third Reich 'N Roll" music video were regular features.

After Cryptic took over Ralph in 1976, it upped the stakes. Other groups besides the Residents, ranging from terse art-punks MX-80 Sound and Tuxedomoon to the bombastic synth-pop of Swiss group Yello to warped guitarist and singer Philip Lithman, aka Snakefinger, were all part of the Ralph roster. The Residents even cowrote and produced the first two Snakefinger records, Chewing Hides the Sound (1979) and Greener Postures (1980). Snakefinger went on to become a regular sideman with the Residents until he died of a heart attack in the summer of 1987.

Cryptic's mission to expand the label's scope by signing what were ostensibly more commercially viable groups created a financial footing that allowed the Residents unhindered creative freedom.

Ironically, even though the other acts it had signed were superficially more accessible, none of them came close to selling as many records as the Residents. "Much of this had to do with the mythology and the image the group had created," Flynn says. "By working together, the Residents and Cryptic had created a more seductive image for the group, and audiences latched onto it."

When Harvey and Flynn struck up their friendship, the Residents were continuing to experiment with then-cutting-edge CD-ROM technology. The group was busy piecing together what would become 1995's Gingerbread Man. Flynn had mentioned to her that Cryptic was busy organizing everything for the Residents. One day, during his regular stop at Elsie's, Harvey was feeling a bit wired after drinking too much coffee. She was just trying to stay sane on a slow day at work when she put a set of fake buckteeth into her mouth and began talking in a Southern accent. "That was my go-to for nearly everything at the time," she says. "I said to Homer, 'Can't you give me a job or something? I can do voices.'"

She was partially joking, and even delivered the question in a way that would ease the blow of rejection. But he paused for a moment and then responded, "Maybe. ... Can you do an old woman's voice?"

Her reply: "Of course I can do an old woman's voice!"

Flynn consulted with the Residents about using Harvey for the project. She was brought into the studio to read for the part — a monologue for a song about an elderly woman who wants to be loved, but will never recognize that her manipulative ways contribute to her sense of agony. Just who was present during the recording session, or if Flynn was even there, Harvey won't say. "Because I was stupid enough to be there and not really grasp who I was with, I was able to read the part quickly and not be nervous," she says. "They liked that I worked fast, and once it was done, it was done. They recorded me and nothing much happened after that, not for a while."

DANCING WITH THE DEVIL: Molly Harvey (right) during the Demons Dance Alone Tour.
  • Henrik Kam
  • DANCING WITH THE DEVIL: Molly Harvey (right) during the Demons Dance Alone Tour.

In time, she also befriended another regular customer at the coffee shop, a woman named Sarah McLennan who was a managing partner at Ralph. McLennan enlisted Harvey to work filling the label's mail orders, which became a full-time job. If Harvey was only vaguely familiar with the Residents' music up to that point, she now had a universe of the group's records and CDs at her fingertips.

She immediately immersed herself in the music. "As soon as I had access to it, I was into it," she says. "We listened to a lot of the music in the office, and I became familiar with the whole Ralph Records catalogue," she adds, running though a list of her favorites. Renaldo & the Loaf's 1983 LP Title in Limbo and Snakefinger's cover of Kraftwerk's "The Model" from his Chewing Hides the Sound LP still resonate with her. When it comes to the Residents, she was always drawn to the group's 1988 album, God in Three Persons, mostly because of its powerful storytelling elements.

Eventually, the part that Harvey had casually gone in to read for the song "The Old Woman" appeared on Gingerbread Man. When she heard it, she was elated, but still in shock that she had been accepted by and even become a part of the group. "Our aesthetics just worked — everything about it was symbiotic," Harvey says. "My weirdness and their weirdness complemented each other."

The Residents brought Harvey to Köln, Germany, for a one-off performance in August 1997 titled "Disfigured Night (The Saga of Silly Billy)." Because her character was a mute, her only vocal part during the entire show was to hum a bit of USA for Africa's charity song "We are the World." That performance was the extent of her experience singing on stage. At a restaurant after the show, however, one of the Residents pulled her aside to explain that the Fillmore in San Francisco had contacted them to play five nights, leading up to a midnight show on Halloween. Not only was she going to be on stage with the group, she was going to sing. "I was like, 'What? ... What? Um, OK ...'" she says. "And then there I was on stage in front of 2,000 people at the Fillmore ... singing for the Residents. No pressure!"

She survived the shows, which to her felt very much like trial-by-fire. Afterward, she found that she had earned a place among the group's ranks. It also meant it was time to make a decision. When the show was over, according to Harvey, one of the Residents said, "Do you want to keep your identity, or do you want to be anonymous?"

Her decision wasn't difficult: She stuck with Molly Harvey. "I never really felt like I was one of the Residents, but also, while working at the Ralph office, fans would call every day to talk about the music and whatnot, and they all knew me as Molly," she explains. "I already had a rapport with a lot of the Residents' fans, so I kept it at that."

Over the next decade, Harvey lent her voice to several Residents albums, including Bad Day on the Midway, Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible, and what is perhaps the group's most poignant album yet, Demons Dance Alone. Since she started appearing with the band more than 15 years ago, the Residents seem to have discovered that a little subtlety goes a long way. The music remains as bizarre and challenging as ever, but the more melodic arrangements of albums such as Demons Dance Alone reveal new layers of emotional depth. Whether that has anything to do with an added female presence, or if it was just the Residents maturing as artists, is anyone's guess.

In 2005, the group released Animal Lover, Harvey's final studio recording with the Residents. That same year she embarked on a trek to Australia to sing for the Way We Were Tour, which became her last major outing with the group. Since 2003, Harvey has called Atlanta home, and although her initial plan was to keep working with the Residents, the distance and time apart have resulted in a gradual, but natural parting of ways. She is a mother now, and in a new chapter of her life. The Residents have carried on as well. This year marks the Residents' 40th anniversary, and just as it always has done, the group is continuing to experiment with changing technology, social media in particular.

BUMMING AROUND IN A BATHROBE: Randy Rose on stage at Variety Playhouse during the Talking Light Tour in February 2010.
  • Perry Julien
  • BUMMING AROUND IN A BATHROBE: Randy Rose on stage at Variety Playhouse during the Talking Light Tour in February 2010.

Since the rise of the Internet, the concept of anonymity, at least from the Residents' perspective, has been abused. But rather than lament the technological dilemma, the group has adapted its façade to fit the times. When the Residents appeared on stage during their 2010-11 Talking Light Tour, something had clearly changed. There wasn't a single one of the group's trademark eyeballs present, and its members, now stripped down to three, had outed themselves as Randy, Bob, and Chuck. They were three costumed characters presented as though you should already know them — or at least Randy. Bob and Chuck flanked Randy on either side of the stage, lingering in the shadows, hunched over keyboards and guitars and dressed in matching insect-like costumes. The stage set was an invitation into Randy's living room, where, dressed in his bathrobe, he was comfortable enough to share a series of ghost stories with the audience. He masqueraded around the stage, acting as though the veil of anonymity had been lifted. In its place, the group had switched gears to welcome the aesthetics of complete familiarity, albeit in a manner just as convoluted as anything else the group had ever done.

Fox insists that the Residents have never been any more anonymous than anyone else who performs with a stage name. "Names reveal nothing about a person, and very few show folks use their real name, anyway," Fox says. "We live in a world of Lady Gagas and Bob Dylans, and people in show business surgically remodel their face on a whim. The whole anonymous fascination is much more of a thing to the outside world."

It's a valid point: Everyone from indie rock icon Bonnie "Prince" Billy to Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana disguises his or her identity to varying degrees. But what sets the Residents apart, even as Randy, Bob, and Chuck, is a fundamental void. It is human nature to ascribe value to facial recognition and familiarity. Regardless of how contrived that sense of recognition may be, it is a core element of celebrity culture, pop music, and social media. Most performers give you a face and a name behind the act. It's in defying this formula that the Residents have given themselves a face-lift while staying true to the group's original mission.

But creating Randy, Bob, and Chuck personalizes the Residents, adding a new and modern layer to their presentation. "In all honesty, they had been trying to get away from the eyeball and top hat thing for years, but for one reason or another they would have to re-create it for promotion or for some other reason because it was so successful," Flynn says. "But underneath that, they had been chomping at the bit for change."

Fox is more cynical with his take on the transformation. "If I say that one of the Residents is Charles Bobuck, you would say, 'Never heard of him,'" Fox says. "It really means nothing, so in time you can't be a person. No one is interested in such boredom as a 'Bobuck.' The Residents are stuck being the Residents or being nobody at all."

Still, Charles "Chuck" Bobuck is on Facebook, and he regularly posts bits of fiction and observations via his Codgers on the Moon blog, stating outright that he is the "primary composer and arranger for the Residents." Likewise, Randy Rose appears in an infomercial advertising the Residents' limited edition (just 10) Ultimate Box Set, which is actually a refrigerator packed with all of the group's major releases and an original eyeball mask that sells for the low price of $100,000.

Randy also has a Tumblr, called Maurice and Me, where he mixes Residents history lessons with answering questions from fans. He also uses his Tumblr as an outlet for ruminating on obtuse topics such as his sexual exploits, his 11 failed marriages, and his cat Maurice — whom he's claimed as his life partner. Fabricated or not, it's an impressive, Residents-style take on social media, riffing on the absurdly juicy details that drive celebrity culture. It's also the same playful sense of humor that was on display 40 years ago when the group defaced the cover of Meet the Beatles for its own debut, Meet the Residents, and identified its members as Paul McCrawfish, John Crawfish, George Crawfish, and Ringo Starfish.

Just as the members of the Residents have found a new direction while redefining the group, Harvey's life has taken on a new direction. She's now raising her son, Flynn, and working as a substitute teacher. Life has carried her far away from the derelict SoMa streets of the early '90s, where she first made the acquaintance of Homer Flynn and, through him, the Residents. These days she takes the stage with them any time the group passes through town to play a show, and she's still interested in doing voice work; always keeping an ear to the ground.

Ironically, it's when reflecting on the years and her experiences with the Residents a decade later that she realizes it was only by becoming a part of the group's twisted worldview that she was able to find the direction in life that she needed. "I was at such a transitional point in my life when I met them, and the experiences that I carry with me from the years I spent with them are how I learned to be a normal person in society. That's where I found the balance of being able to make something crazy, but still be a happy, healthy person — to be normal and have a family," she says. "For me, meeting the Residents was an absolute lifesaver."

Comments (5)

Showing 1-5 of 5

Add a comment
 

Add a comment