Just like Communism, the Residents looked better on paper. Historically, they knew their shit; their 1976 album Third Reich ’n’ Roll featured Dick Clark in Nazi regalia dangling a carrot in front of Hitler’s face. Distribution of the album was dramatically suppressed; the relatively few copies that made it out were wrapped in fabric from Christo’s work Running Fence, which penetrated the Residents’ Californian turf. After the surprising popularity of their 1978 EP Duck Stab/Buster & Glen, the Residents’ response was to make an album “of wind noises and grunting.” The record, Eskimo, was riddled with Inuit vocals moaning almost inaudible commercial slogans in a sparse arctic landscape. It was nominated for a Grammy. The Residents’ four decades of music, videos, and art have also won them a place in MoMA’s permanent collection. The group has veiled their identity the whole time, rarely performing live and wearing tire-sized eyeball masks when they do, a dada spawn of the No Wave scene.
On March 31, 35 years after the release of their swastika-adorned masterpiece, I saw them at Highline Ballroom, and it was by far the most artless performance I’ve ever seen. Like, really horrible.
Performances by musicians well past their prime can go either way. When an artist sticks to his guns despite the shifting of trends around him, I tend to swell up with pride. A couple of years ago I watched in awe as a 60-something Simeon Coxe, one half of the Silver Apples, pounded away at his keyboard. His other half, Danny Taylor, had passed away the previous year. The now-lone front man had broken his neck in ’98; his performance looked like a struggle. But I was moved by his coup. On the other hand, sometimes efforts are misguided or just simply bad. Out of touch and irrelevant, the Residents had me cringing, sighing, and eye-rolling throughout their set.
We all (invested and sincere Residents fans) waited patiently for the band to come on. I was fumbling with my camera settings to prepare for their introduction, hoping for the musicians’ necks to be straining under the weight of their eyeball masks. If you can imagine a hesitant applause, that’s what I heard. I looked towards the stage and saw what I would describe as a cross between a Paul McCarthy sculpture and a fifth-grade class skit. “Randy,” the leader of the Residents, skanked his way onto the stage wearing a grandpa mask, a dirty bathrobe, and plastic clown shoes. I swear to God he looked like a pedophile from Problem Child. I put away my camera.
“Randy” started his monologue by introducing two other members, “Chuck” and “Bob.” Flanking Randy, these two, the guitarist and keyboardist, wore subtler costumes than their front man. (Think Rasta/steampunk/Uncle Sam.) It was announced that their fourth member, “Carlos,” had left the band because, after being in the business for 40 years, he’d had enough. The first four minutes of the show were sufficient to convince me.
The stage set was stale. A stained curbside couch and electric fireplace rested below three circular video panels that floated above them, creating some semblance of a depressing nursing home and P.S.A. rave. Aside from the dated ’90s art installation, “Randy” relied on props for a majority of the show. His harmonica was unnecessarily lit up with an LED light; the beam of a tiny flashlight reflected off a Duane Reade compact mirror was cast on the crowd (some young kids with blue hair and a tall, attractive businessman in a tailored suit). Misguided youth and Wall Street types alike shared in the communal reaction of “What the fuck is this shit?”
They played a few songs. I was hoping they would redeem themselves with something off 1974’s Meet the Residents, or maybe a Snakefinger track. They didn’t. It’s actually hard for me to single out individual songs due to the unbearable video projections and soliloquies that punctuated them. Monologue after monologue Randy’s weasly Southwestern voice delivered stupidly surreal ghost stories (and trust me, while his vocals work for singing, they don’t for telling seven-minute-long “spooky” tales). His lecturing was beginning to border on Goosebumps audiobook territory. The video projections delivered little visual relief from his bent getup.
I remember reading about the Residents’ Talking Light Tour before the show, but I never read the disclaimer that a crappy DVD entitled Randy’s Ghost Stories accompanied it. The projections featured hastily assembled videos of people in cheap costumes telling private narratives. Sometimes their language was minimal and concise, the way a Raymond Carver vignette reads. Other times it sounded like your hallucinating goth friend from high school.
The Residents played somewhere between five and seven songs; like I said, they were hard to sort out. I remember them being hit or miss. Eskimo-esque clamor and tinny keyboards drilled over a strident flow of lazy-cool guitar work. The harmonica in all its LED glory wailed baritone blues-rock the way Mark Sandman did. “Six More Miles (To the Graveyard)” showcased Randy’s vocals, and for the first time during the show I didn’t feel the urge to throw something hard at his wrinkly pie-hole. “Old Woman” was immediately promising, synthesizers and guitar moving like a pendulum’s heavy swing. A washy sine wave and ticking percussion taunted comparisons to Hans-Joachim Roedelius’s Selbsportrait. The instrumentation was almost beautiful, and the wavering robotic voice kept reeling it back in, resulting in a dualistically powerful song. At times the mass of industrial noise and light effects all thumping at once made me think of a Ministry music video, and I didn’t mind that at all.
I skipped the encore. This was the first time I’ve actually noticed an audience dwindle out the door at a show. The brief blips of music were decent, but I was so burnt out from all the bad dialogues and the perfunctory set that I needed a drink. Part of my brain felt guilty for leaving early—after all, I’d been a longtime Residents fan. In the past, I would have found myself defending all their questionable projects that seemed amateurish or “weird for weird’s sake” as trying to do something. But immediately after the Highline show (and over a beer) I mentally made a checklist of all the elements from the set: Were the costumes supposed to be intentionally questionable and bad? The videos intent on challenging my patience? Were Randy’s stories meant to weed out the apathetic? Did I miss the point? The answer is no, no, no, and hell no. And that’s sad and bizarre: watching a group of people who were once so inventive and progressive dangling their last bits of pseudo-genius in front of you. The Talking Light Tour should be their last musical conversation because, in the Residents’ case, it’s better to fade away (and be gagged) than to be burnt out.
JAMIAN JULIANO-VILLANI is an artist living in New Jersey and a music intern at the Rail.