Naming things rarely leads to much good. Consider, for example, HAL, the homicidal computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Would it have been able to take over the mission if it didn’t have a name? Clearly not. A name brings self-awareness. Without a name it would simply have been a service machine with no identity.
Likewise, the famously, and now formerly, identity-less band the Residents seems to have found itself at a crossroads since its members, sometime around 2010, adopted individual monikers. After four decades of creating some of the most unusual, uncomfortable music ever to pass as pop without revealing their names or faces (they were often shown wearing tuxedoes and large eyeball masks), the Residents began identifying as Randy Rose, Charles Bobuck, and Bob, and trouble soon followed. Names breed ego, and egos only lead to dissatisfaction. Members quit and pursued solo projects and the band’s management team splintered. But how can you have a side project if you don’t have a name? How can you announce you’re leaving if you’re just going to be replaced by another nameless, faceless figure? You can’t.
According to Homer Flynn, who, as a representative of the Cryptic Corporation, is the band’s official spokesman (on top of being faceless, the members of the band are voice-less, at least when it comes to giving interviews), the adopting of names was merely a way to keep current.
“The whole idea of identity when you’re dealing with the Residents is not quite normal,” he said. “There’s personal identity and there’s personal identity. The Residents know who they are and they’re comfortable with that. In a lot of ways I think too much has been made of it.
“At the same time, you can’t deny the function of promotion. You want to feel like what’s being put out there has some degree of relevance. I think the Residents really felt the certain need to get in with the internet age,” he added during a telephone interview on the bus during the band’s Shadowland tour, which came to Manhattan’s Gramercy Theatre on April 26. “Their whole history with the eyeballs and the masks, they loved that when they did it, but they felt like it was feeling kind of old fashioned and passé.”
The history Flynn is speaking of is one of the most common tales in rock. The four men who would eventually become collectively known as “the Residents” arrived in San Francisco in the late ’60s, chasing the creative freedom of the Haight-Ashbury scene and a dream of becoming filmmakers. Finding it easier to make soundtrack music than actual movies, the four quickly abandoned their initial ambition in favor of living the rock-star dream.
Their version of the dream wasn’t exactly along the lines of Grace Slick and Jerry Garcia. With little by way of technique or training, they gravitated toward the discordant music of Stockhausen, Harry Partch, and Captain Beefheart. But they did so with an oversize eyeball focused on the world of pop. The initial pressing of their first album came in a cover directly lifted from Meet the Beatles!, the shaded halves of the Fab Four’s faces filled in with crude drawings. The 1976 follow-up features thirty or so ’60s pop songs strung together into two murky medleys, each a full LP side long, with Nazi imagery on the cover.
More performance art or avant-garde storytelling troupe than pop band, the crew carried on, drawing inspiration from the Old Testament and E.T.A. Hoffman and releasing songbook albums of music by John Philip Sousa, George Gershwin, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, and James Brown. The band has also never shied from repackaging and repositioning itself, consistently revisiting and often reinventing its own past work.
That is the thrust of the current Shadowland tour. In concept (and the band always has a concept), Shadowland is the final part of a trilogy that looks at life in reverse. The first part, Talking Light, was built around stories of macabre and unusual deaths. The second part, about sexuality and coming of age, became the most self-reflective project the band has ever presented, with singer Rose spilling road stories during a “greatest hits” set list that set fans in online forums to speculating about whether the band might be calling it quits. The album release of Shadowland follows in that mold, with seventeen admittedly exciting performances of songs that fans have heard before.
Despite the seeming swan song, Flynn denied that the band is headed for retirement.
“You know how life is, you never really know when the end is,” he said, revealing a bit of a morbid sense of humor that he shares with the band. “There certainly is no conscious decision made by the Residents that this will be the last tour. I know there are some discussions about what the next tour will be.”
At the same time, however, he allowed rather cryptically that Rose is the last remaining original band member.
“In terms of the stage performers, yeah,” he said. “The people who make up the stage performance are people who’ve been working with the band for ten – fifteen years, so there’s a lot of continuity there.”
Still, to misquote Yogi Berra, “the more names change, the more things sound the same.” Somewhere along the line, the Residents became a single-minded project. They became, or so it seemed, the Resident. That evolution happened long before the others left the fold, but now, with only one remaining original member—and he more of a conceptualist than a musician—it’s not the same band that imagined worlds of Inuits and rodents. The Residents have become self-reflective where, at one time, they had no selves. They once claimed to be the Beatles; now, it seems, they’ve become the Rolling Stones.
Despite being the last man standing, Rose is a dynamic performer. Using the band’s timeline as a guide, it seems safe to assume that he is well into his sixties. But he’s a compelling stage performer, a fit senior citizen mocking men his own age and doing dances that often seem inspired by various types of walking birds. At the Gramercy, he took the stage wearing only briefs, a white costume tuxedo jacket about two sizes too small, oversize clown shoes, and a bunny mask, which he soon removed to reveal a grotesque mask of an elderly male face.
“Hey everybody, it’s me, Randy, singer for the Residents!” he announced in a voice that’s becoming as recognizable among fans as Johnny Cash’s. He then teased the masked keyboardist to his right—who of course was not the same masked keyboardist who for so long had backed him on stage.
“And over here on keyboard is my good pal Chuck,” Rose said. “Well, okay, all right, it’s not really Chuck. Chuck is retired. Chuck lives on a chicken farm and he thought it was more important to spend time with his roosters and chicks so over here we have Chuck’s brother-in-law, Rico!”
The absent Bobuck has continued to work despite not being onstage with the Residents. He has released a number of largely instrumental records as “Residents productions” as well as This Is For Readers, an e-book published this year and available for free on iTunes, in which he tells his side of what seems to be a sometimes-acrimonious relationship between two, until recently, anonymous artists. Bobuck writes:
Shadowland was to have the subject of “birth/rebirth” and as such would present a radically new sound that would shock the audience as The Residents are reborn on stage [. . .] That didn’t happen, none of it. Shadowland was produced from the same mold as the two previous shows [. . .] As I write this in 2016, Shadowland is still touring. Randy and Bob are still on stage so it ends up that Charles Bobuck continues to exist. I am a ghost trapped by the spirits of the living.
The former Resident also addresses the members’ having taken individual names, seeming no more supportive of the move than he is of the current tour.
I liked being a part of The Residents. I like ensemble work. I like participating without the need for attention. For over 40 years The Residents idea was satisfying. Therefore, my initial reaction to being outed by fake Randy Rose as “Chuck” in front of an audience was a shock. Sure, “Charles Bobuck” was a fake name, but names are not people, they are symbols for people
[. . .] Before that night, attending a Residents show was more like going to church, a bunch of people doing weird things. Now, audience members could point at me and say “There’s Chuck wiggling his butt.” [. . .] I only became more and more certain that I was this person and not a member of some anonymous music ensemble. It was a small death.
Let musicians have names, it seems, and everything turns into an episode of VH-1’s Behind the Music.
With only one member of the band still involved, the future of the Residents seems up for grabs. At some point Rose will have to follow Bobuck into retirement, leaving a large body of work the authorship of which has always been obscured.
It is, of course, possible that the Residents’ work could live on without them. There have been several albums of other artists playing the band’s idiosyncratic songs. And the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco is currently developing a stage play, mixing puppets and live actors and musicians, from the band’s brilliant and much overlooked 1988 album God in Three Persons.
To get a Yogi Berra quote right this time: it ain’t over till it’s over. The Residents are working on a new album based on old newspaper articles about train wrecks. Furthermore, with their faces and real names still kept secret, there’s nothing preventing the band from continuing even without Rose.
“I think that’s a distinct possibility,” Flynn said. “Someone would have to rise from the ranks and become involved in such a way that they made it obvious they got what the Residents were all about and have a vision as to how to move the band into the future. But there’s nobody waiting in the wings right now.”
The Residents, of course, have actually revealed none of their secrets. “Charles” or “Chuck Bobuck” is a familiar gag to most anyone familiar with the “Name Game” song, and “Randy Rose” is just too perfect a rock star name, the late Ozzy guitarist withstanding or not. Having charted a course from grave to cradle over the last half dozen years, the band could be ready to be born anew—or to end in a train wreck. Their truths are, as ever, their own to determine.
KURT GOTTSCHALK writes fiction and about music for various publications, hosts the Miniature Minotaurs show on WFMU, and struggles with a variety of stringed instruments.