Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Residents and Me

The Residents oozed out of the Louisiana swamps in the 1960s and headed to San Francisco, lured by the delights of the counterculture blooming there at the time.  Due to a vehicular malfunction, they stopped just short of their goal and set up shop next to the railroad tracks in San Mateo, the same sleepy suburb that is your curator's home town and, much later, became the first home of the Zymoglyphic Museum.

In 1972, they relocated to 18 Sycamore St., a 5,000 square foot warehouse space in San Francisco's Mission District. There, they split into the Residents proper, four dapper but mysterious entities with eyeballs for heads, and the Cryptic Corporation, a collective of four suspiciously similar people.  Any allegations of personnel overlap between the two are to this day politely but firmly denied. 

The Cryptic folks took care of public-facing tasks, such as record production, design, and sales, financial management, and those various art infrastructure tasks that all artists must deal with in some way.  That left the Residents themselves free to create music and perform in privacy with no expectations or distractions.  

In 1976, they moved out of the warehouse and some friends of theirs from Louisiana moved in.  Soon after, the new occupants needed a roommate and I happened to need a room, so I moved in for a couple of years. The space was a big, airy, space with an industrial skylight upstairs, various rooms carved out with plywood, a big empty space downstairs painted black.  One room had nothing but a television and built-in cushions.  One roommate was a painter, another grew orchids and had a pet iguana, a third played piano in the projection room downstairs.  It was there that I first started thinking about making art. Years later, I would have dreams about the place - a house with undiscovered rooms containing unknown wonders.

The Residents went on create a vast discography and produce live spectacles which nearly bankrupted them in the 1980s.  I am sorry to say they had fallen off my radar during that time and I did not attend any of the live performances.

Many years later (2013 to be exact), Jason Roth came to visit the Zymoglyphic Museum during one of its annual open days.  Something about the eyes in the exhibits led him to aks if I had heard of a group called the Residents.  Of course! I used to live in their house!! He thought Homer Flynn, their spokesman at the time, would be interested in coming back to San Mateo to see the museum.  Homer did attend the open days in the following year. It is unclear whether he can be counted as a "celebrity" visitor, but he is certainly a very pleasant and thoughtful gentleman.

I finally went to see a live show last Tuesday, part of their extended 40th anniversary tour.  The eyeball costumes are long gone, the spectacle is pared down, and they are down to one original member, Randy Resident, backed by a guitarist and keyboard player, but still a great show.  I met up with longtime Residents fan Mad Martian.  He is the curator of the Residents-inspired Eyeball Museum in the Portland suburb of Tigard.

Accompanying the 40th anniversary tour is "Theory of Obscurity", a new documentary film about history of the group.  The title refers to the idea that creativity ferments best out of public view. Perhaps the Zymoglyphic Museum also benefited from its relative isolation during its first decade in San Mateo.  It also made the point that the Residents favor ideas over honing musical craft; true practitioners of the Zymoglyphic Way!