View more photos in Timothy Norris' “The Residents @ Henry Fonda Theater” slideshow.
“Do they wear the big eyeballs to hide the fact that they're old?” asked my friend Kat as we were crossing Hollywood Blvd. on our way to the Henry Fonda, where San Francisco's (or is it Louisiana's?) best known musical eccentrics The Residents were presenting a rare show last Saturday. Seconds into their performance it became obvious that a) they were not wearing the distinctive eyeball headpieces that have concealed their facial features and birth-identities since the 1970s and b) the whole show was, in fact, a surreal nightmare about aging not very well.
The new Residents show is called “Talking Light.” Here's how they describe the concept:
The story of the Talking Light piece is basically that of an older man who questions, not only decisions he made as a teenager, but also if the events he remembers from that time happened at all. “A dead infant clutching a ring with an inscription the teenager cannot read” is the stuff of dreams. The following stories in the show may or may not shed light on the inscription. Questions remain unanswered. The Residents study death, not as a horrific end, but as the ultimate question that we all ask while wondering if any of it is even real.
So here is what you would have seen at the Fonda last Saturday: “Randy,” the singer, wearing a grotesque, costume-shop old-man mask and a clown version of an don't-give-a-fuck anymore old-person's outfit (or maybe a realistic version of what a mentally disturbed old-person would wear) lounging about in a sad living room with a white-noisy TV. He was flanked by keyboardist “Chuck” and guitar player “Bob,” both equally clad in spangly black tuxes and headgear that make them look like futuristic Rasta ants.
It would be facile to refer to the whole spectacle as “Lynchian,” mostly because The Residents have been mining a very similar kind of dime-store surrealism to David Lynch's since way before Eraserhead. But what the hell: we'll be facile — the Talking Light stage show is like being trapped in (and mesmerized by) a carny version of the bunny people sitcom in Inland Empire, with a little late-period Beckett thrown in for good measure. You felt dirty and voyeuristic, and the whole cranky, deranged old-man schtick was always seconds away from turning into a creepy tableau vivant of a Paul McCarthy sculpture. Like sex-columnist Dan Savage once said about furries, it was even creepier because it never actually got sexual.
The songs were incantatory, like nursery rhymes to put people with Alzheimer's to sleep and dream about ungrateful daughters. The lyrics were offputting laments about the loneliness and despair inevitable to the aging process. In a sense The Residents are the anti-Rolling Stones (given the cover of “Meet the Residents,” they might enjoy this description): while sexagenarian Mick keeps prancing about like a spastic teenager singing the silly come-ons he penned as a young lothario, “Randy” puts on his old-man drag and channels a nasty old harpy wondering who'll take care of her plants after she “murders herself.”
The tight 90-minute show climaxed with a song/monologue/skit about the uncanniness of mirrors and the terrible fear that the “mirror people” can inspire. The crowd, one of the most interesting, diverse bunches we've seen out and about, didn't know whether to look away, laugh, or shit their pants (some of the expectedly amazing arrangements were heading for the infamous “brown note”…). And then the old man got up, introduced the trio and proceeded with a coda and an encore that reminded everyone of where the funky weirdo antics of Primus, Mr. Bungle and even (gasp!) the Animal Collective really came from.
The unseen sister objects, the unseen sister rejects, the unseen sister protects. Thank you, “Randy,” “Chuck” and “Bob,” for also reminding us that queasy and uneasy can feel so good.