The Residents announced their presence on the subcultural landscape in 1972 with the release of Santa Dog, a four-song double single that was simultaneously catchy, abrasive, and confounding. Over the course of the next forty-six years, the legendarily anonymous, eyeball-headed San Francisco-based avant-pop performance quartet has released roughly fifty-musical albums, each radically different from all the others, and each in some way an experiment. Imbued with an aesthetic and mindset that seems to be based in some other dimension, their videos have been added to the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Their wildly theatrical performances fit Richard Wagner’s definition of a Gesamtkunstwerk with their blend of music, poetry, dance, acting, costuming, and visual art. They created award-winning animated CD-ROMs when CD-ROM was poised to be the next generation home entertainment platform. They’ve posted several innovative, mind-bending series online, including a serial radio drama. There have been several international exhibitions of their painting and elaborate costume designs. They’ve scored ballets. They made, well, at least a good chunk of the classic cult film Vileness Fats, And are presently at work on a new feature, Double Trouble. They’re also currently completing their next studio album, Intruders, and overseeing the development of a stage adaptation of their 1989 album God in Three Persons.
For all their forays into nearly every imaginable art form, it wasn’t until 2013 that The Residents published their first novel, Bad Day on the Midway. Bad Day was in essence a novelization of the interactive 1995 CD-ROM of the same name, a complex murder mystery involving, among others, a serial killer, a young innocent named Timmy, sideshow freaks, and a red-headed rat carrying the plague, all set at a seedy roadside carnival.
“Bad Day was a fully developed project that was floundering in oblivion,” says The Cryptic Corporation’s Homer Flynn, longtime manager and spokesperson for the fiercely reclusive band. “Nobody could play [CD-ROMs] anymore, but The Residents felt more could be done with it to keep it alive, so they turned it into an old-fashioned novel.”
Now, five years later, Feral House/Process Media has just released The Residents’ first wholly original novel, Brickeaters. The Bad Day novel was not only based on pre-existing material, but also originally conceived as an interactive eBook that would employ the rich computer animation of the CD-ROM. Brickeaters, on the other hand, was from the beginning conceived as a physical book, with a cover and pages and a story. It seemed an odd step into the archaic for a band long associated with cutting-edge technology.
“The Residents are voracious readers,” Flynn says. “There’s always been a narrative quality to their work, but it’s become more narrative in recent years.”
It’s quite true. As early as 1974 they recorded what could legitimately be called an opera in the form of Not Available, and over the past ten or fifteen years, with the likes of The Bunny Boy, Voice of Midnight, Tweedles, and Demons Dance Alone, have released a number of albums that told stories. Sometimes twisted and obscure stories, but stories nevertheless. So maybe it was only inevitable they would eventually, after trying their hand at everything else, turn to straight fiction.
Perhaps it was also inevitable that a band so shrouded in enigma, in rumors and red herrings, would opt to write a mystery, albeit one that wanders freely into the deeply strange. Our narrator throughout most of Brickeaters is Franklin Blodgett, an alcoholic, LA-based freelance journalist down on his luck. One drunken evening, he catches a news story about an elderly ex-con found dead along a lonely stretch of highway in Missouri, accompanied only by a .44 Magnum and an oxygen tank. Desperate for anything that might distract him from brooding over his recent divorce, Blodgett decides to uncover the old man’s story. His ensuing investigation around the small town of Clinton, Missouri, brings him in contact with a decidedly Residential cast of eccentrics, including a seven-foot-tall Internet content screener, a right wing extremist with some unorthodox plans to protect the nation’s water supply, a young sheriff’s office clerk, and assorted short order cooks. Along the way we hear about a woman consumed by fire ants, another who may or may not be fucking a chimp, and a farmer forced to execute his favorite pig. There’s also a good deal of brutal slapstick, often with no comic payoff. Best of all, you get the distinct impression that, to The Residents, Brickeaters is as mainstream as a John Grisham novel.
Flynn describes the novel as essentially a buddy picture. At it’s core, told in flashback, it’s the story of the above-mentioned Internet content screener and the aging small-timer, who become extremely unlikely partners in crime. The inspiration, he says, was two-fold.
“They saw two stories in the New York Times a few years ago,” Flynn says. “And started asking, ‘How can we bring these two stories together?’ So they started bandying ideas around. That’s how they usually work—just tossing a whole bunch of ideas back and forth. While the others are kibitzing, the Resident who’s considered the Writer tries to connect all the dots. It’s easier for them to work on these things while they’re on tour instead of when they’re dealing with the hamster wheel of their day to day lives, so Brickeaters was written over the course of the last four or five tours.”
The other primary inspiration, he says, was Breaking Bad.
“The Residents don’t watch much television,” he admits. “but they got to wondering why Breaking Bad was so compelling. So they broke it down, and when you break it down it’s the story of a high school chemistry teacher who becomes a drug lord. Now in anyone else’s hands, that premise would become a comedy. But the character is so well grounded it becomes something else. With Brickeaters they were trying to figure out how to bring these two characters together—the Internet content screener and the aging criminal. Two characters who would never ever come in contact with one another normally. You figure out a way to pull them together, then send them on their merry way, and it becomes a buddy movie. But then you try and take that in a different direction.”
As with Bad Day, there’s a certain purity to the storytelling and the prose that is both naive and sly, though it was only on a second pass that I caught the latter. Reading Brickeaters, it’s hard not to be reminded of some of the more nihilistic pulp writers from the Fifties, like Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Charles Willeford, though here set against a decidedly contemporary backdrop complete with Starbucks and cell phones. I asked Flynn if The Residents were deliberately going after that pulp aesthetic as they were getting to work on Brickeaters.
“No, not really,” he says. “It’s just the way the story shook out. They didn’t really have that in mind at all. As they’re getting more feedback now, a lot of people are saying ‘pulp noir,’ so I guess it makes sense.”
Part of the novel’s magic is that, after a opening with a familiar, even cliched premise—the drunken journalist and the unidentified corpse—it has a way of luring the unwary far afield. As Flynn put it, The Residents started laying down bread crumbs, hoping readers would follow. And once I reached the end, when things had become undeniably, even perversely Residential, I looked back over the story, where I started and where I found myself on the final page, and thought “Hey, wait a second—how the fuck did that happen?”
The trick, I believe, is that like The Residents themselves, Brickeaters plays with several levels of deception. Franklin Blodgett is a decidedly unreliable narrator. The characters who surround him may seem like stereotypes, but reveal themselves to have an unexpected depth. Likewise the dialogue seems simple and direct on the surface, but carries a distict weight as things begin to add up. And the storyline, which seems so familiar and predictable as you follow from bread crumb to bread crumb, is a quietly serpentine bastard, with a way of curving so gently you have no idea you’re now headed east instead of south.
In the novel’s final third, when things take a decisive slip into high strangeness, we are introduced to brickeater’s central villain, a paranoid, paramilitary, mother-obsessed gun nut named Besley. Besley, who has a whisper or two of Dr. Strangelove’s Jack D. Ripper about him, lives in a highly fortified. compound where he is not only preparing for the apocalypse, but also preparing to launch a righteous attack on Los Angeles in order to make a political point. Needless to say, he’s a touch unbalanced.
“Besley is my favorite character,” Flynn admits. “He has the soul of a poet. Of everything else in the book, I think The Residents had the most fun writing his monologues.”
Just as a sample, here’s an excerpt from one of Beasley’s countless monologues about human nature, the government, sex, and teeth:
“So often… oh so often there simply is no justice in life. HA! My words give this trivial truth the weight of sagacity but every child who has had his ice cream usurped and slurped by a brigands learns this lesson at an early age. I was only four years old when they started calling me Beastley… BEASTLEY!… mocking my teeth… I still hear their vicious little voices, ‘BLACK TEETH! BLACK TEETH! BLACK AS COAL! BLACK TEETH! BLACK AS SATAN’S SOUL!’ Hell… They weren’t even black… just dark brown! Cruel! Cruel! Life can be so CRUEL!…”
Apart from a few swipes at Nixon, The Residents have never been overtly political in their work, but reading Brickeaters in 2018, Beasley’s monologues, fashion sense and overall attitudes leave him sounding like someone with a large collection of MAGA caps. What’s more, much of the novel’s storyline takes place in and around the small town of Clinton, Missouri. I wondered if this could be a mere coincidence.
“I wouldn’t call it a political novel, no,” Flynn says. And to be fair, the novel was finished some six months before the election. But there are things they’ve done in the past that were never intended to be political, but you go back later and look at them and in retrospect you can reinterpret it. Sometimes it has a way of leaking in when you aren’t aware of it.
Which, in a way, brings us to The Residents singular prose style. Marked by specific and repeated word choices, alliteration, unexpected similes and unconventional punctuation and capitalization, it’s a style quite removed from what you hear on the albums, but one that has been around for a very long time. Going back decades, it can be seen in their early press releases and the product descriptions in their Buy or Die! catalogs. While I had always seen strong hints of Hubert Selby’s early work in The Residents’ prose, Flynn insists the style derives from a different literary source.
“Looking backward to their days in college [at Louisiana Tech circa 1963],” Flynn says, “all the cool kids were in fraternities. So what we like to call the Pre-Residents created Delta Nu, which was a kind of anti-fraternity fraternity. And if there was any Delta Nu bible, it was Catcher in the Rye. That narrative style is essentially Holden Caufield’s voice. Or at least how they interpreted it. I should read that again one of these days to see what I think now.”
Another major influence, he says—and this is a bit less surprising—was Kurt Vonnegut.
“Especially Cat’s Cradle,” Flynn says. “Everything he was up to was encapsulated in that book. I love the simplicity of the writing.”
The Residents finished the Brickeaters manuscript in 2016 after working on it for over five years, which left Flynn, as their manager, with the job of gauging interest, and finally making the connection with Adam Parfrey at Feral House. It was a good, even inevitable match.
From the early Eighties onward, as co-founder of Exit magazine and Amok Press, then later as founder and editor-in-chief of Feral House, Parfrey was another legendary (and occasionally notorious) pillar of the American underground of the era. Along with republishing forgotten classics like Jack Black’s You Can’t Win (1926) and Joseph Goebbels’ novel Michael (1929), he edited the seminal anthology Apocalypse Culture, as well as books by Church of Satan Founder Anton LaVey and British serial killer Ian Brady. Much earlier than that, he’d also been a Residents fan.
Parfrey once told me that in 1978, as a 20-year-old living in Los Angeles and putting out his own zine, he’d made a pilgrimage to San Francisco and appeared on the doorstep of The Cryptic Corporation., hoping to do a story about The Residents. He also told me he regularly played Residents albums for the unsuspecting, using their reaction as a way of measuring their personalities.
Throughout their career, The Residents had always adamantly maintained complete creative control over everything they released. They had their own management company and their own record label, allowing them to do everything on their own terms. The Bad Day on the Midway had been self-published, so this would represent the first time they’d dealt with an established, external publisher. Publishers, of course, have a long and unpleasant history when it comes to meddling with an author’s work, and a real knack for mucking things up. So I was curious if Parfrey had insisted on making any changes to the manuscript, for whatever reason.
“There was absolutely no input,” Flynn says. “Apart from copyediting, there was nothing at all. Adam offered no commentary. The Residents are still newbie novelists, so they were actually kind of hoping for some kind of feedback. Looking back now having learned more about the nature of Adam’s illness, I don’t know if that had anything to do with it or not.”
Three months before the scheduled release of Brickeaters, Parfrey died suddenly of a massive stroke at the age of 61. As Parfrey and Feral house were inseparable, there was some question in the days that followed whether Feral House would be shuttered and Brickeaters would be left orphaned and adrift. Both fears were unfounded, and the book came out as originally scheduled.
It’s hard to fathom, you stop to think about it, but for almost fifty years now, The Residents have never stopped moving, never stopped trying new things and creating new things. “Now that they’ve had a taste of the glamorous, wham-bam world of fiction publishing,” Flynn tells me, “the band is already bouncing ideas around for what may become a few more novels down the lime.”
Funny thing is, these days when most everyone in the publishing business is insisting, and has been insisting for well over a decade, that fiction is dead, when even noted, award-winning novelists are bailing on the form, The Residents, themselves nearly fictional by nature, may be the only ones who can pull it off.