For most, "laboring in obscurity" implies a certain lack of success. For San Francisco's Residents — the endearingly and enduringly strange art/music group that has obsessed its rabid fans and thoroughly freaked out everyone else for over 45 years — obscurity was self-imposed, with the identities of its members vigorously shrouded in secrecy since the group's formation in the early 1970s.
As Simpsons creator Matt Groening, a charter member of The Residents' original fan club in 1978 and the author of their first official biography, wrote: "The secrets of The Residents will never be revealed by anyone but The Residents themselves, and so far they aren't saying much."
But then, one of them did. Earlier this year, longtime Residents "spokesperson" and musical collaborator Hardy Fox — who died last week on Oct. 30, at 73 after succumbing to brain cancer — confirmed what many had long assumed (and that Fox had strenuously denied): that he was one of the four anonymous founding members of the group and had been its primary musical composer until his exit in Dec., 2016.
Although Fox's creative role in the group had long been common wisdom among seasoned fans, who loyally upheld the ruse with a knowing wink, many were still shocked that he had publicly unmasked himself, piercing the group's veil of secrecy and its "theory of obscurity," which held that artists can only produce their purest work in anonymity, shielded from the expectations and influences of critics, fans and the outside world.
For a group predicated on obscurity, the shadow cast by The Residents' influence is long and twisted. In the 2015 Residents documentary, Theory of Obscurity, artists including Devo's Jerry Casale, Primus's Les Claypool and Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison professed their Residential devotion. But the group's influence can be detected all sorts of places, from the multimedia assault of fellow Bay Area provocateurs Negativland to The Weeknd's origins as a faceless internet crooner to pop star Kesha, who included backup dancers dressed in the Residents' signature tuxedos-and-eyeball-masks ensemble on her 2013 tour.
With the exception of Primus's Claypool, whose deranged vocals so closely resemble those of "The Singing Resident" that he's been accused of being the same, the artists who have emulated The Residents have done so less in sound than in spirit, wielding their inspiration as an advanced degree of weirdness that at times can get uncomfortably dark. To put it in context, "Weird Al" Yankovic has never released an album cover with Dick Clark dressed in a Hitler uniform.
Born and raised in East Texas, Hardy W. Fox, Jr. enrolled at Louisiana Tech University in 1963, where he and a Shreveport, La., native named Homer Flynn were assigned to be freshman roommates. The chance encounter of the two young southerners sparked a wildly creative partnership that would span over 40 years. After Fox's departure in 2016, Flynn was the sole remaining original member of The Cryptic Corporation, The Residents' official business management arm, whose four founding members have long been accused of being the Residents themselves.
"We both had a great love of music. That was one of the things that initially connected us," Flynn tells NPR. "We had different versions of Ray Charles albums, and each of us had a turntable, so there was a point where we both put those records on at the same time to see if we could play them in sync, a sort of early musical experiment. The resulting cacophony got us reported to the Dean of Men and we had to go to a meeting with him and swear we'd never do it again."
After college, says Flynn, they escaped the oppressive George Wallace South of the time for the post-groovy San Francisco of '69, as the embers of the Summer of Love were rapidly dimming. There, he, Fox, and two high school friends from Shreveport rented a cramped apartment above an auto body shop in the sleepy suburb of San Mateo, where — along with a cast of fellow weirdos who drifted into their orbit — they planted the seeds for what would become The Residents, The Cryptic Corporation and its Ralph Records label.
"They were there for most of 1970 and 1971, but there were others around at times," says Flynn of the pre-Residents. "They did lots of chemically induced musical experiments. Lots of drugs, lots of beating on pots and pans, lots of recording. It was a triumph of perseverance over talent, which they never believed in anyway. The majority of these 'experimental' recordings were were deemed unlistenable by The Residents and later destroyed, which was the correct decision."
Listening to the crude early recordings that have survived as bootlegs (which even The Residents refused to include in its official discography until recently), one can hear the influence of sonic boundary-pushers like Sun Ra, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, but the pre-Residents sounded more ominous, unhinged and even hostile. It was the gleeful chanting of stoned non-sequiturs over unmoored instrumental jams as they thoroughly disemboweled classics by George Gershwin and Led Zeppelin.
In fact, it was Beefheart's A&R rep at his record label who inadvertently gave the group its name when, unimpressed by what he heard, he returned their uncredited demo in care of "Residents" at their address. Undeterred, The Residents figured that if they were too far out for even Beefheart's reps that they must be on the right path. To something.
Although Fox's musical skills were naïve, his tastes were not, and in the ensuing decades he helped expand the field of influences woven into The Residents' musical DNA to encompass German cantatas, Indonesian percussion ensembles, obscure doo-wop groups and... Elvis.
But to truly appreciate The Residents' music is not to sing along with it, or blast it from your car stereo, or dance to it (the act of which would violate several laws of physics). It is to marvel at the sheer improbable existence of it all.
The group's musical canon – comprising over 60 albums that collectively are more of an ongoing act of cultural subversion than a traditional catalog of songs – includes a "four-part trilogy" of concept albums about a subterranean race of mole people, a record that contains exactly 40 one-minute-long commercials for itself and an album of Eskimo folk music consisting of what The Residents imagined Eskimo folk music might sound like. Which also, naturally, provided the group with its critical and commercial breakthrough.
For its Talking Light tour in 2010, The Residents shocked fans by giving its members (gasp!) unique identities.
Well, sort of. The touring band was billed as "Randy, Chuck & Bob: The World's Greatest Residents Cover Band," now featuring a distinct frontman and two backing musicians.. The move, says Flynn, was made in response to a changing music business in which the Residents could no longer support themselves strictly on the sales of recordings and touring was becoming more lucrative. And giving members names would present the illusion of personalities without actually revealing anything.
That configuration continued until 2015, when the Resident known as "Chuck" (aka "Charles Bobuck") announced that he was leaving the touring group due to health issues (the same that plagued Fox).
In his 2017 digital book, THIS IS FOR READERS, Bobuck explained: "The Residents is not a band. But for the sake of touring, a band has proven to be a very handy form to assume. For The Residents, forming a 'Residents cover band' was easier, so The Residents, instead of becoming a band, formed a cover band made up of Randy, Chuck, and Bob, none of which are real people."
Bobuck writes that he liked the "Randy, Chuck & Bob" concept and was thankful for the renewed popularity it brought to the group's tours. But after six years of The Residents manifesting themselves in this way, he realized that it had begun to take a lethal toll.
"Being popular is a sure sign that we were doing something right," says Bobuck. "Also, a sure sign that we were doing something wrong. The Residents had become Randy, Chuck & Bob, a cover-band demonstrating their love and admiration for a no longer existing entity, The Residents. We had smothered our own baby."
Furthermore, giving The Residents human identities had also seemed to give them human flaws... and egos. In THIS IS FOR READERS -- which, it should be noted, was labeled as a work of fiction, albeit one with obvious autobiographical overtones — Bobuck recounts a growing rift between himself and "Randy" (aka "The Singing Resident"), now that they had distinct public identities. "Writing music was a form that suited hermits and thrived in privacy," Bobuck wrote of his role in the group, "but Randy was a performer and performers need applause from strangers to make what they do feel complete."
In Fox's monthly newsletter to fans, he showcased solo music works and stories by Bobuck, but continued to maintain that the two were separate entities. But finally, in October 2017, Fox, under his own name, came clean in the postscript to one of Bobuck's semi-autobiographical stories, The Stone, admitting that he had been "Chuck"/"Charles Bobuck"/"The Musical Resident" all along.
"At the end of my story, the name, 'Charles Bobuck,' has been returned to its rightful owner," wrote Fox. "The narrator is, for better or worse, at last free of a name which was never his to begin with. So as it is in the story, it is also true in life. The Stone is not a fictional story, it is an explanation of why Charles Bobuck must give up the name he wrongfully appropriated while in The Residents. It was never him. He apologizes for lying."
This September, nearly a year after revealing himself as a Resident, a banner suddenly appeared on Fox's personal website, reading simply: "1945-2018." Residents online forums, the heart of dorkness for the group's notoriously dedicated fans, went into full meltdown mode.
A longtime Residents fan myself, I had interviewed Fox a handful of times and exchanged the occasional email. Upon hearing the news, I sent him a hopeful note: "I hope it's not true. It's not, right?" But I'd already begun to fear the worst, especially after Fox had recently divulged that he'd undergone surgery for a life-threatening heart condition. Sure, Fox had been falsely denying his membership in The Residents since the Nixon administration, but would even he be so bold as to perpetuate a hoax about his own death? The answer was... kinda.
A few hours later, I received a response from Fox that read:
You know it's true. I have always been some human. You are too.
Fans will probably immediately recognize the note's menacing nursery rhyme flow as being ripped straight from the Residential style manual. Fox was thankfully alive, and true-to-form was playing with the truth like a kitten with a string, but there was awful news: He'd received a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer and told that he had just weeks left to live.
In response to the public outpouring following his premature epitaph, Fox posted on his website:
Hi from, me, Hardy. Yes got sick, making my pass out of this world, but it is "all" okay. I have something in my brain that will last to a brief end. I am 73 as you might know. Brains go down. But maybe here is my brain functioning as I'm almost a dead person just a bit of go yet. Doctors have put me on drugs, LOL, for right now.
Anyway. Probably the last of seeing me. Thanks for checking in.
Love you all
Seven weeks later, on October 30, the epitaph on Fox's website was real. And on The Residents website, the group stuck to its version of history even in the face of death, graciously praising Fox as a "longtime associate" and "collaborator" of The Residents, while falling short of acknowledging him as a full-blown member.
"I am not sad, really I'm not," said Fox, in character as Bobuck, to the Oregon Music News in 2017 after announcing his retirement from The Residents. "I can miss the old days, but I already did the old days, every single moment of those 40 years. I do miss the people I worked with. I felt like I lost a family when I stopped touring. I can't go back to who I was, though. Life is lived in only one direction."
A brief overview of The Residents' enormous catalog
Meet the Residents (1974)
The Residents' debut, with its Beatles-savaging cover, used traditional instruments to create something deeply untraditional: a primal collage of chaotic, deconstructed takes on early rock and roll, vaudeville, Steve Reich-ian experimental composition and a Nancy Sinatra cover that sounds like it was performed by a barbershop quartet of acid-fried cavemen.
Only the Residents would have an album of imagined Eskimo folk music as their critical breakthrough. Reflecting the group's increasing use of synthesizers and electronic instruments, as well as increasingly conceptual albums, the Residents take what could have been an elaborate gag and turn into an immersive, beautifully atmospheric musical suite that just happens to be about eating rotten walrus meat.
Mark of the Mole (1981)
The Residents expanded their conceptual scope with a four-part trilogy (only parts 1,2, and 4 were released) about a war between a subterranean working class of "Moles" and the vapid, aristocratic "Chubs." The Tunes of Two Cities (1982) neatly compiles native songs from each of their imagined cultures. And Intermission (1982) -- which carried a label on its cover emphatically stating "This Is Not Part Three of the Mole Trilogy" — features incidental music from the opening, closing and intermission of the financially ruinous "Mole Show" theatrical tour that would bankrupt the group and threaten its future. (It's also this author's favorite Residents album.)
God in Three Persons (1988)
A highly conceptual rock opera, sung in the rhythmic spoken style of the talking blues, written in the obscure poetic meter used by Edgar Allen Poe in The Raven, about the svengali manager of two conjoined twins with miraculous healing powers, whom he severs in half to inflict his lustful desires upon the female half, but ends up learning some important lessons about himself in the process.
The King & Eye (1989)
A father tells his sons the fable of the King of Rock and Roll with a series of warped Elvis covers, interspersed with narratives that explore the darker underbelly of his mystique and spirituality.
The Ghost of Hope (2017)
The last Residents album to feature contributions from Hardy Fox, who would leave the group and continue to record under his own name, as well as "Charles Bobuck" and other pseudonyms. His final bow with the group gets the party started, with songs recounting gruesome train wrecks from the 19th and 20th centuries.