In 2000, Pope John Paul II officially revealed the Third Secret of Fatima in a gesture that was unexpected by even the most fervent of Christians; the problem was that the revelation was confusing, cryptic and subject to all kinds of speculation. No one could agree whether it referred to the coming of the Antichrist, the attempt on the Pope’s life, something about Communism, how the future TV show Lost would eventually end, or whether it was really nothing more than a publicity stunt to get the newspapers talking about the Church for a while. Who knows; given the obscurantism of the highest echelons of the Vatican, the mystery revealed to the shepherds in the fields two thousand years ago could even have been the real identities of The Residents. Hypothetically, the shepherds would have no idea who those “Residents” were, or would be...
But that doesn’t matter. At one point, a gossipy reporter asked Fred Frith, the extraordinary guitarist who collaborated with The Residents in the late 1970s, about the group’s identities. Frith laughed and responded something like, “They’re just nice American guys with good business sense.” I’m sure that, if they were asked, other musicians who participated in the making of a residential album, would have a similar answer: some examples include Don Preston (on Eskimo), Chris Cutler (on The Commercial Album), or Todd Rundgren (on Gingerbread Man).
Penn Jillette, magician, actor, showman and master of ceremonies for The Mole Show (see the video below), tells the story of being at a sporting event where somebody sitting in front of him was saying to a friend: “Man, I’d love to know who The Residents really are.” Jillette said their names out loud; nobody knew what or who he was talking about.
It’s also likely that nobody really knew what Matt Groening was intending when he helped found the first official fan club for a strange North American group called The Residents: W.E.I.R.D. (an acronym for We Endorse Immediate Residents Deification, no less).
With more than forty years of activity under their belts and an astonishing résumé (absolute pioneers in D.I.Y., the music video, laserdisc and CD-ROM formats, and multimedia shows as we know them today, not to mention their immense discography), it doesn’t matter who is behind the masks. In fact, The Residents, as flesh and blood people, don’t exist. One of the stars of the documentary Theory of Obscurity says as much, and I agree; “The Residents are an idea [...] They are an over-arching concept, more so than an actual group of people performing strange music.”
If anyone (still) believes that the The Residents’ identities are the Third (or Fourth) Secret of Fatima, it means they’re looking at a finger pointing to the Moon and not the Moon itself. And the Moon is shining bright in 2015: one of the longest lasting, most inspiring and prolific groups in history is experiencing a renewed youth due to the documentary filmed about them; this new youth is backed up by a creative body of work that is, in my opinion, unsurpassable: in its quantity, its depth and the broadness of its vision. In The Third Reich’n’Roll (1976), The Residents speculated about what rock’n’roll would have been like if Hitler had won the war. I wonder what popular music would have been like without them.
More boring, probably, to say the least. We wouldn’t be able to take refuge in Dadaist deconstructions of Eskimo folklore (Eskimo); sardonic, but catchy, parodies of chart toppers (The Commercial Album); not-entirely-unreal interpretations of the eternal class warfare (Mark of the Mole); the most compassionate vision of deformity since Tod Browning’s film (Freak Show)); the outrageous stories told in the Bible (Wormwood); the terrors inherent in the night and our imaginations (The Voice of Midnight)... And I’ll stop there. It’s much more satisfying to discover things for yourself. If after all that, you’re still determined to find out who they are, then listen: I’m a Resident. A short guy from Castile-La Mancha is a Resident. There’s a Japanese Resident, a Peruvian Resident, and another is a six-foot tall woman who lives in Bucarest. You can even be a Resident too... Gabba gabba, we accept you.