It's a match made in heaven: the Residents, the world's most enigmatic rock band, taking on the Bible, Western civilization's most essential yet elusive book.
Since their recording debut in 1972, the arty avant-gardists from San Francisco have done their utmost to live outside the margins of ordinary rock 'n' roll--most famously by guarding the four members' anonymity.
God, in the Bible, presents himself only in whirlwinds, or pillars of smoke and fire. The Residents, in their infrequent stage shows (their concert tonight at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana ends the U.S. leg of their first tour since 1990) and in a profusion of more than 30 recordings, present no names, faces or personal histories to the world.
They exist, for public purposes, only as a collective. They appear only as tuxedoed, top-hatted figures with heads encased in bloodshot, staring-eyeball orbs. Except, that is, for the member who switched to a menacing black skull mask after somebody sneaked backstage at the Hollywood Palace 15 years ago and stole his eyeball.
The Residents could almost adopt God's own mystifying self-description in the Hebrew Bible: "I am [what] I am." There's nothing in the pop music world remotely like them.
It is fitting, then, that the Residents have gotten around to devoting one of their album-length conceptual works to episodes from the Bible, and translating it into "Wormwood," one of their concert-length theatrical/performance art presentations.
So where does one turn for insight into a band that's incognito and inaccessible? To the Cryptic Corp., a front set up by the Residents to handle their affairs, interface with the world and keep the musicians' names and identities out of it.
Answering the phone is one Hardy Fox, who teams with an associate, Homer Flynn, in managing and communicating for the Residents. Fox, an amiable sort who speaks in a Southern drawl interrupted by frequent, quiet guffaws, seems to have quite a handle on the Residents' artistic motives and thought processes; indeed, there has been speculation that he and Flynn are in fact eyeball- or skull-wearing members of the clan.
Fox said he is bound to deny any and all speculation about the Residents' identity; he and Flynn, he said, are bosom childhood buddies of the Residents who knew them "when they were just people with wacky ideas" back in Shreveport, La., and who take pleasure and pride in helping the Residents hide out in public view while reaching an international cult audience.
Putting a Face on Parables
The Bible has always been on the Residents' minds, Fox said, and they have touched on religion in past works. But only in the past two years did they undertake the serious engagement with the Bible that ultimately begat "Wormwood."
"They grew up in the South, the Bible Belt, and it's pretty much impossible to escape some degree of biblical influence," Fox said. "But in general when they left [Louisiana] they left all that behind. They even had a certain disdain for what [the Bible] was, and it grew as they watched TV evangelists wave Bibles in the air and hit people on the head to punish them for their [perceived] wrongdoing.
"Eventually they said, 'We have to read this thing. It's obviously important; it's part of our culture, and we can't entrust it to TV evangelists,' " Fox said.
The group collectively eyeballed numerous versions and translations of the Bible, Fox said, including "the Ebonics version and the hip-jazz version" and studied commentaries and interpretations.
The resulting album and stage show obviously have potential to offend religious fundamentalists--Fox said promoters in some areas were reluctant to book the band for fear of backlash, and he was astounded that Residents gigs in Berkeley and Sacramento were abruptly canceled by promoters last week.
"I can only assume that it's a reflection of the content," he said. "A number of places said they personally would like to have this show, but they would rather not deal with it because it was controversial."
With "Wormwood" there is also a risk that hip, avant-garde leaning Residents fans who have been alienated from the Bible will miss the work's serious engagement with the book and assume that the show and album's intent is strictly satirical.
The Residents, who use black humor in the record, know that the sincere aspect could be missed, Fox acknowledged. "The Residents don't take the Bible [satirically], but they do believe there's been a great mockery made of it by the organized religions."
They may not have known it--Fox didn't--but the Residents' methods resemble one of the oldest forms of biblical interpretation--the Jewish tradition of Midrash, in which ancient rabbis created a folkloric companion to the Bible by elaborating on the text to make characters in the often-cryptic verses more understandable, more accessibly human.