“No one to talk with, all by myself. No one to walk with, but I’m happy on the shelf.”
– Fats Waller
The Residents, those spectacular eyeballs in tux, always seemed to suss that the ‘underground’ was a subsurface fraud running just under the mainstream. In a series of inscrutable projects with names like Duck Stab, the Residents created a mirror world of late-era pop pap drenched in a kind of furious enervation. Their most telling autopsy, 1976s Third Reich & Roll, chewed up the damp cud of ditties like ‘Hey Jude’ and regurgitated them in long harrowing stretches of paranoid blips and howls that revealed the Top Ten’s dark Horst Wessel core. The Residents seemed to see the stupidity of the lyrics in pop music as a trick to hide its carceral arrangements and anthemic martial chords, as if popular music was like de Quincey’s famous nightmare building whose very structure was evil. Popular music was no longer even allowed the right to be corny – no more music-hall kick or punning, no unholy games; suddenly you could say or do almost anything, a situation which usually adds up to bankruptcy or medication (Glenn Gould made a similar point in his Pet Clark program). And thus, a great Caucasian pall fell in sitar overdubs or Baudelaire references over the half-crocked toe-tapper or dirty locomotive beast which once cut into the thrilling gaudiness of the American airwaves.
By the time they spat out The Commercial Album, a fake apology for earlier sins, and their anti-punk punk version of Satisfaction on 45 rpm, yesterday’s sell-out rockstars were pigeon commodities along with their counterparts in Watergate, Woodstock, and the People’s Temple. You can’t sell suicide, as John Cale once said. Yes we can. Nostalgia, false memory implants, good and evil… enemies arranged like store dummies with their old antagonisms in a fuzzy glow, a weepy crystal enclosure which promises public rehabilitation for monsters and movable units for the Yesteryear industry. Things like K-Tel ads seem cutesy and quaint now, once glimpsed between used car spots and F-Troop at 4 AM – so too Mai Lai,Tlatelolco, Mengele, Kopassus…
After a long series of variations on related subterranean themes like Antarctica and moles, the Residents have now produced their first book. You can also pay a million $ or so for their collected musical works housed in a fridge, but The Brickeaters is a lot cheaper, if chillier. It’s a combo of the cramped angles of Residents properties such as Hello Skinny, curdled Spillane cant, and the vacuum landscape frames of James Benning. In other words, more of the Resident’s wily detective work, by other means. The plot, punctured by masturbatory fantasies and ruminations on the American 24p grainy, concerns a corpse in a gold Cadillac, a dead bankrobber, and a crazed survivalist who plans to spark a revolt by poisoning the LA Water supply. The hero is an alcoholic journalist with girl trouble and the non-action takes place in a Missouri haunted by fluorescence, microwave burritos and relentless tollways. Forget it Snakefinger, it’s Foxcom…
The Residents have also sussed the end of practical surveillance – objectless vanishing points, captured murders that no one bothers to download, and the alchemy of a vast blind spot in the endless pan of electric eyes. The occupants of the drama move from dying motel to motel, get hassled by bored butch cops, and are forced to watch most of the events on a laptop. This midget screen writ small points the way toward a new kind of remote locked-room mystery after Carr, as well as a double-exposure of Christie’s Peter Ackroyd and Orient Express. Although the language is low-toner Black Mask, this whocareswhodunnit is actually somewhat Victorian. Or Trans-Victorian.
The present pastiche culture is probably inescapable, at least as far as its official Anglophone currency goes. The most interesting points lie along the lines of The Brickeaters’ cynical crossed-out double entry and the omnivorous edit-loops of a Kanye West (both the man and the music), rather than the looted references to earlier real estate and cleverclogs smugness typical of granite cinema like The Master or the wussy cruelty of TV’s True Detective. These self-conscious bags of tropes offer no critique beyond flabby winging and an ingratiating fascination with physical torture, a middle-brow ‘art’ that seems so utterly disinterested in its own motions it barely finishes its groove or makes its running time without being overcome by premature senility. The giddy nihilism of the Resident/West vortex manages to pick up some vigor from the frequency-hop and knows what it’s doing without constantly reminding you that it knows what it’s doing. The Brickeaters stuffs the empty sweeps envelope while squeezing the last glue from its ghost sign; the uncanny implication is that the sender and receiver may be one in the same (resident). It doesn’t do exhaustion and collapses like a collision between Spike Jones and Tati’s Playtime, rather than exasperated foreclosure.
One of the heroic schmucks in The Brickeaters is an internet content monitor which is probably the worst job on the planet, after being Chuck Schumer’s wife. The horrific images weeded out by these low-paid gatekeepers give them early graves, nervous breakdowns and the bitterest vision of humankind’s capacity for dumb viciousness. The last place for self-expression is the dissolution of all selves into bytes and bufferings, crisis actors without a crisis, pornography so weary that it usually doesn’t even care to monetize. Amateur filmmaking and performance art is outsourced by the Pentagon, which makes everyone an artist and everyone a drone. The potential for mass fame and eternity is here, at least in the banks of the servers. If this makes the Residents and their chemtrail art seem either dated or timeless, perhaps it is because they have secretly solved an old problem common to both anchorites and mad composers.
It is best to read The Brickeaters as travelogue of petrified exotica, like Burton’s old trips to Mecca and the Beagle voyages in upside-down reverse. Names linger here – Hendricks, Beasly and Blodgett – they are not even puns or word-plays anymore, more like the honorary street signs of forgotten judges and tycoons still visible in mapping screenshots. Just the phonemes, letters on dark web searches, connecting the highway to Creve Coeur with the highways in Latvia, tinkling Spectors or Herman’s Hermits coming from a transistor abandoned in the Joplin city Greyhound. Perhaps the Residents have finally caught a reflection of their bulbous, collective profile in the cancelled throng of these parading images. Like the corrected city of Constantinople, they have surrendered to immortality by being everywhere and nowhere in the heart. This manic collection of eavesdroppings is the latest evidence of a long plan of increasingly malicious compliance.