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All the Residents' Men

The biggest problem with mysteries is that sooner or later they have to be solved. And the solution to any mystery is invariably a letdown. As long as there is uncertainty, there is the chance that the answer will reveal something beyond the ordinary. But answers rarely do. Do you really want to know what lies beneath the Bermuda triangle? Do you really want to know the truth about Bigfoot? Do you really want to know who shot JFK?

Did you really want to know the identity of Deep Throat?

And the revelation of G-Man W. Mark Felt as Woodstein's Cigarette Smoking Man came not only as an anti-climax, but as not much of a surprise. I was introduced to the Felt-as-DT theory a few years ago by Tim Noah in Slate. Noah's case, and that of his sources, was convincing enough that the mystery was more or less ruined for me then. But as long as everyone remained tight-lipped, I could still watch All the President's Men and fantasize that Hal Holbrook was in fact playing Henry Kissinger, or Al Haig, or William Rehnquist, or… or somebody who could juice up the news for a few weeks when the lid got blown off.

But no. Instead we get a semi-senile obscurity with the mixed motives of, well, a real human being. And anyone with any sense of romance in them will tell you, the last thing we want in our mysteries is a real human being. Unfortunately, that's what we're stuck with.

Kind of like the day I realized that I knew who the Residents are.

The first thing anybody learns, and the only thing many people know, about the Residents is that they have managed to maintain their anonymity for the 30-plus years that they've been making music. Which to some extent is true, in that it would be nearly impossible to generate a reliable biography based on what is known about them. Much of the story can be assembled based on facts given or implied by the "official" biography and on the work itself, but the Residents story is full of elision, exaggeration and, well, outright lies.

But to any die-hard Residents fan (is there any other kind?), the identities of the artists themselves is no secret. I'm not going to reveal that information here – if you haven't figured it out yourself, relish the mystery. The fans don't even admit it amongst themselves; through want of maintaining the illusion or out of respect for the band's wishes, we perpetuate the myth that we have no idea whose faces hide beneath those eyeball heads. It's sort of like pro wrestling: they know it's fake, we know it's fake, but the enjoyment depends on both of us pretending that it's not. Mass suspension of disbelief is key to the whole concept.

I remember the day I was introduced to the music of the Residents. It was through a mix tape made by a friend of a friend, and was full of the darker, moodier elements of their oeuvre. I had never heard of them, and when I was told that this bizarre music was made by an anonymous group of musicians obscured by giant top-hatted eyeball heads, my interest was piqued. The music seemed otherworldly, inhuman, and the fact that there wasn't some beer-gutted, bespectacled geek named Doug pictured inside (no, none of the real Residents are named Doug; lighten up, Sherlock) maintained that impression.

As time went on and I obsessively collected Res-related minutiae, some facts did emerge. They came from Louisiana to San Francisco as more of an arts collective than a rock group. They have maintained that concept, combined with a need to be constantly on the edge of technology, ever since. From early videotape to synths to CD-Rom to DVD, they have experimented early and often with every new media form and toy that has come along. Projects have fallen apart when their realization times outlasted the shelf life of the technologies on which they were based.

Still, who were the driving forces behind all this tinkering and creation? I can put names (I think – are the names I know their real names?) and faces to the shadowy forms. But still, much of the tale remains obscured. The why is missing. Why a four-album trilogy about the civilization clash between mole people? Why the obsession with '60s bubblegum pop in an avant-garde setting? Is there a reason behind every shift in style and concept beyond the questionable explanations that have been given us? And what of the oft-told tales? Who is the Mysterious N. Senada, and what is his connection to Harry Partch? Was Not Available really shelved until the day when the band had forgotten about its existence? And is the fantastic new album, Animal Lover, really based on animal mating sounds?

Part of me awaits the day when the definitive biography is written, all is revealed, and I can fill in the blanks. Another, maybe even bigger part of me, hopes that day never comes. As for Deep Throat: so long, it's been good not to know ya.