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The Residents: In the eye of the beholder 

How avant-garde rock icon the Residents changed pop music, and singer Molly Harvey's life, forever

THE EYES HAVE IT: The Residents in San Francisco in the late ’70s.

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THE EYES HAVE IT: The Residents in San Francisco in the late ’70s.

In the winter of 1993, Molly Harvey was lost. She was 21 years old, and shortly after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond with a BFA in Theatre, had landed on the streets of San Francisco. She came not in pursuit of an acting gig, but to be with her father, who was dying of cancer. When he died just a few months later, she had nowhere to go. Homeless and couch-surfing, she took a job at the first place she saw a help-wanted sign, a café in the South of Market Street district called Elsie's. "It wasn't a cool San Francisco coffee hangout, either," Harvey says. Elsie's was a dive in what was then a derelict warehouse district before the dot-com boom transformed the area into luxury lofts and live/work condos. "The place was owned by a cop who had hair plugs," Harvey says. "The coffee was terrible and we were still serving it in Styrofoam cups. I was stuck there at a time when my life had no direction, and I had no idea how I was going to move on."

But within the first few hours of her first waitressing shift, a chance meeting at the cash register changed her life forever. An unassuming, middle-aged man came in to buy a latte and when he went to pay, Harvey noticed a small but colorful medical painting of an eyeball on his wallet. For reasons that she still cannot fully explain, she blurted out the question, "Oh! Are you a fan of the Residents?"

She was vaguely familiar with the mythologized avant-garde performance art band, mostly because she'd heard friends talking about the group in high school. But all she really knew about the Residents was the group's iconic image: four faceless, genderless beings with oversized eyeballs for heads, dressed in tuxedos and top hats. The customer hesitated, then he replied, "Well, yeah ... kind of."

He didn't let on at first, but she soon learned he was Residents co-manager Homer Flynn. Since 1976, Flynn and his Cryptic Corporation partner Hardy Fox have split duties managing the Residents and overseeing the affairs of the group's long-standing independent label, Ralph Records. Their warehouse-size office space was just three doors down from Elsie's on Folsom Street. Being in such close proximity to each other in an otherwise desolate part of town, Harvey and Flynn were bound to see a lot more of each other.

Although they had no way of knowing it at the time, their fateful exchange marked the beginning of a long-lasting friendship that would lead to Harvey joining the Residents. For more than a decade, she toured the world singing with the group and serving as a creative catalyst during a crucial chapter of the band's ongoing evolution.

Since the group's formation in 1972, the Residents have remained an anonymous enigma, an icon in American music's freaky fringes, where performance art, punk, new wave, and the avant-garde collide with unbridled creativity and experimentation. The group's surreal musical theatrics and twisted narratives have generated nearly 80 albums, all of which wreak havoc on the senses. They bear such curious titles as The Third Reich 'N Roll, God in Three Persons, Eskimo, and Demons Dance Alone. In the early days, the group's primitive anti-rock 'n' roll clatter synthesized the influences of everyone from John Cage to Sun Ra, while deconstructing such '60s pop standards as "Land of a Thousand Dances" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." The Residents challenged the notions of what noise is, and what pop music could be. Along the way, the group's fiercely self-reliant tactics laid the foundation for everything from the world of homespun record labels to the flood of self-conceived and -produced music videos that flood the Internet today. Across the board, DIY music owes a debt to the Residents' early efforts to create a fun-house-mirror view of the world — a protocol that continues to evolve in the face of social media as the group embarks on its 40th anniversary Wonder Of Weird Tour.

According to legend, the group's members originally hailed from Shreveport, La., and they adopted the name "The Residents" in 1971 after a reel-to-reel demo tape they'd sent to Warner Bros. agent Hal Halverstadt (best known for signing Captain Beefheart) was mailed back with a rejection letter made out to "the Residents." By neglecting to include a name with their return address, a mysterious legacy was born.

Undeterred by Warner Bros.' rejection, the group took matters into its own hands and launched Ralph Records to release its debut single, a double 7-inch set titled "Santa Dog." As Fox explains, starting an independent label was not about taking a stance in defiance of the record industry as much as it was an act of self-preservation. "Founding Ralph Records was the result of necessity," Fox says. "Truthfully, most people hated the Residents, still do."

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