Last night, a mere 7 minutes’ walk from my flat, I saw the Residents play live.
Pause for a moment to let the monumental significance of that sink in. For this little town this was an absolutely huge event, made even more so by the fact that it was their only gig in the country. Reportedly people flew in for the concert, which was witnessed by a cosily select bunch in the cramped theatre on the town square, from Germany and even the USA. A bloke from the German contingent apparently runs a Residents museum, where he has 50 000 exhibits of Residents memorabilia. That’s the kind of obsessive devotion this band inspires. Word has it locally that this was a mammoth operation to pull off, requiring superhuman effort and all kinds of Byzantine logistical wranglings. But they did it! They got the mighty Residents to play right here, in Olomouc. The organisers and some of the punters might regard last night as the greatest night of their lives.
The only problem being that... the Residents are shit.
They are undoubtedly a cult phenomenon here, worshipped by the ex-dissident crowd for whom they belong in a similar category to the hippy-era Beatles, Doors, Beefheart, Zappa and the VU, seen as an important influence on Czech alternative rock bands such as the excellent Plastic People of the Universe and Dg. 307, who the totalitarian regime felt so uneasy about. The difficulty with some, though not all of these avid fans is that, as their straggly grey hair suggests, they’re still stuck in the early 70s, muttering bitterly about what a disgrace punk rock was (although given Johnny Rotten’s alleged appalling comments about the Plastic People at the time I do feel some sympathy with them).
The collapse of communism, immensely liberating as it must have been at the time, has eroded certainties in all kinds of respects and for all kinds of people. Even those who fought hardest against the regime and suffered the most as a consequence are frequently left with an uncomfortable sense of anomie now that the old enemy is gone. As a prime example Václav Havel is a man I have great admiration for, but in contrast with the quiet, purposeful strength of conviction he possessed as a dissident, he was often criticised for seeming inept and directionless as president, and whilst this may be a little harsh it probably contains some truth. Other, less famous individuals have retreated to dingy, smoke-filled pubs, listening to the music of their brave, rebellious youth, and in a few cases it’s difficult to escape the uncharitable thought that they secretly miss the communists, who at least gave them a focus for their sense of injustice.
This of course has absolutely no bearing on whether or not the Residents have any merit as a band, but in this country if not elsewhere it goes some way to explaining the tenacity of their grip on a certain section of the population. Otherwise what is their appeal? Is it the music, or is it something else entirely? As with the aforementioned Sonic Youth, I can’t help comparing them to their contemporaries. Whilst Beefheart, Can and Kraftwerk for example pushed musical frontiers out into entirely new territory, the Residents and also Zappa confined themselves to wacky lampooning. The intense passion of their fans’ adulation hardly seems to be reciprocated. Perhaps this is the point though, what these people want is not passion but vindication, a nod and a wink, a knowing smirk. The impression I have is that this is music for people who feel compelled to experience their entire lives through a veneer of smugly but also fearfully detached irony, who demand that any kind of challenge or subversion be in the form of goofiness, who only feel truly comfortable when tittering.
As a result of all this last night, surrounded by rapturous applause, I felt the awkwardness of the boy who’s the only one to see that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Maybe I’m the one that’s mad. Like Bohumil Hrabal’s writing, the Residents’ music is a big, black blind spot for me. In actual fact last night it was hardly the Residents at all and would have been more honestly described as the Resident, since it featured one member of the band backed by the Czech alt-rockers Už Jsme Doma, themselves diehard Residents devotees, who performed a fairly stirring set to warm up (although I had to duck out half way through due to a sudden and inexplicable attack of hunger). As for the main act, it started slowly and continued slowly for a substantial length of time, even if I was probably more or less alone in wishing they’d stop fannying about. Later on, far too late, there were maybe one or two redeeming features since the backing band can at least rock out a bit, but by that time I was more engrossed in deleting a 3 month backlog of text messages from my mobile phone, which I’d switched back on out of an overwhelming sense of ennui. At the end I was dearly hoping that there wouldn’t be an encore, but surprise, surprise, they weren’t quite that subversive. To take a balanced view of the performance as a whole it was a boring, facetious load of old turd.
An obvious question: why did I go? The excuses are not good enough. Maybe: it is after all a big name for this place, I wouldn’t have gone if it was further away but it was virtually on my doorstep, although having said that I won’t be going to see Deep Purple when they play here next week. Plus the fact that the Residents are renowned and adored for being unpredictable might have let loose the risible optimist in me. Also I thought Už Jsme Doma might liven things up a bit, and to be fair to them they did a little towards the end, but when all’s said and done you can’t make sugar from shite. It was stupid of me to go, and I’m now paralysed with white, bourgeois guilt at spending approximately 20 Euro on a ticket when I could have given the money to charity and spent a much more enjoyable evening staring at the crack in the paint on my living room ceiling, listening to the ominous, dwarfing silence, trembling in existential terror and contemplating the onset of another dark winter and the crushing futility of my life. An opportunity missed! Hey ho.
On a brighter note, good news, not just for me but also for two lucky lads down in Novi Sad, is that I was literally woken up this morning by the postman, bearing three tickets to see Swans in Prague in December. Now that’s a band I don’t expect much detachment or goofiness from.