Whether Freak Show is oddly essential or vaguely unsatisfying is a highly subjective matter, but consistent with all their releases, you couldn’t call it forgettable. Neither my favorite Residents record nor, I think, necessarily their best, this is nevertheless an intriguing enough place for someone to approach listening to, and looking at, their work.
No point in rehashing the entire history of the Residents here, better to encourage you to seek it out for yourself, along with the concerns of N.Senada’s “Theory of Obscurity” regarding art and the crucial necessity for artists to reject the expectations and influences of audiences and critics in the outside world. (Q. Here we are now, entertain us? A. Did anyone hear a grating sound?) The eyeball heads make me wonder if the Residents will evolve for a century through offspring or other replacements. As well as avoiding critical interference, they deftly sidestep navel-gazing indulgence, preferring to cast light upon the murky world that we, their audience, inhabit.
Freak Show is ostensibly the weirdly ordinary adventures of some mutant carnival characters, but it is also a device by which to focus on a range of concerns. Are we are the real freaks? In some ways such a simplistic question seems neither enlightening nor radical, but instead resembles one of the more specious utterances of David Brent from The Office. At least then it would have been funny. Are the Residents musical freaks? Do we, as is suggested, seek to eradicate freakdom through abortion, corrective surgery, and genetics? Who decides who is normal? Is everyone hiding an inner ugliness? Currently a nation yawns over the death of Anna Nicole Smith. If she isn’t a parody of a myth, or a modern sideshow freak, then I am an apple pie. Meanwhile the lengthening queue of people seeking to exhibit themselves on “reality TV” as shallow buffoons with good teeth, circles the globe. Human lemmings hurl themselves onto the Jerry Springer show desperate to reveal an empathic void which renders them more, not less, uniformly forgettable. Unfortunately, there isn’t time for these fools to waste away like Narcissus, or put themselves to the sword. Clearly though, Joseph Merrick and Prince Randian, The Human Torso, regularly exhibited more dignity. How can a good freak stand such times and live?
Although it’s far from my overwhelming concern, how does this record actually sound? Firstly, the voice of Tex the carnival barker adds neither allure nor mystery to the proceedings, in part due to ze vey eet zounds ven ee sschpeekz. As a linking device Tex may be a necessary evil, but he definitely is an irritating bastard. Still, if avoiding irritation was a goal for the Residents then they failed, thankfully, decades ago. Freak Show combines splendid moments of cruel narrative, beguiling swathes of metallic melody and enough dread to create a fitting atmosphere of magnetic unease. Don’t most of us recall the attraction of the circus or state fairs being replaced by something gaudy, protracted, tawdry, uncomfortable, and disappointing?
Sections of music in “Everyone Comes to the Freak Show”, “Harry the Head”, and “Herman Watches TV” have an undeniably appealing bittersweet quality. In particular, the notion of Herman busying himself while Gil and Kay make love is every bit as hypnotic and sad as Harry’s refrain—“I can live forever / In formaldehyde he said”—is affecting and memorable. There is certainly much damaged beauty lurking in these songs, but the Residents’ purposeful clunking and sensitively brutal approach to sound maintains a contrasting balance. This is essential, as these freaks all remain far from loveable, even more so than the chemically induced characters in Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love, or the physically normal freaks from the black comedy film, Funny Bones.
The comic book format of Freak Show seems well suited to this material, even more than the music upon which it’s based (and I can think of no convincing reason why that should seem surprising). Visuals are what this material desperately needed and hats off to the Residents for allowing that to happen. Brian Bolland’s strip for Harry the Head, with pickle jars, a ranting unappreciated artist, curtains suggesting thigh highs, haunted participants, skirting boards, and painting by mouth, is particularly appealing. Likewise, Richard Sala’s rendering of “Herman” is revoltingly tender. Perhaps read the comic book while listening to the music? The DVD has animated videos, brief moments of stage performance, and a “Pickled Punks” section highlighting the real and remarkable lives of such people as Chang and Eng, The Original Siamese Twins, Grace McDaniels, The Mule-Faced Woman, and Frank Lentini, The Three-Legged Man. Frank was the owner of four feet, sixteen toes and, rather splendidly, two complete sets of genitals.
Whether or not the Residents are originally from Shreveport or Slidell probably makes little difference in their or your scheme of things. Most people prefer to think of them as a San Francisco group, or Californian. I enjoy imagining them emerging from Shreveport in the largely Protestant north of Louisiana, an area often the target of incredulous guffaws from the arguably less dour residents of the Crescent City and environs. Such a beginning, whether fake or not, fills me with optimistic joy. Should we believe that a disquieting memory from the Louisiana State Fair circa the 1950’s was the seed of the Freak Show project? Again, (according to a sort of nested logic) it makes sense, since Louisiana still exudes a simultaneously attractive and repulsive exoticism, not least for outsiders too lazy to learn the difference between Cajun and Creole or how to pronounce New Orleans correctly. An exoticism definitely exists, but not in the muddled, commercial, and mythical vision of corruption, drugs, voodoo, poly-sexuality, bourbon, gambling, degeneracy, and disguise; wherein addled quasi-Klansmen and octoroons, knee-deep in headless chickens and armed to the teeth, ride through swamps and housing projects on giant crawfish, speaking in tongues, blasting trumpets, leaping off French Quarter balconies, eating their young and selling their souls. All while covered in powdered sugar.
Elsewhere, the questions reappear on “Lillie” depicting an audience member as freaky—“All of the freaks are not inside the tents”—thereby reiterating the question of what is normal and to whom, since—“She’s the one who freaks the freaks out.” Originally a1991 release with a much-lauded bonus CD-Rom, this reissue includes a 32-page book as well as the uncompleted Freak Show DVD, from the late Jim Ludtke. The final track features the line—“Life is like a freak show, because nobody laughs when they leave”—spoken in a voice close enough to that of a famous former resident of both Tupelo, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee. A resident of Graceland, that is. On this release, concept and execution are even, but sometimes I love the idea of the Residents, and their ideas for records, more than how they actually sound. That doesn’t completely explain why my favorite Residents record, both in terms of listening pleasure and conceptual appreciation, remains Eskimo. Maybe it’s the gorgeous white vinyl…?