Somethin' Devilish: The Untold (And Finally True) Pre-History of The Residents (1963-1971)
Jim Knipfel

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Part Four

Lithman, while clicking easily into the kind of experimental noise explorations the Pre- Residents were undertaking, still harbored dreams of becoming the next Eric Clapton, and while in the Bay Area was anxious to play out. In 1971, the easiest way to do this was to pack up an acoustic guitar and hit the local clubs on Monday, which was open mic night. With the Pre-Residents in tow, Lithman began making the rounds.

It was not a fun night for the Pre-Residents. After sitting through endless James Taylor and Crosby, Stills & Nash wannabes, they found themselves bored nearly comatose. Considering the kind of music they were making back at the San Mateo apartment, witnessing what the rest of the world was up to must have felt like a visit to Hell. Upon learning the next day what an "open mic night" was, The Mysterious N. Senada himself decided to debut a couple of his own recent compositions on one of those same stages. Needless to say, the Pre-Residents were once again all in attendance the following Monday.

After the standard eight or ten performers armed with acoustic guitars and bags full of earnest mainstream dreams, The Mysterious N. Senada took to the stage and performed about fifteen minutes worth of free-form jazz saxophone and poetry. It was, as might be expected, an attention-getter. Following his set, the Bavarian avant gardist was cornered by several audience members who wildly and sincerely praise his mastery of free-form jazz, at least one new fan comparing him with Charlie Parker. Little did these patrons know The Mysterious N. Senada had absolutely no idea how to play the saxophone.

Inspired by the audience reaction to Senada, the Pre-Residents quickly began developing plans for a more ambitious performance of their own. Part of those plans involved Margaret Swaton. The first step was convincing her to speak into a microphone. Once she was comfortable with that, the next step was finding a name for the character she'd be playing.

"My name being Margaret, Peggy was the nickname. Some people did call me Peg or Peggy. We were all going around and around about it, and I said something about Peggy, and they said 'Oh! Peggy Honeydew!' I don't know where they came up with that, but it stuck. I just put my fate in their hands—whatever you want me to be, I'll do it." With the addition of an evening gown, a blonde wig, and a fancy broad brimmed hat, Swaton was transformed into the Fabulous Miss Peggy Honeydew, the eternal and eternally classy nightclub singer who would make such an indelible impression on Residents fans.

On the evening of October 18, 1971, a mob including Lithman (now officially dubbed "Snakefinger" and wearing a tuxedo), The Mysterious N. Senada (in his traditional trenchcoat, fedora, and sunglasses), the Pre-Residents (in cheerleader outfits with the exception of Charles Bobuck who carried a bass drum and wore a marching band uniform), Peggy Honeydew, and a cellist in a wedding dress who just wandered in that night, commandeered the stage at The Boarding House. Flynn, Clem, and Fox were in the audience to show their support, and John Kennedy filmed the event for posterity.

After an innocent enough opening ("Hello everybody. How y'all a-doin' tonight? Well, here we are again, with a nice little show all worked up for ya."), they befuddled, amused and terrified an unsuspecting audience with an unholy (and decidedly un-mellow) mixture of music, chanting, hooting, hollering, poetry and noise. Peggy Honeydew was introduced about ten minutes into the performance, and sang a catchy little number that begins, "Go fuck yourself on the doorknob, mom / In a mouldy auditorium..." Then after some more wacky goings-on, The Mysterious N. Senada led everyone away, tooting on his saxophone. The entire absurd and baffling performance lasted about twenty minutes.

In the months following the Boarding House happening, Swaton would portray Peggy Honeydew at a couple more Pre-Residents performances and make an unforgettable cameo in their unfinished film Vileness Fats before drifting off into legend.

Snakefinger returned to England to pursue his own career, but moved back to the States again in the late Seventies, settling in Los Angeles. Although much of his time was focused on his solo career, he would work closely with The Residents on several projects until his untimely death in 1987. It would be nearly a decade before Bob, a friend of Bobuck's from Texas, would be brought in to play guitar.

With no one left with whom he could easily communicate, The Mysterious N. Senada likewise picked up and returned to Europe, though he too would remain an ongoing and profound influence on the band until his own death in 1993. Most notably, he would provide a vocal track for the song "Kamikaze Lady," and in 1978 sent the band field recordings he'd made in the Arctic of Inuit songs and rituals, which were adapted into the band's Grammy-nominated album Eskimo.

After compiling their best recordings into three unreleased albums, Rusty Coathangers for the Doctor, The Ballad of Stuffed Trigger and Baby Sex, The Delta Nudes decided to change their name. Two things at that time influenced the name change. First, Hal Halverstadt returned the anonymously submitted Warner Brothers Album demo tape to "Residents" at their address in San Mateo. At the same time, The Mysterious N. Senada had been preaching—in a very quiet voice of course—the merits of obscurity in a culture only beginning to sniff the acrid stench of celebrity. Reinforced by Halverstadt's appropriately labeled return of their tape, they took The Mysterious N. Senada's words to heart, realizing that the Warner Bros executive had inadvertently supplied them with the perfect name for an anonymous, anti-celebrity music group.

In 1972, The newly re-christened Residents left San Mateo and moved into a warehouse at 20 Sycamore Street in San Francisco. They set up a studio and continued recording music. They also began working on their epic film project Vileness Fats. Shortly thereafter their college friend Palmer Eland moved in as well, and began hoarding newspapers. A drummer named Carlos became a semi-regular visitor, but that's another story. It was in that space that The Residents—now complete with a name and a solid direction—would get down to the work that would consume them for the next forty-plus years.

But if not for a series of chance encounters, unexpected gifts, coincidental geography, and assorted cultural forces intersecting with a rare synchronicity—together with maybe just the slightest whiff of Louisiana voodoo—it may never have happened at all. The rest, as they say, is mystery.