I arrived in San Francisco

I arrived in San Francisco when the icons of its bygone countercultural music scenes had either sold out or were literally dying. It was the same week in November 1988 that Journey’s now-15-times-platinum Greatest Hits was released; Starship’s “We Built This City” and the Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Grey” were still in permanent rotation. I got a job at San Francisco Examiner in its Hearst-owned heyday after profiling Sylvester, the eternally radical black gender-mutating LGBTQ disco singer. A month later he died of AIDS, just like his collaborator Patrick Cowley, whose gay porn soundtracks are now considered classics of the electronic avant-garde.

Aiming to differentiate itself from the Chronicle, which still fawned over the Bay Area’s bloated big-money bands, the Ex had me cover a Dead concert soon after I arrived. Nothing could’ve prepared me for a show that sounded and smelled as though it had taken place in a gas station men’s room that hadn’t seen a scrub brush since the Summer of Love. Wearing several football fields’ worth of unwashed tie-dye, the whitest fans on earth swirled and twirled around me as their heroes similarly veered in search of a common pulse or pitch. I can obviously joke about it now, but back then it triggered a specific kind of panic from my childhood when I’d realize in the middle of a highway that my binge-drinking dad had lost his sobriety and that we could crash at any moment. And so I wrote about that chaos and denial, both personally and in the context of the Dead, and for every clear-thinking music lover who offered their support, there’d be an angry hippie seemingly at every party, bar, and checkout line who’d lunge out to defend their favorite shitty, denial-engendering band.

Later that year, with the fallout still ongoing, I reviewed a concert by the Residents. They too were and to this day remain a cult-galvanizing San Francisco institution: Arriving from Louisiana during the great bohemian migration of 1967, this anonymous conceptual art collective presented itself as a fictional foursome that deviated severely from those eventually quite conventional Bay Area behemoths. On records like 1976’s The Third Reich ‘n Roll, which packaged nightmarish medleys of rock and bubblegum classics in a notorious LP jacket featuring American Bandstand’s Dick Clark as Adolf Hitler, these mischievous miscreants held a cracked funhouse mirror to the mainstream. Spoofing their subterranean success, 1980’s Commercial Albumfeatured 40 one-minute tracks. The group then promoted it on San Francisco’s Top 40 station KFRC by buying 40 minutes of “advertising” (their songs) that essentially forced DJs to play the Residents’ fucked-up ditties alongside “Funkytown” and "Escape (The Piña Colada Song)." Over the course of five full decades, the Residents have paid tribute to popular culture with such lecherous, perverse glee that it’s often been impossible to tell if they’ve been making rough, greasy love to it—or blaspheming and raping it. This is pretty much the plot of 1987’s God in Three Persons, which was recorded alongside their soundtrack contributions to the hit Saturday morning children’s show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. No one, not even the Residents, would dare to make that album today.

Their then-current show, 1989’s Cube-E, examined the history of American 20th century popular music in a three-act presentation of C&W, gospel, and their bastard lovechild, Elvis Presley. Performed by musicians and dancers in identical black pants, turtlenecks, and balaclavas with lights positioned at their temples like glowing eyes, this cacophonous, captivating show brought out my adopted home’s true freaks – the discriminating ones. It was satirical, but strangely purposeful, as if exorcising the dual demons of racism and racial appropriation in a city famed for its ethnic diversity but which nevertheless still drives out its already tiny black population. I wrote about it as if caught in the same fever dream that inspired my Dead review, but joyously. I’d found my people.

Last October, I lost one of them – Hardy Fox. Shortly before dying of a brain tumor at 73 after several years of health issues that forced his retirement, he emerged from under the cloak of the band’s intentional invisibility to reveal himself as the Residents’ primary composer. He even announced his own imminent death a month before it happened with a self-acceptance that was as sweet as it was unsettling. “Yes got sick, making my pass out of this world, but it is ‘all’ okay,” he wrote.

I didn’t know what to say about this because I knew the real Hardy. Following my Residents review 30 years ago, Fox and Homer Flynn, his cohort in the Cryptic Corporation – the company that funds the Residents and represents them publically – invited me to their headquarters then located in San Francisco’s SOMA district that housed their studio, office, and archives. Filled with synths, computers, stage props, album artwork, and, of course, eyeballs, it looked like a cross between science lab and the set for Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The pair spoke about the Residents in the third person, but their pronouns would slip, particularly when I’d switch off the tape recorder, as they peeled back the curtain to Oz. “To take advantage of their boo-boos and destroy the Residents’ myth would be like defacing the band’s art,” I wrote about this meeting to discuss 1990’s Freak Show, rock’s first CD-ROM. “I had spent the afternoon in the future, a place where the joys and discoveries of childhood live on through an endless regeneration of myth, magic, and benign madness.”

And so for the next few years, I remained in the Residents’ orbit. I wrote the liner notes for 1992’s Twenty Twisted Questions, a laserdisc anthology commemorating the band’s 20th anniversary issued by Voyager, the video label that became the Criterion Collection. Along the way, I confirmed that Fox was gay when the intimacy he showed me as an artist spilled into real life. These kisses were mutually okay; we remained friendly, but for decades I had to keep the secret that the key player in America’s preeminent underground band was as queer as the music and mystique they created. Operating under a protective cloak of deliberate obscurity, Fox created the ultimate artistic closet. Like KISS under the makeup and wigs, it served him and the illusory band well, allowing it to age and change collaborators without disturbing what’s now commonly known, sadly, as “the brand.” Yet at the end of his life, he wanted out.

Last March, his former Cryptic Corporation collaborator

Last March, his former Cryptic Corporation collaborator met me in a San Francisco coffee shop. Homer Flynn III is his actual name, and he confirmed the story that he and Hardy Winfred Fox Jr., also a birth name, met as freshmen roommates at Louisiana Tech in 1963. “We always figured we were put together by whatever passed for a computer back in those days; we were both Methodists at the time, and this was Bible Belt territory,” he explained in his Droopy Dog drawl. As he talked about his lifelong pal and business partner, he’d smile, but other times he’d look even more beleaguered as one would be under ordinary grieving circumstances. Because the full Residents story still can’t and shouldn’t be told. I won’t tell you everything Flynn told me precisely because he still trusts me to know the difference between what can and can’t be shared. Nevertheless, it’s a delicate dance we’re stepping.

“It’s been tricky for me, needless to say,” he sighed. “In terms of statements that Hardy made at the end, I don’t confirm anything. I’ve always credited him with being an engineer/producer/arranger, but never went particularly further than that. He said he was a composer and I will say yes, he did some composing. I respect his wishes, but I also respect that the identity [the band] created together and maintained for so long is still ongoing.”

He said this on the eve of the Residents’ early 2019 European tour, In Between Dreams. It’s been awhile since Fox joined Flynn to oversee these multimedia jaunts that typically stretch over several continents and years. The last time he did, Fox was hit with health problems that would be for challenging for anybody in their late 60s, even at home. The keyboardist struggled with an infected elbow on tour in 2010, but then Fox became short of breath while in Europe during the same trek, and eventually discovered that half of his diaphragm mysteriously stopped working, which left him with one functional lung. In late 2017, he learned of a heart murmur and a bad heart valve that needed replacing – a condition that delayed doctors from finding his brain tumor until last year, when it was too late to do much about it.

After the band’s 2016 performance at SWSW to commemorate the premiere of Theory of Obscurity: A Film About the Residents, Fox first retired from touring and soon after from composing for the Residents, the act that had occupied him all of his adult life. This severance was not an easy one.

“The hardcore reality is that you can't make any money in the record industry these days except for performing and touring,” Flynn stated. “The Residents used to make the majority of their money through product, and that's still not insubstantial, but nothing like what it used to be.”

Even before Fox’s health problems escalated, this issue created a gradual rift between Fox aka Chuck aka Charles Bobuck, and Randy Rose aka “the singing Resident.” While Randy relished his expanding role as entertainer/provocateur, Fox – an archetypal introverted artist – longed to stay in the studio. When not on tour that was exactly what he did, and the result is that the Residents boast one of rock’s largest ongoing catalogs with almost 50 studio albums, nearly as many compilations, and a slew of live recordings, remixes, singles, EPs, and video collections, all gathered together in 2012’s The Residents Ultimate Box Set, a 28-cubic-foot refrigerator that houses every first-pressing Residents release to date. One was sold to a collector; the other donated to the Museum of Modern Art.

When sales shrank and the demand for concert appearances escalated, Fox felt his self-worth diminish as his resentment of Randy’s pleasure in performance grew. A mild-mannered, soft-spoken guy, Fox didn’t know what do with these feelings toward his longtime friend until he discovered the secret outlet of many a frustrated musician – buried, barely disguised vitriol. Like the Beatles, whom the Residents spoofed with their first official album, 1974’s Meet the Residents, these messages first took the form of backwards masking on 2011’s Chuck’s Ghost Music, which features the announcement, “I hate being trapped in a van with Randy’s smelly feet,” chanted in reverse. When not even Randy detected these words amidst the Residents’ sonic murk, Fox grew more desperate and less guarded. He’d leave whoopee cushions wired with tiny microphones in Randy’s studio chair, sample the results, and then litter the Residents’ music with fake farts. Once again, not a soul noticed; Randy’s real-life issues with flatulence had long been an issue of fan bemusement.

And so Fox began planning a series of tortures he discreetly announced on record and then attempted to execute on tour. On “Six More Miles,” the opening track of 2011’s Lonely Teenager, the notes on the opening melody spell “I’m going to break your fucking elbows” in Chuckese, an experimental 26-note scale Fox invented as a delivery system for caustic coded missives to the singer. Preoccupied with yet another screenplay designed to crossover the Residents into film, Randy remained oblivious. On “Dead Man on the Floor” from 2011’s Coochie Brake, Fox outlined his strategy to electrocute the singer onstage in Warsaw unless the Wonder of Weird tour was canceled. Deep in therapy for sex addiction, Randy once again missed the message, and the trek went on as planned until tragedy struck. While crawling up the stage scaffolding before a 2015 Shadowland tour gig in Santiago to rig a live wire to Randy’s monitor, the musician slipped and broke his elbow instead, which led to the aforementioned infection.

Like Flynn, Fox, and nearly everyone else connected to the Residents, I’m making most of this up. Following his 2016 split from the Residents, Fox broke his anonymity with a serial tell-all autobiography. Called THIS, it mixes some reality – Hardy really was a Donna Summer fan and apparently did meet her at a Grammy party – with a lot of tall tales and wishful thinking, like the opening revelation that Fox’s “musical ideas mostly appeared while having an orgasm.” Some of it airs dirty Residential laundry, and some of it is merely dirty. Presaging the “fake news” movement by decades, the Residents have always retained a distinctly southern, Bre’r Rabbit approach to their own mythology that favors barbed storytelling over introspection and confession. Some would call this lying; fans would consider it the key component to their art.

As Fox's widow and heir

As Fox’s widow and heir, Steven Kloman also has a vested interest in maintaining the Residents’ willful misinformation. However, he’s a nurse, a profession built on the truth, and his disarming sincerity is antithetical to the lampooning ways of miscreant anti-rock. During Kloman’s lengthy, candid discussion of his beloved, my journalistic bullshit detector didn’t go off once.

“For someone who wants to be constantly sketching and making new music, going on tour and performing the same thing over and over was like torture,” Kloman explained by phone from the house he and Fox bought north of San Francisco in nearby San Anselmo, where Fox began his physical break from the Residents in 1994 before fully severing his artistic and emotional ties to the act much later. “He preferred to be at home doing his thing and having a quiet life, which worked great for both of us. We could go through the front door of a theater, like down in Santa Cruz, and some people would kinda wink at him, but no one was running up for autographs or being weird about it.”

Fox was happy in his craft. “It consumed him,” Kloman recounted. “He would get up with me, and if I was working, I would be out of the house by six. He would work for hours in his bathrobe and then he and the cat would have what he would call coffee break. He would shower, and then the cat would get treats and he would get a treat for himself, and then he’d pretty much go back to work. If he was developing a piece of music, he would generate hundreds of short little sketches. It would be the same thing with images. He loved to manipulate old male nudes he'd find on the internet; sometimes they'd get so abstracted you'd never know they started with human form. He got curious about how certain subject matter and certain filters interacted, and would sit at the computer or an iPad and just do one after the other until he had hundreds.”

As Fox’s Residents role diminished, his friendship with Walter Robotka grew. Possessed of another unlikely but actual birth name, this jovial Austrian runs Klanggalerie, an experimental music label that has reissued music by Renaldo & the Loaf and Snakefinger, UK acts that recorded for the Cryptic Corporation’s Ralph Records. Vintage Residents obscurities followed, as well as new Fox solo material – initially tagged to Charles Bobuck, and then, ultimately, Fox’s final recordings released under his own name.

“It was like a coming-out for Hardy,” Kloman summarized.

From the office of his Viennese book/record store, Mord & Musik, Robotka spoke and wrote freely about a process that was profound for the both of them: The very first concert the label owner attended was the Vienna stop on the Residents’ 13th anniversary tour in 1985, back when he was still a teen. After issuing music from that tour, Robotka became Fox’s confidant and producer on releases like 2016’s Bobuck Plays the Residents, where the musician sang lead for the first time in his life in a voice simultaneously boyish and weathered by lung limitations. Fearful of contributing to the ongoing unmasking of the Residents’ artfully concealed private lives, Robotka asked me to leave the details of their partnership off the record.

“I don’t want to make anything more public than Hardy did,” he reasoned. “I’d feel like I betrayed him.”

Of course, I understand. This article grew out of my own Facebook post that contemplated how to grieve and acknowledge a friend whose colossal life achievement was wrapped in meticulous mystery. Toward the end of his life, Fox undeniably rebelled against it; last year’s Hardy Fox – a candidate for the most pointedly eponymous album title of all time – is so personal and candidly gay that it makes some Residents fans squirm. After decades of artful evil clown vibes, Fox drops the mask entirely on his solo recordings, which eclipse the Residents’ fairy tale darkness with the utmost verisimilitude—mortality. Hazy and at times harrowing, they sound as though Fox is literally dying on them, which, of course, he was. Unlike eloquent, well-produced goodbye albums from David Bowie and Leonard Cohen, these records push beyond language because Fox’s tumor ultimately compromised his ability to communicate conventionally. That’s likely why 2018’s Rilla Contemplates Love is sung through a gorilla’s perspective. In struggling to journey beyond what it means to be human, Fox affirmed not only his finiteness, but also his transcendence. I hear the voice of my old friend saying goodbye and welcoming the inevitable. Despite his usual fictional contexts, these final truths are nearly more than I can bear.

Even before publication, this article has already illustrated the scientific principle that observation does indeed shape the outcome of any experiment – the very same principle upon which the Residents’ own Theory of Obscurity was built. I say that because Flynn was so overcome with grief while preparing for this year’s brief European tour that he’d neglected to contemplate how the Residents would publicly acknowledge their comrade’s passing until I posed the question. As a result, the shows ended with a fade from an image of the Residents’ iconic top-hat-clad eyeball to a photo of Fox, then the text, “In loving memory, Hardy Fox, 1945-2018.” After a minute or so, the dates dissolved, replaced by the moniker, The Godfather of Odd, the title of Klanggalerie’s recent Fox tribute album. As Flynn describes it, this tribute was so subtle and so after the show itself that many attendees undoubtedly missed it.

“I'm sorry it ended as drastically as it did,” he said of their deep-rooted association. “There's a lot of loss. He and I had been very close over the years, and you really don't replace those kinds of relationships.”

“I think of him all the time,” was the last thing Flynn told me. “How could I not?”

Since starting his career in the ‘80s at The Village Voice, Barry Walters has been a Senior Critic at Rolling Stone; the primary music critic for The San Francisco Examiner, Out, and The Advocate; and a longtime contributor to Entertainment Weekly, Billboard, Pitchfork, NPR, Blender, and Spin. The first critic honored by the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, he’s now writing Mighty Real: The Music That Built LGBTQ America for Penguin.