Resident Evil

Canada Choate on the Residents’ God in Three Persons

The Residents performing God in Three Persons at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, January, 2020. All photos: Julieta Cervantes.

IN HIS 1846 TREATISE “The Philosophy of a Composition,” Edgar Allen Poe contended that “the death . . . of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” The Residents, San Francisco’s most famous anonymous art collective-slash-band, offer a rejoinder: The death of beautiful conjoined twins of indeterminate gender is more poetic still. Such is the narrative of God in Three Persons, a rock opera of sorts—written in the extremely uncommon trochaic octameter, just like Poe’s “The Raven”—in which Mr. X, a roving talent manager, plainly narrates his fraught relationship with a pair of twins joined at the hip and supposedly blessed with a healing touch.

God in Three Persons began its life in 1988 as a concept album with contributions from vocalist Laurie Amat; the band intended to also feature Snakefinger, the slide guitarist whose unique timbre helped to define the Residential sound starting with their 1976 cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Right before he was meant to come in and record, Snakefinger died of a heart attack while on tour in Linz, Austria, leaving the group both devastated and without a guitarist. Richard Marriott, of their native San Francisco’s Cub Foot Orchestra, recorded the parts on trombone in his stead, changing the album’s sonic palette entirely. God in Three Persons is a staple of the Residents’ catalogue, and the band and their mysterious holding company known as “The Cryptic Corporation” have wanted to stage it ever since its conception. Last weekend, the Museum of Modern Art in New York gave the group the chance to do just that. The Residents hit the stage, joined again by Amat, for a full and enthusiastic house.

As part of a musical oeuvre in which lyrics often resemble Dadaistic poems, advertisements, or other word games, God in Three Persons stands out for the straightforwardness of its libretto. Its themes, however, are more complexshame, desire, gender, loneliness, sexual violence. The story, in a nutshell: Mr. X meets the twins, takes them on the road to peddle their healing powers, begins to lust for the “female” half of the dyad, discovers their fluid gender, becomes enraged, buys a knife, and finally commits their brutal rape and forced separation.

The Residents performing God in Three Persons at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, January, 2020.

Musically, God in Three Persons—the last Residents album recorded on tape and their first released on CD—utilizes many of the group’s signature techniques and tropes, analogue synthesizer and melodic appropriation chiefly among them (their unfinished “American Composers Series,” 1984–86, saw the Residents covering two songwriters, one on each LP side; 1984’s George and James pairs George Gershwin and James Brown and I cannot recommend it enough). God’s repeating trombone motif comes from “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love),” a 1964 song written by Don Smith and Cyril Vetter and most famously recorded, two years later, by the Swingin’ Medallions. The Residents’ first version of the tune appears on their parodic third record, Third Reich and Roll (1976), which consists entirely of near-indecipherable covers of popular ’60s rock songs. Here, “Double Shot” functions as a musical theme as well as a punning reference to the twins’ duality.

Under the care of director Travis Chamberlain, God in Three Persons blossomed into a fully realized stage show at MoMA, its design largely dependent on the projection of digital video made in collaboration with media artist John Sanborn. A keyboard player, drummer, and guitarist, all in werewolf masks, and Amat, on synth, provided instrumental accompaniment from offstage. As on the record, the opera opened with Amat, whose alien, high-pitched voice sung the piece’s credits over thumping drums and the familiar “Double Shot” melody. She serves as the story’s Greek chorus and introduced performance as “an examination of trust.” Mr. X, clad in a black three-piece suit, polka dot tie, Wayfarers, and the rubber face of a bald old man, entered from behind the audience, spotlighted in red. Throughout the show, he was shadowed by his silent double, a small, lean, flexible person in a matching disguise who danced manically around and behind him as if his physicality had unjoined from his voice. Like the twins, Mr. X is simultaneously one person and two people. In lieu of a set, an eerie video backdrop came together with other layers of projection—at various points, his dancing double held up a white circle, pulled down scrims, or draped a sheet over themselves on which heavy symbolism (a bifurcated heart, a large X, an expressionistic drawing of our narrator’s mangled visage) appeared.

In Ravenesque fashion, Mr. X narrates from the trauma’s aftermath; both texts are forms of paraclausithyron, an ancient Greek elegy in which a lover pines for the unattainable object of his or her or their affection. His gravelly voice and pointed, shout-speak delivery, which came across as far more emphatic here than in his relatively affectless 1988 recording, turned up the Residents’ usual creep factor to eleven. Mr. X candidly shares his vacillating feelings toward his charges, which flicker between the passions and machinations of his younger self and the more measured reflections offered by hindsight. The record’s second track describes Mr. X’s first encounter with the twins, during which he proposes to “guide [their] efforts to succeed.” In response they hug him “somehow hard and tenderly,” an introduction to their embodied contradiction. The pair, he will come to find, is both male and female, neither male nor female, naïve and experienced, controlling and controlled, pure and impure. In “Devotion,” contrary to his profiteering wishes, the twins insist on healing those in serious need for no cost, leading our narrator to admit, “perhaps we should have parted then.” In the moment, however, their conflict with Mr. X only inspires him to dig his claws in deeper: “I must become important to them / Intertwined with roots into them / Or else I’d lose my false and newfound pride.” As his lust for the “female” twin grows and the narrative progresses (“Usually there was a he one / And there also was a she one / But somehow they came out differently / And one of them, when she was she / Would smile and burn a hole in me / A hole that was too hard for me to hide”), we learn, in passing, that Mr. X is a widower. While Amat repeatedly wheedled that “he really loved them,” the faces of the trio began to meld together onscreen.

The Residents performing God in Three Persons at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, January, 2020.

Various attempts on the part of Mr. X to mount or otherwise dominate the more feminine twin are foiled by the sibling; he grows frustrated by his lack of control. Then, as he demands they remove their clothes, an avalanche of unwanted revelations: The twins, laughing and now clad in black, speak in unison: “We can’t believe that you’re so dumb / To think we needed anyone / To show us what we’ve known about for years.” Mr. X, “so certain that [he] was the thief / That took away their purity,” becomes ever more enraged and emasculated as they reach the denouement. The twins’ question—“Don’t you see / there is no she now?”—is his final humiliation, setting off a brutal scene of rape, separation, screams, CGI blood, frenetic staccato synthesizers, and flashing lights.

After a moment of silence and darkness, Mr. X appeared on stage and was helped into a wheelchair by his dancing twin for the final, backwards-looking number, “Pain and Pleasure,” a meditation on its titular forces: “For pain and pleasure are the twins / That, slightly out of focus spin / Around us till we finally understand / That everything that gives us pleasure / Also gives us pain to measure / It by.” The twins, who now share a “bond made of leather,” visit the old man and reminisce; it is strongly implied that they have found a career in BDSM.

It’s an ambiguous finale, to be sure, to a mortality tale that seems simultaneously regressive, or at least old-fashioned, in its centering of the male experience, and progressive in its representation of alternate desires and bodies. In the end, loneliness, that which transmogrifies the narrator of “The Raven” into stone, emerges as the central concern of God in Three Persons. Holy Trinities and conjoined twinships break down; we are “each inside an island all alone;” there is no balm in Gilead; every love story, perhaps every story ever told, is a paraclausithyron. “Pain and Pleasure” makes it clear that Mr. X’s enlightenment is not moral, but existential. Upon the sight of the wheelchair-bound narrator, my mind flashed to the similarly decrepit, walker-assisted Harvey Weinstein, currently on trial in the city for his own sexual atrocities, and I hoped that the story would end differently this time.

The Residents performed God in Three Persons live for the first time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on January 25 and January 26, 2020.