Another side of Snakefinger
Live at Melbourne' bootleg gets the royal treatment
Molly Harvey never got to know Philip Lithman, although both of their names are forever ingrained in the history of San Francisco's famously anonymous performance art oddballs the Residents. Lithman, aka Snakefinger, died of a heart attack on July 1, 1987, after playing a show in Linz, Austria. At the time of his death, Harvey was gearing up for her junior year in high school. Her tenure singing and performing with the Residents wouldn't begin for another six years. Still, she can't help but feel a connection with the London-born guitarist and Ralph Records alumni. "In some ways I've felt like we're related," Harvey says. "It hadn't been that long since he'd died when I met the Residents. He wasn't forgotten, and when he was spoken of there was a fond distance in the eyes."
In February, Harvey was approached by Vincent Presley, who runs the Madison, Wisconsin-based indie label Secret Records, to put together artwork for the first proper release of Snakefinger's Live in Melbourne University 1981.
Bootlegged copies of the show have been circulating on CD and cassette for nearly 35 years. The show can even be found on YouTube. But Presley's motives are to give this obscure missing piece from Snakefinger's history the respect it deserves by pressing it as a double LP. "Vinyl is the only thing that matters," Presley says. "It's the only thing that lasts forever. Tapes and CDs will rot away and digital files will become obsolete. I really like this show," he adds. "Honestly, I just wanted to have a copy for myself."
Live in Melbourne University 1981 captures Snakefinger with a full band tearing through an aggressive, post-punk-fueled set. The grumbling bass of opening number "Smelly Tongues" sets the stage for a whiplash performance. Other songs such as "Living in Vain," "Kill the Great Raven," and "The Man in the Dark Sedan" are both vicious and ominous — certainly more wired than their spacious album versions.
In true Residents form, the personnel behind Snakefinger's band for this show remains shrouded in mystery and speculation. According to the liner notes of one late-'80s bootleg release — a Residents' UWEB fan club CD — the lineup features Snakefinger (slide guitar and vocal duties), along with John Ryan (drums), George B. George (bass), and Carlos (guitar, vocals).
It's possible, though not confirmed, that "Carlos" is actually former Dead Kennedys' guitarist Carlos Cadona, who appears under the name 6025 on the Dead Kennedys' debut, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. "I found a YouTube video of another show from 1981 and people were commenting about how it was 6025," Presley says. "Then I talked to Jello Biafra and mentioned 6025. He referred to him as Carlos and it all came together. But that's the only info I could find. I wasn't able to track any of them down," Presley adds. "Hardy Fox of the Cryptic Corporation had some vague memories of past band members, but he wasn't sure if they were a part of this lineup. All online trails went cold."
Presley has been kicking around the idea of giving Live in Melbourne University 1981 a proper release since he met Lithman's daughter La-Ni in 2009, when his band Zebras recorded a cover of Snakefinger's "Trashing All the Loves of History."
Carl Saff, who has worked with countless acts, including Guided By Voices, D.F.A., and others, was hired to master the recording, giving it a more full-bodied sound — or at least make it sound better than its various bootlegged incarnations. "Most of these songs were co-written with the Residents so it took a little time talking to Hardy at Cryptic Corporation to make sure everyone was on the same page," Presley says.
To fund the project, on Feb. 19, Presley launched an IndieGoGo campaign to raise $4,000 by March 29, but the was goal was nearly doubled within a matter of days. The finished product will be a hand-numbered, three-sided LP pressed in a limited edition of 300 copies. The fourth side will feature a silk-screened image by Casey Howard who has worked with Mastodon, Slash, the Deftones, Avenged Sevenfold, and of course, the Residents.
The record is slated for a June 2015 release. In the meantime, Harvey has cranked out a few warm-up drawings, but she's still laboring over the details. "I don't usually draw people I admire, or do any portraits of specific people, because inevitably they start looking like someone else," she says. "This is actually a little daunting for me."