04 April 2006


Before coming to Germany, I was unemployed in Britain for a couple of years. Wasn’t much fun, but one event seems to encapsulate it fairly well…

I stayed around in Lampeter (where I went to uni) for a couple of years, applying for jobs in cheese factories, that sort of thing. I had no money, but had decided that I could buy one second-hand CD from Hag’s Records every two weeks; I didn’t smoke, hardly drank, and still that was all I could afford. But Hag had a deal where you could make a one-time payment up front, then rent a couple of CDs at a time for £1 each; if you then decided to buy them, the CDs would be £1 cheaper than the cover price. Very fair, and a godsend for a music nut like me in a time of unemployment.

(Great man, Hag, an ex-student, and stood for election as the local Labour candidate in the 1998 election when Tony Blair came to power and Labour put an end to 17 years of the Tories… He didn’t get elected, ‘cos Lampeter was in the Plaid Cymru heartland—that’s the Welsh national party—but came a good second.)

On the occasion I want to talk about, I borrowed Mark of the Mole by The Residents, a special edition of the CD which included Intermission—music played during the intermission of the tour they did at the time—and sleeve notes explaining how you should programme the CD if you wanted to listen to the two mixed together as they were meant to be. This was the first Residents album I’d heard, and I was perhaps more than a little influenced by the middle-aged assistant in Hag’s Records, whose view was that the Residents were, well, “Weird but not wonderful.”

He—I think his name was Bob—or Dave?—was a big Can fan. Another remark of his was that he only regretted selling the records he had of two artists—Can and Captain Beefheart. I now have everything Can ever recorded, although I’ve yet to catch up on the Captain. Another great comment of his was on Björk, something like, “Her name is like the sound I want to make when I hear her music.” Beautifully opinionated, which no doubt appealed to me, even if I didn’t always agree—soon after that Björk released Homogenic and I was hooked; and he hated Jethro Tull (“Why would I want to listen to a multi-millionaire who dresses like a beggar and jumps around on one leg?”), who are undoubtedly the band who have endured most throughout my constantly-changing record collection. On one occasion I think I got the better of him—Hag had just got in a special edition of Tabula Rasa by Einstürzende Neubauten, with two bonus eps and an interview disc. Being inclined to check out anything German at the time, I borrowed the CD, loved it, and went back to Hag’s to buy the thing. Hag reckoned it was probably just the price of a double-album, and gave it me for about £14. You could have picked the assistant’s jaw up off the floor. He thought it should have been three times that price as a limited special edition, and that I’d just got the deal of the year. I was chuffed. Anyway, back to the story.)

Weird the album was, but there were definitely some moments of wonder. At the time I thought most of the best moments were in the somewhat lighter Intermission part—it was my first Resident's album, you know?—I was on the cusp of my musical tastes turning a little odd (Can, Faust, Neubauten, Residents) but wasn’t quite there yet. And I listened to this album over and over, and it started to grow on me, but, somehow, not enough. I loved parts, but didn't ‘get’ others. And I decided that, on my one £7-CD a fortnight budget, this wasn't the one. I did what I now consider sacrilege, and made a taped copy, abusing of the fairness of Hag’s rental deal. And worse, I edited the almost 70-minute CD down to fit onto a 45-minute cassette, removing the parts I didn't ‘get'. Took the CD back, and borrowed something else, I don’t remember what. And this truncated corruption followed me to Germany when I got a job teaching English in the university of Jena.

In July 1999, The Residents performed in the Kulturarena in Jena, and I went to see the concert with Frank, an ex-student of mine. Though not a ‘fan’ at that point, I was amazed that in our city of 100,000 people in the old East Germany, we would get a band like that to perform, and there was never any question about seeing them live. They were touring Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible, and it was quite simply the most incredible concert I had ever seen. It still is—the next time I saw anything in the same league was Trey Gunn's guitar playing at the KTU concert in 2005, again Kulturarena. It was more like performance art than rock concert. By the end there was nothing more that the initially bewildered audience could do than to stand up and applaud. Both Frank and I came away fans. And I went home and dug out that cassette of Mark of the Mole, and a hunt began.

The 'horror' of what I had done—copying the CD, truncating it, and onto cassette of all things—finally began to hit home. I scanned the sales catalogue of EuroRalph, The Resident’s record company in Europe, but couldn’t find the CD I had heard not more than two years before. It was a special edition, and Mark of the Mole was normally released without Intermission. Intermission itself—a 20-minute CD—was released separately, and for almost the same price as the main album. That was no good! I wanted both—in one place, and in the right playing order! I had no computer at the time, and what is common now—ripping the CD in iTunes and making your own playlists—was unknown to me then. I could have bought both CDs and copied them onto a cassette (!) in the right order, but no. I wanted the CD I had once had in my hands, but had slipped through them, through the limitations which being unemployed impose, and through the greed of being able to copy and return. And I searched and searched and searched but could not find.

Fast forward seven years. A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing on Amazon and came across a new special edition of Mark of the Mole, beautifully packaged, including lyrics, and accompanied by Intermission on a separated CD. Purchase was instantaneous. Two CDs are now no problem in this age of the iPod. True, it wasn’t the actual CD I had quested after, but I could finally listen to the album in all its glory. And glorious it is too; an epic metaphor on the woes and prejudices of immigration, cast in an industrial mould with hints of folk and jazz. One of the finest CDs I have, without a doubt.

The title of this post is ‘Unemployment’, and to me finally managing to find Mark of the Mole has made me think about what that aspect of my life meant to me. That quest was the only lasting result. Before I came to Germany I sold off almost all my music and anything superfluous in order to scrape together enough money to survive the first few months. Now I’m surrounded by books, CDs and DVDs, and I’ve had a job for eight years. I may be bouncing along the bottom of my overdraft, but at least I know that if I don’t indulge and buy too many X-Files DVDs (oops! too late!) I can actually improve my financial standing. But that Residents CD somehow represents everything I associate with being unemployed; the limitation, the frustration, the misplaced opportunities, the bad choices. Everything good that happened seemed to come from outside: moving to Germany, teaching in the university. Listening to the album nine years after I last heard it is somehow like putting a full stop on a period of my life.

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