Thursday, October 20, 2011

Jethro Tull

Do you, or does anyone, have any idea what these lyrics mean?

"Happy and I'm smiling, walk a mile to drink your water/
You know I'd love to love you, and above you there's no other/
We'll go walking out while others shout of war's disaster/
Oh, we won't give in, let's go living in the past."

"Once I used to join in every boy and girl was my friend/
Now there's revolution, but they don't know what they're fighting/
Let us close out eyes, outside their lives go on much faster/
Oh, we won't give in, we'll keep living in the past."

To this day, I'm not sure what this song, "Living in the Past," by Jethro Tull means. A quick guess would have me say that it's a nostalgic look at a relationship challenged by modernity and complex times, or the need of a couple to hang on to their innocence in the wake of war and revolution. Or maybe it doesn't mean anything at all. Maybe the lyrics just sounded good and they were written for their sonic value. Whatever the case . . .

Thirty-seven years after I first heard this song drift out of the speakers of my transistor radio in the late (or early) hours of some Saturday night (or Sunday morning) in 1972, "Living in the Past" remains one of the Big Three songs I heard right in a row that forever changed the way I listened to rock music. At 10 or 11 years old, I was still finding my own music. I had, of course, been listening to the Beatles since I had come out of the womb thanks (naturally) to my mother and my ultra-cool teenage neighbor, Marcy Pitt. Motown records also provided an almost constant background, depending on which AM radio station our car could pick up and what the teenage and college black guys who worked in the neighborhood where my dad had his store were listening to on their portable radios. My friends with older brothers and sisters occasionally put on a Hendrix or Steppenwolf album, and that was certainly a jarring alternative to "Sgt. Peppers" and "Abbey Road." At that age, though, I could not claim that I had "discovered" a band yet.

One night changed that. Right in a row, I heard "Do It Again," by Steely Dan, "Long Distance Runaround," by Yes, and "Living in the Past," by Jethro Tull. The next day, I went to the Woolworth's dime store and bought all three singles, a terribly uncool thing to do, since "real" music geeks only bought albums. Not that I cared, at that age, although I did, whether I had been accepted into the neighborhood club of music geekdom -- that would come soon enough, when the Gregg Ivers seal-of-approval was required to buy any new Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and, yes, Jethro Tull album. The song's melody, led by Ian Anderson's flute playing, was hypnotic. Underpinning the entire tune was an incredible bouncing bass line supported by a rhythmically supple drum pattern. Anderson's vocals were hardly in the tradition of any other singer. He sounded like he was snarling at you while he was singing and, at the same time, fighting off a bad head cold. Only Donald Fagen of Steely Dan had a voice that came close to Anderson's in its nasal distinctiveness (both voices stood could not have been more different than Jon Anderson's of Yes, whose contra-tenor choirboy vocals soared above that band's majestic, orchestral music). Yet, in this song, the notes he is singing follow the bass line, not the chord progression of the guitar, a very unusual choice in rock music (and something more or less invented by Paul McCartney. Just listen to "All My Loving" and you'll hear what I mean).

After "Living in the Past" came "Aqualung," the first album in what would become Tull's classic period. Anderson's lyrics -- he was not, as many people commonly believed, actually named Jethro Tull, who was a famous 17th and 18th century English agriculturalist -- were strange and often off-color. How many bands have as the opening verse in their most famous song lyrics like these:

"Sitting on a park bench, eyeing little girls with bad intent . . ."


"Snot is running down his nose, greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes . . ."

But that was Ian Anderson, never on the inside of much of anything! In the true tradition of the 70s British progressive bands, Tull produced an album, "Thick as a Brick," that was a two-sided opus of one song! Long before Spinal Tap produced "Smell the Glove," Jethro Tull gave us "Thick as a Brick," and "A Passion Play," another one-song "concept" album over two sides. Yes, it was pretentious as hell. But compared to so much other of the three-chord crotch rock of the day, it was a marvelously creative and very welcome alternative. And just as fans and critics felt that Tull had disappeared down a drain of ponderousness too incomprehensible for music nerds like me, the band produced the folk-driven, almost pastoral, "Songs From the Wood," the last, in my opinion, great Tull album.

Over the years, too many great musicians to name here have wandered in and out of Jethro Tull, which is still alive and, from what I understand, well enough to tour. The only other musician to remain with Anderson over the years has been Martin Barre, the brilliant guitarist whose guitar break at the end of "Aqualung," is one of the most frequently committed-to-memory air guitar solos of the last 40 years.

I don't listen to Tull that much anymore. When I do, though, the clever lyrics and completely original instrumentation remains without imitation. C'mon . . . when you can make a flute, a lute and an accordion a staple of rock music, sing songs about Mother Goose, jock straps, hurricanes, stupid English school boys, shire horses and, well before Sting, untrustworthy school teachers, you've earned your place in popular music history.

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