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Living in the Past: On the Road with Jethro Tull
Ian Anderson is sitting in the corner of a too-bright coffeeshop in Melbourne, Fla., the morning after a concert. From nowhere, a slightly dissheveled middle-aged woman approaches him.
"I just wanted to tell you I saw you at Woodstock," she tells Jethro Tull’s 55-year-old pointman, who does a doubletake then smiles politely.
"Actually, we didn’t play Woodstock," Anderson explains.
"Oh yes," says the woman, knowingly. "Jethro was there."
Anderson is used to comments like this. "How were we, then?" he asks, poker-faced.
He listens attentively as the woman goes off on a tangent about Woodstock – she was seven years old, and Janis Joplin held her hand. Anderson smiles and nods while she talks.
Satisfied, she shuffles off, and Anderson chuckles. "Oh well," he sighs. "It’s easier to say ‘Yeah, hi, it’s me.’ It’s pointless to actually try to explain. People don’t really hear the explanation."
The encounter – just a few days into the 10-date Florida stretch of Tull’s 2002 American tour - illustrates a few of the most common misconceptions about this veteran British band. Although Ian Anderson writes and sings all the songs, is the very visible frontman and is probably the most famous flute player in rock ‘n’ roll – just try and think of another one – there is, and has never been, anyone in the band named Jethro. Anderson took the title back in 1968 – Jethro Tull was an 18th century agriculturalist – and has regretted it ever since. He calls it "the dreaded J-word."
Tull wasn’t yet big enough to play Woodstock in 1969, although within a year or two they would be selling out stadiums.
These days, many people probably think the band that made Aqualung and Thick as a Brick is broken up, its members either dead or waiting tables back home.
But Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull have endured. "Other than a year in ’84 when I really wrecked my voice, badly, I’ve never felt the urge to take a leave of absence," Anderson says. It’s been 34 years so far.
The faithful are still out there - most of the shows on this theater tour have been sellouts. This despite the fact that Tull’s back catalog outsells each new release with punishing regularity.
Anderson is circumspect on the subject. "You always know that the rise to success is inevitably accompanied by departure from that lofty status," he says. "And the faster you go up, the faster you come down. It’s probably important to remember Jethro Tull didn’t exactly struggle, but we had a fairly gentle and happily graduated rise to prominence.
"By the time we were at Madison Square Garden, we’d been kicking around for four years. We were hardly the new boys anymore."
It wasn’t until the band’s fourth album, 1971’s Aqualung, that Jethro Tull – the band, the flute player and the long-dead agriculturalist - became a household name in the States.
"It was a very gradual thing," Anderson explains. "Just as it’s been gradual to slide back down again at the other end in middle age. You find the decline is inevitable for pretty much whoever you are …you don’t tend to just fall off the cliff."
The Scots-born Anderson moved to Blackpool, England at the age of 12, and fell under the spell of American blues in the early-to-mid ‘60s. He was lead singer in an erstwhile blues/R&B group that made the pilgrimage south to London in ’67; most of the band went home, broke and starving, but Anderson decided to stay and tough it out.
Along with guitarist Mick Abrahams, bassist Glenn Cornick and drummer Clive Bunker, Anderson formed Jethro Tull in the waning days of ’67.
Hard to believe it now, but Anderson’s dilemma at the time was what to do onstage; he wanted to add something to the group’s sound, but knew he wasn’t much of an electric guitarist.
One day he wandered into a London music shop. "I’m standing there with a 1960s Fender Strat in my hand, looking to swap it in, and I looked around – there was a violin, and a cello and other things in this music store – and a flute hanging on the wall…" he recalls.
"I got Shure Unidyne 3 microphone and a Selmo Gold Seal flute in exchange for my 1960s Fender Strat, which is probably worth $25,000 now."
Although Anderson would eventually adapt jazzman Roland Kirk’s unique fluttery, singing-through-the-flute style, he admits his inspiration initially came from somewhere entirely different.
"My first flute lesson was from listening to Eric Clapton, when he was with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers," Anderson says. "And sitting in my bedroom, as I guess countless people have done then and through the years, running Eric Clapton at half-speed trying to learn the guitar solos."
But Anderson quickly outgrew the blues – his interest in jazz, folk and the odd harmonics of what would later be called world music, combined with his steely ambition, would drive a wedge between him and erstwhile co-leader Mick Abrahams.
Shortly after the release of This Was in ’68, Abrahams left to form Blodwyn Pig.
"Mick wasn’t happy with the stuff I was writing," Anderson says. "It was outside his comfort zone of playing. But equally, I didn’t want to just do 12-bar blues covers for the rest of my life. Because I wasn’t American, I wasn’t black, and I knew that what they were singing about was a different set of values coming from a different place. So to imitate it, to assume some authority to sing these words and not to be black, just felt to me somehow not very natural."
Anderson claims he called the album "This Was Jethro Tull because it was apparent to me that the next album, if I had anything to do with it, wasn’t gonna sound the way the first album did."
Released in August 1969, Stand Up made No. 1 in the U.K. The album was nearly a 180-degree turn from its predecessor, with unlikely shifts in tempo, wickedly incisive lyrics, and acoustic guitar flourishes in the least expected places. Most of all, Anderson’s gift for odd melody and dark harmony was rapidly developing. Stand Up and its followup, Benefit, didn’t sound like anything else on the English pop charts.
Guitarist Martin Barre replaced Abrahams for Stand Up, and he’s been at Anderson’s side ever since. Barre recalls botching his audition, but Anderson heard something in his playing – more free-form and less reliant on recycled blues riffs – that opened the door for him.
"Martin and I, we’re complementary I suppose because we’re very different people," Anderson says. "I think we value each other’s contribution without it being competitive. I don’t threaten his world because I’m not an electric guitar player – we have our different strengths and we’re not competing with each other in any way for musical attention."
To date, more than 25 musicians have played with Ian and Martin. They’ve left to get married, to form new bands, for solo careers or because Ian, frankly, got fed up and fired them.
"They all own a tiny piece of Jethro Tull," Anderson explains. "It’s their family, it’s their territory. Past and present members. They are a piece of Jethro Tull.
"But by the same token, I’m not gonna be too coy about it and say ‘Well, I’m just another member of the band.’ When we get onstage, I am a member of the band.
"But I do a whole lot more than the other guys do for the other 22 hours in the day. That’s not because I’m trying to steal the thunder or whatever, it’s just that I’m probably better equipped to deal with it, and to do it. The oil rises and floats on top of the water – you can mix it up again, but it’ll come back up. That’s the way it is with me."
On the road, Anderson is up and working by 7 or 8 every morning; if there isn’t a live radio interview, he’s talking to the press in Europe, where it’s already mid-afternoon. There’s a consistent flow of business to be taken care of with various members of his staff back in England – when he’s not talking Tull, it’s salmon (the Ian Anderson Companies own the largest salmon-farming concern in Scotland), or hot peppers (he raises and relishes them) or small exotic cats (he keeps many and is a conservation advocate for many more).
Anderson is also a U.K. spokesman for the early diagnosis of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a potentially crippling condition from which he suffers. Its successful treatment has allowed him to maintain his famous one-legged onstage stance, although he strikes the pose quite a bit less now than in the glory days.
For the last few years, Anderson has also stopped shaking hands with people – promoters, fans, anyone who extends their appendage. Instead, he offers his elbow and invites the person to rub his.
He knows it puts people off and only reinforces their idea of him as an arrogant rock star. For the record, here’s the deal: Anderson injured his wrist four or five tours ago, whilst jumping off a stage during soundcheck.
"It was worrying because when you’re a flute player or a guitar player, you don’t want problems," he says. "So it’s a precaution. I go through weeks of shaking hands with people and it’s not a problem. And then I get the guy – and sometimes the girl – who just does the bone-crusher. And this weakness is just so easily aggrevated."
He’s mounting a short solo tour in the fall, and it already has a title: "Rubbing Elbows With Ian Anderson."
TALLAHASSEE – An hour before showtime, Martin Barre is reflecting on life in Jethro Tull, 2002. "We don’t make huge amounts of money, but we make a good living," says the affable guitarist. "But it’s a very easygoing lifestyle; there’s no bullshit. There’s a lot of private time."
Barre, who’s made two solo albums, says Tull – although it’s Anderson’s baby - is his own top priority. "I don’t think I work for Ian," he explains. "I don’t think anybody works for anybody. We have too much independence.
"There’s a basic understanding that when there’s Tull touring, we’re on the phone, and that sort of machinery goes into play.
"And in between, if I want to go on a holiday I’ll let Ian know, just so he knows. And if he gets a call for a gig in Buenos Aires, he knows he can’t do it."
As any recording act, vintage or otherwise, will tell you, the money’s in doing live shows. So Tull remains Tull by keeping the stage act fresh and exciting, as well as happily nostalgic. "The commitment to playing with Jethro Tull isn’t largely a financial one," Barre says. "I would think that comes last.
"I like doing it, and I’d hate anybody else to do it, for sure, because it’s my gig. And I’d be seriously pissed off if somebody else ended up doing it. It’s been my gig for 34 years, and I’ve made the guitarist gig in Jethro Tull what it is. That’s me."
The band’s breakthough and still best-selling album Aqualung was propelled by Anderson’s alternately funny, nasty, self-deprecating and very English songs about charlatains, sluts, old letchers and the hairy state of organized religion in Great Britain.
"It’s nice to be sharp," Anderson believes. "It’s nice to be sometimes a little cutting, but you have to be careful not to actually offend individuals. It’s kind of OK to criticize generically, but not when it hones in on what people feel is a very personal thing.
"Which is why I never write songs about people I know. They’re always more about the stereotype rather than specific individuals."
With Aqualung, Jethro Tull became an outstanding, integrated band, capable of stitching together very hard rock and acoustic textures without allowing the seams to show.
The band only got better as time went on. For Thick As a Brick (1972), Anderson and Barre were joined by Ian’s old mates from Blackpool Jeffrey Hammond (bass), Barrie Barlow (drums) and John Evans (piano).
Excess being the order of the day, they all took English rock star names: Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, Barriemore Barlow and John Evan.
Did someone say excess? Anderson: "Bearing in mind that a lot of people thought Aqualung was a concept album - and I’ve always said it was just a bunch of songs - with this echo of ‘concept’ album ringing in my ears from the year before I thought ‘OK, we’ll give them the mother of all concept albums.’
"And we came up, in that slightly surrealistic English humor, in that Monty Pythonesque sort of humor, we did the album that was the spoof, the satire, the sendup of concept albums. To the point of pretending it had all been written by a 12-year-old boy and all the rest of it."
Thick as a Brick was one solid 40-minute piece of music spread out over both sides of an LP. Dark, inscrutible and counter-commercial even by Tull standards, it nevertheless became the band’s first No. 1 in America.
"I was surprised that they embraced it, having taken it perhaps more literally or more seriously than it was intended," points out Anderson. "I guess I erred on the side of not being obvious enough in the case of the American audience. Because too many people took it seriously, didn’t get the humor or the silliness of it."
Hailed in the world press as the next great rock ‘n’ roll visionary, Anderson took the band across the universe, with audiences from Jersey to Japan politely applauding the unwieldy Brick, played onstage in its opaque entirety. And going nuts for the songs from Aqualung.
"We should have got off that particular merry-go-round at that point, but there was a tendency and a certain expectation and pressure that I felt – that I shouldn’t have felt – that we now had to follow it up with a similar, conceptual piece," Anderson explains. "And this time it better be serious, and it better be artistically credible."
On the strength of its predecessor, A Passion Play spent a week at the top of the American charts. But it never – never – got played on the radio.
The critics hated the concept, the music, the lyrics. They hated the album cover and its libretto, which parodied provincial British theater. Almost overnight, Anderson and company became the poster boys for what the press decided was prententious, needlessly complex rock music. They would never recover.
Today, Anderson is frank about A Passion Play. "It was a real stinker," he admits.
The Passion Play tour – which began with nothing more than an electronic pulse and a point of light, growing steadily over the course of 20 minutes - was nobody’s favorite. "It was a nightmare to try and remember it," Barre recalls. "Everybody gets up their own ass from time to time. As a group, we did during that."
Still, Tull was a live act with virtually no peer. This was Anderson’s moment to shine. He’d traded in the grubby overcoats and jackboots of the early days for purple tights and a codpiece. He delighted in playing the demented one-legged Pan, deftly blowing and humming through the flute while popping his eyes, grinning maniacally and flinging himself towards Hammond-Hammond – dressed head to toe in zebra stripes – or at Evan, who enjoyed wearing rabbit suits onstage.
In the summer of 1976, Jethro Tull became one of the first pop groups since the Beatles to play New York’s famed Shea Stadium. They sold it out.
"If you want the sort of cruel reminders of just how fragile these things are," Anderson says, "as we were waiting to walk onstage, we were standing in this strange entranceway with vertical walls that went up 60, 70 feet, that contained the audience. Suddenly something wet, and not very nice, was running down my face, from my head. Somebody had pissed in a jar or something, and then poured it over me. And that was it – suddenly it was, ‘You’re on!’ And I had to walk onstage that night with some other man’s urine running down my head.
He laughs at the recollection – "Well, I assume it was a man" – and begins to tick off the things he’s been hit with: A baseball in the adam’s apple, a thorned rose in the eye.
And then there’s this one: "I was playing acoustic guitar and something hit me in the chest. But it was soft, and I didn’t pay too much attention. I felt something sort of sliding down inside my shirt. I couldn’t see it, but it was sticky, and warm and wet.
"It was a tampon. I was singing ‘Thick As a Brick’ or whatever, and I remember that I managed to look down, it was blood and awful, you know? The first thought that went through my head was ‘What an extraordinary thing … this must have been plucked from between this woman’s legs during the concert …’
"That’s the weird thing to me. Either this was a demonstration of some undying sense of love and intimacy, or it was the worst thing someone could possibly do. Either way, this had been freshly removed. That’s the bit that gets me."
Barre says the members of Tull were very serious about their music, even in the days of codpieces, string quartets and roadies in polar bear suits. "We looked down on (stardom) with a bit of disdain. Because we didn’t want to be the rockers with the flowing hair and the tight trousers, and the drugs and the women. God, we tried.
"We weren’t like that. And all the other bands that we met, God, you wanted to stick your finger down your throat. They were repulsive people."
He remembers Shea Stadium well. "We all brushed it off, played it down: ‘Aw, it’s just another gig.’ Of course, it wasn’t — it was the most amazing thing you could do in your life. And there should have been champagne, big party after the gig.
"We should have pumped it up for ourselves more than we did, but we were back in the car, back to the hotel, sandwich from the deli, TV …. But maybe that was good, you know? Maybe that made us survive it."
Tull finished out the ‘70s with a few more good albums – including Minstrel in the Gallery and Songs From the Wood – and emerged from ‘80s with a Grammy Award (in the heavy metal category!) for Crest of a Knave. And The Broadsword and the Beast was a huge seller in Europe.
In the ‘90s, there were box sets and multi-disc retrospectives, a switch in labels (to Fuel 2000) and a lot of salmon up the slipstream.
The entire radio station staff, it seems – about 20 people – had crowded into the studio to watch and listen. And so, after a few photos, autographs and rubbing of elbows, he climbs into the back of a stretch limousine for the ride back his hotel on Clearwater Beach.
Goldmine: A lot of people have come and gone in Jethro Tull over the years. Are you a hard taskmaster?
"As hard taskmasters will say, yes, but I’m harder on myself than everybody else," Anderson reflects. "I think you have to be prepared to be pretty ruthless with your own performance, to be self-critical. But sure, you’ve got to apply some kind of rules. And some people do that for themselves, some don’t.
"It’s the same in the band now. There’s one guy who needs pushing a lot. Otherwise he just doesn’t do his homework. And Martin, for instance, if I send out some notes for new arrangements a few months before a tour, when he shows up he’s got it all down. He’s learned it. He’s done the homework."
The current lineup includes drummer Doane Perry, an American who joined the band in time for the 1984 Under Wraps album; keyboard player Andrew Giddings (1991’s Catfish Rising) and relative new guy Jonathan Noyce on bass.
Talk inevitably turns, again, to the subject of living in the past. Despite putting out an album a year, more or less, for 30-odd years, the band hasn’t made a ripple with the critics or on the charts in ages.
"The Rolling Stones don’t sell that many records; Mick Jagger doesn’t sell any," Anderson says. "The world is a different place in terms of the way the economics and the music industry are related. So you work a lot harder for the same dollar, that’s for sure.
"Sixty thousand people in New York is beyond us. We’re not gonna play to that many people. But we’ll play to 8,000 people at Jones Beach, and collectively around that New York/New Jersey area we’ll play to 20,000 people somewhere.
"So it would be reasonable to say, yes, our popularity in real terms has probably declined to something like 25, 30 percent of what it was, in numerical terms. But everybody has their peak, where you’re the flavor of the month or the flavor of the year. Jethro Tull circa ‘72-73 was a very big band, but not necessarily for the right reasons.
"I’ve always had the preference to playing theaters to 2,500 or 3,000 people. That’s really always been there, since we got out of the clubs. I was really happy to leave clubs behind, but I love playing the theaters."
The irony here is that some of Tull’s stuff from the last decade is as musically envigorating as their famous material. Anderson realizes that his critics are comparing him with an earlier version of himself.
"If somebody’s winge-ing on about the fact that I don’t have any hair … age-ism and hair-ism are two favorite topics," he explains. "As if somehow you shouldn’t be on the stage if you don’t have proper hair any more. There’s nothing I can do about that one!
"I think we’ve always been pretty fair game. We were then, and we still are now. I don’t think we get as many bad reviews as we used to, but then I don’t think we get as many reviews as we used to."
His third solo album, 2000’s The Secret Language of Birds, contained some of the most sublime acoustic music Anderson’s ever made. Every Tull album – from Stand Up to Stormwatch – included one or two delicate acoustic songs, far removed from the hard rock or the complexities of the long songs with long titles.
These are gems, found happenstance by the listener as he navigates the albums. "I’m not a great guitar player," Anderson shrugs, "but I have a certain idiosynchratic style that’s fun to do."
Secret Language – which, of course, was not a big seller – represented all the acoustic tunes Anderson had stockpiled for a few years.
"I get those days when I’m in the studio, and maybe the other guys haven’t come in yet, or it’s their lunch break, and you go in and do some quick little acoustic thing," he says. "And those songs were present on Jethro Tull records for quite a while, those ones that I just did sort of on my own.
"I stopped doing that, because there was a sense of ‘We’re left out of this one.’ I always remember Barrie Barlow saying ‘I want to play tamborine on that,’ and I said ‘I don’t really want tamborine on that, Barrie.’ And he said ‘Well, in that case, if I’m not on it, then I still want paying for it.’
"I said that forcing yourself on the record just to get paid just doesn’t seem like a good idea – equally, to be paid for something you’re not on is a bit strange. So there was a degree of bad feeling, and understandable though it was, it was easier for me to stop doing that stuff. So by the end of the ‘70s, I wasn’t doing that kind of stuff within Jethro Tull anymore."
Before this tour began, Anderson busied himself with the preparation of Living With the Past, Tull's first DVD and its accompanying album. It's a live collection, recorded last Christmas, with a set list nearly identical to the current shows.
Living With the Past, its title a tongue-in-cheek reference to the band’s well-loved Living in the Past compilation album, also includes several newly-recorded versions of acoustic Tull classics, plus a one-off reunion of the original band — Anderson, Abrahams, Bunker and Cornick.
As master of the Tull domain, Anderson is also responsible for the fairly constant flow of reissues, best-ofs and sonic improvements. He loves making the old albums sound better with each new technological advance.
"I'm not an analog freak," he says. "I'm not one of those
people who say 'I only listen to music on my old vinyl pressings.' I
mean, the vinyl pressings sound absolutely crap. Turntable rumble, phasing
problems ... I mean, the difficulty of actually getting stuff onto the
vinyl was a pig.
In the old days, quality control often meant leaving certain songs out of your running order. "You could only stick eight or 10 tracks on a vinyl record," Anderson says. "Basically, 20 minutes a side was it. You could get 23, 24 minutes a side, but only at the penalty of even further reducing the overall signal level on vinyl, and by reducing the band width. So the compromises were unacceptable.
"Which meant that there were lots of songs recorded that never made it onto the records because of time constraints. They were either B-sides, or released on things like the Living in the Past album later on."
Some of the earliest Tull master tapes, Anderson says, had to undergo the risky "baking" process to re-adhere the oxide to the actual vinyl tape. "Once it's safely in digital-land, you can play around with the signal," he explains. "Then you put the tapes back in their box and hope you don't ever have to get them out again.
"Which is a sincere hope on my part, because these things have been with me through three house moves. I have about a metric ton and a half of tapes, with a specially reinforced floor to actually hold them all."
Suddenly, Anderson lays down his flute, jumps off the stage (taking care with that tender wrist) and begins stalking from one side of the theater to the other, sticking his head into the speaker stacks, listening from every corner of the room as the band plows on.
After a few angry words with his soundman – "All these rooms sound the fucking same!" – he sits for a moment to explain his behavior. The room-check is a part of his daily ritual.
"That’s an important part of what I do," he says. "Especially the front fills, because the people sitting near the front of the stage often get the worst sound in the building. Because the PA’s flying out over their heads and they don’t hear a thing. They just hear the echo from behind them. I take it as a personal responsibility to make sure that it’s as right as it can be."
Anderson’s constant companion on this and every tour is his second wife, the former Shona Learoyd, whom he married in 1976.
Once an employee of Chrysalis, Tull’s longtime record label, Shona joined the Tull organization as a runner and became one of Ian’s onstage "flute handlers" during the War Child tour.
She helps her husband run the Tull machine. She is also co-director of their salmon-farming business (the Andersons recently bought out one of their closest competitors) and, she says with a roll of the eyes, she cleans up after the cats. They have two grown sons – the eldest, Gael, wants to go into the music business (much to his parents’ dismay). Because drummer Doane Perry lives in Los Angeles, Gael subbed for him during rehearsals for this tour at the Andersons’ British estate.
Anderson’s pre-concert rituals haven’t changed in years. He does not eat past lunchtime, and about 90 minutes before every show he goes quietly into the dressing room and won’t speak to anyone but Shona.
"The few words that for me describe the different emotions onstage are anticipation, focus and concentration," he explains. "It’s really important that you have your mind cleared out of extraneous thoughts, and when you go onstage you’re really tighly focused on the pace of things. You really have to have the right metabolic physicality about you, because if you’re too hyped up, you play things too fast. You try and standardize the way you feel just before you go onstage."
By and large, every show on the tour is the same. "If we’re playing these sort of theaters," Anderson explains, motioning, "we’ll tend to stick with a slightly more esoteric set. If however we find ourselves at a festival, then we’ll play a few more obvious tunes."
Anderson knows the diehard fans want to hear the obscure songs, but he realizes he’s got to fulfill a lot of people’s fantasy of what a Jethro Tull concert is supposed to be. "You know you’re always going to have someone in the back, after a couple of beers, going ‘Aqualung!’ ‘Locomotive Breath’ or whatever it is," he says. "And it doesn’t matter that you’re standing there with an acoustic guitar in your hands, they expect somehow in their imagination, in their dreams, the whole thing’s gonna light up, smoke machines are gonna go off, and cannons."
A highlight of the new show is "The Water Carrier," a Secret Language song with a mideastern flavor.
"I would risk that at a festival," Anderson chuckles. "We
played it at a couple of biker festivals last year and got away with
it. There was a temptation midway through to segue into ‘Born to
Be Wild,’ but I resisted it, and we stuck to our guns. Happily
the Hell’s Angels stuck to theirs."
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