Sunday, February 21, 2016

Confessions of a Jethro Tull fan

Even less cool than Bob Seger and Steve Miller, Jethro Tull's music was still as crucial to my misspent yoof as, say, the 'orrible 'oo's. Granted, I wasn't a fan for long -- I got off the bus with Aqualung, when radio and local bar bands were playing "Hymn 43" and "Locomotive Breath" unto death -- but the songs Ian Anderson was writing on Stand Up and Benefit came closer than anything but Quadrophenia itself to elucidating what was on my teenage mind.

I first laid eyes on them on a TV special -- I'd say it was one of Leonard Bernstein's "Young People's Concerts," but I can find nothing to confirm this -- which I also featured the Nice and (I think) Santana. They played "Bouree," a jazzed-up steal from Bach, which Anderson essayed on flute while standing on one leg, his upraised foot swinging like a pendulum, dressed in a tramp's jumble-sale attire, long ratty hair hanging down, rolling his eyes in suitably demented fashion. I went right out and bought Benefit, their current album of the time, and it went right over my head.

I'd just had the top of said head blown off by Live at Leeds, and was investigating the first wave of Brit R&B (Stones, Animals, Kinks, Yardbirds), and the compositions on Benefit were just a little too complex for me to process, the guitar a little too heavy for ears that were still ringing from the sting of PT on Leeds. For Martin Lancelot Barre, who'd taken over the lead guitar chair from the more bluesy Mick Abrahams, had the same dark, dense midrange tone as Tony Iommi, who'd briefly held the slot before thinking better of it and returning to his hometown Brum band Earth (soon to morph into Black Sabbath). Among the other axe-slingers who auditioned were Dave "I was fired from both the Nice and Roxy Music!" O'List and Mick Taylor, who elected to stick with John Mayall until the Stones came calling.

On Benefit, Barre's beefy sound was balanced by the lightness of Anderson's flute and acoustic, and what eventually pulled me in was Anderson's songwriting, which juxtaposed heaviosity with English folk and pop elements. "With You There To Help Me" and "Inside" depicted a community of supportive friends that I hadn't yet experienced at 14; to my alienated teenage ears, they were adulthood porn in the same way as Simon and Garfunkel's "America" was. "For Michael Collins, Jeffery and Me," inspired by the Apollo 11 moon landing, has a lovely lyric, including what must be the only reference in a rock song to the Lunar Excursion Module. And "Son," a nasty blast of vitriol and spleen aimed at Anderson's industrialist father, reminded me of my own complicated relationship with my dad -- kind of like Cat Stevens' "Father and Son," but without making me cry.

"Back to the Family" on Stand Up -- the album that preceded Benefit, which featured a pop-up of the band in the gatefold of its Jimmy Grashow cover (same artist who did the covers for a couple of Yardbirds albums I had in the early '70s) -- was less vituperative, but more revealing of the privileged kid Anderson was. Tired of the demands of his independent life, he goes home to his folks', but everybody there gets under his skin, so soon he's back in the city, where it doesn't take long for him to get bent out of shape with aggro again. Very much like myself when I was young and had "getting out of here" as my life's organizing principle, before I wised up and realized that I took "here" with me everywhere I went.

The spoiled-kid bitchfest continued with "For A Thousand Mothers," albeit with an impressive instrumental backing by Barre and the estimable engine room of Glenn Cornick (whose headband and hollowbody Guild marked him as a Jack Casady disciple) and Clive Bunker (a maniac of the Baker-Mitchell school), both of whom were soon let go in favor of Anderson's Blackpool homeboys who'd played with him in a teenage soul band, the John Evan Smash. While transitional, the '69-'70 Tull was mighty. (For evidence, see the DVD of their Isle of Wight performance.)

I'll also admit to a fondness for the "Life Is A Long Song" EP, all five songs from which appear on the Living In the Past comp from '72. This was the first recorded outing for JT with all the Blackpool boys in place. The title song in particular is charming, and I used to sing it to my kids when they were small. But Anderson, miffed with the press for calling Aqualung a concept album, retaliated with a couple of album-length opuses (Thick As A Brick and Passion Play) and I lost the thread, dedicating myself to stealing Johnny Winter licks before stumbling into Captain Beefheart.

A funny thing: Anderson and his Blackpool cronies were all big Beefheart fans, and a lot of their early-'70s stage business was inspahrd by the Magic Band that toured the UK around that time. In fact, once those musicians had parted ways with Van Vliet, Anderson staked them recording time in his studio to cut some demos, which Virgin wound up releasing (without their consent) as the first Mallard LP. Influence repaid.

Another funny thing: Ian's an ailurophile (big word for cat fancier). He even has a page on the J. Tull website devoted to his, um, musings on cats. While he gets docked a notch for favoring pure bred fancy cats, he gets it back for his efforts to protect the rare Andean mountain cat.

A version of Jethro Tull (Anderson and whomever; Barre left the fold a few years back) is still treading the boards. I remember when they came through and played the Bass Hall, with the guy who drummed on Uncle Lou's The Blue Mask (Doane Perry, for those of you without a scorecard) behind the traps. I briefly considered going, but decided against it. Listening to these albums again almost makes me wish I had. Almost. Even though I got over being mad at my old man before he checked out.


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