The Holy Trinity, Part Two: Jethro Tull (Revisited)

Jethro-Tull-em-19721

I, like too many prog-rock fanatics to count, was delighted when Rush received their overdue induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I still hold out hope that Yes will join them, along with some other eminently worthy compatriots, like King Crimson.

One band should have been enshrined years ago, and it is with regret and resignation that I hold no expectation that they will ever have the opportunity. The band: Jethro Tull. The reason: it’s not because they’re not good enough, but because they are too good. (And if you think I’m joking, then I’m just a one-line joker in a public bar.)

Indeed, Jethro Tull have always confounded critics, and despite albums sales, hit songs, influence and longevity that make them a virtual no-brainer, it is above all the brain of frontman Ian Anderson that ensures they will remain forever on the outside, looking in. While groups who were wrongly reviled by critics during their heyday (think Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) have received their sanctified and justified reappraisals, it’s not in the cards for Jethro Tull. Even their ostensible moment of glory, a Grammy Award in 1989 for “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance” was controversial, since they beat out the heavily favored Metallica for the honor. The fact that Tull was never, at any time, a hard rock or metal band only added to the absurdity.

It’s tempting to suggest that, like Yes, Jethro Tull made the mistake of staying alive, if not necessarily relevant, decades after doing their best work. But the fact of the matter is that they never got an especially fair shake, critically, even in their glory years. As everyone knows, progressive rock was maligned in the ‘70s and is often derided and/or dismissed today. Acts like Rush and Genesis, or Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, that now escape the scrutiny or ridicule, have not done so because the so-called mainstream tastemakers have come to their senses. Rather, the sheer weight of their achievements, coupled with accolades from younger bands, made it impossible for the people holding the keys to the kingdom to continue maligning them with any credibility.

With bands like Yes, who still have a chance, the “serious” people can wink and nod and point to the excesses of prog-rock as a quaint or cute stylistic quirk; an awkward rite of passage rock music went through before it emerged, leaner and meaner (and much improved) after punk rock set things straight. Bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer were a tad too indulgent, or took themselves too seriously, and bands like Jethro Tull, who neither courted nor seemed to care about what anyone said, are still ripe targets for facile disdain.

So should we shed tears for a group that has moved more than 60 million units, played to packed (if steadily smaller) audiences for almost five decades, still receives substantial radio play and is generally recognized for making at least two seminal albums in rock history? Not necessarily. Let it simply be stated, without equivocation, that Ian Anderson is one of the more intelligent, capable and, for a run as long as any other icon, consistent frontman in music.

Like Duke Ellington, or at least David St. Hubbins, Anderson has led a band with an ever-rotating cast of characters (loyal guitarist Martin Barre his Billy Strayhorn), all employed in the service of realizing his singular and disparate musical vision. From 1969 to 1979 Jethro Tull put out at least one album every single year, and none of them are less than very good. A handful of them are great. And three of them, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and A Passion Play, alone merit the band’s hall of fame coronation.

Interestingly, Jethro Tull’s holy trinity was recorded the same years as Yes’s (and the same years as Genesis’s, of whom we’ll discuss in the next column). This is less a coincidence than a commentary on how fertile the early ‘70s were, particularly amongst the practitioners of prog-rock. Considering the previously discussed Yes (The Holy Trinity: Yes) and King Crimson, ( King Crimson: A Prog-Rock Case Study) along with Jethro Tull (just to pick a few) it’s difficult to find more different sounds and styles, yet such staggering creativity and execution.

This, again, is what makes progressive rock at once easy and impossible to describe. We know it when we hear it, and there’s general consensus regarding who did it best, and when. But it’s the variety and all-encompassing aesthetic that defines the genre: great proficiency sprinkled with pomposity and a genuine aspiration to be unique, substantive, and meaningful. None of these albums, by just about any of these bands, sound anything alike, yet they are all instantly recognizable as progressive rock.

Two years ago I wrote at length about Aqualung (Jethro Tull: Aqualung: 40th Anniversary Special Edition), wherein I attempted to put it, and Anderson, in perspective:

Jethro Tull is in the unfortunate, yet ultimately enviable position of circumventing easy identification. Certainly they are known as a crucial part of the prog-rock movement, as they should be, but their career preceded it and has continued long after its heyday. Aside from their accessibility, relatively speaking of course, Tull also sold enough albums to be considered a significant act in their own regard. Tull, in other words, suffers if compared to the critically reviled acts of this time. In terms of their influence, longevity and versatility, they really are a rare entity in rock music.

More than anything else, Ian Anderson’s lyrics are many degrees better than those of his prog brethren. More to the point, his lyrics are many degrees better than rock songwriters in any era. The list of rock musicians whose lyrics can be considered apart from the music and appraised as poetry is small, but Anderson is at the top of the list. In terms of output alone, his work necessarily ranks about Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, two of rock’s better wordsmiths. The fact that he was only 23 when Aqualung was recorded is remarkable enough; the fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant today is sufficient evidence of his genius.

Aqualung necessarily takes its place alongside The Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures as career-defining work by a band making albums that sound utterly unique and epitomize the band that made them. What’s fascinating and special about Tull’s tri-fecta is that it came fairly early in the band’s discography. That Anderson masterminded three albums this impressive, and indelible, in his early to-mid-20s is an enduring testament to his precocious talent.

One thing that plagues even some of the better progressive rock music is how utterly of its time it can sound. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Like most of the bands already discussed, few people would have difficulty tying the majority of these albums to their era. Jethro Tull, particularly on Aqualung, nevertheless manages to present a song cycle—meshing Anderson’s acoustic strumming with Barre’s abrasive electric guitar chords—that manages to sound not only fresh, but vital, even today.

Understanding that the tunes are essentially asking “What Would Jesus Do?” in the context of a mechanized and materialistic society (circa 1971; circa 2013), Aqualung is prog-rocks J’accuse. Anderson, like Townshend on Quadrophenia, spares no one, least of all himself, and since the primary targets—organized religion and social Darwinism—are so large and worthy of scorn, the barbs still sting, and resonate.

If The Dark Side of the Moon is, among other things, a treatise on the issues and concerns that can and do drive people over the edge, Aqualung got there first. Having the ability, not to mention the audacity, to get both priests and politicians in his sights, Anderson makes a case for the better angels of the ‘60s ethos, with nary a flower, freak-out or paean to free love. The ugliness of the way we tend to treat one another is, at times, reflected in the brutality of the music (Barre and drummer Clive Bunker are at their devastating best throughout the proceedings), drives the relentless soundtrack to a state of affairs that arguably worsened as the “Me-Decade” got its malaise on.

Anderson is prescient, depicting the contemporary world as a train gone off the rails, “no way to slow down” (“Locomotive Breath”); he sounds downright prophetic depicting the “products of wealth” pushing us into the abyss (“Slipstream”), and he sounds like an antidote for any ideology preempting God to justify violence or intolerance: “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays” (“Wind Up”). Aqualung is correctly heralded as an essential moment in classic rock history, but it’s more than that. It’s a point of departure for a new type of music, both for Jethro Tull and the progressive era.

Jethro Tull was on top of the world (and the charts) in 1972 when Thick as a Brick became the first pop album comprised of one continuous song to reach a widespread audience. The concept may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is among the handful of holy grails for prog-rock fanatics, no questions asked. Put as simply as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to sniffingly dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early to-mid-‘70s. If Aqualung doubled down on the “concept album” concept, Thick as a Brick functioned as a New Testament of sorts, signifying what was now possible in rock music.

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full 45 minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Anderson had already proven he could write a hit and create controversial work that got radio play; now he was putting his flute in the ground and throwing his cod-piece in the ring. Whatever else one may say about it, Thick as a Brick is the Ne Plus Ultra of prog-rock: between the extensive packaging (a faux newspaper that is equal parts Monty Python and The Onion); this was as ambitious as progressive music had been, outdone in terms of scope and ambition only by its follow-up.

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick as a Brick and the more challenging and, upon initial listens, less rewarding, A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that some folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It’s a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, especially in the prog genre, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated.

Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

“I have no time for Time magazine, or Rolling Stone”, Anderson sang in 1975. Even then he seemed to understand, and accept, that it simply wasn’t in the cards for him to be taken as seriously as he should have been. That there have been few multi-instrumentalist bandleaders capable of creating such a staggeringly original and eclectic body of work. That no one would ever rate his lyrical chops alongside justly venerated wordsmiths like Lennon, Dylan and Davies, even though on a purely poetic basis his ability arguably surpasses them all. That a world ceaselessly embracing one derivative, evanescent act after another hadn’t enough room for an old rocker who wore his hair too long, his trouser cuffs too tight and pulled one over on all of them, remaining too old to rock ‘n’ roll and too young die.

No matter: in the court of public opinion the works persevere and will be alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of sensitive and discerning listeners as long as discs still spin. In the end Tull’s not the kind you have to wind up for award shows.

http://www.popmatters.com/column/176304-the-holy-trinity-part-two-jethro-tull//

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The Holy Trinity, Part Two: Jethro Tull

I, like too many prog-rock fanatics to count, was delighted when Rush received their overdue induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. I still hold out hope that Yes will join them, along with some other eminently worthy compatriots, like King Crimson.

One band should have been enshrined years ago, and it is with regret and resignation that I hold no expectation that they will ever have the opportunity. The band: Jethro Tull. The reason: it’s not because they’re not good enough, but because they are too good. (And if you think I’m joking, then I’m just a one-line joker in a public bar.)

Indeed, Jethro Tull have always confounded critics, and despite albums sales, hit songs, influence and longevity that make them a virtual no-brainer, it is above all the brain of frontman Ian Anderson that ensures they will remain forever on the outside, looking in. While groups who were wrongly reviled by critics during their heyday (think Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) have received their sanctified and justified reappraisals, it’s not in the cards for Jethro Tull. Even their ostensible moment of glory, a Grammy Award in 1989 for “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance” was controversial, since they beat out the heavily favored Metallica for the honor. The fact that Tull was never, at any time, a hard rock or metal band only added to the absurdity.

It’s tempting to suggest that, like Yes, Jethro Tull made the mistake of staying alive, if not necessarily relevant, decades after doing their best work. But the fact of the matter is that  they never got an especially fair shake, critically, even in their glory years. As everyone knows, progressive rock was maligned in the ‘70s and is often derided and/or dismissed today. Acts like Rush and Genesis, or Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, that now escape the scrutiny or ridicule, have not done so because the so-called mainstream tastemakers have come to their senses. Rather, the sheer weight of their achievements, coupled with accolades from younger bands, made it impossible for the people holding the keys to the kingdom to continue maligning them with any credibility.

With bands like Yes, who still have a chance, the “serious” people can wink and nod and point to the excesses of prog-rock as a quaint or cute stylistic quirk; an awkward rite of passage rock music went through before it emerged, leaner and meaner (and much improved) after punk rock set things straight. Bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer were a tad too indulgent, or took themselves too seriously, and bands like Jethro Tull, who neither courted nor seemed to care about what anyone said, are still ripe targets for facile disdain.

So should we shed tears for a group that has moved more than 60 million units, played to packed (if steadily smaller) audiences for almost five decades, still receives substantial radio play and is generally recognized for making at least two seminal albums in rock history? Not necessarily. Let it simply be stated, without equivocation, that Ian Anderson is one of the more intelligent, capable and, for a run as long as any other icon, consistent frontman in music.

Like Duke Ellington, or at least David St. Hubbins, Anderson has led a band with an ever-rotating cast of characters (loyal guitarist Martin Barre his Billy Strayhorn), all employed in the service of realizing his singular and disparate musical vision. From 1969 to 1979 Jethro Tull put out at least one album every single year, and none of them are less than very good. A handful of them are great. And three of them, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and A Passion Play, alone merit the band’s hall of fame coronation.

Interestingly, Jethro Tull’s holy trinity was recorded the same years as Yes’s (and the same years as Genesis’s, of whom we’ll discuss in the next column). This is less a coincidence than a commentary on how fertile the early ‘70s were, particularly amongst the practitioners of prog-rock. Considering the previously discussed Yes (The Holy Trinity: Yes) and King Crimson, ( King Crimson: A Prog-Rock Case Study) along with Jethro Tull (just to pick a few) it’s difficult to find more different sounds and styles, yet such staggering creativity and execution.

This, again, is what makes progressive rock at once easy and impossible to describe. We know it when we hear it, and there’s general consensus regarding who did it best, and when. But it’s the variety and all-encompassing aesthetic that defines the genre: great proficiency sprinkled with pomposity and a genuine aspiration to be unique, substantive, and meaningful. None of these albums, by just about any of these bands, sound anything alike, yet they are all instantly recognizable as progressive rock.

Two years ago I wrote at length about Aqualung (Jethro Tull: Aqualung: 40th Anniversary Special Edition), wherein I attempted to put it, and Anderson, in perspective:

Jethro Tull is in the unfortunate, yet ultimately enviable position of circumventing easy identification. Certainly they are known as a crucial part of the prog-rock movement, as they should be, but their career preceded it and has continued long after its heyday. Aside from their accessibility, relatively speaking of course, Tull also sold enough albums to be considered a significant act in their own regard. Tull, in other words, suffers if compared to the critically reviled acts of this time. In terms of their influence, longevity and versatility, they really are a rare entity in rock music.

More than anything else, Ian Anderson’s lyrics are many degrees better than those of his prog brethren. More to the point, his lyrics are many degrees better than rock songwriters in any era. The list of rock musicians whose lyrics can be considered apart from the music and appraised as poetry is small, but Anderson is at the top of the list. In terms of output alone, his work necessarily ranks about Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, two of rock’s better wordsmiths. The fact that he was only 23 when Aqualung was recorded is remarkable enough; the fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant today is sufficient evidence of his genius.

Aqualung necessarily takes its place alongside The Dark Side of the Moon and Moving Pictures as career-defining work by a band making albums that sound utterly unique and epitomize the band that made them. What’s fascinating and special about Tull’s tri-fecta is that it came fairly early in the band’s discography. That Anderson masterminded three albums this impressive, and indelible, in his early to-mid-20s is an enduring testament to his precocious talent.

One thing that plagues even some of the better progressive rock music is how utterly of its time it can sound. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Like most of the bands already discussed, few people would have difficulty tying the majority of these albums to their era. Jethro Tull, particularly on Aqualung, nevertheless manages to present a song cycle—meshing Anderson’s acoustic strumming with Barre’s abrasive electric guitar chords—that manages to sound not only fresh, but vital, even today.

Understanding that the tunes are essentially asking “What Would Jesus Do?” in the context of a mechanized and materialistic society (circa 1971; circa 2013), Aqualung is prog-rocks J’accuse. Anderson, like Townshend on Quadrophenia, spares no one, least of all himself, and since the primary targets—organized religion and social Darwinism—are so large and worthy of scorn, the barbs still sting, and resonate.

If The Dark Side of the Moon is, among other things, a treatise on the issues and concerns that can and do drive people over the edge, Aqualung got there first. Having the ability, not to mention the audacity, to get both priests and politicians in his sights, Anderson makes a case for the better angels of the ‘60s ethos, with nary a flower, freak-out or paean to free love. The ugliness of the way we tend to treat one another is, at times, reflected in the brutality of the music (Barre and drummer Clive Bunker are at their devastating best throughout the proceedings), drives the relentless soundtrack to a state of affairs that arguably worsened as the “Me-Decade” got its malaise on.

Anderson is prescient, depicting the contemporary world as a train gone off the rails, “no way to slow down” (“Locomotive Breath”); he sounds downright prophetic depicting the “products of wealth” pushing us into the abyss (“Slipstream”), and he sounds like an antidote for any ideology preempting God to justify violence or intolerance: “He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays” (“Wind Up”). Aqualung is correctly heralded as an essential moment in classic rock history, but it’s more than that. It’s a point of departure for a new type of music, both for Jethro Tull  and the progressive era.

Jethro Tull was on top of the world (and the charts) in 1972 when Thick as a Brick became the first pop album comprised of one continuous song to reach a widespread audience. The concept may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is among the handful of holy grails for prog-rock fanatics, no questions asked. Put as simply as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to sniffingly dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early to-mid-‘70s. If Aqualung doubled down on the “concept album” concept, Thick as a Brick functioned as a New Testament of sorts, signifying what was now possible in rock music.

Even with the side-long songs that became almost obligatory during this era, nobody else had the wherewithal to dedicate a full 45 minutes to the development and execution of one uninterrupted song (and Tull did it twice). Anderson had already proven he could write a hit and create controversial work that got radio play; now he was putting his flute in the ground and throwing his cod-piece in the ring. Whatever else one may say about it, Thick as a Brick is the Ne Plus Ultra of prog-rock: between the extensive packaging (a faux newspaper that is equal parts Monty Python and The Onion); this was as ambitious as progressive music had been, outdone in terms of scope and ambition only by its follow-up.

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of their audience (more than a handful forever) with their follow-up to Thick as a Brick and the more challenging and, upon initial listens, less rewarding, A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that some folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone. It’s a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades: a difficult, occasionally confrontational, utterly fulfilling piece of work.

The subject matter, so perplexing at first blush, is a relatively straightforward examination of what happens after death. Literary allusions abound, and one wonders if this project had been described as rock music’s version of Dante’s Inferno it may have fared a bit better. (Probably not.) In any event, there are plenty of musicians, especially in the prog genre, whose lyrical merits can be ceaselessly debated.

Ian Anderson is not one of them. If you find his writing oblique or impenetrable, it’s not him, it’s you. The brilliance of his wordplay and the fun he has with the English language is something to savor. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses). This one tends to draw the most resistance from even prog-rock aficionados: it obliges time and attention to let it work it charms, but the return on investment is worthwhile and ever-lasting.

“I have no time for Time magazine, or Rolling Stone”, Anderson sang in 1975. Even then he seemed to understand, and accept, that it simply wasn’t in the cards for him to be taken as seriously as he should have been. That there have been few multi-instrumentalist bandleaders capable of creating such a staggeringly original and eclectic body of work. That no one would ever rate his lyrical chops alongside justly venerated wordsmiths like Lennon, Dylan and Davies, even though on a purely poetic basis his ability arguably surpasses them all. That a world ceaselessly embracing one derivative, evanescent act after another hadn’t enough room for an old rocker who wore his hair too long, his trouser cuffs too tight and pulled one over on all of them, remaining too old to rock ‘n’ roll and too young die.

No matter: in the court of public opinion the works persevere and will be alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of sensitive and discerning listeners as long as discs still spin. In the end Tull’s not the kind you have to wind up for award shows.

http://www.popmatters.com/column/176304-the-holy-trinity-part-two-jethro-tull//

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Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung’: Even Better Than You Thought It Was (Revisited)

Whatever one’s feelings about progressive rock, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung is a rare album that remains at once part of, and above, the fray. It is, to be certain, a cornerstone of the then-nascent prog-rock canon, but it did—and does—exist wholly on its own terms as a great rock album, period.

One of the many reasons prog-rock is controversial, and taken less-than-seriously by the so-called serious critics, is because fairly or not it frequently gets associated with sci-fi and fantasy. Matters of musical proficiency aside, it is true to suggest that little of the material holds up especially well, lyrically speaking (of course that is true of most rock music—a topic for another time). This is not a sufficient—or necessarily legitimate—cause to dismiss it as is usually the case, but defenders can only get so much mileage discussing the unparalleled chops of, say, ELP, Yes, Rush, et al.

Jethro Tull is in the unfortunate, yet ultimately enviable position of circumventing easy identification. Certainly they are known as a crucial part of the prog-rock movement, as they should be, but their career preceded it and has continued long after its heyday. Aside from their accessibility, relatively speaking of course, Tull also sold enough units to be considered a significant act in its own regard. Tull, in other words, suffers if compared to the critically reviled acts of this time. In terms of their influence, longevity and versatility, they really are a unique entity in rock music.

More than anything else, Ian Anderson’s lyrics are many degrees better than those of his prog brethren. More to the point, his lyrics are many degrees better than rock songwriters in any era. The list of rock musicians whose lyrics can be considered apart from the music and appraised as poetry is small, but Anderson is at the top of the list. In terms of output alone, his work necessarily ranks about Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, two of rock’s better wordsmiths. The fact that he was only 23 when Aqualung was recorded is remarkable enough; the fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant today is sufficient evidence of his genius.

By 1971, Anderson had dealt with the past (Stand Up) and the present (Benefit); his burgeoning confidence would prompt him to combine those elements in an attempt to grind some axes that probed quite a bit deeper than the typical sociopolitical commentary on offer (then, now). For Tull’s first proper “concept album” (despite Anderson’s ongoing protestations regarding this label), the songwriter turns a lacerating eye on the institution of organized religion. While the first side of the original LP concerns itself with, for lack of a better cliché, man’s inhumanity to man, the second side takes on religion with a righteous indignation that has scarcely—if ever—been improved upon by other mainstream acts.

Everyone knows the epic title track (forever and somewhat unfortunately associated with the iconic cover art, which renders the eponymous tramp into a caricature of Ian Anderson who, not a little ironically, casual fans thought—and think?—is Jethro Tull), and then there is the concert anthem “Locomotive Breath” as well as the ones you used to hear on the radio when we used to listen to the radio, “Hymn 43” and “Cross-Eyed Mary”. Four decades on, it happens to be the lesser known tracks that represent the key to the work’s endurance. If you only know the “hits” you are selling the album, and yourself, more than a little short. In between the heavy, huge classic tracks are quiet pieces that, while softer, pack their own subtle punch. The acoustic couplet of “Cheap Day Return” and “Wond’ring Aloud” are archetypes of a sort; the kind of whimsical British folk that Tull perfected all through the ‘70s. The songs seem straightforward and pleasant enough (and they are; Anderson’s voice, always striking, is conveying new levels of expressiveness and emotion, particularly during the slower tunes) but are cut by their topical, occasionally unsettling lyrical import.

Succinct delivery with maximum impact is Anderson’s calling card, and nowhere is it on better display than the one-minute and 24 seconds of perfection entitled “Cheap Day Return”. In quick yet extraordinary fashion he deals with his own alienation, offers a sardonic appraisal of his budding super-stardom (What a laugh!), and his father’s imminent death, all in a song that sounds as innocuous as a nursery rhyme. On “Wond’ring Aloud” Anderson, sounding plaintive but optimistic, turns a seemingly simple love song into a meditation on mortality (Will the years treat us well?), ending on a line that underscores the album’s central theme: It’s only the giving that makes you what you are.

This sentiment is a respite from the unflinching social commentary that comes before and after: the aforementioned “Cross-Eyed Mary” concerns itself with a prostitute, and there is no judgment offered unless it is on the conditions that made the oldest profession possible, then and still conceivable, today. “Mother Goose”, also a deceptively upbeat number, describes a surreal tour through the London underground with an unsavory cast of characters disarmingly depicted as fairy tale characters. When, mid-way through the number, Martin Barre’s electric guitar growl punctuates the proceedings, it becomes clear that the people and places being discussed are in various states of distress and despair.

Where “Cross-Eyed Mary” might be considered a contemporary Mary Magdalene, the titular character—inspired by a series of photographs Anderson’s wife Jennie took—could be Christ himself, embodying the least of our brothers. “Aqualung’s” riff is so urgent and unforgettable, the initial verse and chorus so forceful and familiar, it’s possible that the significance of this overplayed radio standard has slipped under the collective radar. Put another way, while correctly heralded as an essential moment in classic rock history, it is more than that; a point of departure for a new type of music, both for Jethro Tull and the progressive era.

It remains tantalizing to imagine the augmented critical—and street—cred the album would receive if it had only been named after almost any of the other ten songs, especially “Wind Up” or “My God”. And if, as Anderson claims he preferred, the cover had featured the actual tramp from the Thames Embankment who inspired the song (“Aqualung” referring to the gurgling sound of the man’s chronic bronchitis), it would make the lyrics about the real human being inexorably more vivid and disturbing.

The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep -sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves. And the flowers bloom like madness in the Spring…

Side Two is a remarkably ambitious attempt to examine the racket organized religion has degenerated into (or was it always thus?). On “My God” gets some licks in on the clergy, then turns both barrels on the men and women who have set about the self-serving task of recreating God in their image. Acrimony like this, at least in rock music, generally fails to rise above sophomoric ranting, but Anderson’s words retain all of their power and perspicacity if for no other reason than the cynicism and spiritual charade he targets has only become more prevalent. Musically, the song is cheekily experimental, shifting from an acoustic tour de force (Anderson, who is rightly celebrated for elevating flute into a lead instrument as opposed to sideshow embellishment, does not get nearly enough attention for his superlative guitar playing ability) to an arena-ready workhorse, with Barre’s larger-than-life chords. Then, in the extended middle section, we are treated to a credible approximation and/or parody of a religious hymn, complete with multi-tracked chanting and echoed flute effects: it is an audacious act of musical vandalism, at once amusing and eerie. It also serves to function as a soundtrack of sorts for the irreverent image inside the double-sleeve gatefold, which depicts the band having broken into a cathedral for some impromptu merriment.

For “Hymn 43” Anderson sets his sights on the U.S.A. and in quick order sets about decimating the hypocrisy and myth-making of religion and the new religion, entertainment. It still sounds brazen today, but it was downright defiant to pen tunes in 1971 with incendiary couplets like this “If Jesus saves, he better save himself/From the gory glory seekers who’ll use his name in death.” For a postmodern twist Anderson could not have anticipated, the not-so-holy-ghost in the trinity occurred when religion and entertainment got packaged together as part of the anti-science, anti-intellectual politics we see camera-ready charlatans practicing daily on our television sets.

In just one minute on “Slipstream” Anderson captures the opportunistic shamelessness of the materially rich but spiritually fallow weekend warriors who compensate (figuratively) for their nagging consciences in the confessional or the collection basket (“And you press on God’s waiter your last dime/As he hands you the bill”). On the literal levels these are the people we all know: our peers, parents and especially our politicians, whom Anderson contemptuously nails to their crosses of gold. In an era of too-big-too-fail and the wealthiest .001%, it’s difficult to conclude that Anderson was not predicting the future of a world totally off the tracks in “Locomotive Breath” (“no way to slow down”).

Anderson saves his best for last when, in “Wind Up” he recalls being shipped off to church, eventually concluding that God is “not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays”. It brings full circle the concerns, both material and spiritual, that any sensitive—or sentient—person must grapple with, or make sense of. “In your pomp and all your glory you’re a poorer man than me/As you lick the boots of death born out of fear”, he snarls, assailing the fake humility and the appropriation of the holy for personal, earthly gains, et cetera.

And here we are, 40 years later where a great album gets even better. First, we have the new stereo mix masterminded by the indefatigable Steven Wilson, who has become a champion for prog rock remastering. His recent work on the King Crimson catalog managed the improbable by creating indispensable copies of oft-remastered works (ones which sounded fairly spectacular in the first place). Aqualung, on the other hand, has always suffered from shoddy production and/or mastering. Even the obligatory reissues over the years have been lackluster, amplifying the hiss and burying the subtlety in the mix. What Wilson has done with the master tapes is spectacular bordering on unbelievable: the songs do not merely sound improved, they sound different, albeit in ways that do not encroach upon or overwhelm the versions we have grown so fond of over the decades. Now, each instrument (especially the bass and John Evan’s omnipresent piano) gets released from the murkiness of the earlier mixes. Anderson’s vocals are crystalline and each note from the acoustic guitar is a room-filling revelation.

For Tull aficionados the real treats are contained on the second disc: previously unreleased material(!). In addition to remixed and remastered versions of familiar favorites from the ’71 sessions (such as “Life Is a Long Song”, “Nursie” and “From Later”), we get early versions of “My God” (rough around the edges and alternate lyrics familiar to those who have heard live recordings from this era) and “Wind Up” (previously available on the last Aqualung remaster). The newly released songs are the real eye-openers: there is an early run of “Wond’ring Aloud” and initial takes of “Slipstream” and “Up the ‘Pool”. The one that is worth the proverbial price of admission is the alternate take of “Wond’ring Aloud, Again” which combines an early version of “Wond’ring Aloud” and the working draft of “Wond’ring Again” which turned up on the Living in the Past collection. Listening to this take, I found myself fantasizing that the existing (master) take of “Wond’ring Aloud” had simply segued into “Wond’ring Again” (one of the better lyrical and musical numbers from ’71) and the latter had replaced the worthy but not as essential “Up to Me”; if we had the same running order with “Wond’ring Again” instead of “Up to Me” concluding Side One we would have an even more perfect album, if that is possible. As is always the case, it’s fantastic to have this long-discarded material made available; it is imperative for fans and might help newcomers better appreciate why an album made 40 years ago can inspire so much enthusiasm.

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For J.D. Salinger, Jethro Tull and Me (Revisited)

It was 42 years ago, today, that Jethro Tull’s third album, Benefit, was released. I wrote about it (and many other things) over the course of a productive day during the great Snowpocalypse of 2010.

 

She nodded. “Make it extraordinarily squalid and moving,” she suggested. “Are you at all acquainted with squalor?”

I said not exactly but that I was getting better acquainted with it, in one form or another, all the time…

–J.D. Salinger, “For Esme — with Love and Squalor” (1950)

Spin me back down the years and the days of my youth, as the song says.

April, 1988.

More time has passed since those days than had passed since I’d been born.  There has to be a more eloquent way to put that, but I’m having a difficult time coming up with it. More to the point, I am increasingly unable to avoid calculations like this. Why? Because the balance has shifted and, going forward, more years (and things) will have transpired in my life, but few of them will be as indelible. So there’s that.

Everyone talks about how reading The Catcher in the Rye is one of those seminal rites of passage. Now that J.D. Salinger has gone to that big field of rye in the sky, everyone is talking about it all at once. I would be a phony, I figure, not to include myself (and all). For starters, what do you call a rite of passage involving a lot of middle-aged (or older) folks talking about the passing of an author who wrote one of the ultimate rite of passage novels? Indulgent? Inevitable? Ironic? All of the above?

By the time I got around to Holden Caulfield, I was already a senior in high school. Too young? Too old? Just right? For better or worse, I was either too old, or not alienated enough, to feel the full force of Salinger’s operetta of adolescent angst. Of course, I’m selling it short (or am I?), but I’ve heard very few adults whose opinions I admire mention falling under this novel’s spell while revisiting it as an adult. Myself, I couldn’t tell if it was too obvious this book was the result of a grown man trying (diligently, and in that overly mannered, oft-imitated style) to sound like a disaffected but acutely sensitive sixteen year old, or if it’s because he succeeded so thoroughly that, even as a seventeen year old, I wasn’t especially simpatico with his anguished, if solipsistic observations. Which is not to say that his plight did not move me, or that his situation is not, at times, rendered with profound artistry by Salinger.

(This is the squalid, or moving part of my observation: after getting several paragraphs of analysis and personal reflection put down, my power went out for a second, and I lost everything I had just written. Everyone knows, whether they are writing an essay or an e-mail, how indescribably frutrating this can be. Nevertheless, I had to chuckle thinking Salinger’s spirit was taking the piss out of my piece, or else the collective force of so many Holden Caulfield acolytes simply snuffed me out in midstream as a sort of karmic correction. Duly noted, and a discouraging setback but not enough to tempt me to pull a Seymour Glass.)

Perhaps it would be a bit unfair, if mostly accurate to conclude that The Catcher in the Rye is the archetypal novel of adolescent alienation for teenagers/young adults who don’t read a great deal of fiction. Just as there are certain types of movies and music that, through a perfect storm of critical consensus and a groundswell of contagious public approbation, get anointed as authentic touchstones of a particular moment in time (I would say “tapping into the zeitgeist” but I try to avoid using the dreaded z-word if at all possible).

Regarding the almost half-century of silence that followed his initial burst of creativty, Norman Mailer decreed Salinger “the greatest mind to ever stay in prep school.” That is harsh but it is also –based on the available evidence– pretty indisputable. On the other hand, when people hold up The Catcher in the Rye (or even Franny and Zooey) as the zenith of Salinger’s oeuvre, they are overlooking (or more likely, have never read) “For Esme –With Love and Squalor”, in my estimation one of the five best American short stories of the 20th Century. Indeed, what Salinger accomplishes in those twenty-odd pages greatly exceeds the sum total of Mailer’s voluminous, if mostly perishable output. Everything that Salinger didn’t do, or didn’t do convincingly, or didn’t do well enough to reward subsequent readings by a more mature audience, in his canonized novel, he does in spades with this short story. It is a compact, devastating illumination of the cruel machinery we, for lack of a better or more appropriate word, call adulthood. How fittingly ironic, then, that a writer celebrated (and minimized) for being the consummate chronicler of what Pete Townshend later called “teenage wasteland” actually wrote a shattering treatise from the trenches (literally and figuratively) that endures well into a new millennium. Of which, more later.

 

As it happens, when I first experienced The Catcher in the Rye I was in the early (but intense) stages of what became a lifelong infatuation with Jethro Tull. Which naturally coincided with my burgeoning obsession with all-things progressive rock, which happened to coincide with the release of so many classic recordings on that new-fangled technical revelation called compact discs. It would be near impossible for anyone who didn’t live through those days to imagine a world when you waited for anything: i-Pods and online access have made everything that has ever happened available, immediately.

Back then, waiting for certain Rush, Yes, King Crimson and especially Jethro Tull albums to get their digital reincarnation was like patiently awaiting Moses to deliver a new sonic commandment every other week. The upside of this, of course, was that it was still a time when you had time (you had no choice) to savor and spend time with a new purchase, and by the time you’d (temporarily) exhausted your enthusiasm, you had ample funds to get the next installment. This was also, as many will remember, a time before information itself was a free 24/7 proposition. As such, each trip to the record store was loaded with possibility: you never knew what might have been released, including albums by bands like Genesis and Pink Floyd, that you never even knew existed. And, it should go without saying that the prospect of upgrading scratchy vinyl (or tape-recorded) copies of Beatles, Stones, Doors, Zeppelin and Hendrix albums was something slightly beyond orgasmic.

Anyway, it was during the winter and spring of 1988 that the back catalog of Jethro Tull was being released, a couple at a time, on compact disc. It was around this time, having already devoured Thick as a Brick and still patiently awaiting the arrival of A Passion Play, that I had my first sustained go-round with Tull’s third album, 1970’s Benefit. In April 1988 it was the right album at the right time. Remarkably, it still is.

But before you can fully appreciate what Tull achieves on Benefit, one has to consider (and understand) the brilliant album that preceded it, 1969’s Stand Up. In addition to the handful of gems that still get radio play (“Nothing Is Easy, “Bouree”, “A New Day Yesterday” and “Fat Man”), there were a couple of standard coming-of-age type middle finger salutes to the establishment: “Back to the Family”, which features a blistering guitar coda from Martin Barre and album-closer “For A Thousand Mothers”, where Ian Anderson not only spits on, but laughs at the naysayers. This song is notable for perfecting  a sort of “garage flute rock”: once you hear that joyously spiteful noise, this might not sound like such an oxymoron. (And incidentally, if you don’t realize how incendiary and downright dangerous this band was capable of sounding circa ’69, get a load of this.) The two most surprising, and surprisingly abiding, songs are “Look Into The Sun” which Led Zep could have put on their third album (and indeed they may have been listening to this one before taking their somewhat left-field, and awesome, acoustic turn in 1970) and the best song you’ve never heard, the sublime and ethereal “Reasons For Waiting”. But the one that stands out (or stands up, as the case may be) from the rest is the ceaselessly astonishing “We Used To Know.” Check it out:

How many 21 year olds write songs like that? The world weariness of those vocals (not to mention the lyrics) and the masterful subtlety of Martin Barre’s embellishment through the first half make the song ache with longing and arid resignation. But then after the flute solo bleeds into the guitar solo, the song explodes into the clear-eyed appraisal of a man who has fully taken stock of the world, and the reigns of his destiny. As we know now, he never looked back. (A few quick words about that guitar solo: more than a few folks, including Ian Anderson, have noticed that The Eagles’ much more famous “Hotel California” seems to have borrowed more than a little from “We Used To Know”. Personally, I think it’s a tough case to make as the two songs are so different, but this does present an opportunity to lament the fact that Joe Walsh, lovable rascal that he is, would be easily identified by approximately 100% of people who know anything about rock music, while Martin Barre might be recognized by one in ten, and that is being generous. Such is life, and don’t weep for Mr. Barre who can wipe his own eyes with the piles of money he has earned. Joe Walsh, who left his talent and most of his brain cells in that holiday weekend of excess called the ’70s, endures as an avatar, and casualty, of that era: he is the coke-stained hundred dollar bill that says so many things about a time and a place where certain people did certain things because they quite simply could afford to. Mr. Barre, on the other hand, is a vintage Jaguar –pronounced Jag.U.R.– that may have neither the flash or immediacy of newer, more colorful models, but discerning eyes can assess its value, and class, with little difficulty. In hindsight, listening to him in song after song after song, it becomes increasingly clear that even some of the most accomplished –and celebrated– guitarists of the ’70s were using crayons while Barre had already figured out how to use water colors.)

So where were we? Ah, 1970. The growth evidenced between Tull’s blues-drenched debut and the follow-up, only a year later, is unequaled by any other rock band’s first and second albums. This is in no small part due to Barre’s arrival (replacing Mick Abrahams, who lost his battle to co-lead the band and continue down the British blues revue road) and the almost incomprehensible maturation of Ian Anderson’s songwriting proficiency. To the band’s credit, their ambition knew no bounds, and part of their strategy for the third album was to recruit John Evan to agument the sound with his considerable piano (and organ) skills. It was a move that paid substantial dividends, immediately evident on the first song, “With You There To Help Me”. Evan’s welcome presence is in full effect on the deceptively simple, almost waltz-like “Alive and Well and Living In“, which details the dynamics of a failing, probably abusive relationship. The flute and acoustic guitar bely the heartbreakingly familiar subject matter (a woman stuck in the rut of on-again/off-again romance with a man who is distant and then demanding, while she is quick to forgive but not quite able to forget), but Barre’s abrasive guitar tone articulates the anger steadily being buried beneath the surface. It’s a cautionary tale for the teenage listener who has yet to embark on a meaningful romance (written by a young man who could not have had a great deal of experience himself) that an older listener can still admire, decades later.

But the centerpiece (thematically, aesthetically) of the album –and a song that absolutely ranks in the upper echelon of the Tull catalog– has to be “Nothing To Say”. If “We Used To Know” grapples with a wary nostaligia that accompanies the resolve to make one’s own way (as an artist but also as a young adult going out into the world),  “Nothing To Say” confronts the pressures (of an artist or a young adult out in the world) of conformity or, in Anderson’s case, the expectation that he will embrace the role of countercultural guru, ready to dispense words of wisdom for his young acolytes (a role many artists are quite satisfied to assume, and much more so today than in 1970). Anderson’s ambivalence about this scenario signals, as much as any rock song of that era, that the ’60s are over. Anderson who, to his credit, did not pay much more than lip service (intellectually, lyrically) to the free-love surface level ethos of the festival-flocking hippies, takes aim at both sides of the system and espouses a creed of personal responsibility. What at first might be read as a surly refusal to take a stand is actually an admonishment that everyone needs to figure it out on their own; certainly Anderson was not willing to be a de-facto spokesman for anything political or otherwise. The world was, in many ways, a mess, but every concerned citizen is personally accountable for finding their way and bringing about whatever change is warranted:

It’s not my power
to criticize or to ask you to be blind
To your own pressing problem
and the hate you must unwind.
So ask of me no answer
there is none that I could give
you wouldn’t find.

At this point, Anderson has dealt with the past (Stand Up) and the present (Benefit); his burgeoning confidence would prompt him to combine those elements in an attempt to grind some axes that probed quite a bit deeper than the typical sociopolitical commentary on offer (then, now). As it turns out he had plenty to say, which brings us to Aqualung and the semi-dreaded concept album, wherein Anderson turns his attention, and lacerating wit, to the institution of organized religion. First off, it’s one of the more unfortunate, if trivial, missteps in rock. Naming their fourth album Aqualung was akin to Black Sabbath changing their name from Earth. In both instances, a less appropriate moniker makes the work easier to dismiss. Considering the thematic scope of the album, and the central thesis of how religion affects us all, especially when we are at a young and formative age. It is tantalizing to imagine how much more street cred this album could –and would– have accrued if it were named after almost any of the other ten songs, specifically “Cheap Day Return”, “Up To Me” or “Wind Up” (particularly as a pun for what this expression signifies in British slang–as a comment on the song and the album, and the material, which was sure to “wind up” some listeners). But most of all, this album absolutely should have been named “My God” which, again, would be appropriate on the micro and macro levels.

In any event, anyone who has made it this far most likely has at least a passing acquaintance with this particular album (perhaps beyond the excellent title track and the radio staples “Locomotive Breath” and “Cross-Eyed Mary”). While the first side of the LP concerns itself with, for lack of a better cliche, man’s inhumanity to man, the second side takes on religion with a righteous indignation that has not been improved upon by many (if any) other mainstream artists since ’71.

I wrote a bit about this one (while attempting a succint overview of the band’s career here) and here’s an excerpt on a couple of songs from Side One: the one-two acoustic punch of “Cheap Day Return” and “Mother Goose” are archetypes of a sort; the kind of whimsical British folk that Tull perfected: the songs seem straightforward and pleasant enough (and they are) but are cut by their topical, and occasionally unsettling, lyrical import. This is Anderson’s calling card, and nowhere is it in better effect than the one minute and twenty-four seconds of perfection entitled “Cheap Day Return”. In astonishingly succinct and effective fashion Anderson deals with his own alienation, offers a sardonic appraisal of his own budding super-stardom (What a laugh!), and his father’s imminent death, all in a song that sounds innocuous as a nursery rhyme.

Side Two is a remarkably ambitious –and successful– attempt to look at the racket religion has degenerated into (or was it always thus?) and after getting some licks in on the clergy, Anderson turns both barrels on the men who have sought to create a  convenient God in their own image. Pretty sophomoric stuff, eh? Well, that’s partly the point (more on that in a moment), but what’s remarkable is that these songs have lost none of their power or perspicacity. It still sounds pretty audacious today, but was downright defiant to pen tunes like this in 1971 (check out “My God” and “Hymn 43“, which includes the incendiary couplet “If Jesus saves, he better save himself/From the gory glory seekers who’ll use his name in death). In just one minute Anderson nails, for all time, the opportunistic hypocrisy of the materially rich but spiritually depraved amongst us who compensate (figuratively) for their nagging consciences in the confessional or in the collection basket (“And you press on God’s waiter your last dime/As he hands you the bill”). But on the literal levels, these are the people we all know: our peers, parents and especially our politicians, and Anderson sardonically nails these weekend warriors to their crosses of gold.

He saves the best for last, when in “Wind Up” he recalls being shipped off to church, eventually concluding that God is “not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays”. I can trace the trajectory of when I first heard this album, early in high school, and loving the “hit” songs, to eventually gaining a fuller appreciation of “My God” –in terms of the lyrical import and the inspired way Anderson multi-tracks his vocals to imitate, and satirize, a sanctified choral hymn– and the other songs on the second side. But it wasn’t until college that the full effects of “Wind Up” revealed themselves to the not-so-innocent, recovering Catholic who had served mass as an altar boy only a couple of years earlier:

In your pomp and all your glory you’re a poorer man than me/As you lick the boots of death born out of fear.

I’ll decline to further recall how profound those lyrics seemed to a nineteen year old, but I’ll argue they retain their poetic import even now. Of course one comes to an age where they can see through the self-serving charade and the fake humility and the sickening appropriation of the holy for personal, earthly gains. Et cetera. But this sort of material goes several steps beyond fighting the power or endorsing the punk rock anarchy; this stuff is gospel for a young sensitive soul, alienated by everything and earnestly (sensitive souls are nothing if not earnest) looking for Truth with a capital T.

Which, at long last, brings us back to Salinger. If the holy trinity (sorry) of Tull albums comprised the ideal, if occasionally uncomfortable, source material for making that awkward (but earnest!) leap from adolescence to young adulthood, “For Esme — with Love and Squalor” is among the handful of indispensable short stories (along with Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”,  Tolstoy’s “The Three Hermits”, Kafka’s “First Sorrow”, James Joyce’s “Eveline” and especially Joao Guimaraes Rosa’s “The Third Bank of the River”) that resonate on profound and permanent levels with a certain type of person at a certain age.

Perhaps, as already acknowledged, I simply came to The Catcher in the Rye too late (although, as already suggested, I am uncertain it was capable of working its celebrated charms on me, not because I didn’t relate to Holden Caulfield on some levels, but more because as I read I kept thinking “Yeah? Is this all you got?”). There can be no doubt that I came to “Esme” at exactly the right age: after digesting Catcher and spending many a session (and, the writer would be remiss to overlook, at least one enchanted, and mycologic evening) uncovering the ultimately not so mysterious mysteries of Aqualung. I was, inevitably, an ardent if confused soul quite concerned with “again becoming a man with all his fac– with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact”.

Like the very best literature, “For Esme — with Love and Squalor” is every bit enjoyable and edifying to adult eyes as it is to, say, the wider eyes of a college sophomore. In fact, Salinger’s achievement is that much more poignant (and devastating) to an older audience who has actually known people who have been wounded or killed in war. But the narrator of this story is reeling from actual experience in the real world, so it resonates to a young reader about to enter it, and certainly a more mature reader who has seen and felt some of those proverbial slings and arrows. If there is a more  quietly coruscating image in literature than the narrator lifting Esme’s (KIA) father’s wristwatch, which has shattered in transit, out of the care package, I’m not aware of it. The question, as the story ends, is: does that broken glass represent the narrator’s spirit, or will he rally to once more become part of the world?

This is the question so many (but apparently not enough, considering we are still fighting wars and still taking less than acceptable care of our veterans) young adults grapple with at a crucial time in their lives.

This is the question J.D. Salinger may or may not have answered, in his own inscrutable fashion, once he turned his back on fame –and his fans– and spent the last decades of his life in a golden cage of his making. Whether or not he was quietly desperate, or just quiet, will presumably be answered once those elusive and much-discussed manuscripts see the light of day.

Once it seemed there would always be
a time for everything.
Ages passed I knew at last
my life had never been.
I’d been missing what time could bring.
Fifty years and I’m filled with tears and joys
I never cried.
Burn the wagon and chain the mule.
The past is all denied.
There’s no time for everything.
No time for everything.

–Ian Anderson, “A Time For Everything” (1970)

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Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung’: Even Better Than You Thought It Was

Whatever one’s feelings about progressive rock, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung is a rare album that remains at once part of, and above, the fray. It is, to be certain, a cornerstone of the then-nascent prog-rock canon, but it did—and does—exist wholly on its own terms as a great rock album, period.

One of the many reasons prog-rock is controversial, and taken less-than-seriously by the so-called serious critics, is because fairly or not it frequently gets associated with sci-fi and fantasy. Matters of musical proficiency aside, it is true to suggest that little of the material holds up especially well, lyrically speaking (of course that is true of most rock music—a topic for another time). This is not a sufficient—or necessarily legitimate—cause to dismiss it as is usually the case, but defenders can only get so much mileage discussing the unparalleled chops of, say, ELP, Yes, Rush, et al.

Jethro Tull is in the unfortunate, yet ultimately enviable position of circumventing easy identification. Certainly they are known as a crucial part of the prog-rock movement, as they should be, but their career preceded it and has continued long after its heyday. Aside from their accessibility, relatively speaking of course, Tull also sold enough units to be considered a significant act in its own regard. Tull, in other words, suffers if compared to the critically reviled acts of this time. In terms of their influence, longevity and versatility, they really are a unique entity in rock music.

More than anything else, Ian Anderson’s lyrics are many degrees better than those of his prog brethren. More to the point, his lyrics are many degrees better than rock songwriters in any era. The list of rock musicians whose lyrics can be considered apart from the music and appraised as poetry is small, but Anderson is at the top of the list. In terms of output alone, his work necessarily ranks about Roger Waters and Peter Gabriel, two of rock’s better wordsmiths. The fact that he was only 23 when Aqualung was recorded is remarkable enough; the fact that the themes and words in many ways remain relevant today is sufficient evidence of his genius.

By 1971, Anderson had dealt with the past (Stand Up) and the present (Benefit); his burgeoning confidence would prompt him to combine those elements in an attempt to grind some axes that probed quite a bit deeper than the typical sociopolitical commentary on offer (then, now). For Tull’s first proper “concept album” (despite Anderson’s ongoing protestations regarding this label), the songwriter turns a lacerating eye on the institution of organized religion. While the first side of the original LP concerns itself with, for lack of a better cliché, man’s inhumanity to man, the second side takes on religion with a righteous indignation that has scarcely—if ever—been improved upon by other mainstream acts.

Everyone knows the epic title track (forever and somewhat unfortunately associated with the iconic cover art, which renders the eponymous tramp into a caricature of Ian Anderson who, not a little ironically, casual fans thought—and think?—is Jethro Tull), and then there is the concert anthem “Locomotive Breath” as well as the ones you used to hear on the radio when we used to listen to the radio, “Hymn 43” and “Cross-Eyed Mary”. Four decades on, it happens to be the lesser known tracks that represent the key to the work’s endurance. If you only know the “hits” you are selling the album, and yourself, more than a little short. In between the heavy, huge classic tracks are quiet pieces that, while softer, pack their own subtle punch. The acoustic couplet of “Cheap Day Return” and “Wond’ring Aloud” are archetypes of a sort; the kind of whimsical British folk that Tull perfected all through the ‘70s. The songs seem straightforward and pleasant enough (and they are; Anderson’s voice, always striking, is conveying new levels of expressiveness and emotion, particularly during the slower tunes) but are cut by their topical, occasionally unsettling lyrical import.

Succinct delivery with maximum impact is Anderson’s calling card, and nowhere is it on better display than the one-minute and 24 seconds of perfection entitled “Cheap Day Return”. In quick yet extraordinary fashion he deals with his own alienation, offers a sardonic appraisal of his budding super-stardom (What a laugh!), and his father’s imminent death, all in a song that sounds as innocuous as a nursery rhyme. On “Wond’ring Aloud” Anderson, sounding plaintive but optimistic, turns a seemingly simple love song into a meditation on mortality (Will the years treat us well?), ending on a line that underscores the album’s central theme: It’s only the giving that makes you what you are.

This sentiment is a respite from the unflinching social commentary that comes before and after: the aforementioned “Cross-Eyed Mary” concerns itself with a prostitute, and there is no judgment offered unless it is on the conditions that made the oldest profession possible, then and still conceivable, today. “Mother Goose”, also a deceptively upbeat number, describes a surreal tour through the London underground with an unsavory cast of characters disarmingly depicted as fairy tale characters. When, mid-way through the number, Martin Barre’s electric guitar growl punctuates the proceedings, it becomes clear that the people and places being discussed are in various states of distress and despair.

Where “Cross-Eyed Mary” might be considered a contemporary Mary Magdalene, the titular character—inspired by a series of photographs Anderson’s wife Jennie took—could be Christ himself, embodying the least of our brothers. “Aqualung’s” riff is so urgent and unforgettable, the initial verse and chorus so forceful and familiar, it’s possible that the significance of this overplayed radio standard has slipped under the collective radar. Put another way, while correctly heralded as an essential moment in classic rock history, it is more than that; a point of departure for a new type of music, both for Jethro Tull and the progressive era.

It remains tantalizing to imagine the augmented critical—and street—cred the album would receive if it had only been named after almost any of the other ten songs, especially “Wind Up” or “My God”. And if, as Anderson claims he preferred, the cover had featured the actual tramp from the Thames Embankment who inspired the song (“Aqualung” referring to the gurgling sound of the man’s chronic bronchitis), it would make the lyrics about the real human being inexorably more vivid and disturbing.

The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep -sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves. And the flowers bloom like madness in the Spring…

Side Two is a remarkably ambitious attempt to examine the racket organized religion has degenerated into (or was it always thus?). On “My God” gets some licks in on the clergy, then turns both barrels on the men and women who have set about the self-serving task of recreating God in their image. Acrimony like this, at least in rock music, generally fails to rise above sophomoric ranting, but Anderson’s words retain all of their power and perspicacity if for no other reason than the cynicism and spiritual charade he targets has only become more prevalent. Musically, the song is cheekily experimental, shifting from an acoustic tour de force (Anderson, who is rightly celebrated for elevating flute into a lead instrument as opposed to sideshow embellishment, does not get nearly enough attention for his superlative guitar playing ability) to an arena-ready workhorse, with Barre’s larger-than-life chords. Then, in the extended middle section, we are treated to a credible approximation and/or parody of a religious hymn, complete with multi-tracked chanting and echoed flute effects: it is an audacious act of musical vandalism, at once amusing and eerie. It also serves to function as a soundtrack of sorts for the irreverent image inside the double-sleeve gatefold, which depicts the band having broken into a cathedral for some impromptu merriment.

For “Hymn 43” Anderson sets his sights on the U.S.A. and in quick order sets about decimating the hypocrisy and myth-making of religion and the new religion, entertainment. It still sounds brazen today, but it was downright defiant to pen tunes in 1971 with incendiary couplets like this “If Jesus saves, he better save himself/From the gory glory seekers who’ll use his name in death.” For a postmodern twist Anderson could not have anticipated, the not-so-holy-ghost in the trinity occurred when religion and entertainment got packaged together as part of the anti-science, anti-intellectual politics we see camera-ready charlatans practicing daily on our television sets.

In just one minute on “Slipstream” Anderson captures the opportunistic shamelessness of the materially rich but spiritually fallow weekend warriors who compensate (figuratively) for their nagging consciences in the confessional or the collection basket (“And you press on God’s waiter your last dime/As he hands you the bill”). On the literal levels these are the people we all know: our peers, parents and especially our politicians, whom Anderson contemptuously nails to their crosses of gold. In an era of too-big-too-fail and the wealthiest .001%, it’s difficult to conclude that Anderson was not predicting the future of a world totally off the tracks in “Locomotive Breath” (“no way to slow down”).

Anderson saves his best for last when, in “Wind Up” he recalls being shipped off to church, eventually concluding that God is “not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays”. It brings full circle the concerns, both material and spiritual, that any sensitive—or sentient—person must grapple with, or make sense of. “In your pomp and all your glory you’re a poorer man than me/As you lick the boots of death born out of fear”, he snarls, assailing the fake humility and the appropriation of the holy for personal, earthly gains, et cetera.

And here we are, 40 years later where a great album gets even better. First, we have the new stereo mix masterminded by the indefatigable Steven Wilson, who has become a champion for prog rock remastering. His recent work on the King Crimson catalog managed the improbable by creating indispensable copies of oft-remastered works (ones which sounded fairly spectacular in the first place). Aqualung, on the other hand, has always suffered from shoddy production and/or mastering. Even the obligatory reissues over the years have been lackluster, amplifying the hiss and burying the subtlety in the mix. What Wilson has done with the master tapes is spectacular bordering on unbelievable: the songs do not merely sound improved, they sound different, albeit in ways that do not encroach upon or overwhelm the versions we have grown so fond of over the decades. Now, each instrument (especially the bass and John Evan’s omnipresent piano) gets released from the murkiness of the earlier mixes. Anderson’s vocals are crystalline and each note from the acoustic guitar is a room-filling revelation.

For Tull aficionados the real treats are contained on the second disc: previously unreleased material(!). In addition to remixed and remastered versions of familiar favorites from the ’71 sessions (such as “Life Is a Long Song”, “Nursie” and “From Later”), we get early versions of “My God” (rough around the edges and alternate lyrics familiar to those who have heard live recordings from this era) and “Wind Up” (previously available on the last Aqualung remaster). The newly released songs are the real eye-openers: there is an early run of “Wond’ring Aloud” and initial takes of “Slipstream” and “Up the ‘Pool”. The one that is worth the proverbial price of admission is the alternate take of “Wond’ring Aloud, Again” which combines an early version of “Wond’ring Aloud” and the working draft of “Wond’ring Again” which turned up on the Living in the Past collection. Listening to this take, I found myself fantasizing that the existing (master) take of “Wond’ring Aloud” had simply segued into “Wond’ring Again” (one of the better lyrical and musical numbers from ’71) and the latter had replaced the worthy but not as essential “Up to Me”; if we had the same running order with “Wond’ring Again” instead of “Up to Me” concluding Side One we would have an even more perfect album, if that is possible. As is always the case, it’s fantastic to have this long-discarded material made available; it is imperative for fans and might help newcomers better appreciate why an album made 40 years ago can inspire so much enthusiasm.

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For J.D. Salinger, Jethro Tull and Me

She nodded. “Make it extraordinarily squalid and moving,” she suggested. “Are you at all acquainted with squalor?”

I said not exactly but that I was getting better acquainted with it, in one form or another, all the time…

–J.D. Salinger, “For Esme — with Love and Squalor” (1950)

Spin me back down the years and the days of my youth, as the song says.

April, 1988.

More time has passed since those days than had passed since I’d been born.  There has to be a more eloquent way to put that, but I’m having a difficult time coming up with it. More to the point, I am increasingly unable to avoid calculations like this. Why? Because the balance has shifted and, going forward, more years (and things) will have transpired in my life, but few of them will be as indelible. So there’s that.

Everyone talks about how reading The Catcher in the Rye is one of those seminal rites of passage. Now that J.D. Salinger has gone to that big field of rye in the sky, everyone is talking about it all at once. I would be a phony, I figure, not to include myself (and all). For starters, what do you call a rite of passage involving a lot of middle-aged (or older) folks talking about the passing of an author who wrote one of the ultimate rite of passage novels? Indulgent? Inevitable? Ironic? All of the above?

By the time I got around to Holden Caulfield, I was already a senior in high school. Too young? Too old? Just right? For better or worse, I was either too old, or not alienated enough, to feel the full force of Salinger’s operetta of adolescent angst. Of course, I’m selling it short (or am I?), but I’ve heard very few adults whose opinions I admire mention falling under this novel’s spell while revisiting it as an adult. Myself, I couldn’t tell if it was too obvious this book was the result of a grown man trying (diligently, and in that overly mannered, oft-imitated style) to sound like a disaffected but acutely sensitive sixteen year old, or if it’s because he succeeded so thoroughly that, even as a seventeen year old, I wasn’t especially simpatico with his anguished, if solipsistic observations. Which is not to say that his plight did not move me, or that his situation is not, at times, rendered with profound artistry by Salinger.

(This is the squalid, or moving part of my observation: after getting several paragraphs of analysis and personal reflection put down, my power went out for a second, and I lost everything I had just written. Everyone knows, whether they are writing an essay or an e-mail, how indescribably frutrating this can be. Nevertheless, I had to chuckle thinking Salinger’s spirit was taking the piss out of my piece, or else the collective force of so many Holden Caulfield acolytes simply snuffed me out in midstream as a sort of karmic correction. Duly noted, and a discouraging setback but not enough to tempt me to pull a Seymour Glass.)

Perhaps it would be a bit unfair, if mostly accurate to conclude that The Catcher in the Rye is the archetypal novel of adolescent alienation for teenagers/young adults who don’t read a great deal of fiction. Just as there are certain types of movies and music that, through a perfect storm of critical consensus and a groundswell of contagious public approbation, get anointed as authentic touchstones of a particular moment in time (I would say “tapping into the zeitgeist” but I try to avoid using the dreaded z-word if at all possible).

Regarding the almost half-century of silence that followed his initial burst of creativty, Norman Mailer decreed Salinger “the greatest mind to ever stay in prep school.” That is harsh but it is also –based on the available evidence– pretty indisputable. On the other hand, when people hold up The Catcher in the Rye (or even Franny and Zooey) as the zenith of Salinger’s oeuvre, they are overlooking (or more likely, have never read) “For Esme –With Love and Squalor”, in my estimation one of the five best American short stories of the 20th Century. Indeed, what Salinger accomplishes in those twenty-odd pages greatly exceeds the sum total of Mailer’s voluminous, if mostly perishable output. Everything that Salinger didn’t do, or didn’t do convincingly, or didn’t do well enough to reward subsequent readings by a more mature audience, in his canonized novel, he does in spades with this short story. It is a compact, devastating illumination of the cruel machinery we, for lack of a better or more appropriate word, call adulthood. How fittingly ironic, then, that a writer celebrated (and minimized) for being the consummate chronicler of what Pete Townshend later called “teenage wasteland” actually wrote a shattering treatise from the trenches (literally and figuratively) that endures well into a new millennium. Of which, more later.

 

As it happens, when I first experienced The Catcher in the Rye I was in the early (but intense) stages of what became a lifelong infatuation with Jethro Tull. Which naturally coincided with my burgeoning obsession with all-things progressive rock, which happened to coincide with the release of so many classic recordings on that new-fangled technical revelation called compact discs. It would be near impossible for anyone who didn’t live through those days to imagine a world when you waited for anything: i-Pods and online access have made everything that has ever happened available, immediately.

Back then, waiting for certain Rush, Yes, King Crimson and especially Jethro Tull albums to get their digital reincarnation was like patiently awaiting Moses to deliver a new sonic commandment every other week. The upside of this, of course, was that it was still a time when you had time (you had no choice) to savor and spend time with a new purchase, and by the time you’d (temporarily) exhausted your enthusiasm, you had ample funds to get the next installment. This was also, as many will remember, a time before information itself was a free 24/7 proposition. As such, each trip to the record store was loaded with possibility: you never knew what might have been released, including albums by bands like Genesis and Pink Floyd, that you never even knew existed. And, it should go without saying that the prospect of upgrading scratchy vinyl (or tape-recorded) copies of Beatles, Stones, Doors, Zeppelin and Hendrix albums was something slightly beyond orgasmic.

Anyway, it was during the winter and spring of 1988 that the back catalog of Jethro Tull was being released, a couple at a time, on compact disc. It was around this time, having already devoured Thick as a Brick and still patiently awaiting the arrival of A Passion Play, that I had my first sustained go-round with Tull’s third album, 1970’s Benefit. In April 1988 it was the right album at the right time. Remarkably, it still is.

But before you can fully appreciate what Tull achieves on Benefit, one has to consider (and understand) the brilliant album that preceded it, 1969’s Stand Up. In addition to the handful of gems that still get radio play (“Nothing Is Easy, “Bouree”, “A New Day Yesterday” and “Fat Man”), there were a couple of standard coming-of-age type middle finger salutes to the establishment: “Back to the Family”, which features a blistering guitar coda from Martin Barre and album-closer “For A Thousand Mothers”, where Ian Anderson not only spits on, but laughs at the naysayers. This song is notable for perfecting  a sort of “garage flute rock”: once you hear that joyously spiteful noise, this might not sound like such an oxymoron. (And incidentally, if you don’t realize how incendiary and downright dangerous this band was capable of sounding circa ’69, get a load of this.) The two most surprising, and surprisingly abiding, songs are “Look Into The Sun” which Led Zep could have put on their third album (and indeed they may have been listening to this one before taking their somewhat left-field, and awesome, acoustic turn in 1970) and the best song you’ve never heard, the sublime and ethereal “Reasons For Waiting”. But the one that stands out (or stands up, as the case may be) from the rest is the ceaselessly astonishing “We Used To Know.” Check it out:

How many 21 year olds write songs like that? The world weariness of those vocals (not to mention the lyrics) and the masterful subtlety of Martin Barre’s embellishment through the first half make the song ache with longing and arid resignation. But then after the flute solo bleeds into the guitar solo, the song explodes into the clear-eyed appraisal of a man who has fully taken stock of the world, and the reigns of his destiny. As we know now, he never looked back. (A few quick words about that guitar solo: more than a few folks, including Ian Anderson, have noticed that The Eagles’ much more famous “Hotel California” seems to have borrowed more than a little from “We Used To Know”. Personally, I think it’s a tough case to make as the two songs are so different, but this does present an opportunity to lament the fact that Joe Walsh, lovable rascal that he is, would be easily identified by approximately 100% of people who know anything about rock music, while Martin Barre might be recognized by one in ten, and that is being generous. Such is life, and don’t weep for Mr. Barre who can wipe his own eyes with the piles of money he has earned. Joe Walsh, who left his talent and most of his brain cells in that holiday weekend of excess called the ’70s, endures as an avatar, and casualty, of that era: he is the coke-stained hundred dollar bill that says so many things about a time and a place where certain people did certain things because they quite simply could afford to. Mr. Barre, on the other hand, is a vintage Jaguar –pronounced Jag.U.R.– that may have neither the flash or immediacy of newer, more colorful models, but discerning eyes can assess its value, and class, with little difficulty. In hindsight, listening to him in song after song after song, it becomes increasingly clear that even some of the most accomplished –and celebrated– guitarists of the ’70s were using crayons while Barre had already figured out how to use water colors.)

So where were we? Ah, 1970. The growth evidenced between Tull’s blues-drenched debut and the follow-up, only a year later, is unequaled by any other rock band’s first and second albums. This is in no small part due to Barre’s arrival (replacing Mick Abrahams, who lost his battle to co-lead the band and continue down the British blues revue road) and the almost incomprehensible maturation of Ian Anderson’s songwriting proficiency. To the band’s credit, their ambition knew no bounds, and part of their strategy for the third album was to recruit John Evan to agument the sound with his considerable piano (and organ) skills. It was a move that paid substantial dividends, immediately evident on the first song, “With You There To Help Me”. Evan’s welcome presence is in full effect on the deceptively simple, almost waltz-like “Alive and Well and Living In“, which details the dynamics of a failing, probably abusive relationship. The flute and acoustic guitar bely the heartbreakingly familiar subject matter (a woman stuck in the rut of on-again/off-again romance with a man who is distant and then demanding, while she is quick to forgive but not quite able to forget), but Barre’s abrasive guitar tone articulates the anger steadily being buried beneath the surface. It’s a cautionary tale for the teenage listener who has yet to embark on a meaningful romance (written by a young man who could not have had a great deal of experience himself) that an older listener can still admire, decades later.

But the centerpiece (thematically, aesthetically) of the album –and a song that absolutely ranks in the upper echelon of the Tull catalog– has to be “Nothing To Say”. If “We Used To Know” grapples with a wary nostaligia that accompanies the resolve to make one’s own way (as an artist but also as a young adult going out into the world),  “Nothing To Say” confronts the pressures (of an artist or a young adult out in the world) of conformity or, in Anderson’s case, the expectation that he will embrace the role of countercultural guru, ready to dispense words of wisdom for his young acolytes (a role many artists are quite satisfied to assume, and much more so today than in 1970). Anderson’s ambivalence about this scenario signals, as much as any rock song of that era, that the ’60s are over. Anderson who, to his credit, did not pay much more than lip service (intellectually, lyrically) to the free-love surface level ethos of the festival-flocking hippies, takes aim at both sides of the system and espouses a creed of personal responsibility. What at first might be read as a surly refusal to take a stand is actually an admonishment that everyone needs to figure it out on their own; certainly Anderson was not willing to be a de-facto spokesman for anything political or otherwise. The world was, in many ways, a mess, but every concerned citizen is personally accountable for finding their way and bringing about whatever change is warranted:

It’s not my power
to criticize or to ask you to be blind
To your own pressing problem
and the hate you must unwind.
So ask of me no answer
there is none that I could give
you wouldn’t find.

At this point, Anderson has dealt with the past (Stand Up) and the present (Benefit); his burgeoning confidence would prompt him to combine those elements in an attempt to grind some axes that probed quite a bit deeper than the typical sociopolitical commentary on offer (then, now). As it turns out he had plenty to say, which brings us to Aqualung and the semi-dreaded concept album, wherein Anderson turns his attention, and lacerating wit, to the institution of organized religion. First off, it’s one of the more unfortunate, if trivial, missteps in rock. Naming their fourth album Aqualung was akin to Black Sabbath changing their name from Earth. In both instances, a less appropriate moniker makes the work easier to dismiss. Considering the thematic scope of the album, and the central thesis of how religion affects us all, especially when we are at a young and formative age. It is tantalizing to imagine how much more street cred this album could –and would– have accrued if it were named after almost any of the other ten songs, specifically “Cheap Day Return”, “Up To Me” or “Wind Up” (particularly as a pun for what this expression signifies in British slang–as a comment on the song and the album, and the material, which was sure to “wind up” some listeners). But most of all, this album absolutely should have been named “My God” which, again, would be appropriate on the micro and macro levels.

In any event, anyone who has made it this far most likely has at least a passing acquaintance with this particular album (perhaps beyond the excellent title track and the radio staples “Locomotive Breath” and “Cross-Eyed Mary”). While the first side of the LP concerns itself with, for lack of a better cliche, man’s inhumanity to man, the second side takes on religion with a righteous indignation that has not been improved upon by many (if any) other mainstream artists since ’71.

I wrote a bit about this one (while attempting a succint overview of the band’s career here) and here’s an excerpt on a couple of songs from Side One: the one-two acoustic punch of “Cheap Day Return” and “Mother Goose” are archetypes of a sort; the kind of whimsical British folk that Tull perfected: the songs seem straightforward and pleasant enough (and they are) but are cut by their topical, and occasionally unsettling, lyrical import. This is Anderson’s calling card, and nowhere is it in better effect than the one minute and twenty-four seconds of perfection entitled “Cheap Day Return”. In astonishingly succinct and effective fashion Anderson deals with his own alienation, offers a sardonic appraisal of his own budding super-stardom (What a laugh!), and his father’s imminent death, all in a song that sounds innocuous as a nursery rhyme.

Side Two is a remarkably ambitious –and successful– attempt to look at the racket religion has degenerated into (or was it always thus?) and after getting some licks in on the clergy, Anderson turns both barrels on the men who have sought to create a  convenient God in their own image. Pretty sophomoric stuff, eh? Well, that’s partly the point (more on that in a moment), but what’s remarkable is that these songs have lost none of their power or perspicacity. It still sounds pretty audacious today, but was downright defiant to pen tunes like this in 1971 (check out “My God” and “Hymn 43“, which includes the incendiary couplet “If Jesus saves, he better save himself/From the gory glory seekers who’ll use his name in death). In just one minute Anderson nails, for all time, the opportunistic hypocrisy of the materially rich but spiritually depraved amongst us who compensate (figuratively) for their nagging consciences in the confessional or in the collection basket (“And you press on God’s waiter your last dime/As he hands you the bill”). But on the literal levels, these are the people we all know: our peers, parents and especially our politicians, and Anderson sardonically nails these weekend warriors to their crosses of gold.

He saves the best for last, when in “Wind Up” he recalls being shipped off to church, eventually concluding that God is “not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays”. I can trace the trajectory of when I first heard this album, early in high school, and loving the “hit” songs, to eventually gaining a fuller appreciation of “My God” –in terms of the lyrical import and the inspired way Anderson multi-tracks his vocals to imitate, and satirize, a sanctified choral hymn– and the other songs on the second side. But it wasn’t until college that the full effects of “Wind Up” revealed themselves to the not-so-innocent, recovering Catholic who had served mass as an altar boy only a couple of years earlier:

In your pomp and all your glory you’re a poorer man than me/As you lick the boots of death born out of fear.

I’ll decline to further recall how profound those lyrics seemed to a nineteen year old, but I’ll argue they retain their poetic import even now. Of course one comes to an age where they can see through the self-serving charade and the fake humility and the sickening appropriation of the holy for personal, earthly gains. Et cetera. But this sort of material goes several steps beyond fighting the power or endorsing the punk rock anarchy; this stuff is gospel for a young sensitive soul, alienated by everything and earnestly (sensitive souls are nothing if not earnest) looking for Truth with a capital T.

Which, at long last, brings us back to Salinger. If the holy trinity (sorry) of Tull albums comprised the ideal, if occasionally uncomfortable, source material for making that awkward (but earnest!) leap from adolescence to young adulthood, “For Esme — with Love and Squalor” is among the handful of indispensable short stories (along with Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well Lighted Place”,  Tolstoy’s “The Three Hermits”, Kafka’s “First Sorrow”, James Joyce’s “Eveline” and especially Joao Guimaraes Rosa’s “The Third Bank of the River”) that resonate on profound and permanent levels with a certain type of person at a certain age.

Perhaps, as already acknowledged, I simply came to The Catcher in the Rye too late (although, as already suggested, I am uncertain it was capable of working its celebrated charms on me, not because I didn’t relate to Holden Caulfield on some levels, but more because as I read I kept thinking “Yeah? Is this all you got?”). There can be no doubt that I came to “Esme” at exactly the right age: after digesting Catcher and spending many a session (and, the writer would be remiss to overlook, at least one enchanted, and mycologic evening) uncovering the ultimately not so mysterious mysteries of Aqualung. I was, inevitably, an ardent if confused soul quite concerned with “again becoming a man with all his fac– with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact”.

Like the very best literature, “For Esme — with Love and Squalor” is every bit enjoyable and edifying to adult eyes as it is to, say, the wider eyes of a college sophomore. In fact, Salinger’s achievement is that much more poignant (and devastating) to an older audience who has actually known people who have been wounded or killed in war. But the narrator of this story is reeling from actual experience in the real world, so it resonates to a young reader about to enter it, and certainly a more mature reader who has seen and felt some of those proverbial slings and arrows. If there is a more  quietly coruscating image in literature than the narrator lifting Esme’s (KIA) father’s wristwatch, which has shattered in transit, out of the care package, I’m not aware of it. The question, as the story ends, is: does that broken glass represent the narrator’s spirit, or will he rally to once more become part of the world?

This is the question so many (but apparently not enough, considering we are still fighting wars and still taking less than acceptable care of our veterans) young adults grapple with at a crucial time in their lives.

This is the question J.D. Salinger may or may not have answered, in his own inscrutable fashion, once he turned his back on fame –and his fans– and spent the last decades of his life in a golden cage of his making. Whether or not he was quietly desperate, or just quiet, will presumably be answered once those elusive and much-discussed manuscripts see the light of day.

Once it seemed there would always be
a time for everything.
Ages passed I knew at last
my life had never been.
I’d been missing what time could bring.
Fifty years and I’m filled with tears and joys
I never cried.
Burn the wagon and chain the mule.
The past is all denied.
There’s no time for everything.
No time for everything.

–Ian Anderson, “A Time For Everything” (1970)

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It Was 335 Years Ago Today: A Brief History of Jethro Tull (Both of Them)

Most people knew Jethro Tull had been around forever, but more than three centuries??

Oh. You mean the actual British dude, Mr. Tull, whom the progressive band was named after? (Wait, so that isn’t the singer’s name?) Quite an arbitrary choice, though certainly more cerebral than many of its era (Strawberry Alarm Clock, anyone?); and considering one of the early choices was Candy Coloured Rain, I think we can all appreciate that less acid-addled minds prevailed.

So who was this Jethro Tull and why is he important, aside from being on the cover of this album? Well, do the words seed drill mean anything to you?

Eventually, as agricultural improvement became fashionable, more interest began to be taken in Tull’s ideas.  While several other mechanical seed drills had also been invented, Tull’s complete system was a major influence on the agricultural revolution and its impact can still be seen in today’s methods and machinery.

Suffice it to say, this was the iPod of its day. Arguably, the Agricultural Revolution would have taken longer to reach its full…flowering without Mr. Tull, and for that we can be grateful. No Agricultural Revolution, no Industrial Revolution. No Industrial Revolution, no electricity. No Electricity, no phonograph. No Phonograph…well, you get the picture. Without Jethro Tull…no Jethro Tull!

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After three impressive albums, Tull signalled that they were around to stay with the release of Aqualung in 1971, an ambitious quasi-concept album that dealt with organized religion and man’s inhumanity to man. The title track (which features one of the great rock guitar solos of all time courtesy of Martin Barre) and “Locomotive Breath” became, and remain, FM radio staples. It is (as is often the case with “classic” albums) the somewhat lesser-known tunes that retain their true staying power. The one-two acoustic punch of “Cheap Day Return” and “Mother Goose” are archetypes of a sort; the kind of whimsical British folk that Tull perfected: the songs seem straightforward and pleasant enough (and they are) but are cut by their topical, and occasionally unsettling, lyrical import. This is Anderson’s calling card, and nowhere is it in better effect than the one minute and twenty-four seconds of perfection entitled “Cheap Day Return”. In astonishingly succinct and effective fashion Anderson deals with his own alienation, offers a sardonic appraisal of his own budding super-stardom (What a laugh!), and his father’s imminent death, all in a song that sounds innocuous as a nursery rhyme.

They were on top of the world (and the charts) in ’72 when Thick As A Brick became the first pop album comprised of one continuous song to reach a widespread audience. The concept may have been audacious, but the music is miraculous: this is one of the handful of holy grails for prog-rock fanatics: the ones who bought this album on vinyl, then, and the brave souls who have no shame in their game, now. Simply put, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics (then, now) who were content to dismiss the more ambitious (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid ’70s. And by works I don’t mean this but I do mean this (at least side one). And for every one of these there was one of these. And before he (rightly) became a more mainstream iconoclast, Peter Gabriel was the driving force behind albums like this and this and especially this. As could correctly be said of any artistic era, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times.

Inevitably, Jethro Tull lost some of that same audience (more than a handful forever) with their next opus, the more challenging (and, upon initial listens, less rewarding) A Passion Play. It was a shame, then, and remains regrettable, now that folks don’t have the ears or hearts for this material, as it represents much of Anderson’s finest work. His voice would never sound better, and he was possibly at the height of his instrumental prowess: the obligatory flute, the always-impressive acoustic guitar chops and, for this album, the cheeky employment of a soprano saxophone: it is a gamble (and/or a conceit, depending upon one’s perspective) that pays off in spades. All of the above is amply demonstrated in the opening section, embedded below. Not for nothing is this considered the masterpiece of the Tull oeuvre amongst die-hard fans (an encomium that only adds fuel to the fire for the legion of Tull haters, snot running down their noses).

Tull plowed ahead, making music their own way, and cranked out an album per year through the entire decade. In another nice bit of art imitating history, Anderson recorded the second album of his “pastoral trilogy” (including the majestic Songs From The Wood and the fin de siecle-inspired Stormwatch), ’78’s Heavy Horses.

    

In 1731 he published his book, ‘The New Horse Hoeing Husbandry’, detailing his system and its machinery. It caused great controversy at the time, and arguments continued for another century before his eventual vindication.

We can hope that the scales of artistic justice will have a similar fate in store for Anderson, and that his tour de force (the title track) is fully vindicated in the eyes of critics and casual music fans everywhere (though it’s difficult to protest too much for an artist who has sold many millions of albums). Nevertheless, it’s an embarrassing commentary on how close-minded so many folks are that they probably have never even heard this song. Of course,  the professionals who write most often about rock music in the ’70s are not known for their fondness of multisyllabic words and material that obliges a modest understanding of world history.

The early ’80s were not particularly kind to Tull (or, put another way, the Tull of the early ’80s was not particularly kind to fans), and after the synth-heavy Under Wraps, it seemed like the time might be right for Anderson to turn more of his attention to salmon farming. But the (sweet) dream was not yet over: toward the end of the decade Tull unleashed back-to-back albums that recalled some of the better work of the past while being (mostly) entrenched in the here-and-now. The best moments on Crest of a Knave (’87) and Rock Island (’89) stand (mostly) alongside the best work the band did in its prime.

Farm on the Freeway:


Strange Avenues:


The ’90s were a time when bands who made double-albums in the ’70s replayed that material, live, to the retro crowd, working that nostalgia circuit in very profitable fasion. To Tull’s credit, they still toured regularly, and also made new albums from time to time. To say the results were mixed indicates a generosity that only the most unfaltering fan would deny. Still, Anderson had a few tricks left in his codpiece (figuratively speaking), like the surprisingly satisfactory Divinities: Twelve Dances With God. As the title suggests, it is a musical meditation on faith (all different types). The topic alone is cause for critics who wrote for Creem and Rolling Stone in the ’70s to suffer a fresh outbreak of the Herpes they contracted while covering The Sex Pistols, but the material holds up.

As some may be surprised to know, Jethro Tull still roams the earth, and while new albums aren’t being produced at the former pace (based on their post-’95 output, this is a good thing for all involved), they are still playing to crowds who happily pay to see them. If Pete Townshend decided he did not, in fact, want to die before he got old, it seems fair play for Jethro Tull and their fans to keep living in the past.

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