“On This Day” or, Take My Life, Please

The author, en fuego in '09

The author, en fuego in ’09

Remember when Facebook was still new?

The novelty of being able to keep tabs on everyone, like e-mail on amphetamines, with pictures (and now, video, and all the other things we can incorporate instead of actually living life moment by moment) was, naturally, addictive.

I loved it, then, and still (mostly) love it, now, because I –and, I’m sure, you– can attest to the non-superficial ways it enables one to stay in touch: to be informed, to engage and be engaged, to eavesdrop, to laugh, “like” and mostly scroll past. I see people now I’ve not talked to in person for months, or years, and still feel like I’m up to speed on the important things: what they’re doing, how their kids are, what silly things their pets have done, what friends or relatives they’ve lost, which movies and albums and books they’re enjoying (or hating), how incredible their meals are on aesthetic levels, etc.

We’re all, also, guilty of the alternately transparent, amusing and pitiable spectacle of the ways we manufacture our reality for public consumption.

Who can blame us?

With great power comes great responsibility, right? (By power I mean the capacity, with a flick of the keyboard, to assume the mildly divine authorial license to craft our own narrative. By great responsibility I mean editing the unflattering pictures and ever-present danger of TMI.)

We probably all do –and should– process these narratives, equal parts hopeful, trusting, resentful, with more than a shovel full of salt; we know most of us are obeying the 21st Century impulse to put our best face forward, literally and figuratively. In a way, the people ostensibly leading the healthiest and most satisfying lives — the ones who’ve sucked so much marrow out of life it’s oozing onto their wrinkle-free smirks — are sadder than the handful of friends we all have who use social media as a ceaseless cri de coeur: the people who are seeking sympathy might well receive a portion of solidarity that Facebook can provide (if a paltry consolation for that human touch, a few thumbs up, shout outs and, in extreme cases, direct messages, it’s definitely better than nothing). Those golden gods and goddesses, on the other hand, likely aren’t looking for approbation so much as attempting to quell their own fears of inadequacy or unhappiness. Of course, there are also the folks who really do work hard, stay in shape, raise wonderful children, love their partners, glow with salubrity in every selfie, and generally have karmic insect repellent for all the world’s pesky problems. Fuck them. (Just kidding, mostly.)

All of which is to say, I do my best, most days, to moderate my mostly good-natured envy and use it as inspiration (sleep and procrastinate less, be kinder, care less about how much everyone cares about everything, etc.), and I try to, as the kids say, keep it real. Certainly, I’m mostly trying to respect the self-imposed social media contract by keeping the more unsavory aspects to myself, and the motivation there is both benevolent and selfish. The nitty-gritty of life’s rich pageant is best left to journals, texts and long-suffering spouses.

I think a great deal about the information overload we all attempt to navigate, and as an insatiable consumer of all-things-cultural, my issue is less with filtering out the crap and trying to keep up with the authentic and irresistible. I’m of the opinion that one can never be too informed, so the bizarre mixed-blessing of having so many intelligent and diverse friends (thanks, all) is the luxury, the exorbitance of incredible content. (One reason I still don’t subscribe to any podcasts, regardless of how much I know I’d adore some of them, is I don’t have the time; I already lament the hours I used to dedicate to reading books, writing about them and trying to write them, not to mention the endless struggle to not be fixated on a handheld device (our poor eyes) every waking second. It’s another reason I seldom surf Twitter; it’s too much. Yes, there’s a plethora of easily ignorable effluvia in those tweets, like so many digital dust mites, but it requires time and effort to scroll past them; the real issue is all the amazing links to columns, interviews, video clips (sigh) and insights that, without question, will make the lucky reader more aware and alive. The thing is, it’s too much of a good thing: keep up or die trying. And that shit will kill you.)

Perhaps the notion of info-overload is particularly top of mind as it’s the impetus (if not specific subject) of my next novel, now officially a work-in-progress. I’ve written a great deal about the uneasy intersection of technology and life (politics, art, creativity, commerce) as a poor man’s industry analyst; I’d like to explore, through autobiographical fiction, the ways these pressures and the urgent pursuit of some undefined, evanescent ecstasy are shaping our behavior, on macro and especially micro levels. In other words, the same stuff every novelist writing about the times in which they live attempts to do.

But mostly, I’m reflecting today on the unanticipated and often illuminating gift Facebook provides, via its “On This Day” back-to-the-future feature. Old posts, including the comments, pictures, and videos, are a reminder, however pleasant or painful, where we were a year, or two, or –in this case– eight years ago. Among other things, these reminders are undeniable snapshots of where (and who) we were. Have we grown, in both the good and bad ways (guilty of the latter; hopeful about the former)? Are we keeping our promises to each other, and ourselves? Are we at once the same and different in all the right ways? Is this magical online diary of our journey telling the story we want others to hear? Most importantly, is it, with its pixels and opinions and portents, corroborating the story we need to tell ourselves?

I think, and hope, the most honest answer is: To Be Continued.

Here’s what I had to say, eight years ago, when responding to the viral (“tag, you’re it”) entreaty of posting 25 “random facts” about myself. I enjoyed reading what my friends wrote, then, and I’d enjoy revisiting them, now. I’m mostly content that I’d stand by just about all of the things Murph, aged 38, had to say for himself. Not sure if they’re flattering or implicating, but they’re definitely true.

The author in '09: not a rock star then or now

The author in ’09: not a rock star then or now

1. OK: I just spent some serious time crafting my list and I felt pretty good about the way it turned out. And as I went to post it, my page “timed out” and I lost it. There has to be a lesson in there somewhere.

2. I crave time by myself, and I seldom feel alone.

3. By far the most difficult thing I’ve endured to this point is watching my mother fight–and ultimately lose–her 5 year battle with cancer. By far the most humbling, and inexplicably amazing experience was being there with her (and my family) the entire time.

4. Ever since my mom died, I’ve gotten together every Tuesday night with my old man for dinner. I call it “pops night” and with very few exceptions, we have not missed a week since 2002.

5. I haven’t been to church in many years, but I have no regrets about being raised Catholic (for one thing, it has provided ceaseless writing material) or being exposed, at an early age, to the the complicated powers of a ritual.

6. Making new friends is a great way to keep the heart and mind engaged; maintaining old relationships is all about the soul.

7. I realized, as I genuinely enjoyed seeing and reconnecting with people at my recent 20 Year High School Reunion, how fortunate I am. I understand that those formative years are difficult, even horrible for many people, and I’ll never take for granted that I was very lucky in many ways. (Incidentally, can you imagine if we’d had email or cell phones in high school? Me neither.)

8. My miniature schnauzer Leroy Brown is one of the miracles in my life, and I’m going to have a very tough time when he goes.

9. I used to spend unhealthy amounts of time agonizing over how to rank my favorite bands, or songs, or albums. Or how, say, a list of the Top 100 songs of all time would look. Unhealthy amounts of time.

10. I kept a journal, starting in 5th grade (props to Mr. Taliaferro!), through high school and after. I seldom, if ever, revisit those old spiral notebooks, but it’s good to know they are there, just in case.

11. If I never drive cross country I’ll have a hard time forgiving myself. (To his credit, Matt Gravett tried to convince me, several times, to accompany him when he made the journey. Rain check!)

12. As soon as I discovered The Beatles in 3rd grade, that was that.

13. Apparently, I’m difficult to reach on the phone.

14. Watching my friends become parents has enriched me in direct proportion to how much I’ve seen it enrich them.

15. Seeing my niece slowly turn into my sister has provided me more amusement than it should. And the teenage years have not even begun yet. Ha!

16. I viscerally detest violence, yet I always enjoy hockey fights. (Thoughts?)

17. It actually infuriates me that “True West” is not available on DVD (“True West” is a remarkable play by the brilliant Sam Shepard that was filmed for TV and shown, on PBS, in the early ’80s. It stars a young John Malkovich before he became John Malkovich and Gary Sinise before he became…whatever he became. But seriously, it’s intolerable that this masterpiece is not easily available for people to discover and fall in love with. Until I hear a better reason, I’ll remain convinced that it’s just a plot to piss me off, as I seem to be the only person who has ever seen it!)

18. Every year I tend to care less about college sports (except for GMU basketball!), and even certain pro sports. And yet, I somehow found the time to buy the Red Sox season package last year. So…if anyone needs to catch a game between April and October, holler at your boy.

19. I’ve never played a flute in my life, but I’m reasonably certain that, if provided one, I could play much of Jethro Tull’s catalog on it. In fact, the first time I saw Tull live (’89) I was convicing people all around me that I was Ian Anderson. But that might have been the mushrooms.

20. It’s certainly a cliche, but still: if everyone in the USA had to wait tables for one week (or more) before turning 21, our country would be infinitely more progressive, tolerant and equitable.

21. The recent (and ongoing) financial meltdown–and the obvious, predictable ways it unfolded–have, against all probability, made me even more steadfast in my left-leaning views. Also: while the concept of Hell has for quite some time seemed rather childish to me, I would love for it to actually exist, if for no other reason than to eternally house (among other worthy candidates for admission) the richest of the rich who actively and with impunity disenfranchise others in the sole pursuit of further enriching themselves.

22. Whoever dies with the most toys spent entirely too much time accumulating a lot of useless shit.

23. Mozart, Symphony 41. It’s all in there.

24. Having people confide in you is sustenance for your soul.

25. I’m pretty much exactly who I want to be. But I’m still working on it.

 

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Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine: 10 Songs of Righteous Protest

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Ian Anderson called it, in ’74:

The ice-cream castles are refrigerated;
The super-marketeers are on parade.
There’s a golden handshake hanging round your neck,
As you light your cigarette on the burning deck.
And you balance your world on the tip of your nose
Like a Sea Lion with a ball, at the carnival.

Here are nine other songs of righteous and intelligent fury. Strength in sensitivity will provide both solidarity and sustenance for whatever lies ahead.

And when you lose control, you’ll reap the harvest you have sown
And as the fear grows, the bad blood slows and turns to stone
And it’s too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around
So have a good drown, as you go down, all alone
Dragged down by the stone…

They say there are strangers who threaten us
In our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness too dangerous
In our theaters and bookstore shelves
That those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves

Quick to judge
Quick to anger
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
And fear walk hand in hand…

We tried to speak between lines of oration
You could only repeat what we told you.
Your axe belongs to a dying nation,
They don’t know that we own you.
You’re watching movies trying to find the feelers,
You only see what we show you.
We’re the slaves of the phony leaders
Breathe the air we have blown you.

In the night he’s a star in the Milky Way
He’s a man of the world by the light of day
A golden smile and a proposition
And the breath of God smells of sweet sedition…

Hang your collar up inside
Hang your freedom higher
Listen to the buyer still
Listen to the Congress
Where we propagate confusion
Primitive and wild
Fire on the hemisphere below…

Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane, all the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain, yeah
There’s danger on the edge of town
Ride the King’s highway, baby
Weird scenes inside the gold mine…

Don’t let it bring you down
It’s only castles burning,
Find someone who’s turning
And you will come around.

White collared conservative flashing down the street
Pointing their plastic finger at me
They’re hoping soon my kind will drop and die
But I’m gonna wave my freak flag high, high
Wave on, wave on
Fall mountains, just don’t fall on me
Go ahead on Mr. Business man, you can’t dress like me…
(I got my own world to look through
And I ain’t gonna copy you)

No lyrics necessary; Charlie Hunter’s solemn, elegiac solo at the end speaks volumes about suppression, resistance and bearing witness.

And, of course, always, last and far from least:

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Why Is Prog Rock So Inadequate, Simplistic, Reductive, Portentous and…Perfect? (Revisited)

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It’s always crucial, when talking trends—musical or otherwise—to contextualize the times and remember that wardrobe malfunctions, chemical excess and unspeakable atrocities like porn-star mustaches never exist within a vacuum. To properly remember, and assess, the good, the bad and the ugly of what accelerated (or, in some cases, stunted) our collective forward progress, we should feel obliged to stop, look and listen. And taste, and smell. And always make sure to program our perspective and especially our sense of humor for what we’re about to experience. For make no mistake: when it comes to lessons learned, unfortunate choices and free comedy, progressive rock remains a gift that keeps on giving.

Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. And, for the most part, this was a wonderful thing. The Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am the Walrus” is a million miles from… anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend started crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut.

And then, emboldened, or inspired—or both—wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s. What some of us still refer lovingly to as progressive rock held sway over the sonic landscape: with side-long suites and literary allusions in overdrive, prog rock became an enterprise that launched a million air guitars. These songs (these albums) were of their time in every regard and invoke inextricable connotations of the decade itself: bloated, hazy, earnest, misguided, visionary, awkward, awesome.

So it behooves us, if we want to have a sober discussion of which music from this era is worthwhile, and why it endures, to remember just how much overly produced music was made by overindulged acts throughout the ‘70s. The excesses—both aesthetic and recreational—informing the scene also sorted the field, separating contenders from has-beens and assorted flavors of the Billboard Hot 100. Put bluntly, these were the not-so-good old days when coke-snorting executives in leisure suits green-lighted hit singles by acts destined for the dustbins and oldies circuit. Put even more bluntly, acts like Barry Gibb, The Bay City Rollers and K.C. and the Sunshine Band all managed to be millionaires.

No need to invoke Dickens; it was neither the best nor the worst of times. At one extreme we had dancing queens and dry ice edging ever closer to the public (and publically accepted) stage; at the opposite end of the spectacle we witnessed the emerging proposition of punk rock. To its credit, the punks’ do-it-yourself ethos scorned the self-parody of both dinosaur arena acts as well as the aforementioned jungle boogie bandwagon jumpers. This raw wave crashed in a spray of broken glass, safety pin piercings and bloody spittle that served to shake up the power-pop vanguard. The prevailing formula had suffocated on its own self-importance, and the new fashion harnessed hairspray and spite in equal measure to establish brand new ground rules.

Or at least that’s the generally sanctioned version of events we tend to hear entirely too often. Raise your hand if you’ve read (one time or one hundred times) the facile and hackneyed account of how punk killed progressive rock so that we could all live miserably ever after. The reality, as it stubbornly tends to be, is much messier and more complicated. Progressive rock came and went (and came back), but opinions differ on what specific years it covered and which artists epitomize it. Perhaps this is unavoidable, because this so-called era isn’t easily packaged into a particular time period or specific aesthetic, and what we are left with is the all-encompassing moniker of prog-rock, which manages to be inadequate, overly simplistic, reductive, portentous and… perfect?

A form of musical expression that, for lack of a better cliché, transcends time and place is created and exists on its own terms, so there is no barrier of language, ideology or agenda that prevents it from finding its audience. The only requirement is a sufficiently open mind and ears (or eyes) capable of picking up what is being put down. Of course this same criteria can be—and typically is—applied to any artistic expression. So why is it different, or at least more complicated, when it comes to assessing the pros and cons of prog rock? Put as simply—and starkly—as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to snootily dismiss the more elaborate (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid ‘70s.

One of the many reasons progressive rock remains 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.

“I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think”. This line, from Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, serves as a succinct summation of why prog rock did—and does—inspire such intense adoration and/or aversion. The people who reject it (then, now) likely would ask, and not without merit, who wants to think? Music typically fails if it can’t burrow past your beer gut.

It’s fair to suggest that, regardless of its merits or lack thereof, the most successful music of this genre made you think. Inevitably, the artists who were too self-conscious for everyone’s sake; the ones trying a tad too hard to make you think—especially the ones who wanted to make you think how clever they were—crossed the verboten third rail of pretension and have been punished accordingly (then, now). But the best practitioners, through their lyrics, themes and conceptual ideas that occasionally spanned entire albums, went for your head as well as your heart.

For some reason the gatekeepers of the Establishment (many of whom are the ultimate hipsters, poseurs and baby-boomers; many of whom are men; many of whom, coincidentally, have written for Rolling Stone) seem embarrassed by the notion that rock music can—or should—be capable of eliciting thought as well as feeling. That it can be unaffected without the face-saving cynicism too many songwriters, the ones predictably lionized by these same besotted journalists, feel compelled to employ. What is it about prog rock in general that makes these self-satisfied scribes so uncomfortable? That is a rhetorical question.

There is, ultimately, something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where opportunism and cold calculation are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

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My Kind of Christmas Music (Revisited)

snoopy

Tchaikovsky

Corelli

Bach

A couple from John Fahey

The Who

Chuck Berry

a three-fer from Jethro Tull!


Sonny Boy

The Godfather

Donny

Satchmo

Ella! (An embarrassment of riches here, here, and here)

Johnny Mathis (The Master)

Vince (The King)

(Give me more Snoopy and less Linus and even less of CB’s angst; but double-up on the VG trio. RESPECT!)

Finally, some contemporary action from John Zorn and the Dreamers (get this album!)

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If I Could Wave My Magic Wand… (Revisited)

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(Editor’s note: Rush’s last great album (in my opinion), Presto, was released this week, in 1989. A quarter-century plus one year ago. Yikes. Here is a piece I wrote in October, 2009)

***

It was twenty years ago today…

No, seriously. Twenty years. Fall semester (because the world was still measured in summers and semesters), sophomore year. Out of all the indelible memories amassed during that four year odyssey, the concentrated experience of ’89/’90 contained a little bit of everything: the good, bad and ugly –and that was just my wardrobe. Things I did and things I saw still impact my waking hours; things I recall and things I couldn’t control still influence my subconscious and work themselves out in novels, poems and blog posts.

So, among many other things, autumn ’89 was a fortuitous time for legendary bands creating stunning and defiant statements of purpose. Neither burned out nor ready to fade away, these artists defiantly informed the world that they were not all washed up, and quite capable of making some of their career-best work. Jethro Tull, Rush and Neil Young all had ups and downs in the ’80s: all relying too much, at times, on the synthesized sounds that were de rigeur (along with laughable music videos). Rush always found their audience, but Jethro Tull and Neil Young seemed to be on the ropes. Then, as summer vacation slipped into a new school year, the first salvo was fired by a one-legged flutist.

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Tull came seemingly out of nowhere (particularly after the snyth-drenched period piece Under Wraps and Ian Anderson’s well-documented throat issues, leading some to wonder if the band was a spent force) with ’87s Crest of a Knave. The album was a minor revelation and led to the very controversial Grammy award (oh poor misunderstood Metallica!). So while ’89s Rock Island caused less waves and sold less copies than its predecessor, it is in some ways the superior album. There are a couple of throwaway tunes and a couple of mediocre moments, but this one also contains some of Anderson’s finest compositions. The band remains in fine form, as you can tell here, and here. The live performances of these songs were also remarkable, and of all the times I’ve seen Tull, this was by far the most impressive (an experience enhanced by a certain fungus, and a story that shall be revisited another time…).

As it happened, this late ’80s renaissance was a last gasp of sorts: Tull made a few more albums throughout the ’90s (each worse than the one before) and things were never the same. There is enough tolerable material on 1991’s Catfish Rising and 1995’s Roots To Branches to avoid wishing the band had called it quits altogether, but it is more than fair to proclaim that Rock Island was the last time they made truly relevant music (Ian Anderson still had one more masterpiece in him, the mostly ignored, but very worthwhile Divinities: Twelve Dances With God). I believe what I wrote earlier this year holds up as a generous enough assessment:

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.

freedom

Now Neil Young is a different story. Crazy as it may sound twenty years (and about 300 albums) later, by the end of the ’80s a lot of people had given up Neil for dead — creatively and commercially, if not literally. Some may recall that Young was actually sued by David Geffen for making “unrepresentative” music during that decade. This incident serves to reinforce what an insane (and at times soulless) time warp the ’80s were, what swines record label executives are, and how iconoclastic Young has always been. He has made a career out of being crazy like a fox: almost every time he seems congenitally impelled to derail his own success, he winds up looking like he merely creates crises in order to pull another Lazarus act.

All of which is to say Freedom was like Kirk Gibson’s home run off of Dennis Eckersley the year before (more on that, HERE): utterly unexpected, miraculous and instantly indelible. It’s impossible to overstate how shocking it was not only to hear Neil Young back from the Oz of his own making, but the sheer quality of the work. (Young, alas, is one of those artists whose work is systematically policed on YouTube, so samples from Freedom are scarce, but here’s an acoustic version of the great El Dorado and he made some noise (literally) on Saturday Night Live.I remember watching that, on campus, and thinking how cool it was that there were still some hippies from the ’60s who scoffed at convention and attracted an audience.

Neil has continued to have his hits and misses, but there is no debating the fact that Freedom served as a defibrillator for his creative juices, and he has been riding that recharged heart of gold ever since. Long may he run!

presto

September brought Tull and October brought Neil; what on earth could November deliver?

Well, Rush started off en fuego in the ’80s (Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals can stand alongside any tri-fecta any rock band has delivered in the last thirty years) and while Power Windows suffered from the excesses of the time (too many keyboards and heavy-handed, inhuman production), Hold Your Fire was arguably the band’s first lackluster effort. It’s far from a failure (in spite of the grief the group took for this video, “Time Stand Still” is a tremendous song and it was a daring idea to include the delectable Aimee Mann) but it raised questions about where the band was going and what it had left to say. Plenty, as it turned out.

Presto is, like Rock Island and Freedom, an album that stopped even fanatic and longtime fans in their tracks and made them shake their heads in happy disbelief. I remember sitting in my friend’s dorm room on a Sunday night, listening to the “pre-release” broadcast on a crappy boombox. For whatever reason, the DJ played side two (perhaps because it leads off with the title song?) and I still recall the immediate reaction: Holy shit, this is incredible! For one thing, the employment of acoustic guitars…how refreshing. But more than that, the band sounded focused and locked in; they seemed hungry. This was when CDs still sold more poorly than cassettes (in other words, they were still somewhat of a novelty and a very expensive one for destitute college kids), and I was staggered by how great the sound quality was on this new disc. The content cops have been cracking down on Rush songs previously available at YouTube, so here are some great live versions here here and here.

Peart was assailed, sometimes understandably, for a decade of lyrics that relied a tad too heavily on themes liberally borrowed from Sci-Fi, Classical Literature and the high priestess of Objectivism, the insufferable Ayn Rand. For the Dungeons & Dragons circuit, this was biblical scripture; for older or less…imaginative fans the lyrics are occasionally embarrassing and have not exactly aged like a single malt scotch. However, the intelligence and unquenchable curiosity always existed, and Peart increasingly harnessed his considerable prowess with the pencil in the ’80s.

Starting with Permanent Waves he turned his attention (as most adults invariably do) to the world we live in and the ways it shapes us and vice versa. In hindsight, it is more than a little remarkable that the same person who penned the lyrics to “Natural Science” and “Freewill” also contributed “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” and “The Necromancer” (which are both excellent songs in their way, but about 99% of their redeeming value is musical). His lyrics for the rest of the decade are on par with the work Roger Waters did during the ’70s: pound for pound, nobody was coming close to being this consistently engaging and erudite.

In many regards, then, Presto found him at the height of his skills and confidence and the results are extraordinary. But more than that, this particular album seemed written especially for sensitive, inquisitive and occasionally confused young adults. Sophomores in college, say.

Hope is epidemic
Optimism spreads
Bitterness breeds irritation
Ignorance breeds imitation

All my nerves are naked wires
Tender to the touch
Sometimes super-sensitive
But who can care too much?

Pleasure leaves a fingerprint
As surely as mortal pain
In memories they resonate
And echo back again

I’m not one to believe in magic
Though my memory has a second sight
I’m not one to go pointing my finger
When I radiate more heat than light

Static on your frequency
Electrical storm in your veins
Raging at unreachable glory
Straining at invisible chains


Twenty years. More time has passed since these albums came out than had passed at that point in my life. But any 39 year old who has learned anything understands –and accepts– that the chain lightning of youth comprises both the pleasure and pain (and everything in between) that made us what we became, and are becoming. Some days we can’t believe how far we’ve come, other days we would give anything to get even an hour of that magic back. Or, as Peart writes, The moment may be brief, but it can be so bright…

If I could wave my magic wand, would I do anything differently? I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t, and each passing year fuels a sporadic nostalgia that is at times so overpowering it unnerves me. Other times I marvel at what I learned and saw, and feel fortunate to have been a wise fool at the end of one decade, incapable of imagining we might all live to see the year 2000. Mostly, I hope I did my best to get it right the first time. Then and now.

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R.I.P. Glenn C. (Remembering Glenn Cornick and Jethro Tull’s ‘Stand Up’)

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Glenn Cornick was, of course, Jethro Tull’s first bassist.

He and Ian did not get along (something that can be said for most of the other 10,000 ex-Tull musicians) so he hit the road after the third album, Benefit.

Nice piece on him, HERE.

I give him some love in the extensive appraisal of Stand Up, below.

Let it suffice to say, his presence on those first three albums is palpable, important and enduring.

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The first bit of good news regarding this “collector’s edition” of Stand Up is that you don’t need it. The second bit of good news is that for the most part it already exists, albeit scattered throughout a handful of previously released material. If you already own all of those sets, chances are you are a serious Jethro Tull fan, in which case you’ve probably already acquired this latest installment. To cut through the haze, anyone who has been meaning to pick up this excellent album should know it was remastered earlier this decade (and includes the obligatory bonus tracks), so you can pick that baby up for about a third the cost.

Now to be fair, there is a lot of good “extra” material included in this edition, and only hardcore Tull fans will have all of it in their collections. Various box sets and compilations have featured these BBC sessions as well as the Carnegie Hall concert from 1970. If you already own Stand Up and are interested in hearing some vintage Tull from that era, as well as an extended interview with Ian Anderson, you could do worse. That interview, conducted earlier this year, is the real draw here for fans that already have everything.

All that being said, a question those unfamiliar or unimpressed with Jethro Tull might ask is: what does it matter? It matters because, all other considerations aside (deluxe packaging with original pop-up inside cover, liner notes from Ian Anderson, the first full and unedited version of “With You There To Help Me/By Kind Permission Of” from the Carnegie Hall show (wherein new pianist John Evan does his best Ludwig Van), 5.1 surround sound—but no footage—of the concert), Stand Up is a crucial album in many regards. In addition to serving as the first testament of the band Tull became, and would become, it endures as a meaningful document from what turned out to be a very transitional moment in rock history.So, if this somewhat superfluous new release affords the opportunity for a sustained reappraisal, all the better.

Stand Up may be Jethro Tull’s second album, but it is more like a first than a follow-up, in almost every way. This Was, their proper debut, illustrated the direction which that band might have gone in (keywords: that band). Mick Abrahams, original lead guitarist and co-leader, was no slouch and to his credit knew exactly where he wanted to go. A dedicated acolyte of the blues, Abrahams was all about the old school and dirt-under-the-nails authenticity. His approach is mostly successful on This Was, with songs such as “Move On Alone”, “It’s Breaking Me Up” and the garage rock aggression of “Beggar’s Farm”. On other songs the sound is overly derivative and while never boring, the results are not exactly memorable, unless the design was to sound like third-rate Cream (it was a dubious decision to include “Cat’s Squirrel”, a song featured on Cream’s debut, which suffers by comparison and betrays an opportunism that would have been more honest—and less misguided—if they’d called it “Copycat’s Squirrel”).

In any event, by 1968 that formula (British bands earnestly mimicking American blues legends) was pretty well played out, no matter how convincingly rendered. Even Cream’s debut sounds dated, particularly in comparison with their stunning follow-up Disraeli Gears. In other words, Abrahams had hitched his axe to a locomotive that was going backwards (where he contentedly rode it into semi-obscurity with Bloodwyn Pig), and it is understandable that Ian Anderson envisioned bigger and better—or at least more original—fields for Tull to plow.

Enter Martin Barre, a young but game guitarist whose primary credentials were his lack of experience, which ensured Anderson would never again compete with anyone for control of the band. It is, then, to Anderson’s considerable credit that the resulting album—recorded less than one year later—represents a development that was, and remains, staggering. The dividends Barre delivers are immediate, and well-represented throughout the recording. While one can detect the flute-driven energy of “Beggar’s Farm” in “Back To The Family”, the latter is less a jam and more a proper “song”. Interestingly, both Abrahams and Barre, like every other guitarist in the mid-to-late ‘60s, were listening to a lot of Clapton, and the first two Tull albums are tributes of a sort to the first two Cream albums. To be certain, Barre is less interested in aping Clapton’s riffs and although the blistering outro on “Back To The Family” is a bit of a nod to “God”, it possesses its own unrefined power. While Barre’s playing is not as technically proficient, it’s debatable whether even Clapton can match the emotional heft uncorked on “We Used To Know”, which is cold-finger, raw hangnail material.

There is also ample evidence of the first-rate lyricist Anderson would quickly become. There have not been many 22-year-olds in rock music history who could half-convincingly write songs like “Look Into The Sun”, “We Used To Know” and especially “Reasons For Waiting” (the best song you’ve never heard). These songs are a universe apart from anything on This Was and provide early evidence of the incredibly warm and full sound Anderson gets from his acoustic guitar.

Then there are the familiar songs, some of which continue to get airplay on classic rock radio: “Bouree”, the jazz-rock riff on Bach; “Nothing Is Easy”, the flute-cake manifesto; and the band’s first huge hit, “Living In The Past” (not released on the original album, but included as a bonus track). “A New Day Yesterday” is an ideal opening statement, teasing with nods to the black-and-blues soundscape from ’68, then exploding into Technicolor as Barre’s guitar solo bleeds into Anderson’s frenetic and reverb-laden flute breakdown. Finally, the jocular “Fat Man”, featuring both mandolin and balalaika, a first signal of the folk and eastern influences that would permeate the band’s mature work. There is still a blues sensibility driving most of this material, but Anderson—who clearly had ability and creativity to burn—is already showing signs of developing the multi-faceted approach he would bring to each successive effort.

A few words must be said about Clive Bunker and Glenn Cornick, the drummer and bassist who would not be long for this band (Cornick lasted one more album; Bunker two). While it’s hard to quibble with Bunker’s excellent replacement, Barrie Barlow, Bunker was the perfect drummer for Jethro Tull’s early work. He does restrained as well as explosive, but his accompaniment is always ideal for whatever a particular song calls for. Songs like “Back to the Family” and “For a Thousand Mothers” would be unthinkable without his contributions. Cornick was a top-notch bass player and each new remaster reinforces how busy and brilliant he was in the pocket. He gets room to shine on “Bouree” and “Nothing Is Easy”, but as is often the case with the best bassists, you almost don’t realize he’s there until you stop and consider what a particular song would sound like without him. The charisma and stage antics of Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond became indispensable components of Tull’s charm and overall history, but the loss of Cornick (see: artistic differences, rock music’s version of the pink slip) affected the later music more than Anderson might ever care to admit.

1969 was not merely the conclusion of a decade, it was the end of a succession of eras. These include the British Invasion and the aforementioned blues-by-numbers of those bands (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Cream, even early Led Zeppelin), psychedelia, art-rock and the eventual, inevitable marriage of precision and pretension that brought us the dreaded “concept album”. By 1970 many of the bands that would become most closely associated with progressive rock (or Prog with a capital P), like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and ELP, were already off the proverbial reservation, crafting side-long suites and noodling away in the manner that captivated listeners and confounded critics.

Stand Up, then, remains rather unique. It is a document created in a rapidly closing artistic window, pre-prog but post-British blues and psychedelic rock. Within two years Jethro Tull would unleash Aqualung and fully, if warily, enter the prog-rock arena (literally and figuratively). Their second album continues to age quite nicely as a hybrid of many sounds, and a reflection of Ian Anderson’s restless vision. Stand Up boasts an ambition and vitality we usually associate with most successful debut albums, but the band is more seasoned and confident, with accordingly impressive results. It still manages to sound unspoiled, an ideal balance of daring and the deliberate.

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Reappraising Jethro Tull’s ‘Minstrel in the Gallery’

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Jethro Tull, again? Seriously? Yes, seriously.

The reason Tull warrants continued discussion is because unlike just about all other prog rock acts of the mid-‘70s, they were—in their businesslike, seemingly obligatory fashion—cranking out one masterful effort each year.

In 1975, progressive rock was, we now know with the benefit of hindsight, already on its way to the dinosaur pit. Pink Floyd was, arguably, hitting their prime stride, releasing possibly their most cohesive and satisfying album Wish You Were Here, but many other acts from the great old days were on the ropes, running out of steam or gone altogether. Yes was on a hiatus, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and The Moody Blues were not dead but shells of their former selves, Rush was just getting into the game, and King Crimson had called it quits. Genesis soldiered on, and made a string of respectable albums with Collins at the helm (and then made a longer string of increasingly commercial, successful albums), but many would agree that things were never the same once Peter Gabriel rolled up his freak flag and went it alone.

So, aside from Pink Floyd, who were now an album every-other-year (at best) outfit, Jethro Tull were the kings of the hill, in terms of consistency and quality. The benefit of hindsight makes their proficiency, and the quality of the work, more obvious and more important to acknowledge. Where some (much?) of the material from prog rock’s heyday is decidedly of its time (for better or worse) and, lyrically, is often acknowledged with a wink and a shrug, Jethro Tull’s work in general, and on Minstrel in the Gallery in particular, needs no defense nor any nostalgia to be appreciated.

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One of the reasons the genre seemed stale or at least more than a little played out, circa 1975 (hello Emerson, Lake & Palmer), is because the formula was no longer sufficient to inspire fresh work, or at least be heard with fresh ears. Indulgence for indulgence’s sake was rightly losing favor with a wider audience, and at the mid-way point of a new decade, new approaches were necessary. As the first punk bands proved, a radically different approach would be rewarded. Punk, with its lo-fi lack of proficiency or pretense, was in almost every regard anti-prog (for better or worse).

So Jethro Tull, never especially fashionable, soldiered on without much regard for critical acclaim from the so-called establishment, powered by the industrious engine of Ian Anderson, who was just hitting his stride.

Discussion of Anderson’s lyrical prowess is inevitable, and appropriate, and mentioned in previous reviews. Where he did not shy away from autobiographical elements (especially on Benefit), his specialty was linking the personal with a reporter’s eye for both absurdity and the universal (especially on Aqualung); on Thick as a Brick he displays a sociologist’s eye for societal mores, and in his inimitably impish way, took his sledge hammer to all manner of very British sacred cows (class, religion, etc.); on A Passion Play he used every tool in his musical and intellectual arsenal. On Minstrel in the Gallery we have less of the sneering post-adolescent angst and rage and more of the wizened perspective of an adult who has toured the world, seen some things and is able to comment accordingly.


If the title track is a bit too literal (get it? The musician seeing himself in the crowd…), it’s also a tour de force of sorts that, in Andersonian fashion, takes the piss out of the cult of self/celebrity while also offering some quite poetic observations on the ways artist and audience interact:

The minstrel in the gallery
Looked down on the rabbit-run
And he threw away his looking-glass
He saw his face in everyone

Anderson, who has always been an underrated acoustic guitar player (most folks, understandably, see him as the wide-eyed and one-legged flautist), started pushing himself, notably during the band’s Holy Trinity. While his work, pound for pound, on A Passion Play may be his best, Minstrel in the Gallery represents his most singular and sustained acoustic achievement: his work throughout is memorable and masterful.


It would be a mistake to describe this as either an acoustic or restrained affair, as evidenced by “Cold Wind to Valhalla” (containing some of Martin Barre’s tastiest shredding), as well as the rocking sections of the title track and “Black Satin Dancer”, but the acoustic is ever-present and it’s easy to see how these tunes grew from solo excursions to full collaborations. If it’s once again necessary to single out drummer Barrie Barlow for the way his busy sticks augment and embellish the proceedings to delightful effect, than let it once again be stated.

The secret weapon here, more so than any earlier album, is David Palmer, previously employed to judicious and exhilarating effect (think the soaring orchestral flair toward the end of Thick as a Brick, or the subtle, gorgeous string embellishments on “Reasons for Waiting”) is now a full equal; for the first time it’s both appropriate and accurate to draw comparisons to what George Martin was doing for The Beatles: not “merely” adding dignified touches here and there or inserting informed color commentary at key moments, but completely in the mix, the orchestral effects as important as the guitars and keyboards. (Not for nothing, either, since this album is so heavy on the acoustic touches, the fastidiously remastered sound does, indeed, bring out nuances and touches not previously detectable.)

Palmer takes already remarkable compositions to that rarefied “other place” on the album’s twin highlights, “Requiem” and “Baker St. Muse”. On the former, a gentle tone poem, we can now appreciate, courtesy of the previously unreleased early version, the way this simple (sounding) song evolved from whimsical allegory to a fully realized and devastating take on the clichéd romantic break-up. (Initial lyrics describe a leaf; the final song replaces the leaf with a bird, which of course works as British double entendre for a woman).

Well, my lady told me, “Stay”
I looked aside and walked away along the strand
But I didn’t say a word, as the train time-table blurred
Close behind the taxi stand:
Saw her face in the tear-drop black cab window
Fading in the traffic watched her go,
And taking in the morning, heard myself singing, “Oh Requiem”
Here I go again, it’s the same old story…
Well, I saw a bird today, I looked aside and walked
Away along the strand.


As with previous Steven Wilson-supervised special editions, we get refined sound courtesy of the 5.1 surround and remix, as well as a truly generous and authoritative booklet complete with lyrics, anecdotes and interviews. Much of that material ranges from quirky to superfluous but, of course, insight from the actual band proves priceless. Most fans will concur that Minstrel in the Gallery seems as autobiographical as any Tull album, before or after, and there is a vulnerability and sensitivity that the songwriter (obviously, with hindsight) was simply growing into.

Anderson himself provides salient insight into his writing process, and also does a service for anyone who has tried to understand (or explain) the impulse to turn the “personal” into something less self-involved and applicable: “As a lyric writer I think that leaving some space is an important ingredient, that you don’t answer all the questions in the lyrics, you do leave the listeners to put something of themselves into the scenario and think about it in the light of their own experiences, or indeed experiences they’ve not yet had.” (Liner notes.)

Perhaps the finest distillation of the aforementioned reportorial eye, balancing obvious autobiography with imagination, is “Baker St. Muse” which, put plainly, showcases Anderson and his band at an absolute pinnacle of composition and execution. Polite golf-claps all around (but more, as ever, reserved for Barre and Barlow), an especially hearty hurrah for Palmer, and all-time hero status for Anderson, who would never again display this combination of brilliance, confidence and creative attainment. It could be considered (yet another) semi-side long suite, or else an epic prog statement (like Thick as a Brick or A Passion Play) in miniature, or it could, correctly, be appraised and appreciated on its own terms: a story of how the present-day minstrel prowled the streets looking about for explanations, or at least inspiration. We see the (usual?) parade of freaks and outcasts but, for once, the songwriter turns the microscope on himself and we see some of the concerns and obsessions that feed that distinctive muse.

For anyone curious, but unsure, about whether this 40th Anniversary edition is a compulsory acquisition, consider the (requisite) bonus discs. As mentioned, there is the 5.1 remaster and the Steven Wilson remix; there’s also a complete concert from July 1975 (Paris) that has never before been available. On one hand, it’s yet another sampler of hits (“My God”, “Cross-Eyed Mary” and, of course, “Aqualung”) but on the other, it’s a document of one of the best Tull line-ups. There are also the odds and sods of demo versions and out-takes (like the delightful lark “Summerday Sands” and, even though, like the master take, it’s less than one minute long, the alternate version of “Grace” is a special treat for Tull enthusiasts.

To summarize, these annual remaster projects are appropriate because Jethro Tull was making an album every year in the ‘70s; they are necessary because even people who tolerate prog rock or give it a courteous mention still limit themselves to a handful of “classic” albums that few people will protest. One need not be a prog aficionado to understand that many outstanding efforts were produced as a matter of course in the early and mid-‘70s; Minstrel in the Gallery is one of them and it’s a crime to think fans who think they know aren’t aware of this near-masterpiece.

*Originally published 8/5/15 in PopMatters, my latest installment for my series on prog rock, The Amazing Pudding.

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Ripe with Rich Attainments: Jethro Tull’s ‘A Passion Play’, Reassessed (Revisited)

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For prog-rock aficionados, the hits keep coming, and one man above all deserves our gratitude: Steven Wilson.

Whether it’s Yes, King Crimson, or Jethro Tull—all of whom he has worked with in recent years—the question arises: how much is too much with these deluxe reissues? The answer, naturally is: it’s never enough, assuming there are ample fans interested or insane enough to keep coughing up the coin to procure them.

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Once again, it must be said that, like the previous Wilson-affiliated productions, this is no half-assed cash grab offering the same-old, same-old with ostensibly improved fidelity. Rather, this is an elaborate undertaking, with a proper remix, a 5.1 surround sound (nerd alert!) and, not least, a fairly exhaustive booklet which details everything except where the Hare left those lost spectacles.

Let’s get the potential controversy out of the way, right up front. As always, purists will be given pause by some of the liberties Wilson takes, albeit with Ian Anderson’s blessing. What listeners will notice is not a straight remastering but a full remix; which is to say, in many regards a reimagining. For those purists the original versions are sacrosanct, supposed warts and all. Personally, I won’t quibble with any artist or producer’s acumen when it is stated forthrightly and without apology. However, I also reserve the right to wrinkle my nose a tad, just as I have regarding Pete Townshend’s tinkering with Quadrophenia (See “The Past Is Calling: Reconsidering The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’”).

All that aside, this latest project is an obsessive’s ambrosia: four separate discs of Jethro Tull’s most controversial album. If you have even read this far, you probably already know whether or not this box set is something you’d acquire, much less be interested in.

For anyone still on the fence, here’s one fanatic’s perspective. It can be argued, as both Anderson and Wilson do, that the decision to bring focus to a more basic mix (emphasizing vocals, guitar, bass, and drums) imbues an otherwise unattainable clarity. Or, for the perverse super-purists, restores integrity to the initial vision, assuming this after-the-fact tinkering better approximates primary intent.

To take one instance of intent vs. implementation, Anderson is on record as being unconvinced about his soprano sax playing (which this writer believes to be an unqualified success). As such, the instances here where it’s diminished or eliminated(!), will be either a revelation or a travesty, depending upon who is listening. To further muddle matters, I find it to be a bit of both. I love the material enough to enjoy an alternate version, especially one that attempts to realize some of what Anderson initially envisioned.

On the other hand, Anderson has always been ambivalent about this album, which complicates things on at least two levels. One, this album has polarized audiences (and pumpkin eaters), even Jethro Tull fans, for over four decades, so some acknowledgment, if not respect, should be granted to those who took the time to “get” and ultimately savor the music. Two, if Anderson has never been crazy about A Passion Play, how unaffected are his intentions, giving Wilson his goodwill to “reimagine” the album? And perhaps more importantly, who cares?

Most people would agree that once a work of art becomes public property, it ceases to be the sole proprietorship of the artist. Indeed, it could be more convincingly speculated that the moment it becomes public (not to mention paid for) the artist ceases to have any proprietorship. In any event, for those seeking richer fidelity featuring the original sounds, this edition may indeed be too much of a…great? thing. And down the rabbit hole we go.

Speaking of rabbits, Intermission Time!

Obviously, as most Tull fans are already aware, there can be no proper reappraisal of A Passion Play without inclusion of the aborted Château d’Hérouville sessions that preceded it. Not-so-affectionately referred to, by the band, as the “Château d’Isaster” tapes, portions of this material have been doled out in various incarnations over the years. The three-part “Scenario/Audition/No Rehearsal” was a more than a very agreeable novelty upon its first release on 1988’s box set. It begged the tantalizing questions: is there more of this material and, if so, is this Tull’s lost masterpiece? The answers turned out to be: yes, and not so much.

However, the collected tapes from these sessions (discussed in the liner notes) represent an earnest, if uneven attempt at a double LP: a conceptual piece of sorts that is heavy on the animal imagery and God-as-Director of the Passion Play we’re all acting in. And if that sounds at once wholly of its time and too-pretentious-by-half, it was. But some of the ideas are executed to near perfection (the aforementioned “Scenario/Audition/No Rehearsal”, and experimental tone poems like “First Post”, “Animelée”, and “Tiger Toon”). Some of the material was repurposed later (“Only Solitaire” and “Skating Away”) and, of course, some of it resurfaced, in more polished form (“Critique Oblique”, the melody of “Law of the Bungle Part I”), on the subsequent A Passion Play. The rest of it ranges from lackluster to banal, and it’s easy to understand why Anderson contentedly left it on the cutting room floor (“Sailor”, “Left Right”, and “The Big Top” all sound like half-baked works in progress, heavy on the pomposity, light on emotional or aesthetic impact).

It’s fascinating and enlightening to hear, in its unvarnished entirety, all the work the band did during that ill-fated journey to France (the same studio, incidentally, where such beloved works as Elton John’s Honky Château and Pink Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds were recorded). Where Anderson has given some of these songs face-lifts (flute here, vocals there) in past reissues, he agreed, again, with Wilson to present them as they were initially recorded, without embellishment or upgrade. As such, they are now genuine historical documents, and fans can ascertain what worked, what could have been, and why Tull decided to quit while they were ahead (or behind) and start over from scratch.

It remains astonishing that A Passion Play, adored and/or derided as a complex, occasionally impenetrable progressive opus, was indeed conceived and executed in a matter of weeks. For better or worse, it sounds (at least the first several dozen times) like the result of considerable deliberation and agonizing. Perhaps Anderson & Co. had gotten all the bad vibes out of their systems, and by the time they returned to the friendly turf of Old Blighty, they were unencumbered, fully unloosing that pent-up creativity.

Whatever the explanation—and it might be as simple as the fact that, circa 1973, Ian Anderson was locked in like few rock musicians before or since—A Passion Play is a work that, especially following the successful and user-friendly Thick as a Brick, was practically destined for backlash. And the backlash came quickly, at least from critics. It’s illuminating that during a period when, shall we say, ambitious prog-rock albums were at worst tolerated, this work was simply too much for the average columnist. The fans, nevertheless, were picking up what the band was putting down, and the album hit #1 stateside.

Writing about this album in my assessment of Jethro Tull’s “Holy Trinity” (see “The Holy Trinity: Jethro Tull”), I offer the following thoughts:

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.

Anderson would go on to do work that was better received (say, Songs from the Wood) and, arguably, plain better (Minstrel in the Gallery), and to this day he keeps on keeping on, always finding audiences wherever he roams. Still, whether fans concur, or whether the artist himself agrees, at no point was Anderson as brazen, adventurous and near-infallible as he was during the recording of A Passion Play.

It was, as the generous and most welcome new liner notes indicate, not the most pleasant or, initially, most productive few months. Nevertheless, their pain remains our pleasure: it makes little difference what critics, certain fans or the authors of a particular work have to say; as is always the case, meaningful art will find an audience. A Passion Play endures, and matters, because it continues to confront, excite, and defy easy explanation. A touchstone from a ceaselessly maligned genre, Anderson’s 1973 masterpiece represents an eternal J’accuse to conformity and cliché, and its very refusal to be pigeonholed or even clarified will ensure that it continues to delight and surprise listeners. Scorning convention, after all, is what prog-rock of this era, at its best, attempted to do, and few did it better than Jethro Tull.

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Jethro Tull: Back to Basics (Sort Of)

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Jethro Tull, again?

It’s Steven Wilson’s fault.

Actually, it’s Jethro Tull’s fault. That is, the fact that we have yet another deluxe reissue of another Jethro Tull album has everything to do with the fact that this was one of most productive and consistently excellent bands, progressive or otherwise, all through the ‘70s. So in this regard, it’s not Jethro Tull’s fault that we’re getting a new reissue each year because, back in the day, they were knocking off classic albums every year.

Still giddy with all the goodies on offer from the recent reissues of Aqualung, Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play, we now get the next album in the Tull canon, 1974’s WarChild. First, the easy part: this is yet another embarrassment of riches. The original album itself is generally rated an upper-tier Tull recording; this generous box set package, replete with bonus tracks, previously unreleased songs and an 80 page booklet (!) makes it (yet another) imperative purchase for Jethro Tull enthusiasts.

Jethro Tull’s output can be broken into a series of trios, with their first three being transitional affairs while the band honed their approach and purpose. The next three, their Holy Trinity, remain an undisputed high water mark not only of Jethro Tull’s history, but must rank among the upper echelon of prog era masterpieces. Their next three, commencing with WarChild and including the misunderstood, maligned or wrongly unheralded Minstrel in the Gallery and Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die! are most ripe for reassessment. (The next three, the “pastoral trilogy” are considered a return to form, and then there’s the series of snyth-laden efforts, and after that everyone pretty much wrote the band off, even though they ended up winning the controversial Grammy for 1987’s Crest of a Knave. More on all this, someday soon.)

After the back-to-back-to-back brilliance of the Holy Trinity, a letdown seemed inevitable, due either to creative or physical exhaustion. Impressively, even amazingly, Ian Anderson & Co. not only kept pace but, in some regards, raised the bar a bit. It is to Jethro Tull’s considerable credit that they returned to a more succinct, song-based structure. While both “one-song” album epics were successful, critically and artistically (and financially), it is likely because—and not in spite—of their effective execution that Anderson decided, correctly, that he had done all he could do, at least without resorting to repetition or self-parody. This, of course, is something fellow prog acts, particularly Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, failed to embrace or accept, to their ultimate chagrin.

What the ten tracks from the original album indicate, beyond question, is that Ian Anderson continued to grow as both tunesmith and lyricist. If some of the material does not hold up quite as well, there are a few songs that can be considered alongside the best work he ever did. To start with the most confounding of the bunch, “Bungle in the Jungle”. Still remarkably—and annoyingly—radio friendly, this was one of the band’s rare hits, and it’s unfortunate it remains amongst the handful of tunes non-fans associate with Jethro Tull. Lyrically, an obvious antecedent to Peter Gabriel’s superior “Games Without Frontiers”, with jungle shenanigans sending up our human foibles, the sing-along quality of “Bungle” makes it innocuous and more than a little cloying. Not prog enough, perhaps?

There is the matter of leftover material from the aborted A Passion Play sessions (more about those in this article, “Ripe with Rich Attainments”). Both “Only Solitaire” and “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day” were left on the cutting room floor once A Passion Play took shape, and while they were not appropriate for that opus, they function wonderfully as standalone songs. Indeed, Anderson’s concerns with the environment and snarky critics seem admirably prescient in our climate-change denying, Internet chat-room present-day. And for anyone looking for a definitive take on eschewing the spurious, superficial spoils of super-stardom, “Only Solitaire” continues what Anderson started with “Nothing to Say” (from Benefit) and “Cheap Day Return” (from Aqualung). Anderson kept it real, then, and his refusal to acquiesce to convention remains refreshing, today.

“Two Fingers”, which closes the album, is a reworked and overly polished version of “Lick Your Fingers Clean”, which never made the final cut for inclusion on Aqualung. “The Third Hoorah” and “Queen and Country”, complete with accordion and bagpipe embellishments, satisfy prog’s more-is-more penchant for exploration and discovery, circa ’74. Speaking of exploration and discovery, Anderson expanded his already-impressive instrumental repertoire to include saxophone (featured extensively on A Passion Play). While he generally disparages his efforts in the liner notes, he’s being, at best, too self-critical by half.

In fact, the sax, particularly on the title track, makes the music more adventurous and less predictable, imbuing a certain elegance when augmented by the swelling strings: there is real craftsmanship at work that skirts pretentiousness and manages to elevate a song that would otherwise be merely ambitious and intelligent. The judicious employment of sax and carnivalesque accordion throughout lend the proceedings a mingled vibe of high and lowbrow: collectively the songs alternate in pace, topic and intensity, but the whole is convincingly unified, even tasteful in a way Jethro Tull never was, or necessarily wanted to be, before.

And who on earth but Ian Anderson could pivot from interrogations of geopolitics and war to a couple of ironic, almost touching odes to women-for-hire? “Ladies” and “Back Door Angels”, if not the most complex topics (lyrically or conceptually), are given, respectively, a gorgeous acoustic backdrop and raucous counterpoint between Anderson’s flute and Martin Barre’s electric guitar. Taken together, they offer further evidence that Anderson’s conceptual and intellectual acumen was a notch, or more, above most of his contemporaries.

Special recognition is warranted for “SeaLion”, which represents the whole as well as any other selection, and also offers (yet another) yardstick to determine whether or not one is really a Tull fan, or if one gets prog rock, and particularly if one understands—and appreciates—that it wasn’t all twenty minute marathons of instrumental overload. Sending up society and/or show business, distilling the animal-kingdom-as-metaphor-for-the-human-race formula that dominated the “Château d’Isaster” sessions, and penning some of his sharpest lyrics for what some may consider a throwaway tune, all in under four minutes? That’s just how Ian Anderson rolled.

And, once again, it warrants repeating that Anderson is, without question, the preeminent lyricist of this era (more on that in this article, “Jethro Tull: Aqualung (40th Anniversary Special Edition)”). If, for instance John Lennon or, better yet, David Bowie ever had written the lines “The ice cream castles are refrigerated/The super-marketeers are on parade/There’s a golden handshake hanging round your neck/As you light your cigarette on the burning deck”, audiences and, importantly, critics would wet themselves, and rightly so. And, let it be stated (once again), that while Martin Barre is amongst the most inventive and underappreciated musicians of the decade, Barriemore Barlow, mixing propulsive beats and sick syncopation, is the best drummer not enough people know.

As the numerous bonus tracks make abundantly clear, Ian Anderson was insanely productive, even by his standards, throughout 1974. At this point, Jethro Tull was averaging one album per year, and this pace would continue through 1980. More, Anderson toyed seriously with the idea of writing a screenplay with the aim of making WarChild a motion picture. Wiser, or less pretentious heads prevailed, and those extravagant plans were scrapped, which Anderson wryly recalls, with typically self-deprecating fashion in the liner notes. Speaking of the liner notes, this deluxe edition, as mentioned, features an 80 page booklet, replete with lyrics, interviews and a track-by-track analysis by Anderson himself. Even fanatical completists are likely to be satisfied, possibly sated, by this generous packaging.

The bonus tracks will, naturally, elicit different reactions from different people. There is a great deal of material that was understandably left off official albums, including a handful that have remained in the vault until now. As curiosities or, again, fodder for incurable completists, they are now available (and remastered, to boot!). Some, like “March, The Mad Scientist”, “Rainbow Blues”, “Quartet” and “SeaLion II”, have appeared on various collections and are welcome inclusions to this set. Others, like the extensive classical renditions of WarChild songs/themes, range from mostly pleasant to unoffensive, and occasionally hint at something like grace (“Pan Dance”, “The Beach”, “Waltz of the Angels”).

As always, the liberties Steven Wilson takes with the remixes will enlighten, thrill or offend, all depending on how infatuated or open-minded the individual. As usual, Wilson’s obsessions with voice and drum sounds move these elements to the forefront; as expected, the listener can discern certain vocals or effects scarcely noticeable in previous editions, and we ultimately get a fresh presentation that does not stray unnecessarily far from the original. Whether we want, or need, the 5.1 surround (in 96/24 LPCM and AC3 Dolby Digital for those keeping score at home) is entirely up to how discerning one’s ears happen to be. If at times the clarity is (typically) astonishing, occasionally we are too aware of a fidelity-obsessed fetishist who wants to show the world what they should have been hearing all along. A little tinkering goes a long way, and, fortunately, Wilson’s handiwork is never excessive to the point of distraction. By this point we know Wilson’s heart is in the right place and, after all, he has Anderson’s full blessing.

This set is not essential for the casual fan; interesting for the open-minded, and probably a requirement for the faithful. Bottom line: this ongoing series of remixes brings welcome focus on albums that are indispensable cogs in the Big Prog Machine and, as significant, works that merit reappraisal from critics and, best case, new discovery by the uninitiated.

Originally published at PopMatters on 3/20/2015.

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Why Is Prog Rock So Inadequate, Simplistic, Reductive, Portentous and…Perfect? (Revisited)

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It’s always crucial, when talking trends—musical or otherwise—to contextualize the times and remember that wardrobe malfunctions, chemical excess and unspeakable atrocities like porn-star mustaches never exist within a vacuum. To properly remember, and assess, the good, the bad and the ugly of what accelerated (or, in some cases, stunted) our collective forward progress, we should feel obliged to stop, look and listen. And taste, and smell. And always make sure to program our perspective and especially our sense of humor for what we’re about to experience. For make no mistake: when it comes to lessons learned, unfortunate choices and free comedy, progressive rock remains a gift that keeps on giving.

Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. And, for the most part, this was a wonderful thing. The Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am the Walrus” is a million miles from… anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend started crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut.

And then, emboldened, or inspired—or both—wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s. What some of us still refer lovingly to as progressive rock held sway over the sonic landscape: with side-long suites and literary allusions in overdrive, prog rock became an enterprise that launched a million air guitars. These songs (these albums) were of their time in every regard and invoke inextricable connotations of the decade itself: bloated, hazy, earnest, misguided, visionary, awkward, awesome.

So it behooves us, if we want to have a sober discussion of which music from this era is worthwhile, and why it endures, to remember just how much overly produced music was made by overindulged acts throughout the ‘70s. The excesses—both aesthetic and recreational—informing the scene also sorted the field, separating contenders from has-beens and assorted flavors of the Billboard Hot 100. Put bluntly, these were the not-so-good old days when coke-snorting executives in leisure suits green-lighted hit singles by acts destined for the dustbins and oldies circuit. Put even more bluntly, acts like Barry Gibb, The Bay City Rollers and K.C. and the Sunshine Band all managed to be millionaires.

No need to invoke Dickens; it was neither the best nor the worst of times. At one extreme we had dancing queens and dry ice edging ever closer to the public (and publically accepted) stage; at the opposite end of the spectacle we witnessed the emerging proposition of punk rock. To its credit, the punks’ do-it-yourself ethos scorned the self-parody of both dinosaur arena acts as well as the aforementioned jungle boogie bandwagon jumpers. This raw wave crashed in a spray of broken glass, safety pin piercings and bloody spittle that served to shake up the power-pop vanguard. The prevailing formula had suffocated on its own self-importance, and the new fashion harnessed hairspray and spite in equal measure to establish brand new ground rules.

Or at least that’s the generally sanctioned version of events we tend to hear entirely too often. Raise your hand if you’ve read (one time or one hundred times) the facile and hackneyed account of how punk killed progressive rock so that we could all live miserably ever after. The reality, as it stubbornly tends to be, is much messier and more complicated. Progressive rock came and went (and came back), but opinions differ on what specific years it covered and which artists epitomize it. Perhaps this is unavoidable, because this so-called era isn’t easily packaged into a particular time period or specific aesthetic, and what we are left with is the all-encompassing moniker of prog-rock, which manages to be inadequate, overly simplistic, reductive, portentous and… perfect?

A form of musical expression that, for lack of a better cliché, transcends time and place is created and exists on its own terms, so there is no barrier of language, ideology or agenda that prevents it from finding its audience. The only requirement is a sufficiently open mind and ears (or eyes) capable of picking up what is being put down. Of course this same criteria can be—and typically is—applied to any artistic expression. So why is it different, or at least more complicated, when it comes to assessing the pros and cons of prog rock? Put as simply—and starkly—as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to snootily dismiss the more elaborate (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid ‘70s.

One of the many reasons progressive rock remains 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.

“I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think”. This line, from Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, serves as a succinct summation of why prog rock did—and does—inspire such intense adoration and/or aversion. The people who reject it (then, now) likely would ask, and not without merit, who wants to think? Music typically fails if it can’t burrow past your beer gut.

It’s fair to suggest that, regardless of its merits or lack thereof, the most successful music of this genre made you think. Inevitably, the artists who were too self-conscious for everyone’s sake; the ones trying a tad too hard to make you think—especially the ones who wanted to make you think how clever they were—crossed the verboten third rail of pretension and have been punished accordingly (then, now). But the best practitioners, through their lyrics, themes and conceptual ideas that occasionally spanned entire albums, went for your head as well as your heart.

For some reason the gatekeepers of the Establishment (many of whom are the ultimate hipsters, poseurs and baby-boomers; many of whom are men; many of whom, coincidentally, have written for Rolling Stone) seem embarrassed by the notion that rock music can—or should—be capable of eliciting thought as well as feeling. That it can be unaffected without the face-saving cynicism too many songwriters, the ones predictably lionized by these same besotted journalists, feel compelled to employ. What is it about prog rock in general that makes these self-satisfied scribes so uncomfortable? That is a rhetorical question.

There is, ultimately, something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where opportunism and cold calculation are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

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