Interview: Jethro Tull - Rolling Stone
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Interview: Jethro Tull

Hopping, grimacing, twitching, gasping, lurching, rolling, paradiddling, flinging, gnawing and gibbering with the rock flautist

Jethro Tull

Jethro Tull in concert in 1971.

ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty

In the crash of concert-goers thronging the entrance to the Berkeley Community Theater on Summer Solstice Eve, Darling Dolly Dane pops up for her first major pop event since Altamont. “Heavily into Scientology” these days, the scrawny, scabies-pimpled runaway waif from Petaluma (“Egg Basket of the West”) races from person to person in the shuffling crowd, gripping each of them urgently by the wrist if they permit her, chanting a variation of her old spare-change hustle: “Don’t be a tacky cunt, hon. Do me some good. Sell me your ticket. Sell me your ticket. Do me some good, hon. Sell me your fuckin’ ticket.

Inside the hall, the smell of burning weed is stronger than a ten-minute egg, and Livingston Taylor warms up the capacity audience by shimmying like his sister Kate — perching on a stool, forcing funk. When Taylor disappears to sustained but not insistent applause, Ian Anderson springs on stage, brandishing an acoustic guitar like a broadsword. “Welcome to the Andy Williams Show,” he harrumphs, looking nothing if not tatty piss-elegant in skin-tight yellow breeks, a brocade sash that serves as a kind of codpiece, medieval-style boots, and a long plaid jerkin-coat. A scalding pink spotlight accents his hair like a ratty halo. Anderson surveys the hushed crowd for a minute, smiles privately, strikes a harsh chord on the guitar, and launches into “My God” from the new Jethro Tull LP, Aqualung. The crowd goes ecstatic.

Anderson himself goes all but beserk as he raves against “the bloody Church of England,” hopping about on one leg, grimacing, twitching, gasping, lurching along the apron of the stage, rolling his eyes, paradiddling his arms, feigning flinging snot from his nose, exchanging the guitar for a flute, gnawing on the flute like corn on the cob, flinging it forward like a baton, gibbering dementedly.

The other members of Tull, laid back till now, come in on cue, louder than the last clap of doom. Anderson wiggles his ass at the crowd with a fey flip of the hips that leaves his outflung wrist limp. John Evan, who resembles an unmade bed with hair spilling out the bolster, hammers maniacally away at the piano. The ferret-faced drummer, Barriemore Barlow, flails savagely at his traps. Martin Barre attacks his guitar as if it were the throat of his foulest enemy. Bassist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond detonates rhythm lines like thunderclaps.

Throughout the evening, Ian Anderson moves like a manic dancer, emotes like an Actor’s Studio dropout. “C’mon, gods, let there be lights,” he bawls when a spot fails to follow him across stage. “That’s Mac’s fault,” he wheezes, referring to a roadie. “Hmm, I feel a bit strange tonight. I might do something weird … I might just go up there and jump on Mac. Ah, I guess not — Mac wants a bit of crack.”

“Mac-mac-mac-mac-mac,” John Evan babbles, fiddling around with a wooden crutch.

Anderson scowls intently at the mike before him. “My Gawd,” he crows, “me microphone stand has an erection.”

“How was Denver?” somebody calls from the audience. Tull had played there a few nights before during a police helicopter tear-gas attack on some would-be gatecrashers at the open-air Red Rocks Amphitheater.

John Evan puts on an aggrieved face. “This is how it was,” he says, limping with the crutch.

The music resumes, building to a demonic rendition of “Aqualung” that lifts neck hair all over the auditorium and fuses an explosive ovation. During Martin Barre’s long feedback solo, Anderson disappears, then minces back in a ghastly green light, phallic flute in hand, to trade a series of dazzling runs with John Evan on organ. While Barriemore Barlow solos on drums on “Cross-Eyed Mary,” Anderson toys with the companion to John Evan’s crutch, strumming it like a guitar, trying to make it stand in balance.

During “Nothing Is Easy,” the music swells darkly, and there is a galvanic moment, a moment of sheer terror, while Anderson hangs poised over the lip of the stage on one leg, swaying precipitously. Recovering, he smirks self-derisively and strokes his flute as if it were a penis. John Evan seems transfixed by the pounding music. Rising from the keyboard, he lurches around the stage, clapping deliriously.

At about this point in the evening, which comes to a stunning full circle when Anderson calculatedly finesses the already drained audience by repeating “Aqualung,” it’s abundantly clear that Jethro Tull is hardly your household-variety – British – rock – and – roll – band – on-tour. In energy, invention, and performance, the group is more like a natural force, a wind or a river.

* * *

The next afternoon, the day of the Summer Solstice, the five members of Tull — Blackpool lads all, ranging in age from 21 to 24 — are sprawled about a suite at the Holiday Inn near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, chatting v/ith visitors and sipping Lowenbrau beer. Jennie, Ian Anderson’s wife and the author of the lyrics to “Aqualung,” sits at a cool remove from the others; she is frail, tiny, and shy to the point of pain.

Ian, the only original Tull member and the composer of all the group’s other material — four Reprise albums full to date — is dressed in a black shirt, black jeans, tattersal vest, and stacked-heel boots. He looks just like Jesse James, but he talks with a self-assured civility that contrasts eerily with his manic stage presence.

Pianist John Evan, in wraparound shades and pith, helmet, drains off the last of his beer and tries to order some more. “Hallo? Hallo? Beer, please. Hallo, is this beer service? We’d like a room, please.”

The bassist, Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, fakes a collapse into a deep chair. “I’m so bloody alert today,” he groans, “it’s disgustin’.”

Barriemore Barlow yawns and sinks down on the bed. “Where is it we play next?”

Ian traces a finger in the wet rings left on the table by his glass and muses somberly about the problems endemic in touring. This is, he mentions, his eighth US tour since Tull was formed during Christmas week of 1967.

“Ah, well, you see, laddie, you never know where you’ll be playing next until management tells you. I essentially hated it at first, leaving home and all that. Then again, it’s not just leaving home, but coming to America — that’s very frightening.”

The others nod agreement and Ian swings around to one of the visitors to explain. “Actually, it sounds trite, but society here is very . . . aggressive. As compared, say, to England. Everybody is sort of grabbing at something, out for themselves. Particularly on the East Coast, where everybody talks three times as loud as the average conversation level in England. You get the feeling you’re in the midst of some incredible game of which you don’t know the rules. Here, at first, anyway, the initial impression is that everybody is rude, pushy, grabby. It kind of emasculates you a bit, but then you get used to it, and you learn to ignore it. It’s like flying — none of us enjoy it as such, but even in that regard, you develop an in-built sort of drug — a state of suspended animation or something — so that you get onto an airplane and you come out of it at the other end. The annoying thing is that you waste so much time. You know, perhaps five or six hours a day.

“I must say this, though. The aggressiveness I mean doesn’t usually come from the kids at the concerts so much. Denver? Well, that was largely a riotous affair occurring at the back of the amphitheater, a thousand or so people trying to bust in with various weapons of war at their sides. At first the police wouldn’t let us go on. It took hours of patient explaining that if we didn’t get up on stage, there was a large chance that there might be 10,000 people rioting, instead of 1000.

“But we, as well as the audience, were just sort of victims, innocent bystanders. It was like a war going on outside. The CS gas drifted through — it was very uncomfortable, you know, seeing babies being carried out unconscious from the stuff. I think we all felt the sooner we got out there and got on with playing, the sooner the situation might resolve itself. So we just went on and were as boring as we could possibly be and hoped everybody’d go to sleep.” Ian laughs hugely and jabs a thumb at Barrie. “It was only this lad’s second gig with us. He kept asking: ‘Is it always like this?'”

Barrie worries a finger through his dark ruff of beard. “I was scared to death. Still, I’m enjoying the tour. I don’t mind living out of suitcases. My wardrobe isn’t all that big.”

“I think I’m in sort of a semi-coma,” Jeffrey puts in, then closes both eyes and slides down further on his spine.

“Wasn’t it a curious audience last night?” Ian asks of the room at large. Martin nods. “Without a doubt.” “Silent, like,” Barrie says. “Like in England,” John agrees. Jeffrey opens one eye. “England has pretty silent audiences,” he mutters, then closes the eye again.

A gum-chewing Reprise flack, all Ban-Ion and capped teeth, bustles into the room with the group’s itinerary for the afternoon. Martin, Jeffrey, and John are free to rubberneck around the city for a few hours, but Ian must tend to Tull business and Barrie should see about replacing a faulty cymbal. Ian cocks a baleful eye at the flack: “Russ, you’re a raffish buffoon. Before this tour is over, we intend to fit you out in a Warner Bros, money suit, bind and gag you in a Hertz car, and burn you in front of the inn. Until that time, we’ll occasionally toss you in the hotel pool because you’re dirty.”

Everyone, including the flack, laughs, fan peers into the dregs of his Lowenbrau and turns the topic to Aqualung.

“Well, the concept of the dirty, wheezing old man, you see, is very much mine, so I can’t really say how the others figure in that side of it. It’s not something we necessarily talk about —”

I listen to it, I think about it,” Martin interjects. “Only … in a different light, and it’s hard to talk about.”

“I listen to Tchaikovsky,” John chimes in. “I like melodies.”

Jeffreey activates his elaborate eye tropism again and mumbles sleepily, “I enjoy Captain Beefheart . . . and Prokofieff . . . and Delius . . . and Frank Sinatra . . . and Captain Beefheart . . . and Captain Beefheart …”

“Well, I don’t listen to anybody in particular,” Barrie says. “Do I have catholic taste?” He blinks. “No, I’m Church of England, if you must know.”

“What I mean is,” Ian resumes, suppressing a smile, “I just tend to show up rather selfishly with a few songs, strum them on the guitar, and say so it goes. From there on in, we battle it out until we arrive at something we think is OK musically, and hopefully something I’ll feel does justice to the original conception, which perhaps began with me sitting in some hotel room in Pittsburgh, you know, playing a few lines on guitar . . .

“Oh, of course, I have quite strong feelings about organized religion. In part, that’s because of my lack of background in it as much as anything else. I fled from church about the age of eight, around the third time I was sent, because I was afraid. The strongest thing that hit me was the fear tactics of the religion my parents attempted to have me enter into. For that and other reasons, I was estranged from my father for years, couldn’t even bear to speak to him . . .

“Well, that sort of religion is based on the concept of a God who rules above and beyond humanity. You do things His way, or else it’s pillars of salt and hell-fire. God becomes a rather bogeyman figure. To me, it’s a terrible chance to take — to expose a child to religion in such a way as he may be contaminated by the fear aspect of it, as opposed to the idea of love, the idea of coexistence. I think religion is something better entered into as one reaches an age of greater awareness and experience.”

Martin leans forward intently: “Most hot-headed people seem to be hooked up with some god or other, religion, like that. Out of fear, I suppose.”

John nods in agreement: “I was just going to say about my Auntie Doris. She’s getting along in years. She lost her husband quite a long time ago, and she’s very supermarket . . . very conventional. She really believes that the only thing to live for is to die, you know. I mean she’s going to join her husband in the sky. She actually believes that.”

“Addicted to death,” Ian murmurs, “how perfectly ghastly. On that topic, by the way, I must say I have no contact with dope. I’m a junkie as much as I smoke ciggies and drink coffee. Beyond that, though, I have a fear of having my mind or perspective altered by artificial means. I don’t want my outlook altered, because I prefer to work along a very concrete chain of figuring-things-out — a kind of self-analysis and objectivity which comes of doing something and then sitting back and looking at it and then coming back to it and making a few changes and starting again.

“That’s what I do in terms of making music, as well as just living. No, nothing as crude, as vulgar as taking a pill or a shot or smoking something. I don’t get drunk, either. It doesn’t happen on any level, really.”

Jeffrey stirs slightly: “I don’t use anything. That’s why I’m so alert.” Barrie pours himself another tumbler of beer: “I tried marijuana once. I couldn’t see any point in it at all. Complete waste of time.”

“I’ve tried it,” Martin says, “and both times I felt really uncomfortable. I hated being around people who were the same way — everybody looking at you to see how you reacted. I don’t see why drugs should be associated with musical groups. The. majority of people in London who take drugs, I venture, have nothing to do with pop music directly.”

“I know a civil servant who’s got a plant growing in his office,” Barrie chirps. “Well,” John says haltingly, “I personally, as far as drugs go, don’t want to close my mind to an experience so long as it’s not going to do me any harm —”

“People claim that drugs make music easier to comprehend,” Ian snaps, cutting John off. “My reaction to that is I don’t think music should be easy to listen to. There’s an unhealthy tendency afoot nowadays to make rock music easy to absorb. That’s exactly the opposite of what I want to do musically. I think music of all kinds should require an effort from everyone involved. Both musicians and audience should be struggling toward something, even if it’s not necessarily the same thing. To be getting somewhere toward communication, they should both be growing and climbing toward something — making an effort. And probably not getting there . . .

“Which raises all sorts of questions — the question of art, for one. Zappa and Beefheart, to me, are about the only two American artists. You know, I mean artists, not necessarily rock entertainers. I studied painting for two years, as Jeffrey did, who’s looking so extraordinarily alert today. I moved away from painting because I wanted to do something that had a more immediate effect. I wanted to remove myself from the direct influence of tutors and teachers.

“In being a rock musician, you’re left totally to your own devices. Any talent or ability that emerges is something that comes from within you as you learn to do it, or as you’re affected by things you hear or experience. It’s not so much a matter of learning technique, but rather more a mental approach — learning the fine balance of achieving composition and harmony and balance and so on. There’s the mathematical approach and the emotional approach, you know. You have to make those opposites work, perhaps against each other, to produce a joining together of the two forces. The process involves understanding your own emotions and the written word, neither of which I’m particularly good at, but am trying to learn about as time goes on.”

Ian snuffs out one cigarette and lights another.

“So, you see,” he goes on, “those were some of my goals, my ambitions when Jethro Tull was formed in late ’67. The group, as it was originally composed, consisted of myself, Mick Abrahams on guitar, Glenn Cormick on bass, and Clive Bunker, drums. They all departed in time to be replaced by these . . . splendid creatures you see before you. Oh, yes, the dear departed ones departed for various reasons. Early on, for example, Mick Abrahams and I realized that the only way we could get on was a few thousand miles apart. He’s very much older than I, and very set in his musical ways. He didn’t want to come to America, didn’t want to travel, didn’t want to work more than four days a week, whereas the only way I can work is seven days a week. It’s the only way to keep the level of music at an adequate level.

“In any event, the personnel changes were directly keyed to personality differences — just the ability to live with each other. The band as it is now seems to get on better than any of the variations of the past.”

John cackles and thumps his pith helmet with the flat of his hand: “We sort of don’t get along, but we do it well.”

Ian smiles thinly. “Right you are, John-o. In any event, as the band began to make its way, I was constantly experimenting with my physical role on stage. When I first tried doing things in terms of leaping around or ‘looking good,’ management put the pressure on me to develop into being a sort of character actor. So, for a while, I attempted to be a weirdo, sort of strange and good to look at. But it didn’t work.

“Still, there came a point when I started doing it just for myself, and it gradually evolved into being, for me, at any rate, a true physical expression of the music we play. I have a brother who’s a ballet dancer. I imagine there must be some form of physical expression that runs in my family.

“Actually, a lot of what I do on stage is a caricature of what I think people see me as. Never is it very much a sexual thing. It’s my own way of taking the mickey out of what I do. To be able to put the whole ‘rock-star figure’ into perspective, you’ve got to be able to stand back and laugh at yourself, which is what I do from time to time. Hamming it up.

“But the honest part of it is rather like conducting — you’re actually another way of playing, another instrument, another force. There are certain physical feelings that go with a certain sound, and to employ those is the right thing — a rather extended form of dancing.”

The Reprise flack edges forward cautiously. “Uh, Ian, it’s about time to, uh, leave for the radio interview.” “It’s about pool time for you, my man!” Ian roars in a stagey bellow. The flack winces and retreats. Jeffery twitches at the sound, but doesn’t open his eyes. ” ‘Once more into the breach, dear friends,'” John declaims. “That’s from Henry V, Act III, you know.”

Ian dusts off his palms briskly and takes a quick sip of luke-cold beer. “Where was I? Oh, yes, the band began to make its way, and I was leaping about and all that, and we had amazing good success from the beginning. Signed with Reprise in ’68, caused rather of a stir at the Sunbury Jazz and Blues Festival in England that same summer. Hmn, what else? TV appearances on The Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus and something later called The Switched-On Symphony with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Toured constantly on the Continent and in America . . .

“The name Jethro Tull? Ah, yes. Well, the Jethro Tull of history was a late-18th century agriculturalist who invented the seed drill. He was also an accomplished musician, having made his prototype drill design from the foot pedals of a church organ. If there’s a moral in there somewhere, I shall be guaranteed to stay well clear of it.

“Hmn. At any rate, I knew none of that when the name was selected. One of the people working in our management agency proposed it — he had studied history at university. Well, it was a sort of gritty, earthy kind of name, not something you get tired of like the Orange Bicycle or the Psychedelic Banana — you know, those groups who play backwards on records — so we accepted it. Still, it’s only a name, and sometimes I think it would be rather nice not to even have one at all. It’s like having a tag on your luggage saying you’re going to L.A., that’s all the useful it is.”

Ian cocks a balefully amused eye at the flack. “Must you always slouch so, Russ? Don’t you know you’ll get curvature of the spine? Perhaps die? Can’t rinse that off in a swimming pool. And shall we be off now?”

* * *

A half hour later, having been driven there in a rented Continental limo precisely the color of faded money, Ian Anderson sits cramped in the tiny, cluttered broadcast booth of a local FM rock station, facing a very nervous, very young man inhabiting wire-rim glasses, a mass of hair, and scuffed cowboy boots. Ian’s wife Jennie has tagged silently along, as has Barrie Barlow, the drummer, who is, in fact, drumming with his fingertips on any and all available surfaces in the adjacent record library.

The disk jockey across from Ian is very nervous because he is very young and hasn’t been a disk jockey for all that long, and because he is ignorant, in the biblical sense, about Jethro Tull’s music. To top that off, he has all four of Tull’s albums — This Was, Stand Up, Benefit, and Aqualung — arrayed before him, but Ian says he doesn’t want to hear any of Tull’s music, he wants to hear Roy Harper’s music instead. Since the disk jockey is ignorant, in the biblical sense, of Roy Harper’s music as well, his nervousness escalates; he slaps another of Ian’s requests, King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man,” on the turntable, mutters, “I still get off on this record,” and lopes off to the library to return with the lone Roy Harper album available.

“Roy Harper,” Ian tells him in polite but firm instruction, “is a great English acoustic player who wipes the floor with all your James Taylors, Gordon Light-foots, Dylans.”

“Oh wow,” the disk jocky wheezes. “You know, I remember seeing your first album? I didn’t see any publicity or anything about it. I just put the record on and listened to it in the local record store. That’s the truth. That’s in Eugene, Oregon, that this happened.” “That’s nice,” Ian clucks. In the limo afterwards, heading for two more radio interviews and a lengthy photo session, Ian sags wearily against Jennie, who strokes his hair delicately. Barrie cranes around to gawk at the Top of the Mark on Nob Hill, and grows fascinated with the automatic gadgetry that controls the car’s windows and seats. “Amazin”, just amazin’,” he keeps repeating.

The Reprise flack, a good-natured man, who endures Ian’s good-natured torments for a princely sum per annum, points at the late-afternoon fog boiling in across the Golden Gate Bridge. “That’s surely not fog, is it?” Barrie asks incredulously. “Looks more like smoke, it’s so thick. Could there have been an explosion, you think?”

Ian squints ahead at the fog bank. “No, it’s not fog,” he says to Barrie with a wink. “It’s CS gas, lad. Very hard it is, too, on the eyes, ears, nose, and throat.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Jethro Tull

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