Ian Anderson: Chance Interventions

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It is nearly impossible to tease out the influence that Ian Anderson has had on Western culture. As front man and principal songwriter for the legendary band Jethro Tull, his clever lyrics, percussive flute playing, rich voice and distinctive visage fused folk and rock into an engaging sound that was instantly popular and remains immediately identifiable even 40 years later.

Early this year, Anderson released Thick As A Brick 2, a follow-up to the similarly titled album that was released in 1972. Shortly after the album hit the shelves, he launched a tour where he has been performing the entirety of both albums in concert halls around the world. The U.S. leg hits the Long Beach Terrace Theater on Saturday, October 20th. I had a chance to speak with him just before the tour started.

Although Anderson toured in support of the original release, back in 1972, he decided to remove it from the touring repertoire shortly thereafter.

“I decided that I really didn’t want to go back and do all the figures in Brick ever again because, in some countries, it was a bit of a rough ride. It being acoustic, it quite depended on an audience’s sensitivity to listen to it, and not shout out and whistle and hoot and holler. Unfortunately, that did happen in some places, so it became very frustrating.

“These days, I don’t anticipate that problem, partly because people have largely learned to be better behaved and to treat musical concerts as what they obviously are. They’re not sports events, and not a heavy-metal thrash. It’s a musical concert. I think people understand that.

“One of the reasons I do a lot of shows as Ian Anderson rather than simply calling it Jethro Tull is because it does tend to keep the riff-raff at home. And that’s understandable, I suppose, because for some of the beer drinking buddies, what they know of Jethro Tull is probably from the few tracks they’ve heard on classic rock radio alongside Lynyrd Skynyrd or Deep Purple. So they probably have this idea that we’re simply a rock band, and that’s the nature of the whole show.

“But, of course, we are not. We are a very eclectic group with a lot of acoustic music in our repertoire from over the years. It’s easier for me when the handful of beer drinking buddies decide to stay home, or go watch a basketball match, or whatever they do. They’ve come out in the last ten years only once, that I can remember, in the USA, when I’ve been doing Ian Anderson shows.

“If I’m going to play the Beacon Theatre and hear a pin drop, I’ve confidence in saying the culture has changed, become more educated, and above all, more respectful. Not just to the artist, but respectful to the other members of the audience. They understand it’s really not nice to interrupt other people’s enjoyment. And I have really felt a major change in all of that.

“When I use my name, I guess the beer drinking buddies don’t know who I am, so maybe that’s what keeps them away. But I know who they are. Not only do I have their cell phone numbers and their addresses, I know where their mother lives.”

With a melody here and a word or phrase there, Anderson has cleverly woven small references to his past big hits into TAAB2.

“For some great composers, as well as movie directors and novel writers and play writers, it’s one of the tools of your trade – to occasionally make these little cross-references with other work. It is fun to do, but I think it’s artistically satisfying, I hope, for the audience, as well. They get that little link, that little point of reference. If you do it in a subtle way, some people get it and some people don’t.

“For instance, in the lyrics I mention the word locomotive. I mention the words ‘a passion play.’ There are a few more subtle references. There’s a line of Aqualung that crops up in a piece of music, which is in 6/4 time and not in a way that most people would recognize the riff. But it’s in there. Beethoven did it a lot in his symphonies; lots of little throw-backs and references to earlier work, and I really like that.”

Anderson does not see TAAB2 as a sequel to the original album of the same name. Instead, he used Gerald Bostock, a character developed for the fictional back-story of the original, as a tool to explore various aspects of modern culture and society. “I’m using the convenient idea that together we explore what happens to Gerald Bostock, the eight year old boy that grew up, in a way that is a metaphor for all of our lives. We face all these little points, decision making and reacting to chance intervention. Things could turn out very differently according to our reaction to those things, and our ability to make good choices, good decisions.

“I’m one of those people who, I suppose, made largely the right choices. I can think of only one thing that was a pretty dumb move. I honestly feel I didn’t make a lot of bad choices. Other people, on the other hand, are maybe not so fortunate, and look back and say, ‘My God, I really messed up my life by doing that particular thing.’ And I can think of a couple of people who, I’m very sure, would feel that way. I know because I was Best Man at both of their weddings. [laughs]”

Anderson is known as a concerned and active environmentalist, due in part to his purchasing undeveloped lands and keeping them undeveloped, but he’s dismissive of accolades he’s received.

“If I really wanted to help the environment, I would just stay at home. I would just Skype people and never go anywhere near them, because when I jump on an airplane, my carbon footprint is not a pretty sight.

“One of my flutes just traveled 100 million kilometers in orbit for 5 months on the International Space Station, and I know how much it costs in rocket fuel to get it up there. I’m very selfish. It was a rather arrogant thing to do. I can only say that, maybe, the upside of it is the size of the flute, and its presence in the world – and out of it. Maybe it will encourage some young people to take up that instrument, or any other instrument. There are some positive spin-offs from sending it spinning around the earth, but I’m not sure that they quite compensate for the extra tons of rocket fuel to take half a kilo up into space and bring it back again.”

This rather bizarre turn of events began when a radio personality in Houston discovered that Colonel Catherine Coleman, preparing for her third trip to space, played the flute, and was willing to take Anderson’s up with her.

“I thought, ‘Well, that’s a nice idea.’ Colonel Coleman is also a fan of the Chieftains, so she took Matt Molloy’s Irish flute into space, as well. I’m not saying she smuggled them onto a cargo rocket, but I’m not entirely sure it was official cargo, if you know what I mean.

“We played on the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight, the 50th anniversary being last year in March. I was playing in Russia, not far away from where they built the rockets. I played live on stage and a video screen came down half way through the show and onto the video screen, beamed from the space station, came Catherine Coleman, upside-down, weightless, touching my flute. We played a little duet. She made a little speech in Russian and everyone loved it, and then we all went home. Except, she didn’t. She had another three months to spend up there before she could go home.”

The new album was released as a standard CD, and in a Special Edition package that also includes a DVD with a surround sound mix and many short video segments. In one of them, Anderson mentions some of the possible ‘lives’ he didn’t include for Gerald Bostock, including his becoming an astronaut.

“The reason I didn’t explore that is primarily because, by then, I already had some first-hand experience of astronauts. If I’d have been writing, I’d have been drawing upon the knowledge of one or two people, and I don’t work that way. I don’t like to betray the confidence of a relationship to make entertainment. It’s something that, from an ethical standpoint, I will not do. So, if I do ever write about people, it’s in a very carefully – not disguised – but it’s just pretty vague and pretty general.

“I would hate anyone to say, ‘Ah, that song is about so-and-so.’ Or, ‘That song is about me,’ because that’s just something I’ve always stayed away from. And I always will. I mean, if I write a song about being an astronaut everybody’d going to say, ‘Oh, you’ve written that song about Catherine Coleman or Paolo Nespoli,’ one of the other two astronauts I’ve become friendly with over the last year or two.

“Also, it would be hard for me to not use what I know about them, to not draw upon some personality character. A couple of times, particularly with Catherine Coleman, I’ve spoken to her, and Paolo Nespoli, the Italian astronaut, who told me some of their fears, some of their frustrations, some of their sadness’s, things that—it would be really wrong of me to betray them in a song. But it’s such good material that it would be hard to write anything and not to use the stuff that I know. But I just can’t do that. It would be wrong to do that.”

One of the songs on the album connects directly to a rather grim reality.

“Wootton Bassett is a town in the southwest of England, near a military airfield, through which passed the cortege of coffins and police and various military services in the repatriation of dead soldiers, most recently from Afghanistan. It became quite a public symbol of respect and sorrow for fallen soldiers, male and female, in a way that’s captured the nation’s heart.

“This little market town, and its inhabitants, suddenly became the focus of seeing the reality of the effects of mainly roadside bombs. In some cases it was the actual munitions experts who were sent to defuse bombs who lost their lives.

“They decided, a few months ago, to close down that military airfield so now the dead soldiers come to a different part of the country, to a different airfield, and they don’t actually have to go through a small town at all on their way to disperse the coffins to the families of the deceased.

“Wootton Bassett just remains a little bit of British history. It’s now called Royal Wootton Bassett, I suppose, in memory of the fact that the town people, the inhabitants and visitors, paid such huge emotional support to the families and friends of the deceased; the fallen, as they are often referred to.

“But it’s kind of poignant for me to include that song because, if you remember, in 1972 [the U.S. Government was] just beginning to draw a line under the Vietnam War. American troops were sent to, essentially, evacuate. And here we are, forty years down the line, and looking at the very same scenario in Afghanistan with little more chance of success than was the outcome in Vietnam, because once the Americans were out of there, the North Vietnamese swooped on down and took everything over, and it’s now the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Sadly, the Taliban is waiting in the wings, in the hills and valleys, just ready to ride back into Kabul and business as usual. We’re looking at a bit of a sad repeat of the same example of the futility of war.

“If I was President Bush back then, if I was Tony Blair back then, what would I have done? I’m not sure. I think we probably would’ve said, ‘Let’s give it a go. Let’s see if we can succeed where the Russians failed. Let’s give it a try, see if we can democratize and bring respect and dignity to the women and the professionals of Afghanistan, and try and change the outcome of that fearful, tribal, feudal, male dominated society.’ It’s almost certain that it is not going to work out. It’s a sad reflection on the futility of war. Some wars achieve results. Some, unfortunately, don’t.”

Anderson confessed that he enjoys his visits to the United States.

“My wife always comes with me to America, and we drive rather than fly, when possible. One of the things that I’ve actually really come to love about American tourism is getting in the car with my wife every morning, sometimes horribly early, and seeing the big picture of America, from the freeways and the country roads, wherever I happen to be.

“I don’t drive, I’m a passenger, and I just watch, I watch life going along the roadsides and the towns and the shopping malls. It’s something I’ve found quite a passion for, and I remember one of the first pieces of music as a teenager that I ever learned to play was basically copying a piece by the Rolling Stones on their first album called Route 66. Route 66 was a symbol for something that was very much Americana. I didn’t quite understand it back then, but I understand it now in a lot more detail because I know a lot more about Route 66, where it is and how it developed and so on. That, for me, is a big part of America.

“For years and years I traveled around and never got that simple connection between the people that I see when I’m standing on a stage or inside of a hotel or the backstage of a theatre. Suddenly, being out there, I no longer take it for granted. Every moment is precious, even on the freeways, particularly on the East Coast. That rivals the best fun faire rides of the world, scaring the shit out of you, barreling down there with a big truck on either side of you. It’s one of the reasons I choose not to drive.”

To find out about new releases, reissues, and concerts, visit J-Tull.com.

Thanks to Lee Adams for her skillful transcription services.

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