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THE MAIL ON SUNDAY
4 June 2000
IT'S YOUR FUNERAL . . .
Death holds no fear for Jethro Tull singer Ian Anderson, but the thought of being cremated scares him out of his wits
Five years ago, when I was 48, I found myself in a Sydney hospital with a huge blood clot during a Jethro Tull world tour. It was threatening to break free and wreak the sort of havoc that gives you about 90 seconds to say goodbye. I was watching Damon Hill going round and round in a Grand Prix when I suddenly became short of breath and woozy — the symptoms of the clot breaking free and lodging in my heart.
I don't know if it happens to other people, but when the moment comes and you have to face up to it, some brain-induced chemical kicks in and you actually feel resolute and capable of coping with your own imminent demise. I'd always thought I'd be rotten at dying, one of those people you wouldn't want to be in the trenches with, just a quivering mass of jelly. But when the moment came, I didn't have a gun in my hand or anyone who depended on me to save them, so I didn't go to pieces.
My overwhelming sense at the time was one of great disappointment and sadness at not having been able to do all the things I wanted to do, to actually say goodbye to people. There was surprisingly little fear or trepidation.
My parents were Christians who never went to church, which was hard for me to grasp as a child. My first brush with God was being browbeaten with the Catechism in an English church in Scotland. It was a bit fire-and-brimstone, because hidden behind that Disneyesque facade of Jesus and God was quite a scary message.
I was about eight and managed one or two visits to Sunday school before I took to hiding in a tree. While the rest trooped in, I would stand at the end of the line, then duck out and head for my tree, wait until the others came out and join the line again. Nobody ever missed me, but in those days I had to wear a kilt, and since, if you wanted to be a real man, you weren't supposed to wear underpants, I recall it being pretty draughty hiding up there.
Unfortunately, I don't buy a lot of Christianity, but I've felt a lifelong obligation to study comparative religion and look, listen and learn. I believe tremendously in having respect for other religions, even if it is sharply at odds with what seems to be good moral or social common sense.
I'm one of those lucky people who gets to be whimsical in life, and I take it desperately seriously. It means a great deal to me to be a musician, to get up on stage and improvise a piece of music terribly badly one night and terribly well the next. It gives me a profound sense of identity, all the more so because I don't have gold albums or Grammy awards hanging on the walls. I have them knocking around somewhere, but I don't want to wake up every morning and be confronted with who I think I am; I find that really weird.
I don't want to be told what a clever boy I am because, nightly, I walk on stage, stand on one leg with my flute, and screw up. I play some wrong notes and can't help it, but there's nothing like failure to spur you on. My whole driving force is trying to atone for the sins of last night.
I once said that I wanted to write a piece of music that would last forever, and there's probably many folks out there who do think my music lasts forever — that is, they find it interminable. The definitive song would be the one that I'm worst at writing — the simple love song. That's the hardest thing in the world, and now there's very little virgin territory to tread. An example, which isn't exactly a love song but has that sort of sentiment, is Paul McCartney's 'Yesterday'. That simple perfection is what every songwriter aspires to. But I won't try too hard because I know I'm doomed to failure.
Although I wouldn't count myself a practising Christian, I would tell a teeny white lie and go for an old-fashioned English funeral service. I savour the idea of a pastoral English ceremony and a graveyard next to a slightly decrepit village church in the middle of nowhere. I've seen the right sort of place quite near to where I live and farm in Wiltshire.
I want to go in to the strains of Muddy Waters' 'Nineteen Years Old', a song that celebrates the politically incorrect idea of an older man and a younger woman. Muddy could get away with it, but I would get seriously slapped around the ears. On the way out, I want the big vocal sections from Beethoven's Ninth.
I don't expect a lot of people to turn up, but I would like them to. I don't find it easy to mix with my peers because I'm not the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll guy that people assumed in the Seventies, so I didn't make a lot of friends in the music community. Some people might regard me as stand-offish and rather a cold fish. But I would be very pleased if all those people who I met briefly from the world of arts and music came along, even though we weren't close friends. I wouldn't mind a group of Jethro Tull fans turning up; I'd keep the prices low.
I can think of about six people whom I would like to say a few words. I'd be desperately upset if nobody shed a tear, but I'd also be upset if people didn't want to have a bit of a laugh at the same time. I hope my wife Shona and our children, James and Gael, would spend a few thousand on my favourite — a gigantic Indian takeaway — for the party afterwards.
I'm definitely a hole-in-the-ground man: worms, maggots, the lot. All that incendiary stuff, disappearing behind the curtain, scares the hell out of me. I want my space and I shall decompose in my own jolly time, thank you.
If I've got it right and I end up lying down with lions and tigers in a wishy-washy Christian heaven, I want chilli peppers with me in my coffin to put a bit of spice in it. And my epitaph? 'Thanks for having me.'
Interview by HELEN CHISLETT
Thanks to Elwyn Davies for this article