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10 March 1977
JETHRO'S MAGIC PAN
Tull's Ian Anderson is back with flute, wit, wife and no sermons
Suppose you invite a small group of friends to your 500-year-old farmhouse in the English countryside and your massive Belgian shepherd dog climbs onto the lap of one of them, turns around and takes a dump on the guy's chest. You would:
(a) apologize profusely and offer to have the guy's chest dry-cleaned at your own expense;
(b) run to the nearest copy of Amy Vanderbilt's Everyday Etiquette to ascertain which is the proper fork to scrape it off with;
(c) pick up the fruit of your dog's labor with a Kleenex while the guy is cleaning up in the bathroom and place it in his coat pocket for a humorous surprise when he reaches for his cigarettes.
Ian Anderson chose (c). His dog chose Barriemore Barlow, Jethro Tull's drummer.
"It served Barrie right,"
says Anderson, stretched out on a couch in his dressing room at Radio City Music Hall before the last show of a limited tour of small halls around America last month.
"When he was a child, he placed a substantially large human turd in a girl's handbag at school."
Tidbits of theatrical craziness, decadence and fantasy pervade Tull's performances — centered, as ever, in the person of flautist Ian Anderson. Anderson prances his way through the songs, employing a variety of obscene gestures with his flute and telling some rather humiliating jokes about the other band members (guitarist Martin Barre, bassist John Glascock, keyboardists John Evan and David Palmer, drummer Barlow). Indeed, most of the joking in Jethro Tull seems to be directed by Anderson at everybody else.
"I've noticed that in life, generally," he says, "boisterous personalities are always making fun of the little guy, but have no sense of humor when the joke is on them. That could be one of my failings, except in the band we all laugh and are open to a certain amount of kidding. May I tell the readers of Rolling Stone a joke?
"It's very relevant to our sense of humor; I used to tell it onstage as an anecdote: our guitarist, Martin Barre, was invited to a high-society party where the hostess was a very attractive and well-off widow. Now Martin, like many small, chubby people, is possessed of a very small bobo. Unabashed, Martin secured her amorous attentions for the night and took her upstairs. After very minimal foreplay, they ripped off their clothes. The lady looked down in disgust and said, 'My God, who do you think you can satisfy with that?' And Martin looked her in the eye and said, 'Me, madam.'"
In spite of — or perhaps because of — Tull's rampant onstage scatology, the band has been successfully making music for ten years, earning five platinum albums out of a dozen releases. Along with the Who and the Stones, Tull is an almost intact survivor of the Sixties. Their stage act, well salted down with songs from the band's more energetic youth, remains a top concert draw (last summer, with help from Robin Trower and Rory Gallagher, Tull sold out Shea Stadium in the rain). The band's two-hour-plus spectacle of a show features songs from Aqualung, sizeable chunks of Thick As A Brick and War Child, and a smattering of works from their soon-to-be-released Songs From The Wood.
Like many groups which have managed to survive the Sixties, Tull is caught in a Kurt Vonnegut-like time warp.
"I'm a time traveler," says Anderson. "To me, it's still 1970. I've been moving backwards at the speed of light. I think the punk rock thing is rubbish because I've grown older and more sophisticated and I can't share in the tribal spontaneity that produces its audience."
Is Ian saying that he is, indeed, too old to rock & roll?
"If you like," he replies. "It gets harder and harder to do something different and yet maintain that special energy."
For total catharsis, Anderson's performances still rank alongside Jagger's and Springsteen's, but for a long time the critical establishment was down on him for turning Tull away from the Pied Piper formula, where Ian would dance about, dangle his legs and play a pop flute with classical pizazz while his band ambled through convoluted snatches of jazz/ rock jamming. Instead, Anderson turned Tull into a didactic war horse, a vehicle for his obtuse sermons, like the critically disastrous A Passion Play in 1973 and the following year's War Child. In 1976, Anderson responded to the criticism with an album entitled Too Old To Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young To Die! whose cover pictured him tossing off a classic fuck-you sign.
Today, even with the critics praising his return to hard-driving rock & roll, Ian is having a hard time forgetting old wounds. Though his old nemesis, Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, gave a positive review of Tull's recent performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Anderson was pleased that the mention of the critic's name drew boos from the audience.
"What Hilburn and a lot of other critics fail to realize is that the audience out there is their audience as well as Jethro Tull's," he says. "We have a responsibility not to overwhelm them with self-indulgent and over-simplistic statements. If I told an audience to kill a cop, there'd probably be a dead policeman two hours later. The same thing applies to a critic who says an album is rubbish. Some kids are actually going to believe him and not buy the record. The critic's function should be to discover new talent. Only history can decide what is good."
In light of Tull's history of provoking crowds into a frenzy, Anderson's dead-cop assertion does not seem outlandish. In new York recently, fans stood for hours in sub-zero weather to catch a glimpse of Anderson — during a tour that has been virtually unadvertised. This power to influence is a strong elixir to the ego.
"I just want the power to know myself," says Anderson. "That's why all artists do what they do. It isn't some showbiz thing in our blood, wanting to die of a heart attack on the stage of some prestigious theater. In some strange way, we seek self-knowledge."
This seems a strange notion, since most performers are emotionally addicted to having people worship them and often have little time for introspection.
"Perhaps I'm cloistered in some peculiar way," says Anderson. "If your popularity declines, I'd think it would do so for very specific reasons. If I want to be popular, I must do this; if I'm not going to be popular, I'll pursue a particular musical course until I have no audience at all."
Possessed of a brutal wit and disdainful attitude toward drug use, Anderson has few friends among his peers. The people he seems most solicitous of are the kids who come to see him. He makes a point of signing autographs and being available to his fans, but even here he can't refrain from some criticism.
"Just once I would like to persuade the audience not to wear any articles of blue denim," he says. "If they could only see themselves in a pair of brown corduroys like mine instead of this awful, boring blue denim. I can't stand to look at people's legs. I don't enjoy the sky or sea as much as I used to because of this Levi character. He will have a lot to answer for in heaven. If Jesus Christ came back today, he and I would get into our brown corduroys and go to the nearest jean store and overturn the racks of blue denim. Then we'd get crucified in the morning."
Jethro Tull's new album, Songs From The Wood, due for release late this month, is described by Anderson as "splendid" and "refreshing". He says it reflects his new-found domestic bliss — Ian married Shona Learoyd last year and has settled down into the aforementioned 500-year-old farmhouse. Once Ian's scantily-clad flute handler, Shona is due to give birth in May and says she has a craving for creamcake which Ian has acquired sympathetically.
"I pay the rates and electricity bills, which I've never done in my life," he says. "So many people end up living in a make-believe world and go to the extent of having a right-hand man pay for everything and cushion them from the realities of life. It's necessary for your peace of mind to prove you can handle it."
Anderson may not be entirely out of that world of make-believe, though. Backstage, Shona notes that she
"can't have distractions when I'm working ... I lock myself in the kitchen when I have to write all our checks."
So much for Anderson's peace of mind.
Along with the new album this month, Tull is beginning a 30-date tour of the United States on February 23rd — the band's third tour of America in the past year. It's a big change since Tull's two year absence from the road following A Passion Play. Among the halls — mostly middle-sized— that the band is playing this time around is the new Aladdin Theater in Las Vegas, where Ian Anderson will follow in the footsteps of Neil Diamond, Chicago and James Taylor.
A roadie enters Anderson's dressing room to tell Ian — who's been lounging about in dark brown unflared corduroy trousers, a lighter brown jacket with a bright scarf round his neck — that it's time to change into his costume for the show. As Anderson begins to leave the room he notices a bottle of Coffee-mate sitting on a table.
"I was so poor once that I had to eat that stuff raw for nourishment," he says.
Then Anderson notices that my notebook is still in my pocket.
"Why," he asks, ever ready to take the demon press to task, "aren't you writing this down?"
CHARLES M. YOUNG