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22 July 2001

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Chuck Klosterman has surprising, and pragmatic, words with Jethro Tull's frontman

There is always a tiny spark of excitement when the phone rings. Maybe it is an old friend; maybe it is a business opportunity; maybe it is a bomb threat. Or maybe it is Jethro Tull frontman lan Anderson. One never knows.

This happened to me a few weeks ago: I picked up my ringing phone, and the voice on the other end said, "Hello, this is lan Anderson." I am still not sure how this happened, since I do not recall scheduling an interview with him since 1997. But, hey — free call from Tull, you know?

So we had a nice little chat about nothing in particular. Mostly we talked about musicians Anderson admired, but never actually met.

"I never met John Lennon," Anderson said. "You'd think that we would have met at some point, but it just never worked out. We did British TV together in the late 1970s, and he sort of gave me a nice little wave while he was sitting at his white piano. I think he played 'Imagine'. But as soon as he finished playing, our song started. So I never actually spoke with him."

Anderson, 53, is a compelling conversationalist; he uses words such as "quagmire" and "pragmatism" in casual conversation. Unlike most artists, he has little interest in talking about himself — he seems to prefer talking about other musicians.

When I asked him what would have happened if Black Sabbath guitarist Tony lommi had become a full-time member of Jethro Tull — which almost happened in the late 1960s — he said every Tull song would have ended up sounding like 'Aqualung'.

And perhaps most interestingly, Anderson finally explained why Jethro Tull was so obsessed with the prototypically unrocking flute.

"I started out as a guitar player, but I quickly came to realise I could never be Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page," Anderson said. "But I could use the flute like a guitar. I mean, I'm really just a frustrated guitarist. But I was also driven to the phallic element of the flute. That seemed a bit subversive."

What might be more subversive would be the induction of Tull into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

The band creates a strange paradox for rock historians. Even though the group were artistic and complex, critics hate Jethro Tull with venom. Anderson is predictably pragmatic about this quagmire.

"That may or may not be a good question, depending on how one views the value of the answer," he said. "It was a very great thing for them to build that museum (the Hall of Fame), and I think it's a novel idea. But everyone knows — even the people who work there, to be honest — that it was economically insane to build it in Cleveland. People do not holiday in Cleveland. Obviously, I'd be honoured if we were indeed inducted. But one of the big players is the fellow from Rolling Stone (Jann Wenner), and they certainly never appreciated Tull. Perhaps it's political."

Personally, I would be shocked if Jethro Tull ever makes the Hall of Fame. But I never expected lan Anderson to call me, either, so I guess you never know.


Thanks to Robert Jobson for this Australian article