Memoir

Jethro Tull In A Thunderstorm

“Why would you pay good money to see Jethro Tull?” That’s the first question people asked me when I told them I had tickets for the band’s 50th anniversary tour. Their second: “Isn’t that Jethro guy dead?” Well, technically yes. Jethro Tull died in 1741, but the band that claims him as a namesake is still alive and kicking, sort of. We’ll get to that in a bit.

“Why” is a fair question, I guess. Popular musical has always been cyclical, after all, and Jethro Tull’s time on the charts ended decades ago.  Asking my kid if he wants to go with me to see Tull is a bit like my father excitedly inviting me to join him for the big Ink Spots show down at the Moose Lodge. Getting psyched about a Jethro Tull gig is synonymous with living in the past, and if you’re a Tull fan you’ll get why that comparison was so damned clever.

While living in the past might be problematic, visiting there now and then is pleasant enough. Jethro Tull is stitched pretty deeply into my personal soundtrack, which isn’t particularly unique for a guy my age. If you were a kid during the ’70s, you heard the band’s biggest hits often. They were FM wallpaper, mixed in with Kansas, Styx, Boston, Foreigner, and traffic and weather on the ones. I liked all that stuff (well, not the traffic and weather), but what made Jethro Tull unique was that Jethro Tull was unique. No other band in regular rotation on the FM dial sounded like them, not even the other mainstream prog bands like Yes and ELP. Regardless of whether you loved it or hated it, the band’s sound was all their own.

My earliest memory of the band finds me riding my Stingray, transistor radio hanging from my ape hangers and “Bungle In the Jungle” blaring from its tiny speaker. I was certain that the song had something to do with George of the Jungle, so Jethro Tull found a spot among the bands I liked because they sang about kid stuff. That list included the Beatles (“Yellow Submarine,” “Octopus’s Garden”), the Royal Guardsmen (“Snoopy vs. the Red Baron”), and Elton John (“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”)

Kid stuff was great, but my little radio was my portal into the big kid universe, too. It wasn’t a vending machine from which I could pick specific songs, but a faucet that ran as long as its weird, square battery lasted (or until I took it out to dare some kid to stick his tongue to it). What flowed out of that tiny speaker was what I listened to, including traffic and weather on the ones.

It was just a matter of time before my image of the funny man who sang about George of the Jungle gave way to the dark menace of an old man wandering lonely, greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes. Aqualung, my friend. That song was a sonic nightmare for a young kid, the Pennywise (clown, not band) of its time. Old men weren’t creepy, they were nice–grandpas and Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Hooper. But “Aqualung” was a geriatric horror show on the FM dial, a nightmare tucked between “More Than A Feeling” and “Midnight At the Oasis.”

Over time I grew familiar with all of the tracks that the deejays favored: “Bouree,” “My God,” “Thick As a Brick,” Cross Eyed Mary,” “Hymn 43,” “Locomotive Breath.” As soon as the opening chords wiggled the air I knew who the artist was, and it wasn’t just the flute. Ian Anderson’s phrasing was unlike any other singer’s, his blend of folk, blues, prog, and hard rock truly unique among the songwriters of his time. What’s remarkable is that after a half century the band remains without imitators. I can’t think of another 60 million selling band that I can say that about.

The band ushered in the ’80s with A, essentially an Ian Anderson solo album released under the Jethro Tull banner. Footage from the accompanying tour found its way onto MTV. Ian Anderson’s bushy hair and bushier beard were anachronisms among the futuristic hair styles of Gary Numan, Duran Duran, and A Flock of Seagulls, his stagecraft too eccentric for the visual language of the music video era. What Adam Ant fan wants to watch an old hippie stand on one leg and play the flute? Like most of the FM stars of the ’60s and ’70s, Jethro Tull simply didn’t fit in the pastel and neon Nagel eighties.

I didn’t give them any thought during those years, my time better spent with X, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. And then one summer afternoon while I was listening to the radio, a thunderstorm struck. This wasn’t exactly rare in upstate South Carolina where it rained every afternoon, but I was alone in a trailer filled with explosives parked on the kudzu-choked shoulder of a highway: Mr. T’s Fireworks -N- Peaches–maybe the most southern summer job I ever had.

It was one of those storms that turns the sky green and makes the fine hairs on one’s arms stand at attention, the kind of storm that you can smell. I sat inside that metal box full of colorfully wrapped gunpowder and I watched the lightning rip apart the green sheets of sky, waiting to die as the cracks and booms crept closer and closer. “Aqualung” came on the radio, Pennywise crawling through the speaker grille to scare the wits out of me one more time. It fit the scene happening outside so well, the greatest video that Jethro Tull never made. When it was all over, I wrote “Jethro Tull in a thunderstorm” in my notebook, certain I would use that line as a title someday.

They cropped up again a year later. I was managing a record store in Savannah, Georgia when Crest of a Knave was released. I loved that album from the first spin. Sure, it sounded like Jethro Tull doing a Dire Straits impersonation, but that was okay. If anything, it just felt like Anderson finally figured out how to remain relevant in the new decade, albeit a new decade that was nearly over.

Apparently the Grammy committee though so, too, awarding the first ever trophy in the hard rock/heavy metal category to Crest of a Knave. Rather than an award, the prize proved to be an albatross. Jethro Tull, the old hippie flute band, heavy metal? Overnight the name Jethro Tull became a punchline, and it has remained so in some circles for 30 years. The prog haters turn their noses up at the band as just another herd of self indulgent, noodling dinosaurs that should have been done in by the punk meteor. Metalheads still think of them as the pretenders to Metallica’s Grammy throne. Casual listeners remember the band as the “Aqualung” guys, if they remember them at all. Why would you pay good money to see Jethro Tull?

That leaves the fans, the stalwarts: the guys who have been turning out regularly to see the band in its many incarnations over the last 50 years, and the guys like me who have never seen Tull live but own their complete discography. That’s right: I own it all, and I listen to it, too–even the aforementioned A. As I write this, Heavy Horses is spinning on my turntable. I have my favorites, of course, but I know the band’s music well–so much so that I know where each breath falls in some songs. Jethro Tull’s music has been part of my personal soundtrack for over 40 years, but I have never seen them live.

“Them” is a slippery word in Tull land. Van Halen fans might argue whether the band was still Van Halen when David Lee Roth left, but three of four original members were still there. KISS fans have never forgiven that four piece for replacing two members with guys who fit the costumes. But aside from front man Ian Anderson, Jethro Tull has never been a personality-driven band in that sense. Tull has consisted of 24-41 members over the years, depending on how you choose to count “members.” Of those roughly two to four dozen musicians, Ian Anderson is the last man standing.

For some heritage acts that would be problematic, but Anderson has always been both the voice and the face of Jethro Tull. Without Anderson’s flute there’s no band; without his songs there’s no music. That’s not to say that all of the musicians who have spent time in the Tull camp over the years weren’t valuable members–with exception maybe to Tony Iommi they were–but “them” in the context of Jethro Tull means “Ian Anderson and 24-41 ghosts,” and that’s enough.

When I saw that they were stopping in Sacramento on their 50th anniversary tour, I snatched up tickets literally the minute they went on sale, spending way too much money for a second row seat. If this was going to be the one and only time I saw Jethro Tull, I may as well do it right. And then I waited months for concert night, entertaining that same question anytime I dared voice my growing excitement to a friend: Why would you pay good money to see Jethro Tull?

It ground on me. Maybe they were right. Maybe I had horrible taste in music. Maybe living in the past was a bad idea. Besides, I have my records. Why the hell should I hassle parking, crowds, and overpriced cocktails? Maybe I should just stay home and spin Songs From the Wood.

I went anyway. The show was at the Sacramento Community Center Theater, a 2,400 seat venue. That’s a fraction of the capacity of the sheds the band played in its heyday, but that’s how these things go. There’s only one Stones that can sell out Wembley for five decades. Most artists of that vintage are grinding it out at state fairs or in clubs. Some find slots on festival bills, a lucky few are former Beatles. My point here is that 2,400 seats isn’t bad for a band that hasn’t cracked the top 100 in almost 30 years.

Those 2,400 ticket holders were pretty much who you’d expect–lots of gray ponytails, quite a few bellies peeking from beneath tie dye t-shirts. In the long tradition of concert tees, many of those were purchased at previous Tull shows. This is how one establishes his super fan bona fides: The oldest shirt equals the biggest fan.

I spotted an old timer in a ’91 tour tee while he stood in the merch line, waiting to drop 50 bucks on a fiftieth anniversary shirt. “Where will he wear it,” I wondered. Ian Anderson is 70 years old. Surely this 50th anniversary tour is a victory lap, a swan song, a valedictory address, the end of the road. They were probably going to have to wheel the old coot onto the stage and hook his flute to his oxygen mask. The chances of a 60th anniversary tour are slim.

“We’re all just here to pay tribute,” I thought. There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. You get to a certain age and your pop culture heroes start falling away. We should all get out there and pay tribute while we can–say thank you to the folks who wrote and performed our lives’ soundtracks. Take a couple hours and applaud for the husk of the superhero whose radio voice once accompanied you on Stingray rides or kept you company while you waited to be blown up during a thunderstorm. That’s good enough.

Jethro Tull hit the stage with “Love Story,” the band’s 1968 single, and with exception to a short intermission they didn’t stop for another 17 songs. Anderson was as lively as ever, running around and striking his iconic poses. It’s not just the music–the flute and the vocal phrasing–that makes Anderson so unique, but also his stagecraft. Nobody works a stage like he does. It’s a bit like watching some kind of impish character from an English fairy tale: Rumpelstiltskin, a bridge troll, a leprechaun. He conjures them all, and while it may have been out of place on MTV in 1981 it was right at home at the Sacramento Community Center Theater in 2018.

Conjures. I think it was with “My God” about halfway through the set that I realized I’d never heard Jethro Tull before. I might be familiar with the Tull catalog, I might have my memories of when and where I first heard this or that composition, but I’d never heard “My God” happen. What I knew as songs were dead butterflies pinned to a board, postcards of the Grand Canyon, light from stars long extinguished.

But there in that room on that night, Ian Anderson was conjuring those songs from nothing but air and effort. They drifted through the room in the blink of an ear and then they were gone forever, that moment never to be repeated again. I was watching butterflies dance on the Grand Canyon’s rim.

That’s what music is all about, that moment of creation. Anything can happen: the singer’s voice might crack, the drummer might throw in a triplet, the guitarist may take off on a semi-spontaneous tangent. Who knows? But if you weren’t there, you missed it. Recordings are nothing more than facsimiles of a moment when music happened. Hearing my old nemesis Aqualung conjured into life in that room on that night was like feeling lightning raise the hairs on my arms.

That’s why I paid good money to see Jethro Tull: to live in the past for a couple hours, to pay my respects, and for the first (and perhaps the only) time in my life to hear songs I only thought I’d heard before. That’s money well spent in my book.

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