When You Were Young: Jethro Tull

On February 11, 2016

by Scott Gordon


When You Were Young aims to reclaim the music of our misremembered youths from the scratched mix-CDs underneath our car seats. Each edition will cover music the writer loved as a teenager before moving on to “cooler” music, whatever that means. This edition covers Jethro Tull.

“So where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday?"

When I was 15 and 16 I frequented a store called Flashback that was along County Highway 427 in Longwood, Florida, a suburb of Orlando. It was a dusty memorabilia shop whose scope spanned from about 1965 to 1990. When I went in, it was usually just the owner and me. If memory serves, his name was Lonnie. Lonnie would sometimes try to sell me an old drumming magazine featuring the Monkees, which is weird because I never once displayed any interest in the Monkees, and he once claimed he was quoted in the Mötley Crüe book The Dirt, which I’ve never bothered to verify

The store was a strange place and it isn’t there anymore, but Lonnie was nice to me, and just the standard musty used-records-in-a-tiny-space smell made it a rarified escape from my antiseptic surroundings, my part-time job at an atrocious Winn Dixie grocery store, and boorish high-school peers who regarded almost everything as, and I quote, “gay.” This was where I bought my first LPs—used copies of Who’s Next and Led Zeppelin 3, the latter complete with the little paper wheel. Once the owner gave me a deal on an early Decca pressing of Tommy, complete with all the original inserts and doodads, which I treasure to this day, and which is still one of the only records I’ve ever spent more than $20 or so for.

I became the kind of teenager who belonged in that sort of place with a great deal of help from Jethro Tull. I can’t even say why, but one day when I was 15 I started listening to a compilation CD I found in my dad’s car, and this set off a phase with the at once flamboyant and earnest folk-prog outfit. I never got much farther than the band’s 1970s output—sorry, 1999’s J-Tull Dot Com—but for a time I felt deeply invested in albums like 1971’s Aqualung and 1972’s Thick As A Brick. Lonnie sold me my LP copy of the latter, complete with an elaborate fake newspaper that singer/songwriter/flautist Anderson has said took more time and effort than the music itself. The whole store was a weird, faint reminder of a time when this band was huge, when their showmanship earned the grudging admiration of Lester Bangs. Back in 2000/2001, I had very few friends and very few coping mechanisms, but I found comfort in Anderson’s wackadoodle be-codpieced charisma. Also, Eugene Mirman likes them too.

Aqualung in particular spoke to my discomfort with my Catholic upbringing, with a conceptual strain railing against the notion of an institutionalized God. I once used “Hymn 43” in a class project, which played to confused stares and physical threats. One of the bonus tracks on the Aqualung CD I bought, “Lick Your Fingers Clean,” builds on the same themes, but with a savage humor that departs from the album's prevailing heavy-handedness— Anderson’s lyrics here are just weird and raffish enough that one doesn’t feel preached at ("So place your final burden on your hard-pressed next of kin / Send the chamber pot back down the line to be filled up again”). The album also grabbed me, however briefly, with wonderfully gritty characters in the supremely creepy “Aqualung” and maybe-prostitute “Cross-Eyed Mary" and the panicked churn of “Locomotive Breath.” Meantime, ”Wind Up,” which closes the album proper with Anderson’s grand statement on the nature of God himself, now hits me as “Imagine”-grade sermonizing.

About a year after the Jethro Tull phase began, it was eclipsed almost entirely by the Who, in part because Pete Townshend is a little better at reaching for lofty ideas without gumming up the visceral impact of the music or leaving you with a self-righteous aftertaste. I annoyed my classmates way more about the Who than about Jethro Tull, which offers a sort of measure. But here’s the thing: I really don’t believe in the concept of a guilty pleasure or in being embarrassed of having liked something at a given point in one’s life. The vast majority of stuff I’ve liked at any given time, I still pretty much like. That’s especially true of music I fell in love with as a teenager—my god, Quadrophenia still makes the hair on my neck stand up. All the same, I’m struggling to find my way back into this Jethro Tull thing. It’s just too much of a piece with a time in my life I’d rather forget.

But I’m still grateful with what this phase has done for me as a listener. For one, I’m very comfortable feeling a bit out of touch and not having the same conversation everyone else is having—and I think that’s an asset in a world that continues to produce no end of great music and offer seemingly infinite pathways of discovery. And in a completely ass-backwards twisty way, Jethro Tull’s instrumental configuration and frequently shifting balance of folk, hard rock, and jazz made it easier for me to appreciate all kinds of other things later in life, from Pentangle to Iron Maiden to Barbez to Hawkwind. Of course, Jethro Tull wasn’t all that adventurous in the grand scheme of things, but it did help to break me of any hangups about what constituted a normal or valid musical endeavor. Having not ventured that far into music at the time, I was especially captivated by the roiling interplay of the live version of “Dharma For One,” as heard on the 1972 compilation Living In The Past, and for all its theatricality I think it still holds up pretty well.

What I find hardest to choke down in Jethro Tull now is Anderson’s supreme confidence in his own didactic moralizing. There’s sort of a relaxed, detached arrogance to the social critique here—a sense of someone denouncing the world yet not really grappling with its supreme messiness. And this, for better or worse, is what spoke to me as a 15-year-old: I knew nothing of the world but I felt a great deal of anxiety about it, and things like Jethro Tull gave me permission to take pride in my alienation. Over the years as I’ve actually gotten to know more people and experience more things, and figured out that everyone truly is fighting a battle on some level, I’ve found it harder to be cynical and harder to take comfort in lines like Thick As A Brick’s opening shot: “Really don’t mind if you sit this one out / My words but a whisper, your deafness a shout.”

The hell of it is that Anderson is actually really disarming and funny when he focuses on specific, vulnerable moments. Aqualung’s third track, “Cheap Day Return,” pulls away from social critique and wild character sketches entirely for a brief, strangely tender scene: “On Preston platform do your soft-shoe shuffle dance / Brush waay the cigarette ash that’s falling down your pants/ And then you sadly wonder: does the nurse treat your old man the way she should?” The band is up to it musically, creating a restrained acoustic backdrop, and if nothing else being able to hone in on moments like this is, I think, the mark of a good writer. So why isn’t there more like this in Jethro Tull’s early discography? I guess the moral high horse is tempting for a certain kind of young man, and both Anderson and I have been that kind of young man. Here’s hoping we both outgrew it for good.

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