Entertainment » Vol. 5

Ian Anderson: 40 Years of Complex Rock in a Complex World

By Matt Shaw

Jethro Tull
David Goodier, Doane Perry, Ian Anderson, Martin Barre, and John O’Hara of Jethro Tull. Photo credit Jethro Tull Productions

Forty years ago, a man with a flute stepped onstage in a ratty club in Luton, an equally ratty town just north of London. From underneath his wild beard jutted high, rigid cheekbones more reminiscent of wind-shorn cliff faces than of actual facial features. His eyes seethed in their sockets and appeared as though at any moment they would roll back into his head like those of a frenzied wild horse. But they never strayed from the audience – rather, they locked onto the visage of each and every patron of that small club and forced them to listen. This poor unassuming audience was beaten into musical submission, hammered by lyrical and musical expressions so avant garde as to be frightening. Almost instantly this band was destined for greatness, and forty years later they’re coming to Boston. The band is Jethro Tull. The man with the flute is Ian Anderson.

Forty years of rock stardom will change a man; if you don’t believe me, go pick up a copy of Howlin’ Wolf’s The London Sessions (Chess, 1974) and check out the pictures of Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. But unlike many of his peers, Ian Anderson is not a living testament to the self-inflicted horrors suffered so frequently during rock’s golden era. In fact, the flautist and lead singer of Jethro Tull is a relatively normal guy, as much as a rock icon of forty years can be called normal. An admitted foodie with a penchant for vegetables, Anderson confesses to being a bit of a health nut. “I do enjoy to eat more exotic foods rather than more traditional fare that mum used to make,” he says, “but I’m quite sure that what mum used to make was probably a darn sight more healthy than some of the stuff we eat on our travels.” And rather than getting tight on crazily expensive wines in England’s elite restaurants, Anderson admits to being “one of those people who enjoys a beer… My idea of a really great wine is one that comes out of a box. It costs a lot less money. I like wine that comes in a bottle with a screw cap. I don’t buy these damn corks.”

Ian Anderson

Ian Anderson

Being so modest in needless extravagance, Anderson has room to put his money and energy behind more worthwhile causes. In 1996, after months of touring by plane, Anderson fell victim to a rather serious case of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), and has since dedicated a significant portion of his time raising DVT awareness and promoting education about the potentially deadly condition. Anderson also owns a handful of salmon farms, has rescued several small wild cats (which, one assumes, don’t play well with the salmon), and drives a hybrid.

Yes, that’s right: the rock legend with more money than most Americans could ever dream of does not drive a classic convertible or a state-of-the-art sports car – not even a mid-range BMW. A staunch environmentalist, Anderson writes on his website in length about riding his bike to the local car dealership to pick up a certain Japanese petrol-friendly greenmobile. But his environmental concerns go far beyond MPGs (or KmPls, as it were). “We’ve brought about a technical age,” he says, “but in the wake of that, of course, we’ve increased our industrial globalization, and it is my generation and my parents’ generation who are responsible for the [situation] that we are leaving behind for our children and our grandchildren.” To Anderson, the outlook is rather dismal. “What happens when we go above the [projected] two or three degrees of average planetary increase in heat?” he asks. “Scientists and climatologists are only prepared to extrapolate maybe fifty to a hundred years into the future, but beyond that, if we haven’t fixed things in the next fifteen to twenty years, we are probably looking at a planet which is simply not fit for human habitation any longer.”

Anderson is also a follower of American politics, and his forecast for the U.S. isn’t much brighter. “We can absolutely guarantee that the oil price is not coming down,” he says, “and indeed it’s likely to go up between now and Christmas. And the hardship felt by individuals in terms of cost of living – food, power, fuel, gasoline – combine that with the mortgage crisis and the constant tipping of the share market, and America’s in for a very, very rough ride for, I think, quite a long period of time to come.” But, he notes, there are other places in the world that have it much worse. “South Africa’s already in a pretty frightening position,” he says, “because they’re sitting with a very unruly neighbor, and that’s already responsible for huge amounts of economic migration which is producing a lot of social problems, as you know, in Johannesburg and elsewhere.”

Needless to say, Ian Anderson is not proud of the world he’s left for the generation behind him. “But the problem is,” he says, “that if you talk about legacies or you begin to touch upon the idea of blame, well, yeah sure, there is a blame attached to my generation and my parents’ generation because we are responsible for the twentieth century’s huge increase in global population and industrial output and pollution, and to some extent the poisoning of the planet. But up until ten years ago, most of us didn’t realize how bad that was. So in a way, it’s not that we were blameless, but you could almost kind of forgive us in a way.” Anderson realizes, however, that pointing fingers is not the way to fix what he sees as a desperate global crisis. “What we can’t do is forgive our children’s generation or our grandchildren’s generation,” he says, “because they will be the ones who have to find a way out.”

So in a world gone mad, is there at least some hope for the future of music? Not really, Anderson says. The problem is that any modern cross-section of pop music reveals a severe lack of creativity. “Things have… it’s not that it’s been static, but they got a different polish, a different veneer put on them, a new haircut on the person that’s standing on stage and singing and playing. But the structure of pop and rock music has not changed a great deal.” Of course, recent trends have tried to sell modern artists as throwbacks to the age of jazz and blues. But Anderson isn’t buying. “A lot of music is called jazz which I don’t think is jazz at all,” he says, “such as the drivel turned out by people like Mary Winehouse or whatever she’s called – Amy Winehouse – being termed a jazz singer! I mean, goodness me, she’s just a copycat soul singer with a couple of really bad habits.”

“I would like to think,” Anderson says, “that if there’s any musical legacy that we’ve left behind it’s really just the example – hopefully it’s an example for younger musicians today – that you can once in a while get lucky doing what the hell you want and turning out something that can be treasured by a few people.” Anderson recognizes that this legacy was hard-fought, but revels in its success. “We have covered a lot of ground,” he says. “It does seem sometimes quite odd that people actually do show up to come to a Jethro Tull concert given the fact that our music is, for the most part, a little more off the wall, a little stranger, a little more complex.”

Perhaps that’s exactly the kind of music that the world needs now more than ever.

Jethro Tull’s 40th Anniversary Tour came to Boston’s Bank of America Pavilion on August 4th with guest stars the Young Dubliners.

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