In the current political environment of cultural boycotts targeting Israel, Ian Anderson is somewhat of an anomaly.
The longtime theatrical front man for British classic rockers Jethro Tull has been arriving on our shores with rhythmic regularity for multiple performances, whether with his veteran group or as part of grandiose solo projects.
He even donated his personal earnings from last August’s three performances by Tull to three non-profit organizations that work toward Jewish-Arab conciliation – Hand in Hand, Peace Child Israel and Neveh Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, and plans on doing the same with different organizations following his upcoming three shows – Ian Anderson performs Thick As a Brick I and II on September 6 at the Train Station in Jerusalem, September 7 at the Congress Center in Haifa and September 8 at the Ra’anana Amphitheater.
“I don’t let those people bully me and tell me where to play, I make my own decisions,” said the 65-year-old Anderson recently from his home in England during a two-week band break between tours. “The fact that I might choose not to benefit financially from my performances and donate my earnings is my own decision as well.”
Not one to hide his opinions, and possessed of a sharp wit that hasn’t softened over the years, Anderson acknowledged during a half-hour conversation that stepping into the Middle East maelstrom leaves him open to criticism from all sides.
What kind of reactions did you get when you donated your proceeds to those organizations?
“You’re walking on coals just by coming to Israel. People in my position will get hate mail from both sides of the fence, and believe me, I do. But you have to be a big boy and stand up for what you believe, quietly do what you have to do and hope you don’t offend too many people. But it’s better than doing nothing at all.
“When I’m confronted by those idiots who refer to me as ‘falling into the clutches of feeding the Israeli government machine’ and call on me to boycott, I find it naïve and infantile. Nobody really gives a shit whether I show up for work or not – it’s not going to hurt the Israeli government if I don’t come and do a concert or if Elvis Costello [who cancelled booked shows in Caesarea three years ago] doesn’t come and do a concert.
“The point is that we should go if we think we have a reason to go, and if we don’t feel confident or sure about that reason, we should stay home. In fact, why not just stay in bed, or stay under the bed for that matter, if you’re so fearful of getting involved. Sometimes there’s a way you can come and do something which is honorable and ultimately have more of an upside than a downside.
“But it’s never a clear cut situation, and it’s always going to be complex. I’m in balance a ‘pro’ kind of guy and a positive supporter, but I can see lots of negatives as well, just as I can in my own country. But that doesn’t stop me from living here, and it wouldn’t stop me from living in Israel if I chose to do so... [pause and laugh] somebody else may stop me, though.”
You’ll be donating your earnings again from these shows in Israel?
I’ll be donating all my profits after paying for the band’s airfare, wages, insurance and things like that. I personally will not be benefiting in any financial way. But I will hopefully benefit in a way which is the reason I get on the stage in the first place – that strange self-indulgent pleasure you get when you offer something to people and they seem pleased to receive it.
“Sometimes that’s enough, but I have to learn my living in other places then, so don’t expect me to play for free in New York City [laughs]. Because I’m not on the ground, it’s a little tricky as far as giving money. If it was London and I’m doing shows to restore cathedrals, which I’ve done, it’s very easy to see what the outcome is – you see the roof covered in scaffolding.
“It’s not so easy when it’s thousands of miles away, so to some extent I need to take advice. I pretty much know who the recipients of the income from this year’s concerts will be, but I will take a little more advice on it. I’m responsible for making sure the money gets to the right place. Anybody can say to the promoter, ‘just don’t pay me and do something good with the money’ but we all know what happens – money gets squandered. Look at Live Aid.”
Thick as a Brick is considered to be one of Jethro Tull’s masterpieces. How did it come about?
(Thick as a Brick, Tull’s fifth album, was released in 1972, and includes one 44-minute song that changes mood and style multiple times. The original packaging, designed like a newspaper, claimed the album was a musical adaptation of a poem by eight-year-old Gerald Bostock, though the lyrics were actually written by Anderson.)
The album before it, Aqualung, was a collection of songs with two or three of them sharing a theme of organized religion.
I always said that it wasn’t a concept album, but the critics kept insisting it was. That’s what bands were doing back then, it was the flavor of the month. Prog rock was not yet called prog rock but it was going in that direction.
With Thick As a Brick, it was my intention to write and record an album that would be a lighthearted spoof on, or parody, of the prog rock genre. On the face of it, it is indeed lighthearted, surreal and comedic, but parody is often a comic mask worn by tragedy and serious or dark characters. I think parody is a useful tool in luring people into something that perhaps has more serious undertones lurking behind the humorous side of things.
In the case of Thick As a Brick, it was the passage of childhood through puberty into manhood. The claim that the poem was written by an eight-year-old boy was something that half the people caught onto straight away and the other half took time to realize it really wasn’t written by a little boy.
Although it has some elements of humor and comedic delivery in terms of its stage performance particularly, it has plenty of dark and somber moods as well. Perhaps that’s a reflection on the way we all look back on our lives, with a mixture of regret, fear and gratitude that we managed to cross a few roads and didn’t get hit by speeding traffic, and looking back you think how lucky you are to be here now. I’m sure I’m not the only person to think that.
Why did you decide to tinker with history last year to write and record Thick As a Brick II?
I had always said no to the idea of doing a sequel to Aqualung or Thick As a Brick. I couldn’t see a way to go back in some nostalgic way and start stirring the coals of an almost dead fire into a moderately interesting blaze.
But at the beginning of last year, I suddenly got this notion, and wrote a little music and some words and suddenly I was off. After two or three weeks, I pretty much had the album written.
Later in the year, the band deliberately went into the same process as we did for the original album – we rehearsed for seven days and recorded for 10 days. It was a pretty energized process.
Are there similarities or common themes with the first album?
One thing we deliberately did was to choose the same sound palette used in the original album – the Fender jazz bass, the Hammond organ with rotating Leslie speakers, the Gibson Les Paul guitar – the same sonic values, but of course, with different musicians.
You’ll recognize some deliberately carefully chosen little moments in the lyrics or musical line if you’re paying attention and so inclined – little pop-up flags saying ‘hey, remember me?’ I tried to be deft in touch. I didn’t want to litter the whole album with constant references but I didn’t want there to be none at all.
The key element is the little recognizable intro on acoustic guitar and on the chorus, which appears on both albums.
You have to be careful not to overdo it.
Beethoven was pretty good at choosing what he would slip in in the way of familiar-sounding motifs, but he was quite good at not making it too obvious. For those that recognize them though, it’s ‘ah! I remember that! He did that in the Third Symphony... as well as the 7th and the 9th’ [laughs].
But that’s what being an artist is about. Take Cezanne. How may pictures did he paint of Mont Sainte-Victoire? They’re all different from each other. I think one of the reasons he, as was Monet, [was] so besotted with water lilies is that they realized the same scene could be painted in so many different ways.
In music, there’s a restlessness on the part of composers who want to work in the limitations of 12 notes in the musical scale and a finite number of rhythms. You only have a certain number of tools in your kit bag, and it’s up to you what to do with them.
What is the difference when it’s ‘Ian Anderson’ being billed as opposed to ‘Jethro Tull’?
It’s important to remind people that I’m the guy who wrote the music in the first place. I was the producer, I paid for it, it was my baby – as is the new one.
In a way, I’m getting to that point of wanting the recognition. With Frank Zappa, in the beginning it was the Mothers of Invention, then Frank Zappa and the Mothers, and then just Frank. He managed to do that in three or four years.
I’ve taken longer pushing my name to the fore. It’s only been the last 10 years or so that I’ve done more tours using my own name, whether they be with an orchestra, an acoustic tour with a string quartet or some kind of religious Christmas-flavored tour.
I use my own name because I don’t want the audience coming thinking they’re going to a Jethro Tull show and expecting to hear the best of Tull. That’s what’s suggested if on the ticket it says ‘Jethro Tull.’ That’s fine if that’s what I want to do. But with this project, I don’t really want people coming to the show if they’re expecting to hang out with their drinking buddies and hoot and holler for “Aqualung” in the quiet places. It’s a carefully planned device to keep the riffraff at home [laughs].
I don’t mean to be as disparaging as that sounds, but if you’re doing a show like this – which is more of a theatrical musical event than a rock show – you want the audience to enjoy it, including the spaces and the silences, which are very much part of the performance.
It ruins it terribly for all involved if some drunken idiot thinks that that is the moment to shout out something.
I would except the same kind of civility that’s afforded a string quartet, symphony orchestra or jazz group, where there’s a little more sophistication present. If it sounds like I’m a little above my station and am expecting too much from rock music fans, so be it – I’m absolutely unapologetic.
But I’ve never run into those things in Israel. Israeli audiences are real pussycats, and that’s one of the reasons I like to keep coming back to play there.