Some people spent the last two years of the COVID pandemic binge-watching steamy Netflix series or taking up knitting.
Ian Anderson used the solitude to listen repeatedly to the more than 300 songs that comprise the recorded output of his life’s work with Jethro Tull and his numerous solo albums.
It wasn’t something that the 75-year-old Scottish rock great undertook for fun, however.
“I had to sit and listen to every single thing I recorded because I was compiling my book of collected lyrics. So I had to listen, not once, but two or three times to make sure the transcribing was accurate,” he said during a recent phone call from London.
And... his assessment at hearing those “Fat Man,” “Aqualung” and “Nothing to Say” songs that held firm standing in the soundtrack of the late 60s to early 70s rock pantheon?
“It was interesting. I felt a certain trepidation listening to some of it, especially those songs I hadn’t heard for a long time. I expected to be disappointed with a lot of songs, particularly from the early days. But in fact it was... OK.”
“I was surprised, it wasn’t a feeling of huge satisfaction or pride, but I felt that there were a lot of the pieces that I genuinely felt quite proud of. It’s hard to single out individual songs or albums. But Stand Up, our second album, and the first one where I stepped away from being an imitation blues wannabee and stepped into a world of more eclectic music stand out from that first 10 years of work, along with some of Aqualung, Thick as a Brick and Songs From the Wood.
“A lot of the songs I would judge not so much from the recording of them but from the resultant performance in concert. The ones that have endured are the ones I gravitate toward.”
THE EVOCATIVE music of Jethro Tull has certainly endured for music fans of a certain age, whether it be the blues-based feel of the early band, the dense hard rock of their crowning achievement Aqualung in 1971 or the complex prog/folk mix of their 70s and 80s concept albums. The unifying factor through some three dozen personnel changes over the decades has remained the challenging songwriting and distinctive vocals, flute and acoustic guitar of Anderson.
Four years in the making (elongated by the pandemic), the new Tull album The Zealot Gene is the first one bearing the band’s name in 18 years.
“I’ve been working with the guys I played with for many years as Jethro Tull on tours around the world [including numerous times in Israel], but we never made a record as Jethro Tull,” said Anderson, who will be bringing the band back to Israel this month for two shows, on April 18 at the Congress Hall in Haifa and April 20 at the Tel Aviv Cultural Center.
“I thought it would be nice, after all those years of service that they appear on a Jethro Tull album. So I decided to write a rock album that would legitimize making it a Tull album, instead of say, an orchestral or a singer/songwriter acoustic album.”
When asked about the album, and especially its title, Anderson answers in a way that sounds way more professorial than rock star, touching on media manipulation, the Ukraine war and the evils of Vladimir Putin.
“Zealot is by definition a form of fanaticism. You can be fanatical about various things: politics, religion, your local football team or watching Peaky Blinders. There’s also fanaticism in the sense of exploitation of social media to exercise your vigorous and sometimes hurtful, divisive and dangerous opinions in a public context, very often to bully, intimidate and divide people, and that’s what happens in the world of politics,” explained Anderson.
“And it’s happening right now in Mr. Putin’s Russia, where control of state media is his biggest tool in terms of maintaining his position of power and his dreadful actions in Ukraine.”
And that’s just the title track. Anderson continued that the rest of the album consisted of songs based on human emotions – “some good ones like love, compassion and loyalty, and some bad stuff like hate, vengeance and jealousy.”
“When I wrote down a list of words like that, I couldn’t help but notice that they were featured prominently in the Bible. So on whim of fancy, I did an Internet search for biblical text and printed it our as a point of reference.
“I wasn’t trying to put the Bible to music, but just using it as a reference. Because that’s the way I am. I like a little complexity and added dimension to lyric writing. The tools of the trade when I open my tool box are things like simile, metaphor and analogy. They’re not blunt tools like a hammer or wrench, they’re more subtle and that’s what I like to play with and have fun with. Even though the subjects are sometimes bleak or scary, I try to keep a certain lightness of touch.”
Returning to Putin, Anderson noted that the current Jethro Tull tour was slated to perform in Ukraine this month and in Russia in September. Both stops are, naturally, off the agenda.
Regarding his take on Russia, “To put it in a nutshell, if Putin remains in power, unless he backs down and does something unexpected like apologize, I don’t think I would feel it’s proper to perform in Russia. Putin is a pariah in most of the Western world,” said Anderson.
ONE PLACE that could have been controversial to perform in is Israel, but Anderson has always refused to heed to boycott calls, and instead has made generous contributions to organizations that he feels is contributing to coexistence endeavors in the country, like Hand in Hand, Peace Child Israel and Neveh Shalom – Wahat al–Salam.
“In some areas, your country is not very different than mine, in as much as there are lots of opinions, cultures, political modes and when religion steps in to be a dominant force, things can get a little bent out of shape,” he said.
“Far be it from me to play Robin Hood, but like everybody, once in a while it feels good to give something back and I’m fortunate to have made a good living being a musician for 53 years.”
“I have a long history of performing in Israel and it’s something I always look forward to. For a small country, it’s immensely complex in terms of its social makeup and what it represents to the world historically and politically. It makes Britain look rather pedantic and boring,” he said with a laugh, adding that he regularly reads The Jerusalem Post to keep up on events in Israel. “It’s one of my ‘go to’ sources.”
Four years ago, it didn’t look like Anderson would be coming to perform in Israel or anywhere else, after he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow to the lungs.
“I was repeatedly getting quite ill on tour and I went for a series of clinical tests that gave me the COPD diagnosis. But, I began feeling better and when I went back last November, the diagnosis was more measured. It was asthma, which can be treated and generally kept at bay. I’m in better shape now than I was a few years ago and I do a lot of work to maintain my health in terms of warming up and taking care of my voice. Things have gotten better, not worse.”
However, at age 75, touring and performing almost every night is less an expression of exuberance and more an endurance test. When asked if he still gets a kick out of doing concerts, Anderson thought for a moment and laughed.
“That’s a difficult world to apply to how I feel. I would say that I have a mild obsession with performing, because it’s putting myself to a test,” he said.
“Maybe it’s a little like those people who are compelled to run 10 km. or swim an hour every day. They have to do it. But runners and swimmers can close off their minds and not think terribly hard, there’s not a lot of mental effort there other than keeping yourself from drowning.”
“Performing entails remembering thousands of notes and words in the course of a couple hours and it’s very testing. When I get offstage, I don’t have that kind of pumping the air triumphant feeling that you see tennis players indulge in. I don’t feel like that. I have an inward directed feeling of getting through something and getting to the end in a way that seems honorable and dignified.
“And I go back to my dressing room and for probably 15 minutes I replay things in my mind – not necessarily the good moments but the bad ones and how I can fix it the next time, 24 hours later when I have to do it again.
“So no, I don’t think I get a kick out of it. It’s become part of my life, pushing myself to see what I can attain. It’s something of a mental disorder, in fact...
“Wouldn’t it be nice, at my age, to just go play golf or go fishing?”