BY ELLIOT STEPHEN COHEN
“I’m definitely not a sex, drugs and rock and roll guy,” admits the curmudgeonly 66-year-old Tull frontman, responding to whether he has plans of penning an autobiography like so many of his contemporaries. “I have no history at all in those areas. That was not the life I chose for myself.”
What has made Anderson one of rock’s most celebrated all-around performers since 1968, is the music.
Leading groups of hugely talented musicians (nearly 30 have performed as part of Jethro Tull), songs like “Aqualung,” “Bungle In The Jungle,” “Locomotive Breath,” “Living In The Past,” “Cross-Eyed-Mary,” “Skating Away (On The Thin Ice Of The New Day)” and “Too Old Too Rock and Roll,” have remained Classic Rock Radio staples.
Having now retired the Jethro Tull name (at least for the moment), Anderson has just released his sixth solo album, “Homo Erraticus.” He is currently in the midst of a world-wide tour, performing the album in its entirety, along with many Jethro Tull classics.
Examiner: The new album retains the iconic Tull sound. What was the inspiration behind choosing such an esoteric concept for a rock album?
Anderson: The title came into being about two or three days into the writing process. I started with an empty head, a laptop computer, a guitar and a flute. Then, the whole conceptual idea started coming into play. The title, “Homo Erraticus,” the wandering man, is in essence the whole spirit of the album. It’s the story of all of us; the hunter-gatherer, which is our species, always looking for where the grass is greener. I make constant references along the way to the present day, and even the immediate future, because we are so connected to that history. So, it’s really a very prog-rock excess of cramming thousands of years of history into 52 minutes of real time, but that’s prog-rock for you.
Examiner: On this album you didn’t use Martin Barre, who has been playing guitar for you since 1969. Why did you decide to record this as a solo album, as opposed to using your regular Jethro Tull members?
Anderson: I just felt that after all these years, I’d rather leave the name Jethro Tull in the annals of rock music history, where it belongs. The band hasn’t performed together since 2011. It was time for me to leave that all behind. You know, when you’re working on a new album, you want to pick some of the guys you like, the ones who have been key important members of Jethro Tull, but then it’s difficult to decide where to start and where to finish. If I’d asked Martin to play on the album, but not Doane Perry who was a Jethro Tull drummer for 25 years, he would have probably been upset. Now when I go on tour, it’s Ian Anderson and bunch of guys, but they’re an important group of colleagues, and I try to give them their proper time to shine onstage.
Examiner: Why did you choose such an unusual moniker as Jethro Tull for a rock band?
Anderson: It came from an agent we had back in 1968. Since up to that point we hadn't done terribly well with past names, we decided to keep it after our first glimmer of success. Unfortunately, I was someone who didn't pay much attention in my history classes, or I would have realized that we'd been named after a dead guy who had invented the seed drill. He apparently is reasonably well represented in the history books. I'm very proud now to be associated with his name, but I still can't help but feel a bit guilty stealing someone's identity. So, let me publicly apologize now for the umpteenth time!
Examiner: What memories do you have of performing on "The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus?” (Filmed in 1968 for British television, although not shown for decades. Ed). Jethro Tull was still largely unknown by the general public.
Anderson: Well, (Rolling Stones) Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman had heard of us through the grapevine as an up-and-coming young blues band. I they think they were the architects of our appearance. I don't think Mick Jagger knew much about us. He just kind-of went along with their suggestions. So, yes, as you said, we were definitely the rookies amongst a bit of a kaleidoscope of oddball stars on the bill…Eric Clapton, The Who, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Examiner: Now, Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath actually had to fill in for your regular guitarist who had just left.
Anderson: Yes. The Stones probably didn't realize they would be booking a band that was only 75 per cent complete. Tony was kind enough to make himself available to mime a pre-recorded backing track. I actually think Tony was quite embarrassed, because he really was not familiar with our music, and had to pretend he was playing slide guitar. He actually had his hat pulled down over his face so no one could see him. (Laughs.)
Examiner: You once said you gave up playing guitar for the flute, because you realized you could never be as good as Eric Clapton.
Anderson: That's very true. It wasn't just Eric Clapton, but all of us had heard rumors of people like Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Ritchie Blackmore. I knew they were the real "gunslingers" in town, and I wouldn’t do well in a “shootout.” I thought I should do something else to help me stand out from the crowd. That's why I decided on the flute, which would be a unique instrument in the worlds of blues and rock music. After all these years, there still aren't many other flute players in rock music. So, I must have picked the right instrument. It’s the flute that most people think of when they hear the name Jethro Tull, and also the logo of the “one-legged flute player.”
Examiner: One of your most famous songs that has stood the test of time is "Too Old To Rock and Roll.” When you composed it, did you have in mind saying the opposite of Pete Townshend, who wrote, “Hope I die before I get old…”
Anderson: No. I can’t say that particularly occurred to me. The song title actually came to me around 1974 on a very scary airline flight across America. I remember going through this terribly turbulent, awful thunderstorm. I was literally gripping the side of my seat, and the words, “Too old to rock and roll, too young to die,” came into my head.
Examiner: So, you decided to expand that idea with a fictional musical character.
Anderson: Yes. When it came time to write the song, I thought, “Let me invent a character who’s caught up in that type of nostalgia, and the cozy blue blanket security need for hanging on to things from his past.” It’s something we all do, to some extent, sometimes too obsessively; perhaps not always in a very healthy way. I never thought too much about the song’s implications, other than it seemed to be a good title for a Jethro Tull album. You know, whenever you come up with something like that, you’re throwing down the gauntlet for journalists to have a little fun analyzing it.
Examiner: You were very prophetic because, here you are at 66, still out there creating and playing live rock music. Paul McCartney, Mick, Charlie and Keith of The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan are all in their 70s. However, back in the 1960s and 70s, the idea of someone that age playing rock music would have seemed unimaginable. Am I correct?
Anderson: I don’t think you are. I’m pretty damn sure Charlie and Keith would have said, “Our heroes are all old guys. There’s no reason why we won’t be able to get up there (on stage) in our 70s and 80s and still do it.” You know, music is not something you do for a couple of years. It’s something you do for life. All of the signs were that, if you were good at what you did, you could become an old man and still be able to perform.
Examiner: Well, certainly very few people would have expected Keith Richards to be around at 70, let along still doing two-hour high-energy shows.
Anderson: Yes, it’s more than a little bit strange that Keith is still here because of the life of excess that he’s lived and has survived to tell the tale. We love guys like Keith Richards who are the archetypal heroes who survived the odds and have that credibility of the romantic bohemian manifestations of arts and entertainment about them. Of course, there are also far too many others who played with the same dangerous toys and are not around to tell the tale.
Examiner: In the Stones documentary “Shine A Light,” there’s a clip of Mick Jagger in 1972, at age 29, talking with American TV host Dick Cavett, who asks, “Can you see yourself doing this at age 60?” Jagger replies, “Oh, easily,” and the audience bursts out laughing. Cavett then adds, with a smirk, “You mean coming onstage with a cane!” but he’s still here doing it at as well as ever, at 70.
Anderson: You have to give Mick Jagger his proper credit. He’s exemplary in his ability to prepare for a tour and perform with the gusto of a man one quarter of his age, but we don’t love Mick in the same way we do Keith. We don’t quite love Bono or Sting, either. We may love their music and as entertainers, but we don’t really like them so much in terms of people. People just don’t like Sting. There’s something about him. He doesn’t smell right. He maybe comes across as being a bit smug, a big too self satisfied or too clever. Elton John now has become increasingly grumpy and volatile. He’s not loveable anymore. There’s a whole bunch of guys that (people) don’t really warm up to, the way we warm up to a Keith Richards, who seems very genuine and just sails through life having a good time. I’ve met him a few times and found him to be a lovely guy, genuinely endearing; a little wrinkly old man; quite scurrilous and ill-disposed towards his lead singer, (Mick Jagger). (Laughs).
Examiner: How do you think most Jethro Tull fans feel about you, Ian?
Anderson: I’m pretty sure that I fall into the category of, “We don’t really like him that much.” It doesn’t particularly bother me. There are a lot of us out there who are used to being met with a certain kind of disapproval from people, even though they may like our music and buy our records. I really feel I’m in that tribe, but I’m in pretty good company.
Examiner: How surprised were you when Jethro Tull beat out Metallica in 1988 for the Grammy, “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance”, when that is really not an apt description of your music?
Anderson: We were really getting it because we were a bunch of nice guys who hadn’t won one before. Since there was no category for “best one-legged flute player,” they gave it to us for the odd quickie new category they created.
Examiner: Why, though, hasn’t a great band like Jethro Tull been inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, when so many lesser talents are put in every year. It’s now twenty years since the band first became eligible.
Anderson: Well, number one we’re not American.
Examiner: But neither are many of the inductees.
Anderson: I’m well aware of that, but most of the artists who are in there, regardless of their nationality, have something in common in what they play is essentially American music. By our second album, we had shaken off being a sort of “Not very good little blues band,” and started working with more of a European and world music influence. I don’t think Jethro Tull is really an exponent of American music, and don’t think we really merit a place in the hall.
Examiner: Do you think there’s a prejudice from (Hall executive) Jann Wenner against a whole list of established British prog rock bands like The Moody Blues, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Deep Purple and others.
Anderson: I recall him having a fairly profound dislike for Jethro Tull, so I imagine any attempt to get us in would not meet with his approval. There’s a whole bunch of people I would put in before Jethro Tull.
Examiner: For example…
Anderson: Someone like J.B. Lenoir, who sang about the realities of being black, which was a very brave thing to do (in the ‘60s) Sadly, he died young before he could make his mark. I first saw him when I was about 17. It was around ’64 or ’65; one of the first blues compilation tours that came to Europe. It was really the first time British audiences got to see black American musicians that filled us with wonder and awe. We were treated to some of the finest music from another land. I’m sure John Mayall, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page must have been at some of those shows.
Examiner: Certainly, there were also many British artists who came of age in the ‘60s who owe a great deal of gratitude to the great American blues artists who preceded them.
Anderson: Definitely, but one of the reasons I stopped being a blues musician is because one day I just thought, “This is ridiculous. I’m a pale, white, middle class kid from England. What am I doing, singing in a fake American accent? I wasn’t in any way validating the culture and experience of black Americans that I’m not a part of and have great respect for.” So, I immediately decided I’d better find some other inspirations elsewhere. That let me to look at my own roots in church music and classical, as my primary forces.
Examiner: However, the blues was a valuable starting point for you.
Anderson: Yes. I do owe a lot of indebtedness to black American music. The reality is that, if it hadn’t been for the blues boom in England, particularly in the South during the late ‘60s, there would have been no Jethro Tull ... and no Ian Anderson talking to you right now.