From the image of Ian Anderson boiling his tea water over an open campfire, to the final ode to domestic tranquility, everything about Songs From the Wood speaks to my heart. Jethro Tull tapped into something that rock music, with its relentless bluster, rarely touches on: the appeal of a peaceful life. They also leaned hard on English folklore, another thing that pop culture usually disregards. It’s a sustained vision of sprites in trees, Solstice revelries, sexy outdoor sportage, and warm homes full of happy dogs. Everything a soul might long for when they have to spend most of their lives in windowless, featureless modern public spaces. There’s an entirely conflicting fantasy, of course, about the glamour of urban life, but glamour, unlike a nice backyard garden, is a very nebulous thing to aspire to. For someone who hears the highway through their bedroom window, the longing to hear leaves rustling and to smell the earth and sleep in natural darkness is… well, it’s there, quiet and small and undiagnosed, like a vitamin deficiency.
The Rolling Stones thought their Rock’n’Roll Circus had to be shelved because The Who blew them out of the water, but really, it started with Jethro Tull. Then only marginally known, their input of weirdness got the show going. It was supposed to get them famous as a psychedelic blues band, but it may have been a stroke of luck that the show never aired. They weren’t planning on staying a psychedelic blues band for very much longer, and what they became in their heyday doesn’t easily fit into neat boxes you can sell. (That didn’t stop them selling a lot of records, because there was a market back then for weird shit.)
This Jethro Tull song is barely over a minute. That makes it a tiny speck in the universe of a band given to epics in the 15 to 25 minute range. A minute is barely enough time for Ian Anderson to draw a deep breath before a mighty flute solo. It’s a blink of an eye, a fruit fly’s lifespan. Yet, there have been artists aplenty, from the Ramones to Tierra Whack, who’ve said all that they needed to say entirely in one and two minute songs. There’s time enough to say all you need to say in one minute, and if you can’t do that, you don’t deserve to be writing epics in the first place. Ian Anderson, for all of his ambitions, knows this. He can slide a quiet slip of a song in between all of the big thoughts and say what he has to say. I’ve always loved this, as a breather, a small moment of contemplation. And if nothing else, I love the line “and you press on God’s waiter your last dime, as he hands you the bill…”
Do you ever get the feeling that “everybody’s on the stage and it seems like you’re the only Person sitting in the audience?” Well, yes. Life is treacherous and transient as thin ice, indeed, and we navigate it with as much grace as we can. Feeling lost, disconnected, spooked and unreal while we’re at it. Yes, it’s a great metaphor, and a small lesson in some kind of philosophy. You should build your life one day at a time exactly because there may well never be a next one.
Yes, life is indeed very much like a frantic carnival, and you are a helpless aquatic mammal with no legs desperately performing tricks to please a cruel and fickle ringmaster through no fault of your own. A good metaphor right there. See, this is why I’m a lifelong follower of Jethro Tull. The J-Tull fan will always be rewarded with clever phrasing and inspired imagery. Putting on a Tull record is like returning to a favorite book. It may be a sustained storyline or a series of vignettes or loosely connected theses but it will be a literary experience as much as a musical one.
This begs the question, why are dogs named Rover? I’ve never met a dog named Rover. It would be interesting to find out where that trope came from. Television, probably. Anyhow, here in this song, Ian Anderson uses a doggy metaphor to represent himself as both loyal companion, and a wild and free spirit. Which is not even all that doglike, making it a pretty weak metaphor. But it’s on point with Heavy Horses‘ animal and nature themes, which explore the tension between freedom and domesticity, and the trade-off of modern comfort vs. a harder but more satisfying un-industrialized life. The fate of lowly domestic animals is entwined with the progress of man, and while a few pampered mouses might enjoy the safety and comfort of modern man’s lifestyle, most creatures benefit from it far less than man does. Dogs certainly enjoy all of the comforts, if not more, the price for which being that dogs are as far removed from their wolfy heritage as men are from their monkey ancestors. Dogs are as neurotic, spoiled, helpless and diabetic as their human overlords. If any animal is the metaphorical symbol of the coddled and useless modern being, it’s the fat lapdog who barks incessantly at his own shadow and never sets paws outside.
Although we’re still a few weeks away from our winter solstice, I’d say it’s very much in the spirit of the season. Call it a holiday song, one of the few you’ll ever get from me. There’s nothing more I love than good, clean English pastoralia. From Tudor architecture to The Wind in the Willows to Hobbiton to high tea and hot cross buns. And, of course, the stylings of Jethro Tull, who took folk revivalism and took it into unforeseen territory. Although Ian Anderson’s crazed court jester persona and odd taste in pants has tainted the band with a reputation for silliness, I for one take my J-Tull very seriously. For one thing, they’re firmly in the classic tradition of eccentric fuzzy Englishness, right alongside Miss Marple, Mole and Ratty, and Basil Fawlty. Anderson’s songwriting, along with all his posturing, is a nod to popular literary tropes as much as a musical persona per se. There’s a fine line between self-serious silliness and the self-aware kind, and one can’t expect one’s searing indictments of the Anglican Church to be taken without a grain of salt when one is wearing an embroidered codpiece. Ahem. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be charmed by a sincerely affectionate – and sincerely silly – ode to uncool age-old folk traditions like the celebration of the solstice. The English folk revival was part of a young generation’s search for a politically safe cultural heritage, the same thirst for a clean sense of identity that inspires Bavarians to go about their day in full Heidi regalia. It’s a love for all things homey and twee and unhip and reminiscent of grandmother. That’s not exactly what rock star dreams are made of; but Jethro Tull proved that you can be all about all of those things and turn it into a stage persona. That alone is a legacy-making achievement.