IAN ANDERSON on War, Religion and (why not?) Cat Stevens

Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull
December 7, 2004
As Jethro Tull took a breather from the current leg of their European tour, Cliff spoke with Ian Anderson for quite some time regarding music, politics and the art of war. It was their first conversation in many years (Cliff once tracked the band regularly for such publications as Hit Parader, The East Coast Rocker, and Rock & Roll Disc). Feature stories by Cliff are forthcoming in THE AQUARIAN and www.Shotgunreviews.com, but here's the exclusive, uncut Q&A:
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When Jethro Tull, the pioneers of Intellectual Metal, cut their teach on the seminal Aqualung, they were the last blokes we expected to trip the yule fantastic. Now, 33 years later, the band who sang, ďIf Jesus saves, then he better save himselfĒ has gone-a-caroling. But far be it from me to stuff coal in their stockings, so allow me to remove tongue from cheek. Allow that The Jethro Tull Christmas Album is a seriously good spin--far better than that over-hyped (ad-nauseam) How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb from the erstwhile born-again Irish lads. Really, gang: Tull remains unique, and always a superior listen. Martin Barre is still the Clark Kent of lead guitarists and the rest of the assemblage is superb. And Ian Anderson is, well, Ian Anderson.

Meth: The last time we spoke was backstage at The Meadowlands in New Jersey as we watched the Berlin Wall coming down on a monitor.

Anderson: I remember it well. Our German Tour manager broke down and cried when he heard the news and saw it on Television. Over here [in Germany] Mikhail Gorbachev appeared on a TV show that I also did a few months back and he got a standing ovation for five minutes on prime-time Saturday night TV. They don't let the audience applaud that long unless it's someone somewhere a little upscale from the Pope in people's love and admiration. He set in motion all these things and it was a momentous day. And now here I am in Germany on tour with a somewhat beleaguered economy as a result of paying for the old Eastern German integration into the German economy, but even now people still have a very big... Anyone over the age of 15 will remember those breaking news captions.

Meth: While we're on geo-politics, most pop musicians have come out strongly against the U.S. and U.K.'s War in Iraq. What's your position on the subject?

Anderson: I don't know. It's difficult to have an opinion that is clear cut about an issue as complex as this. I was having a discussion with a German friend in Germany two nights before the U.K. and U.S. attacked Iraq, and I was saying that if they go through with this, this will be years and years to come of a commitment from the U.K., U.S., and whoever else is foolish to go along with it. This is taking the lid off of a very dangerous country. And whether you like it or not, the evil Sadam Husein is the guy who kept that lid on and kept Iraq essentially free from being what it is now, which is a state that is fostering the most violent terrorism currently on the planet--at least most frequently violent in the sense that the number of deaths of American soldiers is over 1,000; the number of on-going casualties this week was 50 people. And that's just another day in Bhagdad. This is not something that will get a quick fix on January 30 any more than when Afghanistan voted in, this morning, the man in the green cloak, who seems a perfectly reasonable chap, but there is no way he is in control of Afghanistan, let alone the enormous increase in opium and therefore heroin production that has occurred since Afghanistan was so-called "liberated."

It's all good and well playing with the ideas of democracy, but life ain't that simple. Whereas I don't think I can be one of those people who is saying I think the U.S. should pull out of Iraq--or the U.K. or any of the so-called coalition, which amounts to a few hundred other people (laughs). Far and away the U.S. is bearing the brunt of this and will do for years to come. I'm talking about the poor, old people who will have to fund the tens of billions that this will continue to cost the U.S.

Meth: Although Tull arose during the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam, and you've always been outspoken on all subjects, your music has never addressed anything political.

Anderson: My music is not going to address issues in a direct political way. You wouldn't find me on stage in the last run at the election joining Bruce Springsteen and calling for the mobilization of civilian troops, as it were, to place their vote in the box next to the name Kerry. I wouldn't be up in the stage doing that. But you would get me on the stage campaigning very simply with the word VOTE. That I'm very much dedicated towards. I wouldn't be partisan. I would certainly encourage people to vote and in my small way I did try to do that when I was last doing concerts before I went on tour because I do think it's very important from a moral point of view, as well as a political one, to take advantage of that democracy that I'm afraid so many Americans and British take for granted.

Politically, Iím an angry man. But the answer isnít ďpull the troops out.Ē Weíre stuck with this now. We canít abandon these people. Weíve brought notions of democracy to a country where theyíve been used to, at best, a patriarchal and tribal leadership. In Iraq, they were used to the tyrant dictator, but nonetheless, it was a stable country, for the most part throughout most its very complicated length and breadth, with all of its tribal and religious divisions. And when you go blundering in there as a Western Democracy with tanks and guns, youíre taking the lid off the hornetís nest. And thatís unfortunately what seems to have escaped both Bush and Blair and their rather dodgy crew of advisors.

It just seemed so patently obvious from the word go that this was just going to result in a lot of tears that itís beyond me that they could have done it. I mean, it just seems so incredibly naÔve, if you give them the benefit of the doubt, to have gone in their guns blazing thinking all you do is take out the government, replace it with a friendly military force for a few months, then get them all to go to elections. How could they ever believe that given the complexities that existed in Iraq? And this was pointed out in countless articles by countless learned journalists from all over the world reporting from Iraq for the last ten years. It was pointed out time and again that the result of removing Sadam Husein would not be a simple one. That is what is so extraordinary! However, we donít want to waste the entire interview talking about that, but yes, Iíve got my opinion, and the answer is that itís far too late to pull outófar too late for people like me to be putting in music or in song any clear cut political message.

The job I do as a musician is to traveló not to Iraq, thus far, but to certain other places where we have seen the suicide bombers and the tragedy of war in the last 30 or 40 years. I go to places like Israel; I go to Turkey, to India, to places where people do blow each other up. But as a musician, Iím allowed to cross those boundaries in the worlds of art and entertainment; I cross boundaries that politicians canít--even if they want to. So I think Iím rather happy to keep my message a generally uplifting one of music and song. If thereís a political or religious comment being made, I do so with a degree of, I hope, subtlety and artistry, which I hope does not make me appear partisan and does not allow for misunderstanding, although Iíve been at the end of misunderstanding before, choosing words in my lyrics perhaps not so carefully as I might have done back in 1971.

Meth: You told me years ago that you felt Linda McCartneyís stance on animal rights was naive and uninformed. How did you regard Paul McCartneyís leadership role in The Concert for New York?

Anderson: Iíve never been a McCartney fan, but it just seems like heís trying to lay the ghost of Linda and I just donít understand why heís going near any of that stuff. His new wife is into the landmine stuff and that seems to me soÖ I mean, I got an invitation to go to that and I tore it up. I was really quite reviled by being asked to go and do something that is actually all about just giving money to the McCartneys to make them look good. One might almost think that if they manage to change the laws and Arnold [Schwarzenegger] gets to be president that maybe Paul McCartney is going to shoot for Governor of California. I donít know. Must be some ulterior motive.

Meth: Cat Stevens is a contemporary of yours.

Anderson: Ah yes! Well, you see Cat Stevens would be a much better Governor of California. We actually met, funny enough, just before the opening of the Olympic Games--I bumped into Cat Stevens in Athens. He and I were both doing a TV show for German television. I hadnít seen him for years and I went over and we chatted for ten minutes on a variety of subjects. He seemed very pleasant, very nice, and I got the inkling that music was becoming a meaningful part of his life again. A musical performance was definitely in the cards. So I was quite pleased with that and he had to go to make-up because he was being interviewed on this TV showónot performing music, just interviewed--so I went my way. Well, after Iíd done my performance, his son came rushing over and said, ďOh, did my dad find you?Ē And I said, ďNope. I didnít know he was looking for me.Ē He said, ďHeís searching everywhere for you--heís so embarrassed that he wants to apologize because he didnít recognize you.Ē And I said, ďWow! Thatís amazing! You tell your dad that raises him even higher in my esteem, that he would be so nice and pleasant and give ten minutes of interesting and pleasing conversation to someone who he must have regarded as a complete stranger.Ē (laughs)

One feels a little sorry for him having endured perhaps a degree of vilification, and certainly humiliation when he was denied entrance to the U.S. because we were told that the authorities had confused his name with another person who was on the terrorist list. I rather suspect there was more to it than that. My feeling is because of his pronunciations some years ago against Salmon Rushdie, when pressed on the issue, concurring with a fatwah put him in a pretty bad light, although Cat Stevens has always been a peaceful and inspiring person in regards to peace and tolerance and so-on. He is the benign face of Islam that unfortunately has been tainted by some assumption that he is aligned with the extremists. I really donít believe for one second that he is or ever has been. I think we need more people like Yusef Islam who are going to stand up and show us the kind and caring and responsible and very human face of Islam. We need a lot more Yusef Islams, whether they call themselves that or Cat Stevens.

Meth: A naÔve notion of your religious viewpoint might be based solely on the flipside of the Aqualung album. In light of what you just said about Cat Stevens, how did you react to Bob Dylanís ďBorn AgainĒ phase, or Van Morrisonís spiritual material, or George Harrisonís Hare Krishna music?

Anderson: Iíve never been anti-Christian. I wouldnít call myself a Christian because Iím not an active, practicing one, but I believe in most of the tenets of Christianity. Itís very easy to go along with most of that as itís equally easy to go along with most of Islam. Itís actually easy to go along with quite a lot of Hinduism, once you get over that big hurdle of slightly demystifying the pantheon of deities that litter the life of a Hindu (laughs). Hinduism is a tricky one, but you have to look at it more like youíre watching a Bollywood movie, or a sort of Walt Disney cartoon. Itís larger than life. It appears colorful and somewhat two-dimensional in the way that the many gods of Hinduism seem to operate. It is rather cartoon-likeóhowever, behind it, it is essentially a monotheistic religion, and not a difficult one for us to go along with. Difficult probably for most westerners to think of practicing, but for me it would be difficult to be a practicing Christian because I canít quite get my head around one or two things about Christianity that are fundamental, particularly regarding the degree to which Christ has become deified as a prophet and a symbol. So I have a problem with Christianity, but in terms of most of its teachingsómost of it is practical and sensible moralities and codes for good living. Iím not anti-Christian; Iím actually quite pro-Christian, but Iím equally pro-Islam, as long as we donít get into the car bombs. For the vast majority of practicing Muslims, the step from Islam to terrorism is a giant chasm they could not conceive of crossing. Itís just for some people, as alwaysóChristianity and Islam alikeóreligion has been a means of whipping up hatred, bigotry, intolerance.

Just look at the simple polarities in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, and that deep, undying hatred between Catholics and Protestants. Itís so hard for us to understand why those people still want to kill each other, and indeed on a Saturday night still do. Whether itís a bottle fight down the road in Belfast or something more insidious, the hatred has not gone away. At the moment, the guns and the bombs are silent, but the deep divisions are still there with very little sign of being mended by the current and future generations.

Meth: Almost like an English football game.

Anderson: Unfortunately it mirrors some of the violence that we do see elsewhere in society, whether itís at a football match or on the streets of London, if youíre careless enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Meth: When I first saw Liverpool versus Manchester United, and it was unlike anything Iíd ever experienced. All of the sport was in the audience, I thought.

Anderson: Things get whipped up and unfortunately people rather enjoy having a simple cause to, if not die for, at least get their heads broken for. It is remarkable how, generally speaking, from an audience point of view anyway, sports in the USA seems mercifully free of that kind of violence from spectators. Itís something that's not only British, of courseóit happens elsewhere in Europe. But I guess given the choice, Iíd rather seen the violence contained within the walls of a soccer stadium than spreading onto the streets of a foreign country. Maybe, in some weird way, we are containing that outlet for violence by allowing it to happen and focus on something as silly as a football match.

Meth: Have you seen Bob Dylanís Chronicles?

Anderson: Iíve been given a copy of it, actually, but Iíve yet to read it.

Meth: It's outstanding. A superior book. Have you kept chronicles and diaries like this that you would ever consider publishing?

Anderson: Iíve never kept anything, perhaps on the grounds of some belief that if I canít remember it, itís not worth writing down and expecting someone else to find it amusing. But also, doubtless, because of some degree of laziness. I know that a very early member of Jethro Tull, Glen Cornick, did actually keep diaries and memorabiliaóthings, photographs, bits of paper, stuff. And I rather regret now not having kept stuff. But ultimately I think Iím not really a stuff sort of person. I have a Grammy Award somewhereóI havenít the faintest idea where it could be. Itís probably in the house somewhere. I live in a big house and Iím not going to spend the afternoon looking for the damn thing. Itís not that itís not important to meóit is kind of important; I know that 6000 peers in the musical creative world took part in a voting system and preferred Jethro Tull as the winners of a Grammy. Iím not unimpressed by that, Iím really humbled by it, and very grateful to them for their show of approval at Jethro Tullís activities over the yearsónot at being the best metal act or whatever the award was actually for; they were just giving us the-best-band-that-hasnít-won-a-Grammy-before awardĖthat was the spirit of people voting for us. So Iím not unimpressed by that, but I just donít need the object itself to remind me. Iím not one of those people who needs something hanging on the wall to remind me that Iíve sold a million copies of an album or that Iím a clever chap. Especially because as a performing musician on stage every night, you are confronting real people in real timeóitís not just memories or symbols; you actually get the real deal when youíre a performing artist. So Iíve never really felt the need for stuff and reminders and whatever.

And I donít think Iíd be much of a biography writer in the sense that Iím a little too sensitive about hurting other peopleís feelings. If I got carried away, I would say some things that are possibly quite funny and deeply cutting and maybe cynicalóoverall I would have rather amusing and perceptive things to say about people that Iíve known, however many of them would be deeply hurt by it and for that reason I wouldnít do it, even though it might amuse the hell out of me and maybe some other people. I know it would be hurtful to have that confidence betrayed by a public unveiling of events or character assassinations (laughs). So I donít think Iím going to do that somehow.

Meth: If Oliver Stone were going to make The Jethro Tull film, the way he did The Doors, who would play Ian Anderson?

Anderson: I havenít seen The Doors filmóit would be a difficult one for me to relate to, but the first reaction would be donít because whenever people do try to do movies about the rock music industry, everything Iíve ever seen has been... The one sterling exception is ďSpinal Tap,Ē which was pretty spot-on, really, for a bunch of guys who were not part of it. I think you can do it if youíre very clever and youíre actually making fun of it. In a satirical way, you can do it. But if youíre actually trying to dramatize events... I mean, God help us if there was to be a film about The Beatles or John Lennon. It would be dreadful in the same way as the fools who try to make movies about Princess Diana. Itís just awful when people go that route because they never really touch upon the reality in the way that people close to it know it to be.

I havenít seen Oliver Stoneís movie about The Doors. But if I did, Iíd be very surprised if it was something that made me feel that it was an accurate portrayal of somethingónot that I knew him or anything really about The Doors... Any poor fool who has to play me would probably have to take some serious lessons in standing on one leg. And it would have to go straight to video. And theyíd release the soundtrack to the movie as a ring tone.

Meth: Youíve clearly labored to keep your music fresh, but there has to be certain benefits to the nostalgic aspects of the bandís history and longevity.

Anderson: Thatís an interesting one because just before I came back from America, I actually went into XM Studios with the guys from Jethro Tull and we re-recorded the entire Aqualung album for a series on their radio where people go in and record their seminal albums as a live performance before a small, invited audience. I suppose in some ways just to prove they can actually remember all the chords. But also, perhaps, with a view to performing music not as a literal remake, but as a reinterpretation according to the times, technology, flirting with different arrangements. Or in the case with Jethro Tull, with three different band members.

It was kind of interesting to do because not only were we recording some pieces of music from the Aqualung album which we still periodically play live on stage, but there were also three songs from the album we had never, ever played since the day they were recorded, at the end of 1970. That was kind of interesting, and a little weird, to touch upon these songs that, for whatever reason, had never been attempted before. And they were actually three really enjoyable songs to do.

Meth: Which songs?

Anderson: ďHymm 43,Ē ďSlipstream,Ē and ďUp To Me.Ē And we started playing themóknowing that weíd be doing them for XMólive on the tour.

Meth: Iím surprised that you never did ďHymm 43Ē Ė that one was getting airplay for many years.

Anderson: Yeah, I think it was one of those songs that was, back in the days of A&R radio, would be frequently played as an example of Jethro Tullís work. I would think itís unlikely youíd be hearing it very often in todayís very, very restricted classic-rock radio programming. Itís never been one of my favorite songs. We did change the arrangement substantially, although we went back to the final verse in the original style. But it was interesting to play it and do it in a different way.

But going back to the idea of sort of keeping things fresh, it is something thatís not very difficult to do with most of the material because thereís always another interpretation of it. Itís not like being a classical musician and having to play the exactly what Mozart or Beethoven wrote, the only interpretation being, perhaps, in the tempo or dynamics or phrasing that a conductor will draw from the orchestra. Itís 1% of the outcome. 99% of it is what was written by the composer. Itís on paperóitís definitiveóthere is no room to change any of the notes or parts or relationships between them.

But in the world of rock music, jazz, blues and some folk music, there is the room to not only interpret the song but to actually change thingsóto improvise. And beyond improvisation, to sit and deliberately, consciously reappraise something. Thereís no one to stop you. So if youíre the author of that workóor even if youíre notóyou can seek permission to vary an artistís work. And if the artist has been dead long enough (laughs) then you can take pieces of traditional music, as I do, and do what the hell you want with them.

Meth: When will we hear the XM Aqualung?

Anderson: I believe itís scheduled for a March broadcast. It will be rough and ready, but itís okay. I think I sang three wrong words in a verse, which I fixed right afterwards, but apart from everything else, itís as it is. Thereís a few bad moments, and a few less than perfect bits of performance, but what youíll hear is us live in a small studio with a bunch of people. Itís not a high level of technical and musical excellence. Itís kind of funky.

© 2004 Clifford Meth


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