I interviewed Ian Anderson in the Crown Plaza Hotel in Cedar Rapids on August 31, the day he performed with his band at Taste of Cedar Rapids. Ian looked his age, 56 years old, but was fit and tanned. He was relaxed - sitting back comfortably in a stuffed chair - and spoke in an articulate, deep voice.
Do you feel that your image as a flutist overshadows your guitar work, songwriting and lyrics?
Yes, but with good reason. There are lots of people who strum guitars for a living and there are a lot of people who sing for a living. But, there aren't too many flute players in the world of pop and rock music. In that context then, that makes me the big fish in the small pool. Whereas I would be a very small fish in a very large pool of strummers. But, obviously, guitar playing and the other things that I play are all part and parcel of the musicality of my life. So are writing songs and using guitars and mandolins and other instruments - important to me, but not what I'm recognized for. They are tools of the trade, but the enduring image of Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull is that of the one-legged flute player. That's kind of an easy thing for people to hang onto. It is a good starting point for the other stuff.
The album's title song, "Rupi's Dance," is about a 14-week-old kitten. Why did you name your cat Rupi?
Well, it's a Hindu name meaning "beauty." If you went to an Indian Web site with babies' names, you might come across it. I think possibly that's where I came across it.
She came first - not the song. She was an unfortunately sick, little abandoned kitten that we took in just before Christmas. We had to think of a name. I had already written a song about a previous cat -
"Old Black Cat", another song on the album.
Yes - who died again not long before Christmas.
Did you see a conceptual link between the death of the one cat and the youth of the other in the songs?
Actually, no. No, I think they are quite different things. The "Old Black Cat" is not really a song about my cat. It was written immediately, within an hour, of him being euthanized as we held him on the kitchen table as the needle went in. It was terribly traumatic. You do these things, unfortunately, when you have a few pets.
Apart from the obvious nature of it, the song is really not about just a black cat passing away. It is about recognizing the relationships that you take for granted. Not just with animals or even necessarily with people. It could be relationships with things - a relationship with your car or your briefcase or whatever it might be. It's just a reminder, I suppose to me, of things that are just there. You can't even really notice them because they are always part of your life. There are just there. And there's a tendency I suppose that we just don't stop and say, "That's a really damn fine briefcase. I'm so pleased I got that briefcase. [Ian gestures to my briefcase lying on a table before us.] I just love the way the locks just silky close and snap open. It's lovely how the handle - [Ian pauses, a tad bit annoyed by a child who is yelling somewhere.] - and one day you leave your briefcase behind in the bus or it gets stolen from the hotel lobby by some noisy child. And then you think, "Damn, I really miss my old briefcase. I should have polished it, you know, where the corners got scuffed - actually looked after it a little better and held it close to me at night." It's a reminder to, I suppose, place more value on the things we take for granted. Obviously, relationships with people come at the top of the list.
The song about Rupi is just my interest in exploring the way in which we, the dominant species on the planet, tend to personify animals and give them characters and endow them with aspects of their apparent nature. Their ups and their downs, their moods, their way of relating to us, the way they talk to us. We try to give them those human qualities that make them easier to understand. Of course, animals don't really have those human qualities at all.
We tend to think like this, "That little kitty really loves me." Well she doesn't. She just loves the food we give her or the place that she has at the bottom of the bed. We do that with animals. It makes it easier for us to understand them.
I'm also interested in the sexuality of animals - cats in particular interest me. We do very easily see in cats the personification of the macho male. These cats are killers. They are meat eaters. These are Leos. These rip the heads off small mammals and bring them to the communal table. These are red-blooded killer males, even the little girls.
On the other hand, even the most virile and male of the feline species walks with a feminine swing. You know, has a swish of the tail and a look of the eye - so many features that are just the epitome of all things female. That's why cats fascinate me. It's not the only reason, but they have this amazing dual sexuality. They know how to flirt as well. Particularity little girl cats. They get pretty good at that.
And so the song "Rupi's Dance" is thinly disguised as a song about a sexy black-haired female. The fact that it is about a little kitten is hardly disguised in either the song or on the album cover. But I haven't been arrested for bestiality yet, so there's hope for my soul. [Laughs.]
I've been fascinated by an amazing documentary about bestiality. It was on British television a couple of years ago. They were all Americans. [Laughs.] Many of them were in love. They weren't just having passing relationships - with buggering small animals for the sake of it - but were having deep and lasting relationships. There was one man, featured prominently in this documentary, in a very profound relationship, as he saw it, with his horse. Having had one previous horse die, he got a new horse and they got married in a ceremony. At the end of the documentary ran the subtitle that this chap, unfortunately, after making this program, had died from a rare disease transmitted to him by his sexual partner the horse. [Laughs.]
I can't image there were many people who watched this program who didn't think of this as this man's rightful comeuppance for spending an unnatural amount of his time actually having sex with a horse. When the interviewer asked him, "Well, does she mind?" he said, "Well, I don't think so. I mean, she kind of stands there while I do it. And - um, well, if she didn't like it, she would sort of lash out and kick me or be pretty brutal if she wasn't actually enjoying it."
One had to conclude that she was neither enjoying it nor - she was probably just busy just sort of eating some hay or something at the time and thought, "Hey, what's going on? Oh, it's him again. Put it out of my mind while I just get on with eating."
It was a very interesting program. But of course it had its really sordid side where there were some folks who looked like they could have been bit players in the film Deliverance, who did admit to the sort of activities that really did cause serious pain and distress to small animals. It was a scary thing.
Of course, the Web seems to have - I remember at some point looking for a list of zoos in the U.S., trying to get some idea which zoos were holding which small wild cat species. Who had which species for breeding etc. etc. I was looking up "zoos." Unfortunately, I didn't realize that "zoos" was the term that zoophiles used to describe themselves. "Zoos" for short. And so I inadvertently entered the mysterious world of bestiality. Coincidentally, I saw this documentary just around the same time, so it was an interesting little moment of being fascinated and sickened at the same time.
I guess it would be quite easy to fall into a trap if you were an animal activist and really kind of just crazed about all this stuff and really getting mad about it and wanting to do something about it. Or you were a journalist who wanted to write this up or a documentary maker who wanted to make a TV program about it, you might find yourself in the same position as old Pete Townshend with these images on your computer and a history of the Web sites you visited, which could put you - at very least - in the public eye in a way you didn't want to be.
Writing songs in that sort of a way, in that sort of a topic is kind of interesting. You can just touch upon the ephemeral aspect of it. Those of us who have sensibilities regarding those subjects know that we can kind of go close to the subject, but there is a line that you just don't cross. That same line applies if I'm writing a song based on a person. There's a line I don't cross in actually taking that song to really describe a real person - to really sing a song about a person who might either be unduly flattered or greatly insulted by the content of the lyrics.
That line is self-imposed?
It is an instinctive thing. I was asked to do a movie many years ago. The subject of this movie was about a songwriter who wrote a song about a real relationship he had with a girl. He wrote this song about this brief relationship. The song was a hit. And this completely drove this girl mad. On the one hand she started off by being so amazingly flattered by being the subject of this song and, then, because the relationship wasn't being continued or going anywhere, it began to haunt her and she became obsessed in a really evil and malevolent way with the songwriter, who just goes, "Why are you being crazy about us? It's what I do. I write song about your life, about me, about people. Why are you upset?"
There are lines you just don't cross to reveal identities. For me, anyway, in terms of personal stuff, you just don't go there.
On the new album, there is a song called "Not Ralitsa Vassileva". The song is not about
Ralitsa Vassileva. That's the whole point. [Laughs.] She is not the subject of the song. She is merely a reference point for a good and responsible journalist setting a benchmark, a standard, if you like, for good professional journalistic presentation on TV. And the pain-in-the-arse type people who bend your ear at every dinner-party conversation with politics or whatever else - which I guess I probably do to other people. Sometimes in songs are kind of little reminders. You are writing ostensibly about someone else - maybe you're describing some of your own bad habits at the same time.
What I'm getting at is that these lines are not imposed. They are not self-imposed in the sense that you erect these barriers that you mustn't go through. There's not actual imposition. There's an instinct. You approach some of these subjects, but you just don't go any farther. It's not like a forbidden territory. It is a sensibility that you just say, "Hey, I can go near this, but I'm never going to cross the line."
I'll be singing a song tonight if it doesn't rain too badly or the audience isn't too drunk. It's called "Beside Myself." It's based on a child prostitute in India. I've been in India and I've seen children in the street, children in cages in Bombay in the Falkland Road. It's heartbreaking beyond belief. But the song is a fiction. It's just a contrived amalgam of a number of glimpses of kids in that situation.
Your song "Sanctuary" has the same theme.
Well half of the song is about the sanctuary of ex-zoo animals or exotic pets or rescued animals from the fur traders, based on two or three real visits of mine to such sanctuaries. Specifically, those for cats or abandoned zoo animals - the unwanted or non-commercial things that zoos just want to get rid of. And the old ones they can't afford to keep or people don't want to see.
That is one side of the coin, and the other side being sanctuary for the rejected and escaped and saved prostitutes of India. There is such a sanctuary in India where just a few of these people are brought back to live in dignity, most of them terminally ill with AIDS.
These are some of the issues. You go there, but I don't get obsessed with it. And I don't cross the line to it becoming a regular part of my life. It's something I will touch upon with a song, maybe a song I sing every night. There's never any danger of me doing the Pete Townshend, actually crossing that line where the fascination becomes, it would appear, somewhat unhealthy in his case. I'm certainly not passing judgment on Pete Townshend, who I neither know nor understand regarding his sexuality and his interest in these things. But it's pretty bloody stupid if you let it go that far. And then you have to get yourself out of the deep shit. Publicly. I don't know whether he's tried to get an American visa recently, but I think it would be pretty hard for him.
It may be that Pete Townshend in all - totally, genuinely - had just an obsession to bring this to the public's attention. In order to do that, he felt he had to go there. He had to see what was really happening. Personally, I think most of us know and have caught glimpses of and heard enough about, for instance, child porn that we don't actually have to do this to know its bad for our health. I mean, I have never taken the things you call drugs -marijuana through crack cocaine. I'm totally innocent of the experience.
I was always impressed with that.
There's nothing to be impressed with. For me, it's just purely a pragmatic approach. I'm not one of those people who ever believed - when I was told this by my peers as a teenager or in my 20s when I was traveling around the world of music and musicians. You hear it all the time: "Well don't knock it if you haven't tried it." But I said that I don't actually need to try it become I've seen you being a total pain in the arse. And I've seen Jimi Hendrix die. I don't actually need to try these things to know that they are not something I particularly want to get involved with.
Didn't Jethro Tull tour with Hendrix?
We didn't tour, but played a number of shows on the same bill. Jimi Hendrix and Jethro Tull played during the summer, as early as '68 actually. It was the only time I met him and talked with him. Jimi Hendrix was directly responsible for Jethro Tull's initial acceptance in Europe - both in Scandinavia and in Germany. He personally had heard Jethro Tull on the radio or record or something and personally recommended us to the big national German promoter who flew to London specifically to find Jethro Tull as the result of Jimi Hendrix' personal recommendation. Which I didn't know until relatively recently - long after Jimi died.
I would like to ask about you artwork on the covers of your recent album and J-Tull Dot Com.
And the This Was cover in 1968. It does kind of go back to the beginning. Some covers I had nothing to do with: the second, third, and fourth Jethro Tull albums. They were nothing to do with me. They were all to do with Terry Ellis, our manager. The first one I did in terms of the cover concept: the photographs front and back, the general layout and look of the thing. And then picked it up again with Thick as a Brick. From Thick as a Brick on through, either I had a little thing to do with or everything to do with it [the design].
Except for the cover of J-Tull Dot Com, I had never seen one of your paintings.
No, I haven't seen my paintings either since I stopped painting when I was about 18.
Are we going to see more?
Probably not until I'm too old to play the flute. I might pick up the paintbrush again then, but not yet. I was seduced by music when I was studying in art school. I was engrossed with the visual arts, particularly with more traditional drawing and painting and the skills behind draftsmanship. I was really interested in the formal approach to drawing and painting. But it wasn't a performance art; it wasn't something you could share.
There isn't an audience.
There is an audience for the end result, but there isn't an audience to share with you the act of doing it. Which, of course, in making music I get to do both of those things. I get to make my music privately in the studio with no observers since I'm the engineer, producer, recording artist. I work alone as much as I possibly can, except when I'm working with other musicians in the studio. A lot of the work is really like an artist in the artist's studio. I'm working alone. I don't want interruptions. I don't want anybody looking over my shoulder. Or listening over my shoulder. So I get to work in the private, obsessive way of the visual artist. But then, I get a second crack at the whip when it comes to performing that music subsequently live on stage. So that's the fascinating thing about music - it works in both ways.
As a composer, it is a private process.
As a composer and the first performance that you give in the studio when you're making the records. That is an imaginary public performance. It's one where you are singing, with you eyes closed, into the microphone and you are singing for yourself; you are singing for the people who are going to listen to it; you are singing for the machinery that records it. Your only witness is the blinking red eye of some kind of tape machine or digital recording.
Back to your questions. I'm conscious of the time. In fact, I have to go down shortly to do the show.
Are you still growing as an artist?
I would like to think that most people who do what I do would huff and puff and say of course I am or I wouldn't be doing it. We would all share that view. I don't think you would get anybody doing what I do to say, "Well, I stopped growing as an artist. I'm just going out to pick up another paycheck, frankly. Sooner I get home the better." Of course not, we're all I think healthily obsessed with the addictions of public performance whether you are a B.B. King, a guy who just works in a particular, very finite, and fairly bubble-like music form. And effectively does the same thing every night, plays the same set of songs in very much the same way - and does so brilliantly. The peak of his form, the peak of his art, the performer of vintage excellence still alive. He's almost the only one really with any real street credibility. B.B. King is still out there doing brilliantly what he does.
I'm a little younger than him, so maybe I'll wind up doing the same degree of repetition. But certainly for the moment I feel there's a lot of scope. And indeed a lot of expectation placed upon me to keep coming up with new things, new songs, new ideas, new expressions. Hopefully that's a challenge that is laid down in a way by both the public and by me as a self-imposed gauntlet that gets thrown down every time I pick up a flute or guitar with the intention to write some new music. Which I must do, in fact, during the next couple of months. I have to write some music for some performances in India with the respected - I guess you might describe him as the Ravi Shankar of the flute - Hariprasad Chaurasia, a classical Indian flutist.
We have some shows with Jethro Tull and Hariprasad Chaurasia as a special guest. So we are going to do a suite of music together, blending Western and Eastern music forms. That's a real composer's challenge because he plays a traditional Indian flute, which plays in a set of keys that are not the favorite keys of Western musicians. It's not just an alien scale, it just that he plays in F sharp and C sharp which are just rotten keys for most Western instruments, particularly for the Western concert flute. It's not an easy thing to improvise in those keys. But that's the flute he plays; it will not play the Western simple keys like D A G E F. He's playing the black notes on the piano effectively. So it's a real interesting challenge for me to write music where we can slip in and out of our different zones. We have to meet over some common ground. It's going to be a challenge to write the music that works.
Will this be put on CD?
Not initially. We're only doing three live performances. But the contracts aren't signed yet; it could all fall through. In just the last few hours, they have arrested some guys in New Delhi who were equipped with all the detonators and timing apparatus to blow a big hole in some part of India with a view to maximum damage. And just last week, of course, 52 people were killed in Bombay in two separate car-bomb explosions - one of which just outside the Taj Hotel , my favorite hotel to stay in Bombay.
Which hasn't gotten news coverage here.
It was about three lines in USA Today. If 52 people had the shit blown out of them in New York City in front of the Empire State Building, you know of course. Sadly, this is a problem in America, this unbelievable unwillingness to consider world affairs, other people. It's only when, sadly, the Bushes and the Blairs of this world decide to go to war that people get to know about anything about another culture. Even though I guess half the folks in this country don't even know where Iraq is.
However, don't get me started on Bush and Blair. Mr. Bush I don't mind - he's an innocent. He's just John Wayne with a set of evil advisors. But that Donald Rumsfeld, that man is a snake. He is a reptile. That smirk on his face. Boy, he's a dangerous man.
Back to your questions because I've really got to go.
Over the years, you've been a spokesperson and fundraiser for many worthwhile causes: World Wildlife Fund, Wild About Cats, etc. Would you like to say anything about them?
It's a bit like the other things I've said to you; there's a line I won't cross. I don't want to spend my life being a passionate crusader. I did an interview a couple of days ago for some magazine - an animal or pet type of magazine. The first question the lady asked me was, "Are you an animal rights activist?" I said, "No, I'm not." In fact, I don't really like the idea, the connotations of "activist" in any context. My experience with people who accept the term, or call themselves activists, are usually real pain-in-the-arse kind of people. You know, the McCartneys, the Chrissie Hyndes of this world, who just are folks with some bad stuff inside them that they have to get out. And so they do it by picking causes. I got an e-mail today to support some McCartney cause. I reported it to spam even though it came via personal communications. I reported it to spam because I have an instinctive dislike of people imposing their will because it happens to be the bee in their bonnet. Something they're cranky about.
I'm not a vegetarian, but I don't choose to eat a lot of meat. I don't like the smell of dead animals. I don't enjoy the casual way in which meat is taken from the hoof and the wing without a prayer and a moment of spiritual recognition of what taking a life means. I think the person I was doing this interview with couldn't very much understand; she said, "What's the best moment you ever shared with an animal? Some special moment?" I said, it was probably with a small cat. A kitten, who at a young age, used to ride on my shoulders when I would go through a walk through the woods. He couldn't really keep up so this little kitten would kind of scamper around out of breath and I would pick him up after a while he would get his breath back and would scamper again and go for quite long walks partly being carried and partly running around. Then I started going out with my kitten for a walk in the woods in the evening and I would take a gun because of the grey squirrel, American import, rampaging through the new plantations and taking the tops off our young trees. I said I would take a gun. I could sense the horror this woman had at the other end of the phone. My little kitten not only didn't mind the loud report of a 12 bore shotgun, but on one occasion when I downed a pigeon, the kitten leapt off my shoulder and raced after the pigeon, leapt on the pigeon, and dragged it back like a retriever. I said, that to me was a really profound moment where we shared on the most primitive instincts of joining together in the hunt. That was a real primal moment of real empathy.