Instrument of change

Ian Anderson rose to rock stardom writing tales about hard-luck oafs — such as the horny slob in the classic-rock staple “Aqualung,” and, in “Locomotive Breath,” the “world’s all-time loser” who’s clutched by the “all-time winner.”

Now 54, Jethro Tull’s legendary front man says he empathizes most with his downtrodden characters.

“It’s easier to relate to folks down and out, losers marginalized, disaffected, deprived,” he revealed in a recent interview. “That’s always a secret fear. You may be from humble origins. There’s a fear of returning to that level — or worse. It’s a good-luck skull to hang around your neck — to sing about them wards off what you’re afraid of.”

Anderson, guitarist Martin Lancelot Barre and the rest of Tull will perform their unique, seemingly deathless brand of rock April 30 in Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, in the first week of a four-month North American tour. April 30 is also the release date for the band’s new album, Living With the Past (Chrysalis, 2002).

Anderson says that, away from the stage, he’s much quieter than the eccentric, bombastic piper he still is in concert. This unabashed cat-lover — he’s even written songs about them, including “And the Mouse Police Never Sleep” and “Hunt by Numbers” — breeds domestics with wild Asian leopards. He’s also a salmon farmer.

By the early ’70s, the singer had made his mark with his sophisticated lyrics, arrangements and voice. His vocals can espouse melancholy, mirth or brashness, and he unleashed the flute as a raucous rock conduit in Tull’s blend of rock, blues, folk and classical sounds, coaxing that instrument, via frenzied solos, into the once-sacred realm of guitar.

In fact, Anderson first played guitar, fond of how its loud “twang” reflected youthful “confusions, aggressions and challenges.” He wrote about teen angst in “Aqualung” and other standards such as “Thick as a Brick” — as well as “My God” and “Windup” — when he was in his early 20s.

The mad piper

But Anderson soon switched to flute to distinguish himself — and he played it with self-described “brute force” before refining his craft a decade ago. Learning proper fingering, he expanded his instrument’s range and volume — and also his repertoire, eventually mastering mandolin, acoustic guitar and harmonica.

Jethro Tull formed in late 1967 in southern England; by March 1968, the group was starring in underground clubs in London. The band’s name changed weekly, including a stint as Bag of Blues. “We were so bad, we had to pretend to be a new band to get re-booked,” Anderson quips. Jethro Tull — the man who invented the seed drill in 1700s-era England — was suggested as a name by the band’s manager at the time, a history buff who simply liked the way it sounded. The band earned a residency gig in London’s famed Marquee Club, and the name stuck.

Tull’s second album, Stand Up (Reprise), topped the British charts in ’69. Their newest disc will be their 22nd studio release.

Anderson says he best likes “contrasty” rock songs that shift moods “poignantly” into softer moments — much like the sentimental, echoing bridge in his signature “Aqualung.” But he’s also known for the hypnotically steady flow of such tunes as his long-ago hit single “Living in the Past,” whose lyrics boldly yearned for “traditional values” in the tumultuous late ’60s, Anderson reveals.

Not surprisingly, the singer’s personality also suggests a play of opposites. Off stage, he’s not always the merry minstrel: “I’m much quieter, more intense. … I’m often deep in thought, or appreciate solitude. I enjoy getting pissed off. One of my great pleasures is getting into a bad mood, to get it out of my system,” he says.

But his trademark theatrics abounded in his Greenville, S.C., concert a year ago: Anderson scampered about the stage, grinning widely, popping out his eyes — even, it must be confessed, striking the one-legged, pied-piper pose of the band’s early days.

Anderson believes constant improvising is the key to keeping classics fresh. He “immerses” himself in intricate songs — but simpler arrangements, he says, “give you time to look around, sniff air and see the sights.” In some songs, he’ll “dovetail” into others’ solos; in other numbers, he’ll “react to an emotion at a time,” he says, adding, “That’s what makes music a great job.”

The piper lauds artistry’s spiritual rewards, observing: “Monet created so much with a limited palette. … A musician gets a lot of depth and expression from merely 12 notes. You take elements from many places. You seek a much wider level of truth.” Music, he believes, heals — whether through vibrational energy or “simply the cuddly feeling people get, like from having a pet dog or cat.” Even a person’s crop of chili peppers can apparently benefit: Playing the flute daily, says Anderson, led to “my best harvest ever — it got my seedlings going.”

Playing to terror

Born in Scotland, Anderson moved with his middle-class family to Blackpool, England, at age 12. His parents ran a store, then a motel, with what he calls “mutual reliance.” He learned from them the skills needed to be his own boss and band “captain” — and he also learned teamwork.

His Protestant Scottish parents were not particularly religious, and Anderson says he felt relatively detached and objective about such socio-religious issues as the situation in Northern Ireland. At age 7, he managed to skip out on church: “I contrived to be the last boy into the congregation. I’d peel off, climb a tree and hide there until the service finished,” he confesses. “When it was done, I’d drop down and get back onto the end of the line, and join my parents. It worked.” His 1995 song “Roots to Branches” chastises “religious intolerance and hard-line aggression.”

Since Sept. 11, Anderson’s been more sensitive to political/religious strife, doing concerts in Belfast, Ireland, and Tel Aviv, Israel. Terrorist victims on CNN are “not aliens from another planet; they’re people I’ve walked amongst,” says the singer. And he’s doubly appreciated life since nearly dying from a blood clot in ’96. It developed in his leg after he fell off a stage in Peru, and he was immobilized in a wheelchair between shows as he kept touring. Now he strives to educate on various health risks. “Nothing is forever. Life is so fragile,” Anderson says. “We’re reminded of many dangers, into which we can so easily plummet.”

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