Sunday, August 10, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 222): "SKATING AWAY ON THE THIN ICE OF THE NEW DAY" (1974) Jethro Tull

Today’s birthday boy is Ian Anderson, singer, composer, flutist for Jethro Tull, the band that dominated my listening in my teen years, 1971-75. In that period, Tull released some of their top-selling LPs—Aqualung (1971), Thick as a Brick (1972), Living in the Past (1972), A Passion Play (1973), War Child (1974), and Minstrel  in the Gallery (1975). My first ever rock show was a concert on the tour in support of War Child, though I’ve always regretted that I didn’t get to see the much maligned tour in support of A Passion Play, which, in the summer of 1973, was my top album. It suited remarkably well a Hesse and Nietzsche-reading kid, newly versed in British Romantic verse as well as Paradise Lost and Goethe’s Faust. Odd and arcane as the album might seem to some, it felt completely au courant to me. In fact, it may be that Anderson’s back-to-back “album-length tracks,” Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play, stimulated me to be more literary than I might otherwise have been at that age.

Today’s song comes from War Child and was almost a radio song. The real radio song from the LP was “Bungle in the Jungle” and it was something like “the end” of my ideal of Tull that they should be on the radio. Even though, by then, I was only listening to FM I didn’t like the fact that you might hear the song just anywhere. Music to me, at the height of prog-rock, was supposed to be fairly idiosyncratic and obscure stuff. We used to think of hits as “for philistines,” and stuff like that. Ian’s music lent itself well to such attitudes. Rarely did he write a song about a woman or about his poor, lovesick heart. For someone of my disposition back then, there was little more tedious than hearing grown men pine for women or praise women or pretend to be over women. Dylan I tolerated because he found ways to make love seem imaginatively inspiring. Mostly though, love songs struck me as Hallmark material.

Anderson seemed much more willing to engage intellectually with the world-at-large. This wasn’t political stuff that told you what was right and wrong; it was more metaphysical, having to do with one’s orientation toward existence itself and the swindle of being a mere mortal. We all were educated to know about “gods” and “the one God” and, no matter how you entered that sweepstakes, you were drawing the short stick. Anderson liked pouring scorn on sacred cows and on the kinds of intellectual posturing that passes for “insight” in things like the music press or the media. Of course, his attitude earned him scorn for his own intellectual pretensions, but to a teen like me there wasn’t much comparison between writing for some rag and being able to stage and play the kinds of inventive and original tunes Ian came up with. Tull could be bluesy, and were very much so at first, then they became more folksy, then they evolved a heavier sound with jazzy arabesques and orchestral colorings, all led by Anderson’s trademark flute-playing and his whimsical vocals. He liked to add vowels to draw out words, stringing out the lyrics for effect, using cutting and ironic intonations that were pretty much beyond the means of any American vocalist and but rarely encountered—Ray Davies comes to mind—among British singers. If you cottoned to what Ian was on about you could feel his vocal performance as intimate and thrilling. If not, it sounded very off-putting, lacking in the typical sincerity of the pop performance.

Ironic toward most every “given” in life in those years, I loved Tull more than anything.

“Skating Away” is a good example, beginning with an observation like “You didn’t stand a chance, son, if your pants were undone.” Both vulgar in intent and cultured in delivery, the line was saying you have to be presentable at all costs, then remarks about being “bred for humanity and sold to society” plays upon a teen’s conviction that “humanity” was pretty awful company to keep and “society” merely the self-congratulatory name for the parts that try to distance us from animality. It was all a sham.

It’s hard to say what the “new day” means exactly, but its “thin ice” was clear enough. Whatever we might hope is changing with that “new,” we know that we’re lucky if we can glide along and not fall through.

Then there are little asides—Ian used asides almost like a Shakespearean clown at times—“As you push off from the shore / Won’t you turn your head once more / And make your peace with everyone?” The lines sounded almost conciliatory, like, maybe, in leaving, one could let bygones be bygones, then: “For those who choose to stay / Will live just one more day / To do the things they should’ve done.” At the time of this song, I had a read a lot about characters who regretted not doing something or not facing life with the right attitude. The idea of reconciliation here meets reappraisal and reckoning: one last chance to get it right.

Then Ian sort of sneers at prayer, and jests about the “Universal Mind” and references his own “Passion Play”—an album very much about the last things in a man’s life, or, more properly, the testing of the soul’s status after death. In other words, we’re hoping there’s some kind of plan for us after this farce is over. A Passion Play, besides taking its name from the dramatic re-enactments of the death of Christ and, sometimes, the harrowing of Hell—popular in the Middle Ages—is conceived as a mock-play (perhaps giving credence to the idea of a “rock opera” which was made popular by Jesus Christ Superstar), and Ian pays tribute to the concept with the concluding verse of “Skating Away”: “Well, do you ever get the feeling / That the story’s too damn real and / In the present tense / Or that everybody’s on the stage / And you’re the only person / Sitting in the audience?”

That sense of being both in the play and watching it did wonders for me, personally. Life was a pageant you couldn’t help but watch and couldn’t help being stuck in. And however much we might try to amuse ourselves at life’s expense—via literature and poetry and song—it’s still “too damn real.”

Ian sings all this with his usual tongue-in-cheek flourishes, and the music uses that lovely Olde English style acoustic sound that Tull exploited so well when wanted, making it all feel sort of quaint and accommodating. The song opens Side Two of the album with an extended bit of Ian making himself a spot of tea, rattling spoon on saucer and sipping and the like, in answer to the question closing Side One, “would you like another cup of tea, dear?” The instrumentation of the song is sparse but Barrie Barlowe’s percussion, and John Evan’s accordion especially, add much to the dynamic, with occasional power chords from Martin Barre. Anderson lets the flute add emphatic background coloring rather than any of his breathless solos, so that the general feel is genial to mask how probing the song aims to be, a kind of dark night of the soul set to a courtly dance measure.

One day you’ll wake up in the present day.

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