Yes, it’s nearly time to “wind up” the year and the series, and we’re still in that “vacation mode” that tends to stretch from Christmas eve to New Year’s Day. And last New Year’s Day was when this Song of the Day marathon began. Reaching “back down the years to the days of my youth,” as the song says, brings me to an album that scored big with me when I was at the age of 12, generally considered an impressionable age.
Jethro Tull’s Aqualung was one of the first albums I encountered that made me think about what it was trying to say. And that had something to do with the fact that, when you got to the end of the album, you heard today’s song as its final track. And, since it’s a song about taking exception with one’s teachers, it gave me pause. Coming to the end of my Catholic schooling—I graduated from it at 13—and having gone through Confirmation, the skeptic in me had about had it with “the faith,” but I wasn’t yet provoked by it. At 12, one is “confirmed” but it’s rather pro forma. Then one begins to think: what if I had just said “I’d rather not.”
Ian Anderson, lead singer and composer and flutist for Jethro Tull, composed a song that says what adolescents generally don’t say when preferring to demur about things their parents seem staunchly to believe but which they can’t say they share. Anderson doesn’t make this “non credam” a cry against parental expectations—he has other songs about that—but rather makes it about one person’s conscience when realizing that, with good conscience, going along with the flow on this religion thing is rather a blow to one’s sense of reality and values and one’s own intelligence.
He begins it with the Great Demur: When I was young and they packed me off to school / And taught me how not to play the game / I didn’t mind if they groomed me for success / Or if they said that I was just a fool / So I left there in the morning / With their God tucked underneath my arm / Their half-assed smiles and the book of rules. These are not cryptic lines and there’s no difficulty in getting his meaning. The attitude is sardonic. “I may be a fool but since those who think me a fool are themselves fools what does it matter?” Twice when singing the verse, Anderson throws in a little sound effect after “success”: the first time it’s a little chuckle, as though success is a silly idea, or at least that the idea of him succeeding in the way his teachers and parents expect is silly; the second time he gives a sound like “yuck” or a minor retching as though such success is a nauseating idea. It adds to the speaker’s comic, clowning attitude toward his younger self but even more so toward those who presumed to instruct him about what the nature of the world and God and his own best interests are.
So I asked this god a question / And by way of firm reply, he said / “I’m not the kind you have to wind up on Sunday” / So to my old headmaster and to anyone who cares / Before I’m through I’d like to say my prayers / I don’t believe you, you had the whole damn thing all wrong / He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sunday.”
I’ve chosen this song for the last Sunday of 2014 to honor Anderson’s point. The idea of “winding up” God on Sunday looks askance at the whole notion of ritualistic worship, of going to church because it is expected or obligatory, rather than as an act of actual devotion. I don’t know if Anderson wishes to demean organized religion in general, but he does want to make a point about how religious values are inculcated. To me, back then, his point was well-taken. What annoyed me most about church service was how distant it seemed from any sense of valuable “communion” (for lack of a better word) with whatever we conceive ultimate existence or meaning or being to be. God as anything more than a tired concept for a supernatural arbiter of behavior seemed to have fled the precincts of the church. I don't know why Anderson chose to put these ideas into a song at precisely that point in time (Tull's 4th album, released when Anderson turned 24), but it came along at the right time for me.
You can excommunicate me on the way to Sunday school / And have all the bishops harmonize these lines. It’s easy to imagine being drummed out of the congregation for professing one’s animosity toward its attenuated rituals; and it’s invigorating to say that the bishops themselves, if we’re being honest, might agree it’s all a bit of a sham.
Anderson’s singing seems tentative at times, as though he’s not sure how to put this. It’s a very theatrical performance, shading into self-parody for effect, and, it seems to me, stepping lightly around Dylan’s notion that “I became my enemy in the instant that I preached”—if one starts beating the pulpit to sound the battle charge against religion and priests and the like, one is rather tainted by the effort. It’s time for a clean break. Which I appreciated in the little sally, “to my old head-master.” It’s the classic gesture of the student finally wise enough to tell his teachers a thing or two.
The infectious hard rock part of the song finds Anderson taking exception with his own lineage in a manner that might recall Christ himself: How d’you dare to tell me / That I’m my father’s son / When that was just an accident of birth. Christ repudiated his earthly father in favor of his heavenly father. Anderson seems to repudiate genetic ties in favor of something more spiritual or at least affective. I’d rather look around me, compose a better song / ’Cause that’s the honest measure of my worth. Putting all his eggs in his creative bag, so to speak. And, assuming that his father would see devotion to songs and singing as childish, it’s a way of saying that there’s no point of comparison between himself and the old man.
All of which was fairly bracing to me at that age of leaving puberty for adolescence, making a leap into a position—about many things (as anyone who knows me would agree)—that can be summed up by: “I don’t believe you, you had the whole damn thing all wrong.”
Joyce’s Stephen professed his non serviam. Before I ever encountered that, I’d grasped the purpose of a non credam.