Aqualung Commentary: Tull Selection from “Rock Commentaries”

1971 Jethro Tull Aqualung  (Almo Music Corp)

Ian Anderson said, in Ann Arbor in 2010, that he is not “so miserable a bugger” as Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd, by which he means that he is not so dark and moody. In the flute of the woodland elfin type creature, the character of Ian Anderson brings a bit of light and color into the dark woods that makes his world a bit brighter than that explored by Floyd. He is the whistler, who brings us songs of a mysterious, high and beautiful nature akin to Shakespeare and the world of Irish folk creatures of the woods, the fairies and such. He is credited with introducing the flute to rock music. (Eric Burdon and War included flute in “Spill the Wine.”) His art is so profound that it makes us revisit the things said about the flute by the ancient Greeks, through its association with Dionysus and the Bacchae. Flute is not measured in the way that guitar is, and the notes slur or slide from one to another, and yet the piper can be measured. Orpheus too played a shepherd’s pipe, and the Dionysian of a later, corrupted age may have buried the Orphic flute from the mythic past of very ancient Greece. In the hands of Anderson, posing as a troubadour or bard from the Medieval woodlands, the flute expresses the heights of the spirit, and on occasion the spirited fife of Scottish troops, and of the Americans in the revolutionary war.

There is a secret to Ian Anderson, and it is that he is a schoolboy, that is, a scholar and a philosopher, so that his flute, through beauty calls us to the secret wisdom. Nature makes it possible for him to summon these woodland sprites in themes normally associated with Paganism. Sometimes, as in “Ring Out Solstice Bells,” his theme appears English pagan, but the suggestion is that it is folk, like what we find in Shakespeare, from a place that through a folk connection with nature, presents the human and fairy worlds in a way that fits in harmony with the Christian world. In truth this may be a more natural perception of this middle realm, rather than to coat these things with artificial Christian imagery. We think that in the highest place he is very Christian, maybe near to being a saint, though not as the world, or the Church of England, sees. He is also a poet and an artist, and makes a character that is sacred and enigmatic, wise and playful, bringing into the river of the hippie movement an independent tributary like that of the Renaissance festivals that is contemporary, yet through the mists of the English Countryside connected to things very ancient.

   Aqualung the album is like Ziggy Stardust one of the perfect or complete albums, a “work of art,” with nearly every song receiving the recognition of airplay: The album has two very different sides, the latter astonishingly theological for a rock album, the first side is the famous classic perfect album side of Aqualung.

Aqualung the song is a snapshot of an old man living and dying on the streets. Profoundly, it is his death that is occurring right at the lines “and the flowers bloom like madness in the spring.” The first of its three parts introduce us to the character and his wretched street life:

Sitting on the park bench

eying little girls with bad intent.

Snot is running down his nose

greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes.

(Oh, Aqualung)

Drying in the cold sun

Watching as the frilly panties run.

Hey Aqualung

Feeling like a dead duck

spitting out pieces of his broken luck.

Peering out from his misery at the beautiful young things of the world he cannot be a part of, he would be known as an old pedophile, and seems to spend time drying in the sun where he can see such things. The unfulfilled longing of his life is underlined by his tormented pleasure in seeing the beautiful things of the world. At the end of his life, here, he is spitting out pieces of his broken luck like shedding the teeth he doesn’t need anymore anyway. The description of his life on the city streets in the winter continues in the second third:

Sun streaking cold

an old man wand’ring lonely

Taking time

the only way he knows.

Leg hurting bad,

as he bends to pick a dog end

He goes down to the bog and warms his feet.

Feeling alone

the army’s up the road

salvation a-la-mode and

a cup of tea.

He is wandering alone on a sunny winter day, killing time. His leg hurts as he bends down to pick up a cigarette butt. (I was glad to learn that he had not bent to kick his dog, increasing the portrait of his wretchedness with meanness.) His loneliness is punctuated by trips to the Salvation Army warming center, poetically and sarcastically called “salvation a-la mode.” He is then startled by a visitor, the poet:

Aqualung my friend

don’t start away uneasy

you poor old sod

you see its only me.

I cannot suppress the enchanting suspicion that what we are being shown is the songwriter himself confronting himself as an old man. The picture on the album supports this interpretation, apparently showing Ian Anderson with his dog living on the street on one side, and the famous picture of Aqualung on the other. What occurs then in the final third is, again profoundly, that the poet of the song, Ian Anderson, is mentally transported, in the poem, to see himself in the future on the day of his own death. Aqualung, my friend, don’t you start away uneasy. You poor old sod, you see its only me.” While a simpler explanation would be simply that the poet knows or has befriended such an old street person, one is enchanted by the former possibility. The old man starts away uneasy, as he would at the visitation of a presence, or the presence of himself as a young man visiting from the past. The visitor has come to reconcile him to his impending death:

Do you still remember

December’s foggy freeze

When the ice that

clings on to your beard is

screaming agony.

And you snatch your rattling last breaths

with deep sea diver sounds,

and the flowers bloom like madness in the spring.

The visitor asks the old man if he remembers the agony of winter, as he suffered in years past, in agony from the ice that clings to his beard. On sunny winter days, the snot of those exposed is wiped with greasy hands on shabby clothes. He asks the old man if he remembers the pain of winter in order to reconcile him to death, which is the purpose of the visitation. The old man then is shown from inside, hearing his own labored breath like a deep sea diver inside a diving bell, before the flowers bloom like madness in the spring,. A movie called the Diving Bell and the Butterfly conveys a similar image, of a former playboy and fashion magazine owner who was suddenly paralyzed, trapped inside his own body. In the last year of his life, like that, he wrote the movie. He too was able to do nothing but admire the French actresses who come as nurses to teach him to communicate. This last scene, of breathing as though in a diving bell, seems to be where the character gets his name under water breather, or Aqualung. He is similarly like one trapped in his body, isolated by his age and wretchedness, walled off from the rest of the world.

Cross Eyed Mary

Next, we are shown the life of one of the girls our pedophilic old fellow was watching through the railing as their frilly panties ran while they were playing, and the rich man of fortune, who in old age can have what the old street man Aqualung can only lust after. With Aqualung in mind, the song asks:

Who would be a poor man, a beggar man, a thief

if he had a rich man in his hand?

Who would steal the candy from a laughing baby’s mouth

if he could take it from the money man?

How is Aqualung different and worse than the rich man who whores young women like cross eyed Mary, and in a manner that is not even technically prostitution?

Cross eyed Mary

goes jumping in again

She signs no contract

but she always plays the game

Dines in Hampstead village on expense accounted gruel

And the Jack-knife barber

drops her off at school.

The old rich lecher is called a jackknife barber in apparent reference to his mode of lovemaking. His lechery makes him a hack, in contrast with an expert hairstylist, or a lover making love. His victim does not care, as she is not a lover anyway. Having been dropped off at school by her elderly friend with the expense account, she is shown:

Laughing in the playground

gets no kicks from little boys:

would rather make it with a leching grey.

Or maybe her attention is drawn by Aqualung

who watches through the railings as they play.

The themes are drawn together when we see the old lecher broken in fortune looking through the railings of the schoolyard at Cross-Eyed Mary, who might even notice him looking. And she might even pay attention to him in the right circumstance, for

Cross eyed Mary

finds it hard to get along.

She’s a poor man’s rich girl

and she’ll do it for a song.

She’s a rich man stealer

but her favor’s good and strong:

She’s the Robin Hood of Highgate

helps the poor man get along.

It may become clear that he speaks of a college age woman in the veiled terms of pedophilia. Her “favor” is her face, which is not called beautiful, but “good” and “strong.” But we know the hopes of Aqualung are fantasy, and she is like Robin Hood only in that she steals from the rich man, giving only to those poor in money, not in youth.

Cheap Day Return

On Preston platform

do your soft shoe shuffle dance.

Brush away the cigarette ash that’s

falling down your pants.

And then you sadly wonder

does the nurse treat your old man the way she should.

She made you tea, asked for your autograph

What a laugh.

The strange and brief song depicts an old performer in a mental institution or an old folks home, and one wonders what “Preston platform” one of the well known places around London, is. The song may be a crucial clue to the connection between the old man and the poet. “you sadly wonder if the nurse treats your old man the way she should.” He is probably visiting his father, who is in an old folk’s home or asylum lusting after the nurses. Hence, She asks for his autograph. The origin of this song may be similar to the song “Nursey,” written when his father was dying and he journeyed north from Ireland to visit him for the last time. The experience may have led him to see himself as the old rock star Aqualung. A second possibility, that would tie the album together as a whole, is that Aqualung is his father, who was dying on the street when Ian went and got him and put him in a nursing home.

Mother Goose

The poem is autobiographical, switching the scene to the artist as a young schoolboy. He turns mother goose loose, which means he liberated poetry. The foreign student thinks Piccadilly Circus is really a circus with animals. He sees schoolgirls in some common grief, and the schoolgirls, college students, do not realize Ian is a student, probably because, as a bohemian-looking fellow he does not look like he belongs at the school.

The bearded lady is the school authority. Then a friend called the chicken-fancier came by to play, the one with the red beard and the weird sister who is a truck driver (the English “lorry”). After this, he enjoys golfing at the putting green, where nearby laborers are digging to earn their wage. His identity through all this remains secret, as he doesn’t think they know that he is “Long John Silver,” or Ian Anderson. The last impression is the seeing of one called “Johnny scarecrow,” apparently a policeman who makes his rounds in a black coat, the British “mac” that looks like it was stolen from a snowman. The song shows, then, the marvel of the poet wandering around campus with his secret identity, as the one who set the fairy tales free, or the new British poet.

Wondering Aloud

This profoundly beautiful little song is a snapshot of the blissful time of new love and new lovers, and might be included among the twenty or so best love songs of all time. The lovers, including the poet, have awakened together after becoming lovers the night previous:

Wondering aloud

how we feel today.

Last night sipped the sunset,

my hand in her hair.

As if out of nowhere, the song instantly breaks through to the meaning of love, which the poet explains as follows:

We are our own saviors

as we start both our hearts beating life

into each other.

The statement is clear especially if we recall the theological theme of side two of the album. If there is a new theological claim of the romantic poets, it is that love is to the heart of the soul as salvation is to the highest part, the mind or spirit, and may set him off on this path. He has seen that love is like salvation, and the two are as if revived in soul as they would be in body if their hearts literally beat life into one another. The lines are inspired, as they are written in the harmony of the analogy between love and the image of God that is man. At the same time, and in order to discover this, the insight is set in contrast to the conventional teaching of salvation.

The final set of verses is a beautiful picture of the sweet sensuality of new love, and the perception of the beauty of the one he loves, in light of the uncertainty of the future:

Wondering aloud

will the years treat us well?

As she floats in the kitchen,

I’m tasting the smell

of toast as the butter runs

then she comes, spilling crumbs on the bed

and I shake my head.

And its only the giving that makes you

What you are.

The final lines mean to speak of “what you are” in the sense of what we truly are, or the immortal soul, and so connect with what was said toward the middle of the poem about salvation. The beating life of one heart into another is another way of saying the same thing, as was also said in another way by Lennon, that “In the end, the love you take / is equal to the love you make.” Anderson’s line is clearer, simpler, and more beautiful. The same is an elementary truth among the teachings of Jesus, that whatever we do to our brother we do to him, and the measure you give is the measure you will receive. We are forgiven only when we forgive (Matthew 25:40; 7:14; 7:1-2). This is the basis of the golden rule: our harming or benefiting one another is in truth our harming and benefiting of our true selves, the selves that leave here after death if anything does. We would live best in the meantime in the same way. What we are is made up of the giving, written in the book of life in the promise that the immortal life lived in this world does not pass away. This is only the obverse of the strange truth about human life, that what we do to others is in truth done to us. This is revealed to the poet in the beautiful scenes of love.

“Up to Me” may describe the breakup of the very same love that allowed him to see the truth, demonstrating that love is mortal. The relation flies apart at a wimpy bar after they had gone out to a movie, and results in Ian cracking some other guy, “Cousin Jack” who apparently has had the girl, since it was one up to him, meaning both a matter of his own choice without this woman and a point scored, or a thing done correctly to one’s credit. Other things that are of his own choice now are whether he buys a silver cloud to ride, how he packs his gear or wears his trouser cuffs, in bell-bottoms. He then sees her again in the winter, when she was riding by on her bicycle and had a flat tire, and he sees her smoking and looking up at him, as though looking up to him, for help.

The last two verses are difficult to read in connection with the whole, but he switches from this scene in which the one he loved is looking up at him from her broken bicycle in the winter to a man telling lying tales in a bar: And if it pleases me, I’ll put one on you, man, when the copper fades away, or when he’s running low on drinking money. It is a tale because he really loved her, and his attitude of “it was up to me” is a way of balming the wound of love, by telling himself that he is pleased with his liberty. The seasons change, and the “day-glo pirate” i.e., himself as Long John Silver the Bohemian campus poet, sinks in the end. He laughed too fast because he loved her, and we now understand the meaning of the laughter that opens the song. He ends the song by returning himself to the balm of self delusion that he is most satisfied with his liberty, writing, “well if I laughed a bit too fast / It was up to me.” He has escaped love with his liberty intact.

Side Two

Three of the five songs on the second side are theological, describing the poet in his regard for the Church of England and conventional religion. Intermixed are two more songs that may be about Aqualung. Slipstream seems to describe a fellow who has not money to pay his bar tab, and Locomotive breath to describe the tragic destruction of a person’s human life, such as might lead someone to die a lonely man on the street, like Aqualung. These would be connected if the poet responding to religion were the same as Long John Silver, and the tragedy of Locomotive breath were the catastrophic destruction of the very same love described on side one, and Aqualung the projection of the poet to seeing himself in the future. This identity may be impossible for other reasons, leading to the conclusion that Locomotive Breath was written about his father. If Aqualung were also his father, who similarly lusts after the nurse, the two sides would fit together, as they do even if it is himself seen in the future, as the father shows him what might become of himself. The father imago binds all the songs on the Album, as our struggles with ancestral custom are related to our struggles with our fathers.

My God

My God demonstrates the use of the rock mode to carry a theme of rebellion against religious convention, a rare example of a “Christian” rock song that is “authentic” or actually works as a piece of music. The poet speaks in defense of the Christ against the people and religion as it appears in the world, and so speaks like a prophet:

People, what have you done?

Locked him in his golden cage.

Made him bend to your religion

him resurrected from the grave.

he is the god of nothing

if that’s all that you can see

You are the god of everything

He’s a inside you and me.

So lean upon him gently

And don’t call on him to save

You from your social graces

and the sins you wish to used to? waive.

This is something different from the turning of the Beatles, Townsend and others to the eastern gurus as teachers. The song is addressed to the people, asking us what we have we done. As usual the people have sought to have the divine serve them, rather than the other way around, as when we pray for our own good fortune. We have made the one resurrected from the grave bend to our religion, rather than the other way around, and our religion, with its beautiful ornaments, becomes a golden cage in which to keep our god trapped like a bird. He is the god of nothing, if the people can only see nothing. The line “You are the god of everything / He’s inside you and me” might be thought to be like the new age claim that we are all gods and goddesses, but the truth may be that this line identifies the poet as a Christian in truth. When the Pharisees were about to stone Jesus for the blasphemy of saying that he is the son of God, he asks them: “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said , you are gods?’ If he called them gods to whom the word of god came…” (John 10: 34-35). Our divinity is that he is inside us, something as he said “the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” (John 10:38). What it is that Jesus said he was is very difficult, but, as Jefferson intimates, he does not require us to know the mystery of the trinity, though it may be important not to think of it in certain ways that are wrong. The Bohemian appearance of the rock troubadour hides the reality of the divine life of the soul, and it is on this life and those who live it that the strength of political organizations depends. Once again we see an instance of the despised liberty of nature appearing criminal to the world, yet being in truth the source of what sustains the church or civilization.

We are asked, therefore, to “lean upon him gently,” rather than “call on him to save” us from social graces and attempt to use the forgiveness offered to “waive” sins. Repentance having a nature, is of course something different, a turning away from our sins, rather than the use on Sunday of a loophole for the past and next Saturday.

The song continues:

The bloody church of England

in chains of history

requests your earthly presence

at the vicarage for tea.

And the graven image you know who

with his plastic crucifix

confuses me as to who and where and why

as to how he gets his kicks.

Confessing to the endless sin

the endless whining sounds

You’ll be praying till next Thursday to

all the Gods that you can count.

We are reminded of the blood on the hands of the church of England, contrasted with the veneer of church social events. Conventional religion is accused of idolatry, and again the voice of the poet is like the prophets, or the ongoing Jewish criticism of the Temple. The plastic crucifix confuses the people, and it would seem that if religious institutions are good at any work, it should, in addition to charity and hospitals, the presentation to the people of the simplicity of faith, for example when the people go to marry, rather than doctrinal confusion. The question is raised as to how the “you know who” fellow gets his kicks,” a possible allusion to the problem of imposing celibacy on those not called to celibacy. If so, this question is connected to the confession of the sins of the people by the priest, and whether the priests are not often corrupted by hearing confessions.

“Till next Thursday” reminds one of the objection of Paul to the Galatians (4:10), “You observe days, and months, and seasons and years!…I am afraid I have labored over you in vain.” In the accusation of idolatry, one would not expect “Gods” to be capitalized. That it is capitalized, if it is intentional, it may mean something like this: that we have made of the one God something that is more like one of the many gods, and even put him over each of our concerns. Had it been a small case g, one would think of the veneration of saints, often questioned by Protestants of Catholics, as idolatrous.

“Hymn 43” continues the prophetic theme, looking across the Atlantic, from Britain to America:

Oh Father high in heaven smile down upon your son

who’s busy with his money games his women and his gun.

Oh, Jesus save me

And the unsung Western hero, he killed an Indian or three

and then he made his name in Hollywood to set the white man free.

If Jesus saves well he’d better save himself

from the gory glory seekers who use his name in death

(Oh, Jesus save me)


I saw him in the city and on the mountains of the moon

his cross was rather bloody, and he could hardly roll his stone.

The prophetic poet calls God to look upon his son, man. He calls man to consider himself in the view of the Most High. Man is about his usual thing, concerned with money schemes, women and guns. “Oh, Jesus save me,” sung but not written on the sleeve, means both to criticize the call of the people to Jesus for salvation while they are doing such things and at the same time to jokingly ask Jesus to save him, the poet, from witnessing the absurdity of man in their religiosity. Attention is directed to the wars of the whites and Indians in America, in the spread of “Christian” civilization.

So, when the poet saw him, Jesus, in the city and on the mountains of the moon, his cross was bloody, since whatever we do to each of our brothers, we do to him. He barely had the strength to “roll away the stone,” which is what he did, apparently, at the Resurrection.

Well the lush separation enfolds you

And the products of wealth

push you along the bow wave

Of their spiritless undying selves.

And you press on God’s waiter your last dime

As he hands you the bill.

And you spin in the slipstream

Tideless, unreasoning

paddle right out of the mess.

This is a difficult song to read and so we will begin from the end. A Slipstream is a whirlpool. The image is one of a fellow in a rowboat paddling clear of a whirlpool. Does he give an usher a tithe and receive a church bulletin? He won’t have money to pay his bill, if it is a restaurant. Money connects the two stanza. The first image is of the rowboat, riding on the bow wave of the larger ship of the spiritless immortals. The wave is the products of wealth. And is the lush separation then that of the surface of the water that separates as the worldly church moves through time and the world?

“Locomotive Breath” is the key. It describes a very common personal tragedy, and yet one wonders if it does not also describe the irreversible course of western civilization, heading toward catastrophe with no way to slow down.

In the shuffling madness

of a locomotive breath

runs the all-time loser headlong to his death.

He feels the piston scraping

steam breaking on his brow

old Charlie stole the handle and

the train won’t stop going

no way to slow down

He sees his children jump off

at stations one by one.

His woman and his best friend

in bed and having fun.

Crawling down the corridor

on his hands and knees

old Charlie stole the handle

and the train it won’t stop going

no way to slow down.

The scene is of a man racing through life like a locomotive, puffing about like a train with great momentum. It may be that his life flashes before his eyes after he reached for the breaks and they were not there. His children leave him one by one, and then he finds his wife in bed with his friend, thus losing both of these at once, like Jim Croce in “Operator.” His life falls apart as if with the same unalterable momentum with which he raced through life. This often happens in lives driven like trains, since the home life is neglected, or not set right from the start. It is as though the handle on the break of the train had been stolen, and there is no way to slow the unavoidable arrival of life’s train wreck.

The final verse is very strange and difficult:

He hears the silence howling

catches angels as they fall.

And the all time winner

has got him by the balls

he picks up Gideon’s Bible

open at page one

It said God he stole the handle and

the train it won’t stop going

no way to slow down.

This is the picture of his train wreck, and again it may be of the sort that led Aqualung and many others to lives on the street because they have lost their families. It is as though he were alone and going mad, since he “hears the silence howling.” His own mind or his regrets make loud his silence. In this silence, he “catches angels as they fall.” Does this mean that he takes the part of fallen angels, or gives way to the bad spirits that would consume ones age in the misery of vengeful thoughts? Something like that seems to be in there. For when he picks up Gideon’s Bible, the one the group called Gideons leaves in hotels and Salvation Armies, he understands the beginning to mean that God, apparently by making man sinful, or susceptible to the fall, has stolen the break. As Paul indicates, this is like the clay saying to the potter “why have you made me thus?” (Romans 9:20-21). Still one wonders that the potter should say to the clay “Why are you thus made?” In the end, though, there is more to man than the created part, the part that is as if molded by the potter (John 1:13; 3:6). Our lives are not necessarily, just usually, like trains headed for disaster when someone has stolen the handle to the brakes. Yet this is the train wreck that lands him in the hospital in Cheap Day Return, and that the poet may foresee leading him to his own death on the street as Aqualung.

The final song on the Album is really in a way the first song, showing what has been going on all along from the beginning:

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 under my arm

Their half-assed smiles and the book of rules.

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 Sundays.

While the poet was playing Long John Silver among the schoolgirls and enjoying the secret of his true identity among the craftsmen on campus, he was inwardly tormented by the artificiality of conventional religion at the aristocratic English school. When he left, scripture and rules in hand, he asked God a question directly, and received the firm reply that he is not the kind you have to wind up on Sunday. This comes to him surely, in what way he does not say, as the word of the Lord.

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 Sundays.

Well you can excommunicate me on my way to Sunday school

and have all the bishops harmonize these lines

how do you dare to tell me that I’m my father’s son

when that was just an accident of birth.

I’d rather look around me, compose a better song

‘cause that’s the honest measure of my worth.

In your pomp and all your glory you’re a poorer man than me,

as you lick the boots of death borne out of fear.

He foresees being excommunicated for his heretical teaching that religion is real all week long, and suggests that the bishops harmonize his lines, based on the new revelation. The new revelation is that we are not the sons of our earthly fathers. Like what tradition one happens to be born in, these are accidents of birth. The truth, of the divine origin of our true selves, is hidden by the lie that we are sons of a certain family or the creatures of any created religious custom. In place of the lie of custom and its fundamental principle, he will compose his own, better song, and this, rather than how he sings their song, is the honest measure of his worth. They are more impoverished than he, a poor man not groomed by the institution for success. He concludes his understanding of the religion that it is at root fear inspired, and leads to death, in the spiritual sense.

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