Monday, November 13, 2006

Lessons from Jethro Tull

I was listening to Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” on my way home from the lake the other day. The CD was a Christmas present from my family last year, to replace the record (one of many—don’t get me started) I lost in Katrina. The last bars of the last song on the album (“Wind Up”) faded just as I was barreling across the spillway. Because I was cruising along at 85 (yes, I know the speed limit there is 60, but this is post-K Louisiana and I was in the slow lane), I just left it running, and was surprised to discover that they’d tacked several more songs and an interview with Ian Anderson onto the end of the CD.

My image of Ian Anderson—sixties-era firebreather with long flowing hair and beard—did a ground shift as I listened to this obviously brilliant, enviably articulate man with a precise Oxbridge accent discuss his art. I found some fascinating—and unexpected—similarities between the creative process of writing a novel and the process of creating an album. That such similarities exist might seem obvious to some, but although I love music, its creation—as in, the writing and arranging process—is for me something awe-inspiring and mystical. I might be able to sing a song or strum a guitar (barely), but I could no more write a song than I could flap my wings and fly.

Yet as I listened to Ian Anderson talk about his evolution as a musician, I found myself thinking, Yes, yes; that’s so true! I suppose it’s self-evident that in any creative endeavor, the more we practice our art, the more sophisticated and technically proficient we become, and the more complex the resultant product. And yet we often achieve something in our earlier works—not despite their naivety and simplicity, but BECAUSE of it—that can truly be grand. Something we later, ironically, become incapable of replicating.

Although he didn’t come right out and say it, it was obvious from the interview that the album had not lived up to the image of it that Ian Anderson first conceived. Perhaps some of his albums did live up to his expectations, or even exceeded them; I don’t know. But I know that I am always disappointed in my novels because they are never as good as I believe they should have been—as good as they could have been if I had managed to execute them as I envisioned them. I was left with the impression Anderson was somewhat bemused that Aqualung had become the group’s defining album, because he thought some of the things they’d done later were better. Which just goes to show that someone involved in a creative activity—whether a writer, musician, or artist—can never really judge his own work. In a technical sense, yes; but not in the sense of his works’ ability to move his audience. Not in the sense of his works’ emotional appeal.

After he finished speaking, I let the CD play again, listening to it with a new knowledge of what had gone into its making. I then had one of those timeshifts, in which I remembered with sudden clarity the person I was at the age of 17, when a bunch of us loaded into a friend’s VW van and drove up to Spokane, Washington, for a Jethro Tull concert. We’d arrived in the city early for some unrelated appointment, so with time to kill, we went to sit in the sun in front of the concert site and thus were nearly at the front of the line. There were no preassigned seats, and in the free-for-all after they opened the gates, we ended up in the second row. It was a magical concert—and obviously magical for Jethro Tull, as well, because they said they’d never had such a wonderful audience and came back and did their ENTIRE “Thick as a Brick” album as an encore.

As I turned off the I10 and headed toward home, past the FEMA trailers and hurricane-twisted signs still waiting to be replaced, I found myself smiling at the memory. I certainly never envisioned this life at the age of seventeen, never imagined I’d become a novelist, never imagined I’d still be listening to Jethro Tull all these years later and thinking about the creative process.