Writing with Jethro Tull

A teenager in the mid-1970s studying for his high-school exams, bulky old-fashioned headphones wrapped around his head and plugged into a cassette player, blocking out the noise of his three brothers and sister as he tries to concentrate. And what is he listening to? Jethro Tull.

That teenager was me, almost 40 30 years ago. Ever since, I have listened to Tull while writing. The first bars of a Tull album have the effect of switching my concentration on and the noise of the world around me off. Only then can I write, pretty much unbroken for the next forty to sixty minutes. The words flow, my fingers dance over the keyboard, and my mind seems to fire off all sorts of new ideas. Sometimes, if the mood takes me, I will listen to another artist or three, but when I really want to think and write, it is Tull to whom I turn.

How did it all begin? I came to Jethro Tull latish – in the mid to later 70s, after the flurry of early records when they established themselves as one of the great bands of the time. My first taste was a crackly cassette tape, recorded from one of those vinyl records, of Minstrel in the Gallery. From that moment I was hooked. I loved the way hard rock, classical and medieval strands wove themselves together in the music, especially since I’d been through rock and jazz guitar and was then deep into classical guitar on an old axe I’d picked up cheaply somewhere. But my family was poor, my father a clergyman on a subsistence wage with five children to feed. So I couldn’t rush off to buy a bunch of new records. We had an ancient mono record player that my father wouldn’t let us touch and I had a tinny cassette player. I had to save hard to afford even one new record or tape, so I picked up an original Living in the Past from the sister of a friend for a couple of dollars, handed other friends cassette tapes that had been wiped so they could record over them, and scoured the discount racks at record shops. Slowly I built up a collection.

The first new record I bought was Heavy Horses. It was really precious, a brand new album in a cover that wasn’t bent or stained and a record that wasn’t scratched. It is still one of my favourite albums even after 30 years. So the Tull I got to know first was the Tull of the later 70s and 80s. Apart from Heavy Horses, records like Stormwatch, Broadsword and the Beast, Songs from the Wood and even A were my staple. Later I picked up the earlier albums and by the time Crest of a Knave, Catfish Rising and Rock Island came out I could afford to buy them when new.

How did I come to listen while studying? In my high school years we lived in a house that was really too small for five kids, four of us teenagers. I had been in a room with two of my brothers, but eventually I squatted in the back veranda. I built a wall out of book-shelves, bits of wood and a curtain, moved my bed and small desk there and it became my bedroom. The catch was that my new ‘bedroom’ was right by the toilet. Every morning, one after another, my parents, three brothers, sister and whatever friend was staying the night would make their way to the toilet. I could tell who it was not merely by the sound of footsteps, but also by the distinct noise they made when pissing or crapping. So it went on all day. I was also hard by the loudly squeaking back door, which was really the main entry point for the house, next to the laundry and its perpetually running washing machine and my room opened out onto the kitchen, which was the social hub of the house. My brothers and sister would always have friends over, they would talk in the kitchen, use the toilet, and the back door would swing and squeak without ceasing. That’s why I soon got some old headphones, plugged them into my cassette player and listened to Tull while studying.

What do I write? Since those days I have been pretty much a full-time writer. And I write all sorts of things. It might be magazine articles on Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia or long-distance bicycle rides. Or it may be a short story on the end of the world from the point of view of religious crackpots. Lately I have been actively filling up my blog (stalinsmoustache.org). But I spend most of my time writing about Marxism and religion. When people ask me what I do, I say, ‘Oh, I write about religion and politics’. And they would immediately turn to another topic, or better still, someone more interesting. Not any more, since religion and geopolitics have become vitally important, and the rise of China has put Marxism and modern socialism firmly on the agenda.

For all that time Jethro Tull has been in the backdrop. If I need to think through a problem, I put on a quieter album. If I’ve been stalling and need to get writing, it’s always Crest of a Knave. If I need a long stretch of concentration, I listen to one of the concert albums. If the wind is up and the rain is pouring, Stormwatch or Broadsword and the Beast comes out. If I need to get fired up and write fast, it will be a good rock album like Aqualung, Catfish Rising, Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll, Minstrel in the Gallery or even Rock Island. Every now and then I begin with This Was and work my way through the whole collection, ending with some Youtube videos of the latest concert gigs. And unlike many a Tull fan, I thoroughly enjoy the latest offerings, such as Home Erraticus and Thick as a Brick 2.

I’ve been listening to Tull and writing for almost four decades. Who knows? Perhaps I will do so for another four.

JT

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