I made two important purchases in 1972. One was a cheap costume jewelry ring for my girlfriend, the other an even cheaper nosebleed-section seat at a rock and roll concert at Madison Square Garden in New York. I was 15 years old. The ring and girlfriend turned out to be not very important, but the concert I remember to this day.
Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick” tour seriously upped the ante for me when it came to rock and roll concerts. I know, I know: At 15, how high could the ante have been? But here’s the thing: Me and my friends went to a load of concerts back in the day. We lived in New York, after all, and New York in the '70s was all about the music. We went to a minimum of three or four shows a month, often a lot more than that — and there wasn’t a band that we didn’t catch multiple times, in multiple venues. We only spent our money on three things back then: music, weed and girls. In that order.
For me, Tull concerts always stood apart from the rest of the music scene. And it started that night at the Garden. I already owned all of the band’s records by the time "Thick as a Brick" came around. Crafted as an epic poem by a fictional 8-year-old English schoolboy named Gerald Bostock, the LP was Tull’s fifth release, but its first concept album.
The title track is the only “song” on the entire album, and if you’ve never seen the original LP, I’d strongly urge you to get your hands on a copy. Designed as a spoof on a small-town British newspaper, the multi-page foldout packaging is old-school, rock and roll cover design at its most fabulously clever and indulgent.
TAAB was released in March and made it to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200. I don't recall the date of the concert that I attended at the Garden, but I know for a fact that I knew the entire piece of music by heart by the time the lights went down and the joints were fired up. In this regard, I knew full well what to expect when Anderson and his bandmates arrived onto the stage that night: thought-provoking lyrics, complex musical arrangements, with a flute at the epicenter of all the action!
What I didn't expect was the extraordinarily high level of theatrics, intensity of showmanship or unbridled energy absolutely pulsing through the Garden. It was riveting. Jethro Tull was always lumped into the sub-genre of rock and roll known as progressive, along with bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and the Moody Blues. I’ve seen all of them live, many times in fact, and none ever had a front man like Tull had. I will catch some shit for saying this, I know. But Ian Anderson, admittedly and perpetually a far, far lesser draw, owned the stage as much as Jagger ever did. There, I said it.
After the TAAB concert let out, my friends and I rode the A train together back to our parents’ homes in Brooklyn. It was pretty clear that I wasn’t the only one who knew that things had changed that night. Nat, normally a pretty quiet guy, couldn’t stop dancing around the subway car the way Anderson had danced onstage all evening long; Frankie rolled up a Daily News into a cylinder and played it like a flute the entire ride home; all Greg and Vito could do, from Penn Station in Manhattan all the way to the Shepherd Avenue stop in East New York, was argue over which band was second to Jethro Tull when it came to live performance.
I don’t know how many Tull concerts I’ve been to since then, but for a few years it was at least a couple a year, all of them top-drawer. After the 1978 release of “Heavy Horses,” I lost track of the band and moved on to other things. I also moved away from New York and my childhood friends some time ago, and now live in a much smaller town with far fewer (and far smaller) music venues.
Just a couple of nights ago, 41 years after that concert in Madison Square Garden, I scored a single second-row center orchestra seat to an event here in town that I never imagined I would ever see. The exact billing was: “Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson Plays 'Thick as a Brick Parts 1 & 2.'” Anderson is in his late sixties now. He tours with a band that performs Jethro Tull music but the band is not Jethro Tull. Last year, he released a solo album called "Thick as a Brick 2," a sequel to the original. (I know. I hadn’t heard of it either.) In the current tour, the concerts are organized in two parts — first, the original TAAB is performed and then, after intermission, he plays Part 2.
As a showman and musician, Anderson hasn’t lost very much with age, at least not so that I could tell. His flute-playing the other night was as thrilling as ever, and he moved around the stage like a man half his age. If it hadn’t been for his balding, gray head, paunch in the belly and horribly straining voice at many of the more demanding vocal moments, I might have thought that I was sitting together with my old pals again — instead of alongside a bunch of gray-haired strangers, hundreds of miles away from home.
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