“People Cling to God. You don’t have to cling to God,
you just have to say hello every morning when you wake up.”
– Ian Anderson
I was days before my 14thbirthday when Jethro Tull’s album Aqualung came out in 1971. Hearing the songs for the first time gave me full permission to raise my voice and question what I had been force fed about organized religion. The songs spoke to the religious ideals of high culture, which I felt as distrust.
I was convinced that most of what I felt while in the Catholic church had little or nothing to do with the existential expanse I called God. Similarly, the heart connection I felt with Jesus, or Mary was stronger when I was in nature, or reading books, than it was in church or catechism.
The lyrics of “My God,” “Wind-Up,” “Hymn 43” and “Wond’ring Aloud” lifted the floorboards of my spiritual stance. Each time I sang lines like
“If Jesus saves, well he better save himself, from the gory glory seekers, who use his name in death. Oh Jesus, save me!”
the lyrics became a mantra to free my questioning spirit into a newly constellating personal theology.
Anger turned into a new spiritual spaciousness. A long alchemical moment happened which soon led me to my lifelong relationship with Tibetan Buddhism and interfaith studies.
Aqualung’s Relevance to Ministry
As a graduating seminary/chaplaincy student I took a new interest in the album Aqualung. For almost two months straight I listened my old cassette recording of the album.
Even after going through two seminaries, healing my wounds of Christianity, becoming an ordained interfaith minister, and nesting with Buddhism for four decades, I still felt the same way I did as a kid: exhilarated, validated, present and spoken for physically, mentally, and spiritually.
After forty years, Aqualung stands as a teaching ripe for the times, but especially for students of chaplaincy and ministry. The staying power of such lyrics turns songs into teachings with a timeless message. The relevance of the study of the album Aqualung to modern ministry and chaplaincy lies in the existential space between the two sides of the album, which represents the sacred union of responsible social consciousness with a tried and true personal theology that can have many names.
In the past I primarily focused on the B. side of the album, which is thick with songs against organized religion. However, after getting into a few conversations with seminary graduates about to begin their ministries, I realized the importance of the A. side, with a focus on social injustices and misfits, or, as Ian Anderson says, “the human element of the soul.”
One of the goals of ministry and chaplaincy training is to develop “pastoral formation.” Pastoral formation shapes a different way of seeing the world. Core elements of pastoral care are prayer, acceptance, non- judgment, tolerance, compassion, witnessing, deep-listening and equally deep questioning, and finally, good self-care. Ideally, the process of this formation leads to an expanded sense of interconnectedness with all life.
Ministry also includes social justice work.
This has possibly never been truer than it is in these modern times. Ministers in training are required to learn how to help the oppressed, how to serve the difficult transitions forced by failing health or economic status, and finally, how to take care of themselves so that they don’t succumb to the escapes of addiction and negative behavior. Many clergymen and women adhere their spiritual service to specific sub-cultures of society such as the homeless, elderly, or imprisoned, doing so free from judgment and separation.
The commitment to serve the spiritual needs of sentient beings involves witnessing social injustice. The economic downturn of the last several years has forced the truth of impermanence on so many people who thought they “had it all.” In addition, the support system of organized religion as it has stood for hundreds of years is rapidly crumbling.
People are questioning. Aqualung is back, and is living behind the trash next to the house where Cross-Eyed Mary lives. He is the feared shadow of Bernie Madoff’s victims. He is the glorified alcoholic or drug addict appearing on nearly every popular cable TV show. You have to walk by him everyday, or maybe catch a glimpse of him in the mirror. Or are you he? Or her?
Listening to the songs of Aqualung in succession is a journey from Point A to Point B. similar to the Zen Ox-Herding pictures or the Stations of the Cross. It blurs the outer experience of listening with the inner experience of feeling. We are called to confront our own feelings about social outcasts and the sub-cultures they represent. Our ability to feel compassion is challenged by our judgment. Our faith is called out, stripped down and thrown back with stunningly stark reflections and distinctions between what we have been taught and what we really believe. The entire album, lyrics and musical arrangements together, force us, ready or not, to separate our own spiritual wheat from chaff. Pastoral formation meets Pastoral deconstruction.
Ian Anderson is quoted to say that the lyrics on the album are “just a bunch of songs”denying the fans and music magazines insistence that Aqualung is a “concept” album. He claims that the album came about because he realized he had written several songs that all mentioned God.The musical arrangements of the songs were all collaborations with the rest of the band, and that nothing was recorded or sung that the entire band didn’t agree fit.
The tonal quality of the songs on Aqualung aids in this shift as well. Musicologists have pointed out the musical tensions, comparisons and emotional qualities of each song.The link between sound and emotion is shaped and subtly guided using minor keys, chord progressions, recording technology and instruments. Ian’s use of the flute is an earmark of the Jethro Tull sound, but it is often the unexpected laughs, heavy guitar riffs or the use of studio tricks such as double-tracking vocals us into different emotional states. Ben Gerson, Rock in a review of the album for Rolling Stone magazine, writes “ The structure is constantly shifting. The gamut of religious experience is encompassed.”
Whether the album was conceived as a concept album or not is not as relevant to me as the fact that it was recorded in what had been a church!
The Six-Note Riff: A Symbol of the Journey Ahead
Integrating these connections between songs creates a visceral experience, starting with the very first six-note riff. In Tibetan Buddhist texts, the first mantra symbolically represents the entire teaching. The opening riff of the album could be called the seed syllable mantra containing the seeds of all the songs teachings yet ahead. The riff gives us a preview of the integration of duality into the rest of the album through its imagery, lyrics and musical construction. Allen Moore, in his book “Aqualung” likens this riff to a canvas that puts opposite colors of the color wheel together.The riff opens in G minor, and then switches to D flat major, on the far opposite spectrum of sound. This tonal quality tears us open to viscerally experience how much space we are asked to carve out to embrace this song. Not only that, but it also stands out in front of the song, like a large warning sign before dangerous terrain. We are duly cautioned for the journey ahead, our pilgrimage through the Journey of Aqualung.
The journey of Aqualung is a veritable bricolage of imagery. The album’s cover of a lecherous old man in a dirty overcoat leering against a wall is just the beginning. The alchemy of this album is hinted at here: is Aqualung a symbol, and if so of what and to whom? Is it possible he really IS a homeless man Ian’s wife photographed or even Ian himself as is stated on many fan pages?
Aqualung asks us to have tolerance. We want to turn away when we see the snot running down his nosebut we don’t. We do not judge his greasy fingers and shabby clothes, even if we think he is watching the pretty panties run. We feel some kind of connectedness with Aqualung. We don’t want him to turn away too easy. There might even be a recognition, a memory of passing on the street corner during a colder time, when the ice that clung to his beard…we even call out to him, maybe under our breath-“Hey Aqualung!”
These feelings continue as an undergirding, ready to be tested by Cross-Eyed Mary. Before we even see her, we know her. She is the girl who falls through the cracks of every era. She is the girl who might live in a foster home, or with an addicted parent, a child forced into being the adult of a broken family unit or no family unit at all. She is one of those girls who whore themselves out at an age most girls wouldn’t even be wearing makeup. As ministers and chaplains, our compassion is really tested here. “I have to minister to this little slut who is a regular at the abortionist (the Jack-Knife Barber)?The soundness and sanity of our own ethics are tested as we see Mary’s double standard of stealing from her rich johns but giving it so the poor ones could get along. We are confused because that could be compassion, too.
Love or Authentic Duty-a Ministerial Both/And?
Cheap Day Return finds us standing on the platform of a train station, after visiting our dying father. The suffering of our society has made itself known in the cycles of life and death and the unfairness of life. The Buddhist’s First Noble Truth of suffering looms large.Impermanence is everywhere. So is our commitment to be present and witness all the manifestations of that. Seeing your father won’t take long because he is in a coma, or wont remember you, so you are coming back on the same train in just a few hours. What is the train? Life or death? Both? Even if you could talk to your father, there is no way he would understand the details of your life now. So much of the story is gone. You feel love, but the obligation moves it from heart to head. You care enough to hope he is being treated well. You are human, and are also glad you got a Cheap Day Return. Sometimes self-care is hard to prioritize without guilt.
Inclusivity of All Our Selves
It is often challenging to integrate our pastoral identity with who we have known ourselves to be in the past. In the next three songs, identity and perspective fluctuate, as does time and location. A visual bricolage of an older English landscape takes over again in “Mother Goose”, as several characters walk by: Long John Silver, the bearded lady, laborers, Johnny Scarecrow, even the old lecher know as the Chicken Fancier. Who are these people? Beyond that, who knows all these people are us? The jet-black mac and the snowman remind us that good and evil exist in our world. Which is which?
All this visual input is a bit much. We want to go home to our lover. Wond’ring Aloud allows our melancholy reflections to touch upon the sadness of separation and the warmth of interconnectedness. For one instant while we smell toast and know that it is so warm that butter is melting over it, we feel the perfection of generosity at work. All can be well for now.
Now does not last long though. Soon we are thrust back into the world wrought with places, people and the elusive perfume of success against the stench of failure. “Up to Me” takes the whole spectrum of life and the multitude of perspective, and forces us to see that when we are pointing one finger out in blame, three are pointing back at ourselves. It is all up to you, whether you laugh too fast, ride in a Mercedes called the Silver Cloud, or eat hamburgers at the Wimpy Bar.
Side B., The Trinitarian Trainwreck
‘I’m not trying to convert people. I’m just having a go at the people who mislead me.’ -Ian Anderson
The jolt from “Up to Me” to “My God” is hard and sudden. Though the lyrics are angry, harsh, and accusatory. The music is leering and threatening. I remember, as a 14 year old, this is how it felt to have my internal spiritual floorboards pried off the born-into foundation I was force- fed. It hurts. It hurts to feel a living connection with God and the Divine but to be told that you are wrong-He or It can’t be your friend because you have to have fear. If you don’t fear God you are not one of God’s followers! The liberation that comes from questioning our core theology can be just as liberating as it is painful. The second side of Aqualung asks for an entire interior spiritual analysis that will ultimately lead to deeper integration of God. By stripping down the Christian belief system we all cut our religious teeth on, we are invited to create our own relationship, with our own words, feelings, alignments and beliefs. In this journey we will also come to appreciate other faith traditions by way of releasing God from the flypaper of Sunday to the freedom of co-existing in every day life. Ian Anderson implies an interfaith perspective when he was asked about My God:
My God is a blues for God, not in any way a condemnation of God. It is on his side; a lament there are so many different ways of worshipping God. He is a social crutch for so many. The thing I am against is that God is not a God in a spiritual sense but as a figurehead of religion. Poor God, and this is putting it frivolously, he must have a rotten time being God to his Roman Catholics, God to his Jews, God to his Protestants.”
The rest of the B. side of Aqualung makes mincemeat of organized religion, high society and religious education. In “Hymn 43”, Ian Anderson mocks the social function of religion with “if Jesus saves, well he’d better save himself, from the gory glory seekers, who use his name in death.” In “Wind Up” he stomps on the hermeneutical function of religion with “In your pomp and all of your glory, you’re a poorer, man than me.” In “My God” he shreds the concepts of Christ against culture with “You are the God of nothing if that’s all that you can see.” Back to “Hymn 43” he rips Christ of culture with “And the unsung Western hero killed an Indian or three, and made his way in Hollywood to set the white man free.”
Any seminarian worth their salt will question their own religion and the religions of others often and with honest inquiry. This can be a painful but exhilarating task. It can be the complete deconstruction of a plastic viewpoint that we were told was crystal. Churchianity is a parasite to the truth of every faith tradition. Even if we have full confidence in our chosen faith tradition, hearing someone else question it can spur an array of emotions, from anger, to mistrust, to doubt. The lyrics of “My God”, “Hymn 43” and “Wind Up” on the B. side of Aqualung exemplify this.
The album winds up with Wind Up. This song soothed me as a young teen. It made me feel ok about feeling God while at the beach on Tuesday or in the woods on Saturday. Of this song Ian says, “It is about my annoyance and beliefs to the contrary that children should be brought up to follow a religion that is essentially a belief of their parents. To me religion is something that you grow up to find in your own way.” He adds that he believes “faith is a form of goodness round which you relate your life.” This is a beautiful statement, and resonates with the main teaching of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, often quoted as saying that cultivating a good heart is at the core of all faith traditions.
When the album came out in 1971, times were tough. The Vietnam War was still going on. AIDS had not happened yet. An American had stood on the moon. The Summer of Love was over. No one knew if hating or loving was the right thing to do. Replacing these historical markers with markers from our current times, such as the economic downfall, the Occupy Movement, the continued decline of organized religion, terrorism, the first African American President, Global Warming…The times have not changed all that much in forty years. It is no wonder that the lyrics of Side B. have continued to affect change in the generations that followed its release. The album lends itself even to a possible interfaith and pluralism interpretation. Ian Anderson has poetically and gently stated bits and pieces of his theology in quotes here. After developing my own interfaith understanding, I can read “interfaith perspective” in many his quotes. Perhaps that is the painfully healing salve that Aqualung delivers; the salve for the times. Interfaith studies and understanding are gaining importance in the goal of world peace. Political and spiritual are directing their followers to learn interfaith tolerance. In this regard, the album’s message is as cyclical as the times.
The Journey of Aqualung leads us back to where we started, no matter where we started-back to waking up and saying good morning to whatever your platform of goodness stands on.
Eldridge, Roylston. “The Sounds Talk-In: Ian Anderson.” Sounds, March 27th, 1971.
Gerson, Ben. “Aqualung.” Rolling Stone, July 22, 1971.
Greene, Bob. “ We Imitate What We’re Supposed to Be.” Audience, May/June, 1971.
Gyatso, Tenzin, trans. The Four Noble Truths. London: Harper Collins 1997
Logan, Nick. “On the Side of God and the Outcast Tramp.” New Musical Express, March 27th, 1971.
Moore, Allan. Aqualung.New York: Continuum Publishing Group, 2004
Rinchen, Geshe Sonam, trans. The Six Perfections.Ithaca, NY; Snowlion Publications, 1998.
Anderson, Ian. My God, performed by Jethro Tull. Chrysalis Label, 1971
Logan, Nick. “On the Sid of God and the Outcast Tramp.” New Musical Express, March 27th, 1971.
Gerson, Ben. “Aqualung.” Rolling Stone, July 22, 1971.
Moore, Allan. Aqualung.New York: Continuum Publishing Group, 2004. 12
Anderson, Ian. Aqualung, performed by Jethro Tull. Chrysalis Label, 1971
Moore, Allan. Aqualung.(New York: Continuum Publishing Group, 2004.) 24
Gyatso, Tenzin, trans. “The Four Noble Truths. London: Harper Collins 1997.
Logan, Nick. “On the Side of God and the Outcast Tramp.” New Musical Express, March 27th, 1971.