YouTube clip via FenderGibsonSounds
University of Melbourne, Victoria, 2017
I found the perfect combination of surreal beauty and elucidating meaning in the characters and melodies of the band Jethro Tull. Their songs were like no other I’d ever heard, full of stories so bizarre yet by the same token haunting in their honesty. From the tale of the young woman Pussywillow who longs more than anything to escape the dull monotony of her life to the deplorable Cross-eyed Mary who, despite her unpleasantness, is brought to life by Anderson’s vocals with such genuine humanity that I couldn’t help but weep for her.
Yet no character or story struck me quite as much as that of Aqualung, the homeless drifter who unbeknownst to himself would become the protagonist of one of Tull’s most iconic songs. My initial reaction to the opening lines of the piece was a mixture of bewilderment and disgust, astonished that anyone, let alone a talented lyricist like Anderson, would write such a pathetic and disgusting character into existence.
Sitting on a park bench
Eying little girls with bad intent
Snots running down his nose
Greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes.
The melody was jarring and dirty, pulling me into the world of Anderson’s creation against my every instinct. Aqualung was far too real for my liking, and I stopped the track within the first thirty seconds with a silent wish that I’d never encounter such an individual in reality. I didn’t realise it at the time, but my stark reaction was a testament to the lyrical genius of the band and the truth of the message behind the song.
My perspective was transformed one day as I walked from the bus stop to my university. The street I ambled along was a popular hangout for the homeless, the stench of unwashed clothes and tobacco infusing the chilly morning air. People passed with their heads buried in their phones, making every effort to ignore the suffering that lined the streets around them.
Two things were different for me however. The first is that I’d purchased a can of cola from a nearby vending machine and was unconsciously waving the five dollars of change I’d acquired in one hand as I walked along. The second was that I happened to make eye contact with a man who, for all intents and purposes, was the same fellow Anderson had written of in his song.
His clothes were unwashed, his face caked in grime and his teeth rotted. But despite all this, his eyes held such a vivid amalgam of kindness and sadness that I couldn’t help but slow beside him as he shifted his gaze between the cola in my right hand and the note in my left. In a slightly awkward gesture, I placed the can and note beside him as a few passers-by averted their eyes from their screens just long enough to shoot me a warning glare. ‘He’ll just spend that on drugs and smokes,’ was what they were thinking most probably.
Nevertheless, I left the money and drink there on the ground beside a worn ‘Change for Food’ sign and turned to leave as a croaking “Thank you” broke the silence behind me. He was smiling, and despite all the rot and grease and grime, it was the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen.
I realised a few things that day. The first was that we make deliberate attempts to ignore the suffering of the world, and perhaps even to characterize it as something monstrous and unpleasant. I think the primary reason for this is that our own lives are filled with such suffering that we believe to share in the tragedy of others would be a burden too great to bear.
I also learned that there are two aspects to people. The first is the way we are seen by the world, full of presuppositions that hold the power to radically condense the complexity of the human spirit into greasy fingers and shabby clothes. The second is the way we see the world, as a landscape of suffering and confusion in which we are constantly defined and boxed in by the conjectures of society.
I didn’t realise this completely until I listened to Jethro Tull’s Aqualung in full, the six minutes and forty seconds of song sweeping me into a torrent of emotion and harsh awakening that ended in a tearful realisation of my own prejudice and judgements.
Sun streaking cold, an old man wandering lonely
Taking time, the only way he knows…
Aqualung, my friend, don’t you start away uneasy
You poor old sod, you see it’s only me…
And you snatch your rattling last breaths
With deep-sea diver sounds
And the flowers bloom like
Madness in the spring