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Jethro Tull: Still loving the job

Anderson: 'They still haven't given me the gold watch and told me to go away'

Ian Anderson
Ian Anderson: The wild flute player has been the symbol of Jethro Tull since the band's formation 35 years ago.  

By Ed Payne

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (CNN) -- Mention Jethro Tull and colorful images -- a crazed, shaggy-haired minstrel, prancing about the stage on one foot, playing a flute -- immediately come to mind.

More than 20 years past the band's commercial heyday, co-founder Ian Anderson, 54, looks more like a crazed pirate than a crazed minstrel -- his head is wrapped in a bandanna -- but prowls the stage with his characteristic swagger, still often perched on a single leg.

Nearly 35 years after its formation in Luton, Bedfordshire, north of London, Tull's music defies absolute categorization, flowing freely between blues, folk, rock and jazz, often with a special sense of humor.

Anderson once quipped about Jethro Tull being a progressive-rock, art-rock, blues-rock, folk-rock or hard-rock band, depending on who was doing the labeling.

All of this acclaim has earned the band 11 gold and five platinum albums, while racking up 60 million in worldwide album sales. Tull classics like "Benefit," "Aqualung," "Thick as a Brick," and "Living in the Past" are staples in the racks at music stores. Tull also picked up a hard rock Grammy for the album "Crest of a Knave" in the late 1980s.

Jethro Tull tour dates 

Other than frontman Anderson, the band has featured a changing cast of characters through the years. No less than 21 people can claim to be current or former Tull bandmates.

For the summer of 2002, Tull is releasing a CD and DVD, both called "Living with the Past," and is on a 60-concert U.S. tour. CNN spoke with Anderson during a recent stop in Charlotte, North Carolina.

CNN: What is it you still find fun and fascinating about performing after all these years?

Ian Anderson: Bearing in mind that when I began with an interest in music at the age of 15 or 16 ... I wasn't listening to pop and rock music of the day. I was listening to blues and jazz. I never really had the fascination with music from the point of being a pop star or a rock star. It was really the idea of music as a career -- music as a working musician -- for life. It was more typical at the time to think of people having relatively long careers in jazz or blues or classical music or folk music, rather than just two or three years of being a pop success.

Looking back on it all this time later, it just seems my earlier anticipation is how it panned out. They still haven't given me the gold watch and told me to go away, so I still have my job. I'm very happy to have a job like this because they're not easy to find and ... for people in pop and rock music, not easy to keep once you've got it.

Jethro Tull
Anderson (center) is the only constant in the band. There are at least 21 people who can claim to be current or former Tull band members.  

CNN: What has contributed to Jethro Tull's longevity?

Anderson: It has to do with the elements of improvisation, which are present in most of our music. It is sometimes very structured music, quite organized in terms of detail and arrangement, but most of the time there's room for improvisation, so you never have two performances that are the same.

There's still quite a lot of looseness in the way that you can ... vary things a little bit here and there. I think we all recognize the degree to which we can wander off the strictly well-worn path without causing anyone else to have a train wreck behind us.

It really is a mixture of organized detailed music, carefully allowed for improvisation that keeps it quite in focus and interesting. Really, night after night, you do have the option to try a few different things.

CNN: You touched on it, but what is it that keeps you interested performing live after all these years?

Anderson: There's always the fascination of actually going out and chancing [yourself] in front of a real live audience, who can be, if they don't like you ... fairly merciless. There's a degree of good will that comes with being in a band for years and having some staunch and stalwart fans who support you, but even they can be quite unforgiving if you don't deliver the goods.

So there is that sense of self-testing all the time. Maybe some people get tired of it, but I suspect that the majority of people find it strangely addictive if they've been in the public eye for a while. It is, for most people, difficult to walk away until the bells of old age toll and dismiss you from your public stage.

Mick Jagger, doubtless, will be out strutting on the stage again later this year. One is reminded of Frank Sinatra -- [who] possibly overstayed his welcome by a few years -- to give of his best towards the end. But you can forgive him that because he just had to keep going out and trying again.

It's not about pride or obstinacy. It's just a compassion for the music and a passion for what you do and a passion for the mutual reward that you get when you play in front of an audience.

-- CNN Radio's John Lorinc contributed to this story.


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