Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Concert Flashback

Jethro Tull--"To Cry You A Song" (mp3)
Jethro Tull--"Bouree" (mp3)

Here's how the stars lined up this week: getting dragged onto Facebook which leads, of course, to getting in touch immediately with high school friends (because that's what you do on Facebook, isn't it, even though you had previously made no other effort to get in touch with them?) and then walking down the street to the "L" and hearing Jethro Tull come out of nowhere on my Ipod, all of these things have me reminiscing about one of those classic concert experiences that could only happen once. Because, sometimes, we're only that stupid once.

The band was Jethro Tull. The year was 1974. If you lived in Pittsburgh as a teenager at that time, Tull (that's all anybody ever called them) was one of the four cornerstones of your album collection. I'll leave the other three to your imagination or debate. By 1974, they were at their commercial peak since the album they were touring behind included radio hits "Bungle In The Jungle" and "Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of A New Day." But you know how it goes. Young males like me and my friends were going for the classic hits they had been spawning since about 1970: "Locomotive Breath," "Aqualung," "Teacher," portions of Thick as a Brick, etc.

Seven or eight of us decided to get tickets on a school night junior year. It was a big deal. I didn't start going to concerts until 10th grade, and this one was the first large scale, everybody's going kind of event. Deep Purple had been a good warm-up the year before, but this one was the social event. So we wanted to do it right.

I don't know who came up with the idea of shampoo bottles. To the teenage mind, it was pure genius. Everyone empty out one of their family's shampoo bottles, which they will wash out thoroughly and then fill with some kind of liquor stolen from their family's liquor supply. The shampoo bottle full of alcohol would then be smuggled into the concert in one of our socks underneath our bellbottom blue jeans. Brilliant, right?

For those with sharp tastebuds among our readership, I will add this slight negative: you can rinse and rinse and rinse a shampoo bottle over and over, but you will still not get the complete taste or smell of shampoo out of the bottle.

I will say this: in the long history of concerts that I've seen, the Jethro Tull concert was one of the very best. What I remember of it. A highly-skilled band, Tull still had a very obvious imbalance of power, as frontman Ian Anderson commanded the stage in ways that few others ever have. His combination of singing, acoustic guitar prowess, flute playing, and energetic gymnastics was so unique, so demanding of the eye, that there is no one even 35 years later that I can compare him to. Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips has some of the gimmicks and physicality, but not the musicianship. And the band behind him, especially Martin Barre on guitar, recreated the songs perfectly, but not quite the same as on the albums.

As time has not been kind to Jethro Tull (their music would seem to have almost no relevance today), it is perhaps hard to understand how Tull could draw from any part of their catalog, any excerpt of their concept albums, and still the audience knew what they were playing and was right with them. Of rock bands at that time, only Led Zeppelin could equal their ability to blend electric and acoustic offerings without affecting the pacing of the show. "Wond'ring Aloud" brought the same hyper-enthusiastic response as "Cross-Eyed Mary."

But at some point, we were beyond that, a result of the secret liquor that we were dumping into Cokes with abandon. Halfway through the concert we were completely blitzed, and keeping a fuzzy eye on each other was as much an activity as rocking to the incredible setlist. Ian Anderson had brought out a beach ball and was playing a trained seal during "Bungle In The Jungle," but I was wondering where my friend Bob was, he who always took things a bit farther than the rest of us.

The Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, where the concert was held, was a friend to us. We had been there many, many times for Penguins' hockey games, shelling out $2 for general admission seats. We had seen several concerts there by then as well, with more to follow--Traffic, Yes, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and a myriad of others--so I was covering familiar ground when I went looking for Bob. I found him slouched on the ground on the causway below the higher seats. Some of the concert officials were coming to check him out, so I picked him up by wrapping my arms around his abdomen and hauling him upwards. This caused all of the contents of his stomach to spew out, and I had a bit of job convincing the ushers that he was okay and that I could get him back to our seats.

First encore: "Thick As A Brick, edit 1" as it came to be called, which means the opening to the album, the appropriate beginning lines, "Really don't mind if you sit this one out...." Stunning. The acoustic guitar, the sonic highs and lows, the audience knowing every word, the Mt. Lebanon gang about played out at that point. Followed by the closer, "Locomotive Breath," built around one of the great rock riffs. At concert's end, with the lights up, we were all splayed in our seats, almost unable to move but knowing we had to find the trolley and ride it home back to our suburb.

And then, the smartass usher walks up to us, looks at the ground below us, and asks, "All right, who's been drinking all the shampoo?"

Ah, 1974. The memory of the Jethro Tull show is bittersweet because Bob is no longer with us, but I like to recall the bravado back then that would never allow us to believe that such a thing could be.

Jethro Tull is available at Itunes. Note: to our summer readers, we sure appreciate you being here with our regular readers on vacation.


Jason said...

Coming from a guy who has never done drugs, I don't even want to try to capture what kind of buzz you and your friends must have had by drinking some peach schnapps and shampoo or malt liqour and shampoo mixture.

Perhaps the kind that makes a Jethro Tull concert seem like the amongst the very best?

Daisy said...


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The Warden said...

Great traipse down rock memory lane. If you substituted Black Sabbath for the group (Aerosmith opening up) and Madison Square Garden 1973 for the venue, my crew's first major concert was an almost eerily similar experience! We had some great Central Park shows right about the same time, $1.50 for the mezzanine, a whopping $2.50 for primo seats, groups like Slade, Leslie West, Frampton, Hot Tuna, James Gang. We'd spring for the buck-50, then jump down about a 10-foot drop when the security guy wasn't looking! Ah, the '70s...