Monday, January 1, 2018

In Search of Gerald Bostock - Thick as a Brick

"Little Milton" was the nickname given to Gerald Bostock by the Village of St. Cleve after he received a poetry award (revoked) at eight years of age by the Society of Literary Advancement and Gestation. His parents, David and Daphne Bostock, however, lied about his age. Gerald was nine when he wrote Thick as a Brick and ten when he won. His local village newspaper, The St Cleve Chronicle & Linwell Advertiser, subsequently profiled Gerald and his family, printed the epic poem, and ran a scandalous story of how a local lassie blamed Gerald for getting her pregnant. Additionally, Gerald had his award rescinded after four psychiatrists, upon hearing his poem on the BBC, concluded it was the result of someone with "an unwholesome attitude towards life, his God and country." The comically severe traditionalism of their assessment highlights the poem's atmosphere of satire and self-ridicule. The St. Cleve states that some who were exposed to Bostock's work "felt that it was not one poem but a series of separate poems put together merely to appear impressive." The complaint feels arbitrary, as does most of the article, because disjointedness is precisely the point. 

At first listen, Jethro Tull's 44-minute musical arrangement for Thick as a Brick, may seem nothing more than a bizarre and incomprehensible string of miscellaneous, if interesting, lyrics. The first two segments of the poem introduce the theme of broad social criticism whose motive is hard to pinpoint. Here, the theme takes on a persona, an undefined you, who seems to be under fire from another conflicting persona, the speaker, I. This voice accuses you of being figuratively deaf, inattentive, and unthinking. The you entity is also isolated from the "wise men," intelligentsia and elites, who "don't know how it feels to be thick as a brick" — to be perceived as stupid and therefore alien. You are thus in a position to feel disillusioned with the system, yet you lack the awareness to understand exactly why. Old, fragile, "sand-castle virtues" are inevitably "swept away" to make space for new ones, but your hope and idealism surrounding this process are illusions: you believe you have new shoes, but they are actually "worn at the heels;" you believe you have a "suntan," but it's actually a burn. Beginning the poem with such an accusatory, critical representation of the social critic shows that the writer means to include himself in his broad assault on modern culture.

The next stanza introduces yet another undefined speaker who attributes little hope to the rebellion. This speaker says, "the love that I feel is so far away: I'm a bad dream that I just had today," evoking a distant romanticism unattainable due the speaker's own willful ignorance and traditionalism, suggested by the compulsion to look backward to "the days of my youth" and to "shut out the whole truth." At this point, it doesn’t matter who you and I are and this emotional exchange resonates both with the conservative who is sad to see the old ways dying off and with the powerless idealist who is misunderstood by the system. As the poem progresses, the roles of you and I will return periodically in even more indeterminate forms, integrating listener, author, and characters in a network of language essentially speaking in tongues. What has become the FM version of Thick as a Brick truly emphasizes Bostock's brilliance as a poet. Here we have, not a Shakespeare or a Milton, but a Blake, espousing his times while waxing timeless.

The lyrics and musical style of Thick as a Brick contribute to a sense of unified disjointedness, flitting from image to image, feeling to feeling, and sound to sound amidst the larger panoply of disaffection. An analysis of the remainder of the poem would only be served by a lengthy tome, and no justice can be had within the confines of this blog. Gerald Bostock, it is safe to say, was the genius of his age, at his age, whether that age is eight or ten or the 54 that Gerald is (?) today.

Interestingly, Ian Anderson’s 5th solo effort, Thick as a Brick 2; Whatever Happened to Gerald Bostock, speculates on "Little Milton’s" decline into five possible scenarios. Yet Anderson's follow-up is mere speculation. The question remains; where is the man child who set the literary world afire? Speculation abounds on the internet, from Facebook pages to listings on Linked In, but this writer's research has turned up no evidence that these are indeed the poet. AM's plea is this: If you’re out there, Gerald Bostock, email us!

While the brunt of this post is written tongue in check, the mystique of the LP and particularly of Gerald Bostick remain. Of the concept LP, Ian Anderson said, "Monty Python lampooned the British way of life, yet did it in such a way that made us all laugh while celebrating it. To me, that's what we as a band did on Thick As A Brick. We were spoofing the idea of the concept album, but in a fun way that didn't totally mock it." It has often been said that the catalyst for Thick As A Brick was its predecessor, 1971's Aqualung, which wrongly interpreted as a fully-blown conceptual piece. Myth has it that Anderson was put off by the misconception. "Not angry, no," he explained nearly four decades later. "I was actually mildly irritated and wryly amused. However much I insisted that Aqualung wasn't a concept album, the media still persisted in treating it as such. They seemed to believe the whole record was a major religious story. The truth was that three or four songs were linked by questioning the nature of religion. But the rest were stand-alone tracks. So, after this whole scenario, I thought, 'OK, we'll not only now do a real concept album, but we're going to make it the mother of all concept albums!'."

Whatever the concept, Anderson is correct in his self evaluation: "It's only in recent times that I've appreciated how complex the music is. I was only 24 at the time we began to put this together. Yet there are so many weird time changes and musical innovations on the album. I would never compare what we did back then to jazz rockers like Weather Report or the Mahavishnu Orchestra – they were really amazing musicians – but we were a little more sophisticated than the usual riff rockers you'd find on the scene." While the nitch that was so popular in the golden era of progressive rock was particularly timely and confined to those years between 1972 and 1976, Tull's Thick as a Brick stands on its own today, when similar offerings from bands like Renaissance and Camel, even Gentle Giant sound dated, even amidst the resurgence of this type of madrigal rock in bands like Midlake and The Decemberists.