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Ian Anderson's lyrics for Jethro Tull's 'A Passion Play

Back to Act One

Mark Ridley, Derek Small, Max Quad, Ben Rossington, John Tetrad



Scene: a small but comfortable theatre with a cinema screen - the next morning.

The next section describes Ronnie being judged, his life being reviewed to determine whether he deserves to spend the afterlife in heaven or Hell.
A central point is to consider the identity and role of the judges. The lines are in the second-person (i.e. 'you'), but spoken by a 'we', possibly represented by Peter Dejour, the duty receptionist of the afterlife).

  • Are the 'we' other souls in limbo, meaning that Ronnie is to be judged by his peers?
  • Are they the various aspects of his own personality, meaning that a mortal's position in the afterlife is determined by his/her own conscience?
  • Are they the assembled angels and demons? Personally, I don't think so. The other mentions of angels in the Play seem to characterise them as higher beings, not concerned with the mundanities of mortal life. The 'sweetly-scented angel' of A.1, s.2 is compassionate, not judgmental, whilst the angels mentioned in A.3, s.1 are slightly remote (again compassionate) beings seen from a distance.


All along the icy wastes there are faces smiling in the gloom. 'Icy wastes' might suggest one of Dante's circles of Hell, but Ronnie hasn't been consigned to Heaven or Hell yet, so I doubt the Dante reference, if indeed valid at all, is any more than atmosphere.
Roll up roll down,... A carnival barker would invite a crowd to "Roll up! Roll up!" for a show. Ian modifies this to 'roll down', but I think this is one of the duality phrases that permeate the Play and Chateau material, and mightn't have direct relevance.
Jeff Chittick suggests an alternative meaning: that Ronnie's sleeve is rolled up, a drug is administered, the sleeve is rolled back down, and Ronnie becomes 'unwound'. Interesting idea, but given Ian's well-established opinion of drug use, unlikely.
.... Feeling unwound? Four potential meanings:
Dejour ask if Ronnie is relaxed, unstressed and ready to proceed.
Dejour sympathetically asks if Ronnie is feeling dissociated, lost, scared: 'falling apart'.
Dejour asks whether Ronnie has fully absorbed the fact that he's dead, and has moved-on from his corpse and its metaphorical 'winding-sheet'.
Dejour checks whether Ronnie has been freed from his leather bindings (if that interpretation of 'leather bound' was correct...).
   Step into the viewing room. The 'judges' and Ronnie assemble in a cinema, to view the film of his life.
The cameras were all around.
   We've got you taped you're in the play.
All the acts of Ronnie's life were monitored, for future judgement.
Here's your I.D. (Ideal for identifying one and all.)  
Invest your life in the memory bank The 'memory bank' being both a database of his past actions, and a financial metaphor; the record of Ronnie's life is represented as a bank statement, itemising his changing levels of 'moral solvency' and overdraft.
   ours the interest and we thank you.
The ice-cream lady wet her drawers,
   to see you in the Passion Play.
Assuming the judges are souls in limbo, the primary excitement in their existence is viewing the events and indiscretions of mortal life.
Instrumental They watch the film.
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Take the prize for instant pleasure, At first glance, Ronnie seems to have led a worthy life.
   captain of the cricket team i.e. an active part of cosy middle-class society (what could be more archetypally middle-English than cricket?), with creditable competitiveness and leadership skills.
public speaking in all weathers, Another indicator of social approval; as Andy Jackson says: "... an art highly prized by middle-class businessmen in order to impress and woo other pin-striped tigers"
'In all weathers' may refer to the business or financial climate, further implying that Ronnie had been able to calmly retain command in crises as well as more successful times.
   a knighthood from a queen. Note that it's unlikely he had a literal knighthood - that might damage the concept of Ronnie as 'everyman'. The 'knighthood' is from a queen, not the Queen, suggesting a reward (marriage?) from a woman important to him, if not necessarily to wider society.
All your best friends' telephones never cooled
   from the heat of your hand.
He was popular, with several close friends with whom he spoke on a daily basis ('...telephones never cooled...' because of constant use).
Alternatively, close friends who let him use their resources (such as letting him use their telephones). Andy Jackson suggests this in the light of stories of Ian's 'borrowing' friends' cigarettes in the poverty-stricken days of the John Evan Band. Andy: "I think we have a template for Ronnie's character-flaw at this point in the Play. He's taking advantage of others' generosity - not in a malicious way, but perhaps justifying his actions to suit himself rather than others."
There's a line in a front-page story, Up to now, we've been told the main points about Ronnie's life; the 'front page story', banner headlines and all (the metaphor is reminiscent of TAAB's newspaper cover; but even though, as Kurt Stenzel points out, a front page story of the original St. Cleve Chronicle (not the CD cover) does indeed feature a line about anarchistic artists defacing paintings of horses, I'm inclined to think that's a coincidence).
   13 horses that also-ran. However, closer examination of this 'front page story' highlights some less meritorious events - Ronnie's life wasn't faultless. The 'also-ran' line might refer to other, less worthy deeds he committed, or other people who helped make Ronnie what he was; an 'also-ran' is defined as a horse that also ran in a race but did not get a 'place'; a phrase generally extended to mean a person of secondary importance. So suggesting that Ronnie's success may have been at the expense of others.
Instrumental - much longer in 1973 concerts than on the album. Back to the top of the page
Climb in your old umbrella. The 'umbrella' represents the shield of Ronnie's complacency, or arrogance, subconsciously protecting his self-image from the reality of his actions and personality. As soon as the judges start to address Ronnie's negative side, he tries to take cover.
   Does it have a nasty tear in the dome? This protective membrane is flawed - he has a degree of self-doubt.
But the rain only gets in sometimes
   and the sun never leaves you alone,
But on balance, the good outweighs the bad, in his opinion - he has a fairly robust self-image.
you alone, you alone, you alone, you alone, you alone. Now, alone and 'unshielded' he has to endure the (mocking?) scrutiny of his peers.
Critique Oblique  
Lover of the black and white it's your first night.
The Passion Play, goes all the way, spoils your insight.
Ronnie tried to think in terms of absolutes - black or white, good or bad. But the mechanics of everyday life obscured the ability to judge accurately, turning absolute black-and-white situations into subtle shades of grey. Similarly, in life Ronnie had strong views on many matters, which are about to be challenged.
Carsten Bergmann: "The Human Man of Polarities has to forget his knowledge and roles, which he achieved during life, to be 'innocent' for his new role and decision in afterlife."
Note that 11 May 1973, the 'Lover' was 'Actor' and the subsequent line was totally different. Unfortunately, my recording is indistinct, and I can't make out the lyric. Probably just a stumble and ad-lib to recover, but I'd still like to know what he said!
Tell me how the baby's made, how the lady's laid,
why the old dog howls in sadness.
The 'judges' ask Ronnie to explain various profound aspects of life. Unsurprisingly, he can't.
It's been suggested that 'the old dog' is Cerberus, the guardian of the entrance to the Classical Greek underworld. Indeed, taking this line in isolation, there's a compelling parallel with Dante's description of Cerberus. However, I'm not convinced that this secondary meaning is relevant; the idea isn't developed or supported by other lyrics, and in the context of the story, I feel the dog is just a dog; merely another of life's trivialities that now trouble Ronnie's conscience - why did the dog howl? Why didn't Ronnie do something to alleviate its 'sadness'?
Note that on 11 May and 20 July 1973, and the Chateau d'Isaster Tapes, the line was clearly '... old dogs howl with sadness.'
And your little sister's immaculate virginity
   wings away on the bony shoulders
of a young horse named George who stole
   surreptitiously into her geography revision.
(The examining body examined her body.)
There were things in his life that Ronnie couldn't control, perhaps even didn't know about, such as the circumstances of his sister's first sexual encounter. So he was as much a victim of circumstances as any other mortal; he's nothing special.
To call George a 'horse' might imply a number of equine characteristics, such as virility c.f. a stallion. He's not literally a horse!
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Actor of the low-high Q, let's hear your view. He's asked to justify himself and his actions.
'Low-high' echoes the contradictory pairs in Chateau's 'Left Right', as well as being a near homonym of 'low IQ'. This is another indication of Ronnie's character in life - an intelligent individual occasionally acting as a low-brow clown to be popular.
Peek at the lines upon your sleeves
   since your memory won't do.
Dejour/the 'judges' suggest that that they expect Ronnie to give some trite, well-prepared excuse, like a schoolboy cheating in an exam by reading the answers off a crib-sheet hidden in/on his sleeve.
Why lines on his sleeves - plural? Could this be another cross-reference to the Chateau material, specifically the tiger's immaculate pinstripe coat? If so, Dejour may be expecting Ronnie to fall back on excuses of his social station, claiming nothing was his fault, it was just that injustices are built into modern society.
Tell me: how the baby's graded, how the lady's faded,
why the old dogs howl with madness.
More issues impossible to explain.
Again, different on 11 May 1973: '... why the lady's the old dogs howl with sadness.' It's 'sadness' in the 20 July show, too.
All of this and some of that's the only way to skin the cat. In fact, Ronnie doesn't make some contrived excuse, as he and the 'judges' acknowledge that life is tough, and it's impossible to thrive without getting a little corrupted - there's no reason to be ashamed.
In this line, Ian combines two common English sayings: 'some of this and some of that', and 'there's more than one way to skin a cat' (i.e. there's more than one way to achieve a goal). However, he also modifies them. In this context, I read the revised meaning to be that in order to succeed, one sometimes can't share evenly (taking 'all'), but that's the way society works, and it's totally unavoidable.
And now you've lost a skin or two,
   you're for us and we for you.
The dressing room is right behind,
Now they've exposed and dissected his life, the 'judges' feel able to make a decision about his future; he can prepare himself for the next stage of existence: his next 'role' in the play.
Or, as Carsten Bergmann rephrases much the same concept: "by his knowledge of himself he is now able to leave that behind and start an existence and identity in a new dimension."
As in the previous line, Ian possibly plays with an English aphorism here: to say 'it's no skin off my nose' is to say 'I don't care'; having been humbled and forced to confront himself, Ronnie does care.
   We've got you taped, you're in the play. In saying they have Ronnie 'taped', the 'judges' have a double meaning: they have a record of his life, metaphorically on tape, but they also have him 'taped' in the slang sense - they have a thorough understanding of his character. As emphasised by the 'skin' metaphors of the previous two lines, the masks and pretences have been stripped away.
How does it feel to be in the play?
How does it feel to play the play?
How does it feel to be the play?
These questions seem to have an envious tone - having completed the formal 'judging', the souls in limbo ask the questions that really interest them: how does it feel to be alive ('in the play'), to actually participate in life, rather than just watch remotely ('to play the play'), to be the centre of attention ('to be the play'). In trying to refresh memories of their mortal lives, the souls in limbo echo the concerns of those souls in Heaven, who constantly reminisce about mortal life.
Note that both the original album sleeve and the CD booklet completely omit these lines from the listed lyrics. Why?
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Man of passion rise again, we won't cross you out:
for we do love you like a son, of that there's no doubt.
The 'judges' accept Ronnie as 'basically okay', and reassure him they won't exclude him from Heaven.
There are obvious allusions to Christ here. Largely on the strength of these two lines, many people have suggested that the whole Passion Play is about THE Passion, and Ronnie is Jesus. However, I'm very sceptical; within the context of the overall story, that assumption just doesn't work. The album features numerous references with possible secondary, 'deeper' meanings, but I'm not convinced they are central to the story itself.
Mathie states it well, reflecting the Christian allusions without exaggerating the religious aspect. To paraphrase: the use of the phrase 'Man of Passion', as well as the word 'cross', is an acknowledgement that Ronnie has passed through purgatory, and that his suffering is now over. This line, including the invitation to rise again, indicates that his admission to heaven is now assured.
Tell us: is it you who are here for our good cheer? What has been the purpose of this encounter? Has Ronnie been 'punished' by being humbled in front of his peers, with no productive purpose (or, if the souls are metaphorical and the viewing room represents a period of self reflection, has Ronnie's self-doubt been torturing him needlessly?)?
Or are we here for the glory, for the story, for the gory satisfaction
of telling you how absolutely awful you really are?
Or do the souls serve a vital ('glorious') purpose in stripping Ronnie down to the core of his real self?
There was / a rush along the Fulham Road.
There was / a hush in the Passion Play.
The 'court adjourns', the cinema is vacated, the souls slip away, and Ronnie, alone again, moves on to the next plane of existence.
INSTRUMENTAL: 'Forest Dance #1' Carsten Bergmann makes a very interesting observation: that this music might symbolise the start of Ronnie's new existence in the afterlife, after being judged/judging himself and deciding where to go. The music to these heartbeats is much more spheric and light (ethereal) than in 'Lifebeats' at the beginning of Act 1, which symbolise his departure from mortal life, sounding much harsher and darker.

In live 1973 concerts, John "jumped from his assorted keyboards and proclaimed the intermission" (Meyers). The screen had been lowered and the story of 'The Hare...' appeared on film.

Ian Anderson
Magus Perde

On to Act Three

All lyrics © 1973 Chrysalis Records, Ltd. Used with respect, but not permission.

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