~ Rock Island ~


Photograph taken July 15th 1991 at the Izmir Amphitheater in Efesus, Turkey. Kevan Shaw explains: "We played there between two concerts at Izmir Amphitheatre. The first concert there was chaotic because the Turkish border guards refused the Greek lighting truck permission to enter so we tried to cobble up the house rig. Second attempt was more successful and was televised. Efesus was interesting because I lit the remains of the amphitheatre as a backdrop to the concert rather than use our normal one; it looked good and I took the photos myself from the lighting board. By courtesy of Kevan D. Shaw.


Undressed To Kill

  • We come back to the alienation theme in 'Undressed to Kill'; here the narrator encounters a prostitute (or a dancer in some nudy bar - JV): "a working girl undressed to kill"), and the imagery is twisted - what should be sexually attractive becomes artificial and unpleasantly contrived - "brushing silken dollars on her cold white skin" - there's no warmth or tenderness, just a business transaction.
    * Julian Burnell

    Return to song lyric Top of page

Rock Island

  • The theme continues through 'Rock Island', where we see individual people isolated on their home ground ("Doesn't everyone have their own Rock Island? Their own little patch of sand?"). There is no connection to each other ("And all roads out of here seem to lead right back to the Rock Island") and all are fairly dispirited and unhappy in different ways.
    * Julian Burnell

  • The image of a rock island as applied in this song to portray human condition in Western society anno1989 is in my opinion not coincidal. After all Ian had lived on one for quite a few years: the Isle of Skye, where he spent some time managing and building up the Straithaird salmon farm. The cover of CD-inlay of this album shows a picture of the Isle of Skye taken from space.
    * Jan Voorbij

    Return to song lyric Top of page

Heavy Water

  • Again in 'Heavy Water', where a character (possibly the one from 'Ears of Tin'?) is finding himself adrift in a city which horrifies him ("It's hurting me to see, smokestack blowing now they're pouring heavy water on me"), among people he can't relate to ("She was a round hole, I was a square peg. Didn't seem to mind that dirty rain coming down" ).
    * Julian Burnell

  • Visitors of this site have suggested that "Heavy Water" was inspired by the accident at the nuclear plant in Tsjernobyl, Russia in summer of 1986. Through this disaster the whole environment of this city became polluted by radioactivity. Even the clouds above this area were infected by radioactive particles and the east winds and rains spread the fall-out over the Scandinavian and Eastern-European countries. Cattle, vegetables, hay even milk had to be destroyed in some countries for being polluted.
    But it's not. Both Espinoza (1, p.92) and Schramm (2, p.23) quote Anderson stating that the song is about "Polluted rain - was based on one of my very first trips to New York. It was really, really hot and uncomfortable. Suddenly, blessed rain! I was standing out there getting wet and walking down the street, everybody else was running away from the rain. I realised that each drop of rain that had fallen on me made a dirty black mark. It was raining coal and sulphur, very unpleasant".
    * Jan Voorbij

    Return to song lyric Top of page


Photograph taken during the Rock Island tour in 1990, exact location and date remain unknown. By courtesy of Kevan D. Shaw, who also designed the lighting of the Under Wraps, Roots To Branches and Divinities tours.

Another Christmas Song

The Whalers Dues

Big Riff And Mando

  • After "Kissing Willie" this is the second humorous song of the album dealing with the haphazard life in a band. I suspect that this song somehow parodies the long musical relationship between Ian and Martin: Ian with his preference for acoustic instruments like the mandolin, bouzouki, balalaika etc. being Mando, while Big Riff would suit Martin and his electric guitars.
    * Jan Voorbij

  • I read "Big Riff and Mando" as a literal telling of something that happened to the band on tour in the US. Someone ("Big Riff, rough boy, wants to be a singer in a band. A little slow in the brain box, but he had a quick right hand.") stole Martin's mandolin from backstage ("Marty loved the sound of the stolen mandolin"), then called the band while they were on a radio show ("Ringing on the radio, got a proposition for those English boys."), saying he'd return the instrument if they let him sing lead during their show ("Give you back the mando if you let the singer sing tonight"). The band agreed, but had police on hand and when Big Riff showed to collect his prize, the cops were there to get him. He escaped, but left the mandolin behind. That's the way the lyrics go, and I've always been curious to find out the actual details of the incident (where it happened, did they ever catch the thief, etc).

  • "... a humbucking top line": A humbucker is a type of electric guitar pick-up, the gadget that turns the string's vibration into electric impulses so it can be amplified. Humbuckers were surpassed in the eighties by newer technology, but many electric guitar players like the raunchier sound they get from the humbucker and still choose to use them for certain types of music. A "humbucking top-line" would be a hard, crunchy lead riff on the electric guitar.
    * Liam Moriarty

    Return to song lyric Top of page

Strange Avenues

  • And, of course, the whole thing is rounded off with 'Strange Avenues'. Again, we're not just looking at loneliness, but the bitter conviction that you don't belong and others are having a much better time of things: "and everywhere is Main Street, in the winter sun" - if everywhere is Main Street, surely everything's bright and glitzy, full of activity, alluring and happy? Not if you're on the outside, unable to take part because you're not rich/young/pretty/smart enough. In fact, when that's the case, the brighter the city lights, the worse you feel.
    * Julian Burnell

  • This song in my opinion is one of the greatest Anderson ever wrote. After a long and very dramatic intro, the music almost dies down to make us focus on the lyrics. The song expresses an intense feeling of loneliness and alienation, coming to a climax in the heartrending line: "Shall I make us both feel good? And would a dollar do?" and the universal "Are you ever lonely, just like me? ".
    A similar feeling is evoked in "White Innocence" from the Catfish Rising album.
    I'm under the impression that this song is in some way autobiographical and deals with the early Tull-years of extensive touring, an the inevitable being away from home and loved ones for months.

  • "Looking like a record cover from 1971": for who didn't get it: this is an obvious reference to the Aqualung -album.
    * Jan Voorbij

  • Jan suggests that this song is about Ian Anderson (the song-
    writer/singer) touring with his band. Firstly, he seems to be disoriented, everywhere looks the same. That's often a feeling you get when you are in a new and strange place. This obviously isn't his home town. He is feeling very isolated because he doesn't know anyone. Another reason I think that this is about being on tour is because of all the references he makes to his early album, Aqualung. 

    "Looking like a a record cover from 1971" : 
    1971 is the year Jethro Tull put out their Aqualung album which features a very shabby-looking homeless person (who looks remarkably like Ian Anderson ;)) on the cover. This is obviously dealing with a theme of being 'left behind' by society. Ian Anderson, the narrator, emphathises with this bum because they are both outcasts. I think he really hammers in the point by linning his wino's coat with the "money section" of a newspaper. While everyone else is reading to find out how their stocks are doing, the poor wino simply lines his coat with it. 

  • "Shall I make us both feel good? And would a dollar do?" 
    In this line, he is obviously commenting on the rich/poor relationship. He is talking to the homeless person from the comfort of his warm limo. He seems to think that the wino only needs a dollar to feel good. He is so convinced of this that giving the wino a dollar makes himself feel like he is being this super generous guy and makes him feel good about himself. But he doesn't seem to understand that it would take so much more than just a dollar to make this homeless guy happy. 

    "But in your streets, I have no credit rating 
    and it might not take a lot to be alone just like you." 
    In these next lines, however, he seems to realise the similarities between himself and the homeless man. Both are outcasts. Here, no one knows him, he has no friends to let him have stuff on a tab. He understands that the only thing seperating him from the wino is money. It is the only thing that makes him a different person. He recongnises this and seems to understand that the wino's problems don't come from a lack of money. 

    "Heading up and out now, from your rock island. 
    Really good to have had you here with me." 
    The album's entire theme is about isolation from society. Beind forced away from home and into a strange place with no friendly people. Ian Anderson describes this feeling in an abstract way in the song "Rock Island." Basically, we each have our own island made of rock. It's bare, dismal, and there is no escape. To quote from the song: "And when you finally dry wood, the tide rolls in." Well in these lines, he has 
    let this wino into his personal space, onto his 'rock island.' By doing this, both have had some company. This is what the wino wanted, not just "a dollar." The narrator is so glad to have someone to talk to, some human contact. 

    And the final, poignant line:
    "Are you ever lonely, just like me?" Well 
    of course he is. We are all lonely sometimes. And I think what the 
    narrator is saying is that we can all bond like he did with the wino. 
    We can all escape that 'rock island' prison if we just would express 
    some goodwill and humanity towards each other, let each other in. We 
    all have this thing, this loneliness in common.
    * Marlowe Peck

  • Return to song lyric Top of page

1. Barbara Espinoza: "Driving In Diverse, A Collective Profile Of Jethro Tull" (Kearney, NE, 1999); 2. K. Schram (ed.), Gerard J. Burns:" The Jethro Tull Songbook" (English-German edition; Heidelberg, Germany, 1997); 3. Greg Russo: Flying Colours, The Jethro Tull Reference Manual (Floral Park, N.Y., 2000)


Back to the "Rock Island" lyrics page

Back to the "Rock Island" annotations page 1


Introduction Site Map Site Search TullSongs TullAlbums TullScapes
TullBooks TullUnreleased TullClips TullLinks TullResources About & Awards

July 5 - 2004

Jan Voorbij (1998-2009)