"Aqualung" is the title track to Jethro Tull's 1971 album about a filthy, pitiful old homeless man. I find it worthwhile to reflect on this song because the subject matter is unusual in popular music culture. I could name plenty of songs about love, fame, beautiful women, and wild parties; I can hardly think of any songs about something so decidedly unappealing as a disgusting homeless man. Jethro Tull frontman Ian Anderson and his then-wife, Jenny Franks, co-wrote the lyrics to the song. They drew inspiration from pictures Franks took of homeless people along the Thames embankment in London.
Allow me to clarify some of the slang terms in the excerpt from the song, because they paint quite a picture. A 'dog-end' is a discarded cigarette with some tobacco left in it. Aqualung, the homeless man, is so desperate and poor that he reduces himself to picking up and smoking discarded cigarettes. In the following line, the 'bog' is the restroom, and when he 'warms his feet,' this refers to inadvertently urinating on himself.
Yes, this is a repulsive picture. That is the point, though. In these lyrics, Anderson and Franks ask listeners to confront that which we collectively attempt to ignore, and render invisible. This is what fascinates me, more than anything about this song: The focus of a hit song on a type of person typically relegated to 'other' status.
I grew up in a comfortably affluent city in Southern California called Irvine. During my entire life in Irvine, I encountered only a small handful of homeless people. However, when I came to Los Angeles to attend USC (University of Southern California), I found myself in a city with an out-of-control homeless problem, just minutes from my dorm room.
As a relatively well-informed political science student, I knew before coming to LA that homelessness was a widespread issue in many major American cities. Still, though, coming face to face with the human toll of homelessness was shocking. Nothing short of in-person contact with the problem is sufficient to understand it. However, I think that a greater focus in cinema, politics, music, and media on problems such as homelessness would more effectively force us to confront these issues in meaningful ways.
We mostly attempt to hide homelessness from our discourses. Why? Because it makes us uncomfortable to acknowledge the disparities in living conditions that our societies tolerate. Because we are ashamed of it. Because it would be traumatizing for each of us to constantly be confronted by the human face of the problem: the human face that, under different circumstances, could just as easily have been yours or mine.
I don't want these points to come across as preachy or extremely political. While arguably insufficient, the governments of my home country, the United States, and my country of current residence, the United Kingdom, both commit substantial resources to reducing homelessness and dealing with its root causes. My focus here is less on the political and more on the cultural and social. The homeless are hardly mentioned or included at all in the daily lives of most people. This makes it easier to harbor less concern for them and tacitly accept their deprivation.
Thanks to an opportunity from a writing professor of mine at USC, I have been volunteering during the better part of the past year for an organization that pairs volunteers with homeless people in California. The aim of the program is for homeless people struggling during COVID-19 to have a friend to check in on them, chat with them casually, and ensure that they are receiving the care they need. Whether through avenues like this or other less formal ones, I long for a culture in which more are interested in engaging personally with homeless people.
None of what I have said is to speak ill of songs about romance, luxury, and pleasure. Many of my favorite songs are about such themes. I also don't mean to argue that if we all hold hands and serenade the homeless that their problems would be solved (though that would be quite a sight). The point I hope to have made here is that there is profound value in songs that stray from more common topics.
When I first heard "Aqualung," I didn't quite understand and internalize the lyrics; I simply heard the instrumentals and vocal notes. It's a catchy and intense song, but it is also beautiful in parts. When I listen to it now, I still don't quite know what to think. Should I feel pity? Perhaps sadness? I certainly don't think it would do justice to mindlessly hum the tune. Perhaps the value of this song, and others like it, is its insistence that we acknowledge what the real world is like.
Unfortunately, we don't live in a world where everyone swims in piles of cash or looks gorgeous enough to silence a room with their mere entrance. We inhabit a world containing a chaotic mix of deprived & depraved, fortunate & esteemed, and barren & blissful. If we are to appreciate this incoherent madness, it would help for our culture to magnify a broader spectrum of human experience.