My seven-years-older brother went through a heavy Jethro Tull phase during his teens. (I know, I know — this is supposed to be a piece about An Emotional Fish. Stick with me; I’m getting’ to it.) I was just a little kid at the time, and the band’s sound, its canny triangulation of Led Zeppelin, Fairport Convention, and early Genesis, interested me not a whit — not that I’d have been allowed to listen to it anyway; I was forbidden to borrow my brother’s vinyl, for fear that the beat-up needle on my close-and-play turntable would scratch them. But I remember spending long afternoons poring over the cardboard sleeves, the sinister painting and faux-Scripture of Aqualung and the elaborate mock-newspaper in the gatefold to Thick as a Brick, trying to suss out the hidden meanings without recourse to the experience of the songs themselves.
I was a rockologically precocious kid. At age eight, I was listening to Tommy every day in its entirety, and had grasped the idea that a rock album could make a full and coherent statement, the packaging and the content coordinated components of that presentation. From the packaging alone, I understood that Tull was making a statement, and in a grand, ambitious way; but I had not the slightest inkling of what that statement might be.
Many years after that (but still a long time ago; probably some time around 1990, in fact, the release year for An Emotional Fish), my brother and I were sitting around talking bullshit about bands, and the subject of Tull came up. I asked him, in so many words, what was the appeal of Jethro Tull? How had a band so determinedly odd ever broken through so hugely? How was it that these guys ended up as part of the classic-rock canon?
His reply, boiled down, was something like this: We didn’t know a lot about them. Of course, in those days we didn’t know much about anybody — in 1974, there was no People magazine yet, and the rock music press was still kind of an underground thing, and musicians (except for maybe the Beatles) weren’t really public figures in the way they’ve become — but you could look at somebody like, say, Peter Frampton, at the way he presented himself, and figure, you know, he seems like a fairly ordinary guy. You could relate to him. Tull, though — they cultivated this sort of mystery around themselves. All you knew, you knew from the records — and what came through on the records was anger. They were mysterious, and angry. At God, at Society, at everything.
I’m thinking about this conversation because one of the things that has continually struck me, when writing for the Popdose Flashback series, is how the nature of musician-as-public-figure has changed with the years. The rise of People and Entertainment Tonight and the mainstreaming of Rolling Stone made it impossible, as the 70s and 80s ground on, for artists to control the presentation of their images quite as thoroughly as, say, David Bowie had done in the early 70s; you couldn’t inhabit a persona like Ziggy Stardust 24 hours a day, not when there were paparazzi around to document every time you broke character.
But it wasn’t until the advent of the World Wide Web — which, like An Emotional Fish’s debut album, was publicly introduced in late 1990 — that the mystery was killed off for good. And so the bands of early 90s were really the last crop for whom a deliberate, Tull-style mystique was even an option.
An Emotional Fish took that option. Oh, they had to work pretty hard at concealment, even then — the British music press, in particular, with its weekly rhythms, had a voracious appetite for information, and disseminated it ruthlessly — but through a strategy of strategic avoidance, congenital diffidence, and judicious bullshitting, they managed to get their eponymous debut released in the States while revealing precious little about themselves. We knew for sure that there were four of them, in the Who-standard power-trio-plus-vocalist configuration; they were Irish; they’d released their earliest work on U2’s label, Mother Records; and the lead single, “Celebrate,” rocked like a goddam motherfucker:
That last one is not, strictly speaking, a fact, but even as an opinion it’s pretty undeniable. Equally undeniable is the U2 influence in the sound; the bassline, in particular, is the coked-up cousin to “Two Hearts Beat As One.”
But while there was no shortage of bands — especially Irish bands — trying to be U3 in those days, the Fish broke out of the pack, coming off sleazy and desperate while U2 and most of their imitators were still (in those pre-Achtung Baby days) all about the earnest yearning. And that, really, was about all we knew.
An Emotional Fish didn’t hold forth about their political views, exactly, although singer Gerard Whelan — who could do the Lou Reed growls and the Robert Plant howls, at least inasmuch as his smoker’s baritone permitted — gestured towards notions of gender equality by inviting women to stage-dive at live shows. The rest was guesswork, rumors and vagaries.
And believe me, I’ve looked for firm information. But for all my mad research skillz, all I’ve gathered is a handful of hints; allusions without elaboration, anecdotes that ring if not false then not entirely true, a frustrating lack of specifics. Bassist Enda Wyatt is alleged to have written a novel, but there’s no indication if it was ever published. Jerry Whelan was supposedly apprenticed to a silversmith, and/or spent several years of uncertain provenance in Morocco; as origin stories go, that’s right up with “ran off to join the circus.”
Indeed, there’s not even a definitive revelation of Wyatt’s sex. The androgynous appearance and dress, even the name, offer no hints. The articles archived on this fan page read like an early review of The Crying Game, putting themselves through linguistic contortions to avoid using he or she, his or her — which suggests that the ambiguity is not only deliberate, but so central to the presentation that the ambiguity itself cannot be mentioned. You search for a single mention, a throwaway parenthetical — Wyatt, who declines to be identified by gender, says that… But you will search in vain. The mystery is presented so bluntly, so unapologetically, that no journalist can even acknowledge that there is a mystery.
Bands lie and conceal for all sorts of reasons, of course. Bored celebrities have been fucking with journalists for a cheap laugh since Oscar Wilde was a pup. (Wilde, let us not forget, was Irish.) They may bullshit to bluff through their shyness, or to protect their privacy, or out of a simple contempt for the very publicity process on which their livelihood depends as a necessary evil. And for all the aggression of the musical attack, that’s the impression that comes through strongest — of a band driven not by an existential anger, but by a wary ambivalence, especially towards the machinery of stardom.
That’s a pretty standard rock star pose, of course, and An Emotional Fish stumbles when it pursues this tack in facile ways. “That Demon Jive” is the obligatory swipe at “the cream of Cloud Nine, Hollywood,” but it’s as flat and cheap as a secondhand penny postcard. “All I Am” aims to be one of those I-won’t-be-who-you-want-me-to-be anthems, but it all sounds forced and schematic, and the would-be climactic chorus — “So-called Mister, take a f-f-f-fuckin’ walk!” — is so telegraphed, and Whelan hits it so hard, that you’re more likely to roll your eyes than pump your fist. (Although the song does garner some points for wit, starting as a U2 soundalike — hinting at the nature of the expectations the band was confronting — before morphing into something more angular.)
The album succeeds best when it is least obvious. The swooning ballad “Julian” shows the band capable of delicacy, with Whelan’s vocal particularly notable for its nuance and control, while “Lace Virginia” manages to be ethereal and bludgeoning at once.
But with the album-closing “Brick It Up” (download), the band’s themes and techniques mesh. It’s never clear from the lyric whether the singer is building a wall to protect himself from the outside world, or bottling up his own darker feelings, but the confusion is part of the point. Isolation brings no relief; he’s blind, falling, drowning, syntax fractures to stray words and chants, finally to screams as the song’s already-disorienting rhythm bed collapses into noise. There’s genuine dread in Whelan’s performance, and his mounting terror and frenzy sell the song.
It was inevitable, perhaps, that the band would retreat from the spotlight. By the time the follow-up Junk Puppets came in 1993, the ground had shifted. Some if its heavier moments might have fit on the radio, in that heyday of grunge, but Junk Puppets was promoted and received indifferently. Sloper slipped out unnoticed a year later on an indie —t he band by this time having been dropped by Atlantic — and the group vanished back into obscurity. Gerard Whelan, as far as anyone knows, is back in Dublin, fronting an outfit called Jerry Fish and the Mudbug Club. They have only a rudimentary Web presence, but would appear to be one of those arch rock ‘n’ roll cabaret acts that wind up as beloved local institutions but never bust out of their regional scenes.
Maybe that’s by design. That gig certainly doesn’t play like a performance by an outfit angling for the big time. Maybe Jerry Whelan et al. chose staying small and whole over breaking big. Maybe the members of An Emotional Fish are at peace with their shot at the big time, and with the way it all turned out. I hope so. But the tension between ambition and wholeness produced some mesmerizing, fraught music, once upon a time.
Listen to “Change” (download), one of the songs on An Emotional Fish that most directly addresses the anxieties of a deepening involvement with showbiz. Whelan sings the hell out of it, and the last note thunders home — and then, just for an instant, at the tail end of the track, you can hear him gasp for breath. It’s only a second, and on another record it probably would have been edited out. But it’s important, on this record. He’s letting you see how hard it is, how hard he’s working to hold it all together, but the cracks still show around the edges. Reaching superstar status would have meant buffing away those cracks, erasing those moments of human vulnerability, of presenting the façade of a golden rock ‘n’ roll god instead of a nervy Dublin punk in over his head. That tiny, shuddering gasp speaks volumes more truth about the shotgun marriage of art and commerce than a dozen heavy-handed anti-authority anthems, and the very humanness of its scale makes An Emotional Fish, misfires and all, a record to treasure.