Jethro Tull: Locomotive Breath Meaning
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Locomotive Breath Lyrics
Of the locomotive breath,
Runs the all-time loser,
Headlong to his death.
He feels the piston scraping --
Steam breaking on his brow --
Old Charlie stole the handle and
The train won't stop going --
No way to slow...
whateveryousay Jun 7th, 2013 6:52am report
Our man's life is out of control, the mellow blues builds up into a crescendo of mania.
The locomotive is inside him, driving him, his heart pumping like the pistons, his head steaming. Who is the Charlie that ruined his life?
The realization that he has driven away everyone who means anything to him is pushing him to the edge. His children, who who should respect him most, his life partners, lovers and confidants all gone.
Now alone, no one to talk to at the very moment that he needs all he neglected, in his desperation he clutches at straws. Reaching out to the salvationists on the street corner, looking for the quick fix. Jesus saves doesn't he? Well not on page 1 he doesn't. Too late for that.
anonymous Jan 8th, 2013 1:38pm report
I must say that I took this song entirely different. I'll interpret the song the way I envisioned it from start to finish. I had the vision of war being the shuffling madness, soldiers boarding a train to be sent out for battle, feeling like a loser cuz he's convinced he's not returning home (headlong to his death). The steam on his brow as the sweat falls from his forehead, very nervous as he feels the pistons scraping while the train begins to deport, knowing that there's nothing he can do to stop the train cuz "Charlie" (in reference to Vietnam) stole the handle, meaning "Charlie" was the reason he had no choice but to be on that train.
A lot of young soldiers are jumping off at stations to meet their doom, he see's them as children and he has a vision of his own children jumping off at these stations. He now is dropped off. Thoughts of his girl back home are going thru his mind, just knowing she is with someone else while he is fighting for survival (crawling down the corridor on his hands and knees) and the nightmare continues as the train just keeps going and it won't stop, it just won't slow down, and it's all b/cuz of this "Charlie", and he doesn't see it ending.
He hears the silence howling as he lays there dying, he sees the light at the end and reaches for it, catching rays of light, seeing them as angels as they are coming to take him to God. He reaches for his bible, opens it to the first page, then looks up and says "Oh God.... He stole the handle, ("He" meaning "Charlie") and the train won't stop going and there's no way to even slow it down.
Then he is gone.
This is how I interpreted the song as I learned it when my band decided to cover it.
I may be wrong and I'm sure I am, but I think I at least put a pretty good story to it =)
anonymous Jan 3rd, 2013 1:47am report
I saw the entry by "Ian Anderson" and while that very well might have been him, he didn't really answer the question about the meaning of the song. Since this song is on the 2nd side and the rest of the songs tied to God or the obsurdity of God, I'm going to view it from that angle. I like the idea that it's about a man who's life is spinning out of control; drugs, alcohol, stress? Charles Darwin stole the brake, the faith to lean on when things get crazy. His children leave him for whatever reason, jumping off at different points, one by one. I was wondering if his wife and his best friend were the same person i.e. he caught his wife masturbating because he has a sexual dysfunction? Anyway, he sees the creation story, maybe in a hotel? Thanks "God" that Charlie stole the handle because he finds the creation story so obsurd. This also possibly ties together the first and 2nd side i.e. a history of how Aqualung became homeless and mad.
anonymous Jul 11th, 2012 7:46pm report
To be blunt, I don't think that the train is a metaphor for life. I think that this song just talks about the reoccurring theme in aqualung of god, god's abandonment of man, and in turn man's abandonment of god. Locomotive Breath does this by depicting a man who is rolling towards his death on a train and asks god to help him and quickly realizes that god isn't there for him. This is deep enough without the idea of the train being a metaphor for life and all that wishy-wasky deep stuff. Also it fits better with the rest of the album in this way. Despite the fact that Aqualung is not a concept album, there is a deep theme of, as I said above, god, god's abandonment of man, and in turn man's abandonment of god. Locomotive Breath is another way in which Ian Anderson shows the broken relationship between god and his son, man. I'm not christian by the way, just love Jethro Tull
anonymous May 7th, 2012 5:09pm report
Direct from Ian Andersen.
Hate to spoil your fun guys. But like most peoples literature, the people usually don't get it right.
With 'Locomotive Breath,' I knew I wanted a song about a runaway train, where things are going out of control and you can't get off the train. It's safe to say that kind of situation mirrored an aspect of the band's life at the time, what with all the touring we were doing. We actually had to record Aqualung in a rather short time between tours, so it was done very quickly. Island Studios had just opened up, and it was a shakedown period for them; there were a lot of technical problems. Plus, the band was having problems recording 'Locomotive Breath.' We just couldn't get the feeling, and I was failing to convey to the band what the song was about and how it should work. So I went out and played high-hat and bass drum for four minutes to lay down a rhythm track; this was in the days before drum machines and sequencers. Then I played an acoustic guitar part and some electric guitar parts, and then we tacked on John Evans' piano intro at the front of it, and the others overdubbed their parts onto mine. So nobody actually played on that track at the same time, but it's not a bad performance whatsoever. That was the only time we ever did anything like that back then.
anonymous Aug 2nd, 2011 8:05pm report
It is his life and how it is destroyed and the only thing left is god. and thank goodness for god because god is cool
anonymous Jul 18th, 2011 7:00pm report
I seem to be the only one who thinks that the 'All Time Loser' has his own self to blame for his misfortune. Like most critics, I see a man whose life is all but completely out of control, but why?
Answer: He didn't obey the Lord's commandments.
'Old Charlie stole the handle, And the train, it won't stop going
No way to slow down.'
'Thou shalt not steal'
'He sees his children jumping off, at stations one by one.'
'Honor thy father and mother'
'His woman and his best friend, in bed and having fun'
'Thou shalt not commit adultery'
'He's crawling down the corridor, on his hands and knees.'
Vicious sarcasm. Good Christians are supposed to show deference to God, but his posture is not quite the same as kneeling. To put in American terms, there is a difference between showing someone respect and 'kissing his ass'.
'Thou shalt not worship a graven image'
So far 'The Loser' is only guilty of breaking one commandment, if any at all, if you score the last line as true deference. But here is my point:
'He picks up Gideon's Bible, open at page one.'
Now, I hand you a book that you're not familiar with, and I ask you to read it. What page do you turn to?
Answer: The first page, of course.
My point: If 'The Loser' had read the book in the first place, he wouldn't be in his dilemma. The important theological question is whether or not it is already too late to save his soul, since the train us already out of control, and, presumably, the end of the line is Hell.
Since he thanks God in the end, we suppose that even a 'blamed heathen' can find salvation, if he is willing to repent.
anonymous Jun 6th, 2011 6:54pm report
The song is about mortality. "Locomotive breath" is time. The pulsing of the steam engine and the "shuffling" madness describe the never ending ticking of the clock.
The all-time loser is man, because no man has ever beaten time. The metaphor is especially strong because like a train on its tracks, we're moving in a single direction with no ability to change our path when it comes to our lifespan.
The scraping piston could refer to the heart, or entropy in general. Each beat wears out the engine a little more. And the steam on his brow is an obvious reference to sweating and hard work.
As mentioned earlier, "Old Charlie" is Darwin, and his stealing the handle means we are genetically hard wired to age.
"The train, it won't stop going, No way to slow down." reinforces the notion of time being unidirectional and constant.
"He sees his children jumping off
at stations, one by one." His children are growing up and moving away.
"His woman and his best friend in bed and having fun." His advancing age means his sexual abilities are also declining and he's powerless to stop them.
"He's crawling down the corridor on his hands and knees" Now he's even too old to walk upright, and he's heading down the corridor, probably toward the light at the end of the tunnel (another train metaphor).
"He hears the silence howling, catches angels as they fall." He's at the very end of his life, all alone in the silence, perhaps limbo. He's not in heaven because the angels are still falling from above him.
"And the all-time winner has got him by the balls." This is clearly Death, who is in total control at this point, and has beaten every man that ever lived, making him the all-time winner.
"He picks up Gideon's Bible, turned open at page one" This is a great line because it shows that the entire process then restarts, referring to the book of Genesis and the creation of the universe.
"God stole the handle and the train it won't stop going, no way to slow down." This is Ian's way of comparing man's life cycle with that of the universe. Time even destroys the universe eventually, because god stole the "big" handle, and there's "no way to slow down".
anonymous Mar 18th, 2011 3:46am report
This song could very well fit the experience of the left behind spouse of a woman in midlife crisis. The feelings of betrayal and lack of control and complete devastation along with the loss of the familty unit.
anonymous Feb 19th, 2011 2:51am report
No it's not.
(Talk about reading waaaaay to much into a song! lol)
Agree with themes explained in earlier posts. About some guy whose life seems to be falling apart around him.
"[This is going wrong....and [that's] going wrong...." and life's becoming a metaphoric runaway train. Instead of accepting resposibility or attempting to do something about it, he's looking for someone (the colloquial "Charlie")to blame the whole mess on. In the end he ends up blaming God for all his woes.
anonymous Oct 7th, 2010 10:02am report
The song begins with the writer referring to a “shuffling madness” which is easy enough to comprehend - but who’s madness is the bigger question. Once the song becomes more apparent, we learn it belongs to God. The “locomotive breath” (mentioned only once in the entire song) is in fact the Crucifixion of Christ. God’s shuffling madness - an oxymoron.
Ian Anderson, with his effortless, blaspheming ways describes Christ being betrayed, abused and tortured to death by everyone, including His father, God. Christ, who introduced the world to grace, spirituality, and eternal life, was crucified for his kindness and goodness. The writer refers to this most unfortunate man as the “All Time Loser”.
As Christ carries His cross, he is “headlong to his death”. Being nailed to the cross, “He feels the pistons [or spikes] scraping” against His bone. Now on the cross, He feels His own hot blood (steam breaking on His brow) from the Crown of Thorns.
The writer makes it very clear that Ol’ Charlie is calling the shots here. Later, he is referred to as the “All Time Winner”, and in the end - God. As Christ dies on the cross, the writer begins to imply that Christ has been forced to die for our sins by reporting God “stole” the only way to postpone (slow down), or stop His torture.
Christ recalls His experience as He begins to die. “He see His children jumping off” refers to His disciple’s, who bailed on Him; through their interrogation processes, fear and humanness (stations), they denied Him “one-by-one”. He is devastated by His disciple’s lack of faith - It’s like His “woman and His best friend” stabbing you in the back! He sees Himself carrying His cross; “crawling down the corridors, on His hands and knees”.
But God has big plans for his greatest creation (us), and knows what must take place tonight - that Christ must die, and ascend so we may have eternal life! So God does nothing. On the Cross, Christ is at the point of His human death as He “hears the silence howling”. His angels are fainting over grief and disbelief. As Christ begins to ascend, He can see them, and in true Christ style, spiritually “catches angels as they fall”. Now the writer innocently, implies that God has Christ right where He wants Him – but it’s not “by the balls” as written, Ian, but in Paradise.
God’s plan worked out perfectly! In His pride God picks up a Gideon’s (Holy) Bible, and only has to open to page one to validate His greatness! He reads: God holds (stole) the handle! God calls the shots! And there’s nothing you, or any one thing, can do about it! Thanks Ian.
anonymous Jul 13th, 2010 7:53am report
if you listen to the whole song aqualung it's about a man who is going crazy and is no homeless, locomotive breath is when he first starts going crazy after his wife cheated on him(his woman and his bestfriend), "his children jumping off the station one by one" i think refers to his wife giving birth, the train refers to his mental insanity"the train won't stop going no way to slow down"
and if you look at the lyrics to aqualung it's about him as a pedophile hobo
"Sitting on a park bench
eyeing little girls with bad intent.
Snot running down his nose
greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes.
Drying in the cold sun
Watching as the frilly panties run.
Feeling like a dead duck
spitting out pieces of his broken luck."
anonymous Jul 28th, 2008 7:50am report
Sort of on the right track above; about an "all-time loser", seems to be hard up on luck. But I think it leans more in the direction of this character looking for someone to blame.
"Charlie" (I imagine) would be too modern a term for cocaine, which wasn't all that widely used at the time. It most certainly ISN'T in reference to VC! It can, though, be used in the slang sense of just meaning *someone*, as in "so-and-so" or "some bugger". In the context of the song, that's how I take it to mean.
And that certainly fits with the last verse where he picks up the Bible and - "I think that God, he stole the handle...".
anonymous Mar 30th, 2008 3:30pm report
Why would Ian Anderson care about the stupid wars that the united states wages?
anonymous Feb 10th, 2008 2:30pm report
I think this song is about the Vietnam war. It's about a man at war in Vietnam, a war that can't be won, he's stuck in it, the all-time loser. Charlie is a term for the Vietcong, they've stolen the handle and the war can't be won. Meanwhile, back home, as he crawls across the jungle, his wife sleeps with his best friend, and his children jump off at the station, which may mean his children are protesters of the war and do not support the fighting soldiers. The all time winner is The US, and it has him by the balls, forcing him to fight in an unwinnable war. The soldier sees no end to the war, no way to slow the train, no way to stop his life from falling apart at home and overseas. I don't know, that is just my interpretation.
anonymous Dec 22nd, 2007 12:10pm report
* "'Locomotive Breath' is another song about dying, but it's not so serious as 'Slipstream'. It's an analogy of the unending train journey of life; you can't stop, you've got to stagger on. But it's not that serious. All of the songs have an element of humour, and sometimes pure silliness".
* Ian Anderson in Disc and Music Echo, 20th March 1971
* This song is about modern man ("the all-time loser"), who can hardly keep up with the pace of life in our society ("locomotive breath"). He suffers from all kinds of desillusions, alienation and solitude, cannot get hold of his own life and in the end resorts to religion: "he picks up Gideons Bible, open at page one", in the hope to find a solution. The verseline "The train won't stop going, no way to slow down" symbolizes his/our life that goes on and on without a pause until we inevitably die. At this place in the bible one will find the book of Genesis in which is described how the universe, the world and all living beings on it were created. Roland Tarmo points out that "old Charlie" is a reference to Charles Darwin and his evolution theory, that offered a scientific alternative for the unconditional belief in creation as worded in Genesis, thus questioning the self-evidentness of this belief. In other words: he "stole the handle", that for centuries had defined men's position. I assume that "the all-time winner" refers to God.
"Gideon" is the organisation that aims at spreading the Bible by having it placed in public buildings like hotels.
* Jan Voorbij
All information taken from www.cupofwonder.com
anonymous Sep 15th, 2007 9:35am report
Old Charlie... Charles Darwin
I think the train is just a metaphor for life and in this song it’s the life of the “all-time loser”, who had nothing but bad luck in his life. He lost control over the train so it’s too fast and it will take him to his end. His children leave him and his wife’s sleeping with his best friend. There is no way to get out of this because “old charlie” has stolen the handle. That’s the most important part of the song, for it’s all “old charlie’s” fault that he lost control over his life. The name ‘charlie’ is used for cocaine, so that’s his problem: drugs.
This part is not very difficult to figure out. But it takes a lot more imagination to find out who’s the “all-time winner” who has “got him by the balls”.
In my opinion it’s god, for during his last moments he gives him a sermon, which he definitely doesn’t want to hear (for they sing “thank god he stole the handle”). But of course it can be anybody whom he dislikes and who just came at the height of his misery to say: “i told you so.”
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