What does Locomotive Breath mean?

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Jethro Tull: Locomotive Breath Meaning


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In the shuffling madness
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...


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    Dec 30th, 12:33pm report

    I think this song is absolutely about a specific touchy subject, not a vague comment on overpopulation (or something.) It's the American Soldier who returned from Vietnam with severe PTSD and is unable to cope. His children turn on him (hippie youth metaphor), his wife cheats on him with his best friend (because his PTSD has driven her and his friends away), and all the while he's suffering with this trauma like an engine that won't stop, until he finds himself alone in a hotel with no one and picks up Gideon's bible, open at page one. The candle is that part of him he has managed to hold onto through all this, and it's flame his spirit/soul despite being torn apart and abandoned. The engine, the depression, won't stop, but it might slow down. It's bleak, touchy subject matter, and he was wise to be ambiguous of its meaning with so many Veteran's who sacrificed so much returning home to experience just that, and also with the band being British and not really being in their lane to comment so deeply on those Americans who fought in Vietnam and returned with PTSD. At least that's my take on it.


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    Nov 13th, 2015 11:39am report

    The great thing about songwriting is that a song can carry a strong overall theme with sub-themes in the mix, or it can be intentionally left to open interpretation, or it can be simplistic or even jibberish. A song can even become more than it originally meant to the writer. A person can tell the writer, "Hey, your song really said this to me", and the writer might say "Wow, I never thought of it that way...very cool!"
    As a songwriter I've written in many different formats, and have often had a general concept, but intentionally left things vague enough for listener interpretation. It keeps things interesting.
    Ian Anderson, in an interview, said this was somewhat the case with Locomotive Breath. When he started writing it he didn't want to make it about anything too specific, but in the writing process a theme did develop. But he clarified again that the song was still not intended to be too specific. He said the locomotive is a metaphor for the feeling of overcrowded society, and a claustrophobic out of control sense that goes with that. Charlie stealing the handle (the brake handle) actually is a reference to God, who left life to run unstoppable, where there are injustices and troubles, but no one can do anything about it.

    Again, though, he made it a point a few times about not wanting to make it too specific, which does leave the song largely open to interpretation. Ian seems to do that in much of his writing, which I can fully appreciate.

    I like many of the interpretations on here. They give an interesting life to the song for me, and a new appreciation for it. Interestingly, "Charlie" is a street term for cocaine, and it's a Chicago term for a good-looking guy who always gets the girl. Both of those could play interestingly in a personal interpretation of this song. I could certainly also see how "locomotive breath" might refer to industry or industrial culture as some heard it.

    If I were to run blind with my own take on it, having not heard Ian's commentary, I would go with the coke addiction theme: Charlie (cocaine) took the brake handle off his life and he's headed for disaster. His kids leave the house as soon as each one is old enough (jumping off at the stations), and his wife (probably coked up too because of him) is getting down with his buddy. He tries to turn to the scriptures to find an answer, but concludes that God took the brake handle (when really it was his addiction "Charlie" that took it).


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    Nov 13th, 2014 11:45pm report

    Is it possible to expierience this song of Jethro Tull as the hijack of the hippie movement of love and peace of the peace train that got turned into this locomotive breath train headlong to its death by Charles Manson and his angels who stole the handle and turned it into a runaway train in the time of madness.


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    Oct 15th, 2014 10:43pm report

    I actually thought that it was about a man's mental decline after returning home from the Vietnam War.


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    Aug 9th, 2014 8:53pm report

    Forget about all the super heavy God and life cycle interpretations. This is a simple song about the madness caused by by the discovery of the most pernicious infidelity: your wife cheating with your best friend. The images invoked are both the flashback of one's life with the infidels and the Biblical anger that builds into homocidal rage and madness. The loser murders the winner and picks up the motel Bible for consolation.


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    Feb 2nd, 2014 2:47am report

    Everything that Ian ever wrote had sideways meanings. This song was designed to confuse you.


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    Jan 18th, 2014 1:53am report

    Locomotive Breath the story of Genesis (Gideon's Bible, Page one) and the Fall of Satan, and the origin of Sex.
    Old Charlie is the all time loser, that is Satan.
    God is the all time winner, who in the end has Satan by the balls.
    His woman and his best friend are Adam and Eve.
    Stealing the handle is convincing Eve to try the apple, setting into motion all the stories of the bible through Revelations.

    Also, Satan catches angels as they fall.

    So, The Locomotive Breath is God's anger at Satan.


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    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.


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    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.
    Part 2:
    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.
    Part 3:
    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 =)


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    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.


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    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


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    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.


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    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


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    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.


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    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".

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