Buttkickin’ Halloween Songs: “Cross-Eyed Mary” — Jethro Tull (1971)

Laughing in the playground
Gets no kicks from little boys
Would rather make it with a letching gray
Or maybe her attention is drawn by Aqualung
Who watches through the railings as they play

Cross-Eyed Mary finds it hard to get along
She’s a poor man’s rich girl and she’ll do it for a song
She’s a rich man stealer but her favour’s good and strong
She’s the Robin Hood of Highgate
Helps the poor man get along…

Well it’s not everyday we feature a song about a schoolgirl prostitute, and for good reason. So if you’re the type who needs Trigger Warnings, there you have it.

Anyway, at any given moment there are about a dozen Jethro Tull songs I want to add to our list of Buttkickin’ Halloween Songs, if I knew what the hell Ian Anderson was talking about half the time, and I say that as a big Tull fan. And yet with Cross-Eyed Mary, arguably the second-most-recognizable track from their landmark 1971 album Aqualung, there can no mistaking the subject matter therein. It’s dicey material, to put it mildly.

Still, Anderson has always been more interesting to me as a songwriting painter than as a songwriting storyteller (although he utterly excels at both). With Cross-Eyed Mary, he stages his canvas in highly descriptive relief. Mary has no interest in boys her age; she attracts and seduces older men (“letching grays”, indeed). She targets rich men for the money, and poor men for whatever favors they can offer. Even a ride to school that morning.

But with rich men in her hand, Mary can get along just fine. Even the creepy piss-smelling bum known as Aqualung makes a cameo appearance, and she seems to have an eye on him as well.

Yeah, it’s super creepy and cringe and all that but it’s one hell of a musical tableau. What makes it even more effective is (1) how much this song absolutely cooks, and (2) Anderson’s vocal delivery, how he uses his voice to surround the scene with a haze of remote village abandonment, where vice and depravity runs unchallenged yet acknowledged. Accepted even, maybe.

Even that musical intro is perfect spooky Halloween material: a quick howl transitions to that trilling minor key flute riff, immediately establishing tone and scene. Drum, piano, and bass syncopation raises the tension higher until the band explodes into a powerful opening verse. The stage is set and the scene begins to unfurl.

Cross-Eyed Mary is one of those amazing classic rock songs that never seems trite, tired, or overplayed. If you find it problematic by today’s standards, you’re missing the point. It’s problematic by any standards, which why it makes for such compelling (and disturbing) art.

Cross-eyed Mary goes jumping in again
She signs no contract
But she always plays the game
She dines in Hampstead Village
On expense accounted gruel
And the jack-knife barber drops her off at school…

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