the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Locomotive Breath

There are some songs that you like because they are good, and some you like just because you associate them with a specific event or memory. I would never consider “Maneater” by Hall and Oates to be a rock classic, but it is memorable to me because it was playing on the radio when Jessica Neinbaum talked to me at a party.

Sometimes, the meaning of a song can change throughout time. “Locomotive Breath” is an old song by Jethro Tull. The reason this song is important to me is that it brings up memories of Camp Kinder-Ring in Sylvan Lake, New York. It was already an old song when I attended camp, but it was the favorite band of one of our camp counselors. Whenever we would practice basketball lay-ups before a game, this counselor would put this high energy song on the loudspeaker in order to energize us. The song became engraved in my mind as a “fight song” before a big game.

I loved summer camp, the song, and the lay-ups. It didn’t matter that I never got a lay-up IN the basket. I was a bad basketball player, despite being one of the tallest campers. Just to make it clear to you how bad I was — this was a JEWISH camp, and I was still one of the worst!

In truth, it was an odd choice for a fight song. Years later, in college, when I actually bought the album, “Aqualung,” and read the lyrics, I noticed how depressing the song actually was:

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 down.

But who cares? It was one of the few Jethro Tull songs with a beat.

Fast forward to three weeks ago. Sophia and I were getting into the car with our luggage, about to go on our trip to Portland.

“One more thing!” I said as I ran back into the house and grabbed a random assortment of music CDs — rock, Latin, classical, jazz, etc. What type of road trip would it be without music?

As I drove up the 405, Sophia rifled through my assortment of CDs.

“What the hell is a Jethro Tull?”

I told her the story about doing lay-ups at my Jewish summer camp.

“Play it. It’s song number 10. Forget the rest of the album which I KNOW you will hate.”

Sophia played the song, and liked it. “Locomotive Breath” became the anthem to our trip. Every morning, as we would start the next leg of our trip, we would put on song number 10, “Locomotive Breath,” and blast it on the speakers.

He sees his children jumping off
at the stations — one by one.
His woman and his best friend —
in bed and having fun.
He’s crawling down the corridor
on his hands and knees —
old Charlie stole the handle and
the train won’t stop going —
no way to slow down.

Gradually, the meaning of this song changed for me. It wasn’t about camp anymore. It was the THEME song to “Neil and Sophia’s Road Trip.”

70’s Progressive Rock.

Ian Anderson on the flute.

Separated husband and wife visiting bloggers in Portland.

It made sense. And maybe it was the bombastic theatricality of our 70’s theme song that inspired us to get stopped by the cops THREE times during our trip (twice for Sophia and once for me. Sophia was let off, of course. I got a ticket).

Jethro Tull made us into progressive rock rebels.

Last night, Sophia asked me to pick up some eggs at the supermarket. We’ve been home a few days now, and there is still nothing in the fridge. I’m embarrassed to say that I decided to drive the one block to the store. When I turned on the ignition, “Locomotive Breath” started playing on the speakers. One of us must have left the CD on when we left the car.

He hears the silence howling —
catches angels as they fall.
And the all-time winner
has got him by the balls.

I sang along in my garbled New York accent as I drove to Von’s Supermarket. I hadn’t gone half a block when I noticed a police car sitting at the corner of the street. He turned his siren and lights on.

“Pull over” he announced.

What was the problem? Get this — I didn’t have my seat-belt on!

Did he know who he was talking to? I follow every driving rule in the book. I always have my seat belt on! I was just driving one block… and Jethro Tull was distracting me!

The officer gave me a ticket… my second ticket in a week.

Locomotive Breathe. From now on, I will remember YOU as the song that made me into a criminal.

He picks up Gideons Bible —
open at page one —
old Charlie stole the handle and
the train won’t stop going —
no way to slow down.

(not Jethro Tull and definitely not me)

A Year Ago on Citizen of the Month: Neilochka Stalker


  1. V-Grrrl

    My brother had that album, now I MUST listen to that song–but not while I’m driving, of course. Don’t want to get DEPORTED for driving like my favorite New Yorker in California.

    And the whole bit about being the worst basketball player at Jewish camp? Well, hon, you take self-deprecation to new heights, or should I say “new lows”?

  2. Karl

    Well, I’m glad I got to meet you while you’re still on the outside, Neil. At this rate, you’ll be someone’s bitch in a SuperMax prison within a month.

  3. NSC

    Tull was one of my favorite groups growing up – along with Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Egar Winter, and a few others. We even had an old Corvair that had Jethro Tull painted on it.

  4. Alison

    I’ll be singing that song all day. And I will forever associate it with you, now.

  5. sarah

    I dont think I’ve ever listened to it again. But, I definitely think it needs to be removed from your car..forever. As, it is NOT good luck! Either that or your speakers play so loud, that the police want to hear it more closely, get depressed, and cope by writing a ticket! Eye of the Tiger…a bit safer!

  6. Not Faint Hearted

    I think it’s sweet that you and Sophia now have a theme song for road trips (…even if it does seem to court a bit of bad mojo in the traffic ticket department.)

    Hopeless romantic and Nosy-parker that I am, I was hoping to hear how the song healed the rift between you too crazy kids…

  7. Not Faint Hearted

    “two” crazy kids…

    never comment before coffee….

  8. Dagny

    A second ticket? Pretty soon you’ll be as wild as I am.

  9. deannie

    At least you didn’t actually HAVE Locomotive Breath. Surely that must be the most criminal thing of all?

  10. Jazz

    I loved Tull. And that album (which is how I discovered them, I liked the cover, bought it and fell in love). Come to think of it I did that a lot, Genesis, Yes… Yeah, I’m a big prog fan.

  11. Finn

    I must listen to this song. I’m not sure I’m familiar with it. Again, not in the car. Or in public, for that matter. I might get arrested.

    I wonder if you play the song backwards it says, “Pull this car over.”

  12. You can call me, 'Sir'


    I believe the gods are telling you to get a bike.

  13. buzzgirl

    You’ve become lawless… don’t give in to the Man! Ticket, schmicket!

  14. Sizzle

    i think you should never listen to that song again. at least not while driving.

    think of it this way neil, you can now claim to be one hawt jewish rebel! Meow!

  15. Pearl

    Next time, try driving to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” and see if you get a speeding ticket.

  16. psychomom

    There was something on the news this morning about kids who listen to heavy metal are geniuses.

    I don’t think they said anything about middle aged Jewish basketball players.

  17. Neil

    Jazz, as I mentioned once before, seeing YES was my first concert. Now they were cool. Even when you read the lyrics, their songs never made sense. You didn’t have to smoke pot to get high on them.

  18. kapgar

    I love that song with a passion. Unfortunately I do not have a cool story (or stories, plural, as the case now is) like you to associate with it. Can I borrow yours?

  19. Kanani

    So how much is the fine for singing loudly with a New York accent?
    Do they send you to traffic school or singing school?

  20. plain jane

    You bad boy. I’m sure Sophia finds this new persona VERY sexy.

    NSC: Yeah baby. Best listened to on an 8-track in a Trans-Am filled with pot smoke.

  21. Churlita

    Hilarious. So, does that mean we’ll be seing you on Cops sometime soon? Is that show even on anymore?

  22. rach

    Many more tickets and you’ll be going down my son! Sorry British saying. lol

  23. Lisa

    Oh, no! Jethro Tull is leading you astray! I have always quite liked Aqualung. Did you ever have a moment of thinking that maybe you were being punished by the universe for deciding to drive one block?

  24. better safe than sorry

    i don’t know it. i think you’re trying to be a bad boy, you know…

  25. Lisa

    I believe Neil actually IS a secret bad boy. Which is the best kind.

  26. gorillabuns

    neil, don’t you know every girl secretly likes a bad boy?

  27. Mo

    One of my dreams last night was about this post. I dreampt you kept on your blog tour- out to Arkansas! I looked at your car and saw what the real problem was- 1. you had a convertible (which for some reason, meant you would be pulled over? don’t ask me) and 2. you only had a partial license plate. Maybe only 1/4 to 1/8 of the license plate was on there. I pointed to it and said- “See! It wasn’t Jethro Tull at all!”

  28. question girl

    lmao — my dad and i always take road trips together — and i was introduced to tons of 70’s “progressive” rock.. Jethro Tull became a favorite of mine..

    when i went off to college i became the weird music chick who listed to all the “old” music

    every road trip i take, i take that album

  29. AscenderRisesAbove

    love jethro tull! i have almost all thier ALBUMS; saw them in concert in Des Moines in the late 70’s and that remains my favorite concert… thanks for the memory!

  30. Lefty

    Sandy Koufax was a great basketball player and had amazing hops.

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