To my 13-year-old self, Paul Simon, didn’t amount to a whole lot. Of course, I had heard of Simon and Garfunkel, they were a constant presence on British Forces Radio which had literally been my only entertainment for the last three years of the 60’s. In my adolescent brain the duo were just part of American folk/pop up there with the Mamas and Papas and the Turtles, pleasant but unexceptional.
When Paul Simon emerged with a solo career there was a lot of interest, rock music was becoming a bit respectable, it wasn’t just the music press, the mainstream media would sometimes spare a few kind words. As a teenager I was even less interested in what the Guardian or the Telegraph had to say than I am now, and that’s saying something, we weren’t a paper reading household. As a consequence, I remained firmly unimpressed, it wasn’t that I disliked Simon’s music, but it seemed just a little too glossy and pleased with itself, I imagined that it was the sort of music that people who read the Guardian played at dinner parties (another thing my family didn’t do). It wasn’t as much fun as The Faces or even Chicory Tip.
‘Mother and Child Reunion’ somehow snuck under the radar of my inverted snobbery. There were a few reasons for this, firstly it was the first release by Simon after dissolving his previous musical relationship, I didn’t really make the link between Paul Simon and the bloke in Simon and Garfunkel for a start. There was also the fact that it featured on one of my early recording attempts when I recorded part of the top 20 and listened to it so many times the tape wore thin.
Most significantly I just liked the way it sounded. In fact, it sounded very different from anything else Simon was to record ever again. One of my issues with Simon was that he tends to record songs that sound quite profound but when you dissect the lyrics it’s hard to make out what its actually about. ‘You can Call me Al’ used to drive me mad in this way until I just learned to relax a bit and just enjoy him dancing with Chevy Chase. In the same way ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ sounds pretty profound. Apparently, the title is taken from a meal on a Chinese menu involving chicken and egg in the same dish which as a long-standing vegetarian makes me feel slightly bilious. Apparently the lyrics revolve around Simon’s feelings about death, it all sound pretty good until you look closely.
As usual it wasn’t the lyrics but the music that hooked me in. I had read (probably in someone else’s copy of the Guardian) that it was a reggae track. I hadn’t really worked this out for myself, I was aware of reggae, ‘The Israelites’ by Desmond Decker has been a big hit, but I couldn’t really work out what made Reggae Reggae. My younger brain just accepted music as music, a decade later I couldn’t work out what made Be- Bop different from big band, it was all just jazz to me. When I first heard the Ramones I couldn’t really work out how on earth that sound could come from a guitar it sounded more like a vacuum cleaner than a musical instrument. Post Bob Marley everyone from the Clash to Linda Ronstadt would have a go at Reggae with varying degrees of success, I still couldn’t work out why M&CR didn’t sound like ‘I shot the Sheriff’ though, it wasn’t all my fault, Simon’s composition, actually recorded in Jamaica has a more Ska/Rocksteady feel but it took me 40 years to work that out.
Eventually I got old enough to appreciate Paul Simon especially on tracks were he was joined by great drummer Steve Gadd (that’s him on ‘20 ways to leave your lover’) and I rather like the way that his lyrics are a little obtuse.
But on a purely literal level lets hopethat we can have some mother and child reunions for mother and children of all ages as soon as its safe.