In 1989, Lita Ford and Ozzy Osbourne caught a lot of flak for their duet "Close My Eyes Forever," which many claimed encouraged suicide, especially in impressionable teens.
Meanwhile, Paul Simon started his post-breakup solo career (or at least the first song on the first album) with a song on the same topic, with nary a murmur from the sensationalist media or distraught parents. It was his-- at least-- fourth song on the subject, the first three being "Save the Life of My Child," "A Most Peculiar Man," and "Richard Cory."
In the case of "Mother and Child Reunion," the issue is a bit more disguised than in those earlier tracks. Part of the reason the message of the song went largely unnoticed is the ebullient music, lit up with African-reggae guitars, organs, drums, and descants.
The title comes from a Chinese menu, the dish including both chicken and eggs-- thus, the mother hen reuniting with her offspring in a rather sad way, for them at least. (Interestingly, another Chinese restaurant meal is mentioned later on the album, in the song "Paranoia Blues.")
But how is the song about suicide?
The speaker refers to the listener as "Little darling of mine," so we must presume some familiarity between the two parties. Also, the listener seems to be at least a generation younger, given that form of address.
The speaker addresses the listener, first saying they would not offer "false hope," which implies he or she does intend to propose a real sense of hope... by means of a practical solution to the despair at hand.
The speaker begins by laying out the problem: "I can't for the life of me/ remember a sadder day." What could be sadder than the loss of one's mother (well, the loss of one's child, perhaps. But one does not truly compare on such occasions)? The conversation seems to be taking place at the funeral, or perhaps during the mourning after.
The song then alludes to the Beatles' song "Let It Be," released two years prior: "I know they say 'let it be.'" In that song, The Virgin Mary, referred to repeatedly as "mother," returns from Heaven to offer solace. Simon, or at least his speaker, disagrees: "...but it just don't work out that way." Mothers don't come back from Heaven...
...You have to go up to them. Which is not that difficult of a trip, it seems: "the mother and child reunion is only a motion away." Remember the recipe for that dish? The two are reunited... in death. With one swift swipe of a knife, or the twitch of a finger on a trigger, or a short jump off a bridge, the reunion can be completed. It's not much effort-- "only a motion"-- or much time-- "only a moment."
Simon then seems to allude to a song on his own. Here, he says, "I've never been laid so low." On the immediate previous album, he uses the same word, "lay," but in the active voice, to indicate that he will do anything to provide comfort for his listener: "Like a bridge over troubled water/ I will lay me down."
Why the difference? In "Bridge," the message to the sufferer is, "I know you are weak, but I am strong, and you can depend on me for support." Here, the speaker is just as affected and miserable as the person he is trying to console: "I can't... remember a sadder day... I've never been laid so low." So of course his advice is going to be different.
While "Let It Be" is quite religious, our song only obliquely refers to religion, in the line: "In such a mysterious way." That phrasing sounds familiar because it borrows from the expression "The Lord moves in mysterious ways." While the Beatles profess a benevolent deity who "comes to me, speaking words of wisdom," Simon quotes a hymn, to cast a sideways glance at an inscrutable God whose intentions are unknowable.
There also seems to be a reference to reincarnation. (Note that "resurrection" is coming back from the dead as oneself, while "reincarnation" implies that one returns in another guise.) "The course of a lifetime runs/over and over again" may mean that, since we come back anyway, what's the difference if this particular life ends?
Yet, he must believe in an afterlife of some sort, if he is espousing the idea that, once the child kills himself, he will have his "reunion" with his mother. Well, maybe there is a Heaven, but since we can't rely on God-- especially not a God Who goes about killing mothers-- we must take matters into our own hands.
Finally, who is the speaker? If a mother has died, we cannot imagine that a father would tell his son: "Listen, seriously, if you miss your mother that much, why not join her? Here's some pills." First of all-- from a sheer biological standpoint-- if the child dies, too, his genes will die out entirely. More humanely, what father would wish death on his own child? He's all he has left of the mother, and why would he (the father) want to be be entirely alone?
So whoever is saying "Little darling of mine" is not, in all likelihood, a relative. Rather, it seems an elderly acquaintance, perhaps someone who has been to one too many funerals, who can't bear to see the child suffer and miss his mother so.
Still, if this person is going to offer advice like this, one has to question the father's judgement in inviting such a one to the funeral! If he doesn't believe in religious faith being able to offer true comfort, why doesn't this "well-meaning" person tell the grieving child that he, himself, will be the bridge over his troubled water?
That seems a much more decent option than shrugging: "If you're that miserable, why not just kill yourself?"
The song went to #5 in the UK and #4 in the US.
By beginning his solo career with such a song, Simon seems to be declaring his desire to explore the world's music much more enthusiastically and regularly going forward. The album has several musical textures, many borrowed from other cultures, as we shall see.
The song was covered by Randy California... and a band with one of my favorite names: Me First and the Gimme Gimmes.
Next song: Duncan