Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Alamy)

Music

The song Paul Simon wrote about the death of his dog

@SamWKemp

Paul Simon once said that his songs would always be second to Bob Dylan’s. Why? Well, in his own words: “One of my deficiencies is my voice sounds sincere. I’ve tried to sound ironic. I don’t. I can’t. Dylan, everything he sings has two meanings. He’s telling you the truth and making fun of you at the same time. I sound sincere every time.” But, despite Simon’s scathing self-assessment, a number of his songs are indeed riddled with different meanings and interpretive possibilities. Take ‘Mother and Child Reunion’, for example – taken from his 1972 self-titled album.

The track is quite something. Half bubblegum ballad; half sun-drenched reggae hit, it sees Simon backed by off-beat snares and clear-cut guitar stabs. Floating above it all, Simon sings. “No, I would not give you false hope / On this strange and mournful day / But the mother and child reunion / Is only a motion away,” while trying his best not to fall into a tasteless impersonation of Bob Marley or Jimmy Cliff. Simon recorded the track in Jamaica using musicians from Cliff’s backing band. As Simon would later recall, on release, ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ became “became the first reggae hit by a non-Jamaican white guy outside Jamaica.”

Most Simon fans will know that the title for this 1972 hit came to Simon in a moment of hunger. Reading through the menu at 456 Restaurant in Chinatown, New York, the songwriter came across a dish called ‘Mother and Child Reunion’. Struck by the strangely potent image behind the name, he quickly made a note and tucked it in the back pocket of his jeans for later use. “Well, of course, everyone knows that’s from a dish I had in a Chinese restaurant, chicken and eggs,” he later clarified.

But that doesn’t really tell us anything about the inspiration behind Simon’s oblique lyrics. Deliberately vague and clouded in a haze of non-sequiturs, ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ is designed to evoke a sense of grief rather than specify its origins – that was something the listeners would have to work out for themselves. But, as he understood, Simon was never very good at cultivating Dylanesque mystique.

Explaining the meaning behind the lyrics shortly after the release of ‘Mother and Child Reunion’, he began by explaining that, until very recently, his life had been untouched by death: “Last summer we had a dog that was run over and killed, and we loved this dog.”

“It was the first death I had ever experienced personally,” Simon continued. “Nobody in my family died that I felt that. But I felt this loss – one minute there, the next minute gone, and then my first thought was, ‘Oh, man, what if that was Peggy? What if somebody like that died? Death, what is it, I can’t get it’. And there were lyrics straight out forward like that. ‘I can’t for the life of me remember a sadder day. I just can’t believe it’s so.’ Those are the lyrics. The chorus – well, that’s out of the title. Somehow there was a connection between this death and Peggy and it was like Heaven, I don’t know what the connection was. Some emotional connection. It didn’t matter to me what it was. I just knew it was there.”

Listen below to the song Paul Simon wrote about the death of his dog, ‘Mother and Child Reunion’.