Take Me to the Mardi Gras – Paul Simon
Number one in New Zealand 19 October – 9 November, 1973
Take Me to the Mardi Gras is from Paul Simon’s second solo album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973). Simon and Garfunkel split in 1970 as Bridge Over Troubled Water swept all before it, and it was two years before Paul Simon’s first solo album Paul Simon was released at the start of 1972. In 1975 he released Still Crazy After All These Years, which was well recieved, the last thing that would be until he released Graceland in 1986. For the last week or so I have been listening to Paul Simon (1972) and There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973) and while they are both good, the debut reminds me why Paul Simon is great, and the follow up why he can be a little bit irritating.
Paul Simon walks two very fine lines for me. Firstly, he walks a delicate lyrical line. Being told you are a poet is usually the death knell for any lyricist, and Simon has been told it many times, but he has survived it pretty well. In fact he is often very, very good, on the whole better when he is writing narrative lyrics as a character rather than as himself. Secondly, he often treads musical territory between interesting, sing-a-long tunes and flaccid, wishy-washy noodling on an acoustic guitar. One thing that has always seemed to get him inspired though is the music of other cultures. It’s interesting to reflect that he was already fiddling around with “world” music on Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970, and maintained that interest over the sixteen years before he ran into unkind accusations over the provenance of some of Graceland‘s material.
Take Me to the Mardi Gras is actually a good example of what I’m talking about. For me the first part of the song is forgettable acoustic guitar noodling, and then it sharply gains interest as the Onward Brass Band joins in to give the song some authentic New Orleans flavour. Lyrically it’s a mixed bag. Sort of boring,
C’mon take me to the Mardi Gras
Where the people sing and play
Where the dancing is elite
And there’s music in the street
And a little interesting,
In the city of my dreams
You can legalize your lows…
And I will lay my burden down
Rest my head upon that shore
And when I wear my starry crown
I won’t be wanting anymore.
Which is nice without being too wonderous.
Reading about Paul Simon reminds me of a Prince song: All the Critics Love You in New York. Here’s a review of Rhymin’ Simon from 1973.
[There Goes Rhymin’ Simon] is a fully realized work of art, of genius in fact, but one that is also endlessly listenable on every level…. Thematically, Rhymin’ Simon represents a sweeping outward gesture from the introspection of the first album. Simon has triumphantly relocated his sensibility in the general scheme of things: as a musician, as a poet of the American tragedy, and most importantly as a family man. Rhymin’ Simon celebrates, above all, familial bonds, which are seen as an antidote, perhaps the only antidote, to psychic disintegration in a terminally diseased society. As an expression of one man’s credo, therefore, it is a profoundly affirmative album.
21 June, 1973 – Rolling Stone
Poet of the American tragedy? An expression of one man’s credo?
You can mingle in the street
You can jingle to the beat of Jelly Roll
Tumba, tumba, tumba, Mardi Gras
Tumba, tumba, tumba, day
There is a line in Take Me To the Mardi Gras about putting down your burden, and Paul Simon’s work often seems to be over burdened by critics. They expect too much, or want to wring too much out of his work. When Simon tries to “say something” you sense his gift for words turning leaden; when he is at play or in disguise he can say a lot more with a real lightness.
In the solitary interview I have found of Paul Simon the Rolling Stone interviewer constantly presses Simon to say if his songs are autobiographical. Sometimes he seems to say they are, and sometimes he says they aren’t, that they are the feelings of the characters in his songs. I suppose this means they are both things.
I believe it’s no good to talk about your songs; it’s wrong. You should leave your songs alone and let them say what they say; let people take what they want from them…. All I try to do in the songs is write about the world that I’m in, and I try to do it honestly.
Paul Simon interviewed by Tim White for Rolling Stone (1975)
In 1973 his personal world was positive, but it was not a cheery year for America. Simon married Peggy Harper in 1969, and they had a son in 1972 (they divorced in 1975). Simon seems very happy to be married and a dad in 1973. On the other hand, the year Rhymin’ Simon was released was also the year that Watergate slowly played out in the American media (not to mention the end game of the Vietnam War). You feel like it is these things that Simon is writing about in the song American Tune.
I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
Don’t have a friend who feels at ease
Don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to it’s knees.
But it’s all right, all right, We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on,
I wonder what went wrong, I can’t help it
I wonder what went wrong.
The song surges a little, and expands its sound as Simon broadens the lyrics outward,
We come on a ship we call the Mayflower,
We come on a ship that sailed the moon
We come at the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing the American tune
But it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s gonna be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest,
That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest.
Musically this song is based on a piece by Bach and the critics loved it claiming it epitomized the seventies, and was his best work. It sort of doesn’t work for me though. Musically it is mostly forgettable, and personally the lyrics seem to suffer from saying something so directly. Then again critics love to pick something like American Tune, and sniff at Kodachrome because, well because you can actually sing that one at a party.
The song I really like off There Goes Rhymin Simon is St. Judy’s Comet which started out life as a lullaby for his baby boy Harper. The lyrics here are specific and real (“Well the hour of your bedtime’s/long been past/And though I know you’re fighting it/I can tell when you rub your eyes/You’re fading fast”), a little funny (“I’m going to sing it three times more/I’m going to stay ’til your resistance/Is overcome/’Cause if I can’t sing my boy to sleep/Well it makes your famous daddy/Look so dumb”), and little poetic,
Won’t you come see St. Judy’s Comet
Roll across the skies
And leave a spray of diamonds
In its wake
I long to see St. Judy’s Comet
Sparkle in your eyes
When you awake.
There is a lovely version of this song from Sesame Street in the final two minutes of the clip below.
This post is part of a series about the number one songs of 1973 in New Zealand. The series can be found here.