Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters by Elton John
One of the challenges of being an immigrant to the United States is the holidays. When my parents who came from Taiwan, raised my brother and I, they made an effort to participate in the major holidays in order to provide an “American” childhood. Some holidays made more sense then others. My parents understood Valentine’s Day, which correlated with a similar Taiwanese holiday, but others like Halloween were a little bit more mystifying. Seriously, why do you dress up as characters in our popular culture and beg for candy from complete strangers?”
Thanksgiving made a little bit more sense. The stories of the pilgrims and Native Americans did not mean much to my family, but the idea of coming together as a family and sharing a meal did.
One Thanksgiving when I was young, we went over to a family friend’s house and before we ate, we went around the table and said what we were thankful for. As I pondered the yam dish in front of me that for some reason had marshmallows in it, Thanksgiving started to make sense.
The true meaning of thanksgiving is for families to take a moment out of their lives to share a meal together and reflect on what they are thankful for in their lives. When I think back on my Thanksgiving experience I think about the times with my family, the three Thanksgivings I spent with college friends and the current tradition I now have of sharing that day with my wife’s family. What I am most thankful for in all of that are the people I shared those times with. As Elton John sang, “I thank the Lord for the people I have found” from his song “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters.”
There was an Elton John before The Lion King and after “Your Song.” A daring, compassionate and audacious artist, Elton John not only revealed himself but also reflected the world around him. From 1969 to 1979 Elton John released thirteen albums including the double album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The pace and quality of his albums is something rarely seen in popular music. Elton John released Honky Chateau his fifth solo album in 1972. “Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters” was the second to last track on Honkey Chateau, an album that included other popular songs like “Honky Cat” and “Rocket Man.” Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist, wrote these lyrics after hearing a gun go off in New York City. Elton John considers this one of his must underrated songs and plays it frequently to describe his love for New York City.
There is a balance in lyrics between keeping them specific enough so that they connect to peoples feelings but ambiguous enough that they relate to different peoples’ lives. Bernie Taupin is a master of expressing themes and emotions through his lyrics while maintaining this balance. This song is about looking back at an experience and realizing truths about the world and the way people live their lives. Along with these realizations comes thanksgiving for the people in our lives. Sometimes it is in our struggles that remind us of the beautiful people in our lives.
Elton John carries on the tradition of popular piano players from artists like Little Richard. From a young age, Elton John trained as a classical pianist. This foundation allowed Elton to explore different types of music including, Jazz, Country, Blues and Rock music. “Mona LisasAnd Mad Hatters” features subtle and skillful piano playing. Elton varies the background creating motion between the vocal phrases with rising and falling shapes while outlines the chords of the song. The piano line seems organic and natural but is also deliberate and intentional providing a foundation for the emotional setting of the song.
From the affirmation of the melodic leaps to the longing of the held notes, Elton John creates a melody that is introspective and honest. Not often thought of as a great vocalist, Elton John demonstrates his ability to sing in an effortless way, clearly expressing the lyrics while drawing us in like a master storyteller. The clarity of his voice has slight edges and tension, which reflects a worldliness and understanding of the deepest levels of our humanity.
This is one of my favorite, if not my favorite song of all time. I first heard this song when Elton John performed it on a televised concert after the attacks on the World Trade Centers on 9/11 to honor the work of the firefighters, policemen and other heroes. It seemed so fitting. Here was a song about New York City, about a loss of innocence but more then that, a song of thanksgiving. I had always enjoyed Elton John’s music but never thought of him as master musician until I bought Honkey Chateau and delved in to the vast catalog of the music he recorded.
My wife and I featured this song during our wedding ceremony. We wrestled with the idea of having a pop song performed at the wedding. What we came to was that the genre of the song was irrelevant. This song is a musical statement that reflects our lives growing up. But more important it expresses how thankful we are for the people in our lives. After all that that was said and done, it really was the people in our lives that made our wedding day so meaningful.
I hope you all have a great Thanksgiving. I’m not sure if it really matters that we recognize the original intention of Thanksgiving. If the personal meaning that we get Thanksgiving relates to the pilgrims, fantastic. If it’s not, no big loss. My parents found great meaning in the simple act of breaking bread with people we care about and I hope that you all do too.