Sometimes, a song is just so lovely. Even for Elton John.
Many of Elton John’s songs are lovely. Early in his career, in partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin, John would release sparse love songs and ballads, a troubadour sitting at his piano delivering songs that were at once lush and sparse, ethereal and dense. There was always so much there. In performance Elton John could be loud, garish and gawdy, but his costumes and his antics were always grounded by amazing music, performances and musicianship.
“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” was released in 1972, only two years after John first broke through with his monster hit “Your Song,” and reflects Bernie Taupins’ reactions to his first visit to New York City.
Though I have never cared for songs where the music fades in at the beginning, I have always loved songs that begin with the word “And.” “And” suggests there is more to the story. “And” suggests we are only here for part of what is happening. “And” suggests that there is so much more. I suppose a good fade-in represents the same things, but nah…I have never liked fade-ins. It’s my blog. I make the rules.
“And now I know
Spanish Harlem are not just pretty words to say
I thought I knew
But now I know that rose trees never grow
In New York City”
Both Bernie Taupin and Elton John grew up in England listening to the great soul and rock music of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Brill Building songwriters gave them an idyllic New York to imagine and dream about. The peace of “Up on the Roof.” The romanticism of “Spanish Harlem.” The excitement and optimism of “On Broadway.”
And New York is a wonderful and amazing place, but it is rarely like the heavenly metropolis we imagine through the great music that told millions of people around the world about a city that never slept, that made your dreams come true, that was a beacon of freedom and hope to immigrants coming to a place where they imagined the streets were paved with gold. New York is loud. Sometimes, New York is dirty. Sometimes frightening. Sometimes lonely.
“Until you’ve seen this trash can dream come true
You stand at the edge while people run you through”
Taupin came to New York on his first visit, and from his hotel window heard a gunshot. Immediately he realized New York would not be what he imagined.
“While Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters
Sons of bankers, sons of lawyers
Turn around and say good morning to the night
For unless they see the sky
But they can’t and that is why
They know not if it’s dark outside or light”
Taupin sees a city filled with business people and dreamers. Taupin hears a city that is always moving, always awake. Day or night, the buildings tower, the sun is blocked out, the moon is blocked out. People are still moving.
Taupin and John never wrote the songs together. Taupin would write the lyrics, and John would set them to music. And here the music fits perfectly. The piano weaves the lyrics together to create a plaintive narrative, a love letter to a challenging and engaging city. A story of discovery of place, and self.
“Subway’s no way for a good man to go down
Rich man can ride and the hobo he can drown
And I thank the Lord for the people I have found
I thank the Lord for the people I have found.”
Elton John often refers to “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” as one of his best songs, and I think he may be right.
“Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters”
Written by Bernie Taupin and Elton John
Performed by Elton John