Sunday, April 17, 2011

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover

One question often asked of songwriters is: "Where do you get your ideas for songs?"

Sometimes, it is something a child says or does. For instance, one of John Lennon's sons showed him a drawing he'd made of "Lucy in the sky with diamonds."

In the case of this song, Simon was explaining to his son what rhymes are, illustrating by rhyming words with names.

The structure of the song is interesting. It is one side of a conversation, reported by the other person. If the song were the dialogue of a play, the woman would be speaking 90% of the words.

The man has asked her, evidently, for advice. Or, perhaps she asked him what was wrong, and responded to his answer. In any case, he seems to be in a bad relationship and wants out... but is unsure of how to effect an exit.

She reframes his question: "The problem is all inside your head." And her advice bears this out-- all of her proposals involve leaving without a farewell: "Slip out the back... hop on the bus... drop off the key." No talking things to a close, no therapy sessions, not even a note. Just leaving.

It sounds like the other person involved-- the one being left-- deserves no better, or perhaps wants it to be over but is also not able to initiate a breakup. In fact, the one being left might be grateful if he'd simply vanish instead of dragging things out by talking about their feelings. Regardless, the advisor implies that the issue of propriety or sensitivity is all his own: "The problem is all inside your head" [emphasis mine].

What is interesting is that the man would seek the advice of a woman in this case. And one he does not seem to be heading toward. In other words, it does not seems to be the case that he is leaving his relationship to start one with his advisor. She is too offhanded and uninterested.

Further. it is unlikely that this is his therapist, bartender, or co-worker, for at the end of the conversation she kisses him. More likely, is a female friend, perhaps a sister or cousin, who would give him a kiss goodnight.

Again, we might assume the advice "You think too much, man-- just leave," to come from a man. It is surprising that a woman would advise his insensitivity toward another woman, which is what makes me think that she is more familiar with the particulars of his case.

Another interesting thing about the adviser is her sudden change in tone. In the verses, she uses words like "logically," "furthermore," "intrude" and "misconstrued" (an amazing rhyme, incidentally). She uses locutions like "it grieves me so." Then, in the chorus, she switches tone and becomes more colloquial and clipped: "Don't need to discuss much." It is almost as if she is mocking his over-intellectualization of the situation. Her basic message: You're complicating things, dude. Just scram.

For all of her protestations of help, when he asks her straight out, "Would you please explain...?" she shuts him down, with "Why don't we just sleep on it?" Once again, he is trying to analyze something that requires no analysis. If he can't understand "Just slip out the back, Jack," then there is nothing more she is willing to say that night.

After all, even the five of the "50 ways" she lists all amount to the same thing: Just. Leave. Now.

The solution is not always difficult or painful. Sometimes, "the answer is easy."

Like "Still Crazy," the title of this song has entered the popular lexicon. No doubt part if its popularity can be attributed to Gadd's military-style drumming and the catchy chorus.

The backup singers themselves were sort of a supergroup, consisting of Phoebe Snow (famous for the song "Poetry Man), Valerie Simpson of the duo Ashford and Simpson, and R&B/jazz singer Patti Austin.

The song went to #1 in the US, where it stayed for three weeks, and also topped the charts in Canada. It went to #2 in France, and brushed the top 20 in the UK. The song went gold and remained a top seller for nearly half a year.

The song has been covered by The Drifters, Miley Cyrus, and an outfit called G. Love and Special Sauce.

Gadd's militaristic drumbeat opener has been widely sampled by rappers-- twice by Eminem, and also by Common, Kool Moe Dee, and even Kid & Play. And also by a band called Pop Will Eat Itself, which is as good a definition as any for what sampling is.

Next Song: Night Game


  1. Thank you for this refreshing contribution. After reading Paul Simon's replies regarding the impetus for "50 Ways" and a slew of other half baked interpretations, it was refreshing to read an interpretation that applied reasonably sound logic, rather than personal, egocentric derivations. Although logical interpretation and free interpretation both play important roles I find that starting with a logical breakdown is it good starting point, because it is from there that they may make assumptions that are as reasonably consistent as possible. I found it amusing that your logical breakdown of the lyrics to this song was far more interesting than any of the other "esoteric" interpretations that I read.

  2. HCHTX-- Thank you! I think this is one of Simon's clearest songs, but I am never surprised when people want to make things more complicated than they are. Sometimes, as the song says: "The answer is easy of you take it logically."

  3. I've always read 'why don't we both just sleep on it' as implying that the woman giving advice definitely had an interest...

  4. Anon-- The expression "sleep with" is a euphemism for having sex. To "sleep on" something, however, means to fall asleep thinking about a problem so as to let the subconscious mind take a crack at it, since the conscious mind is at a loss. Also, one can think more clearly after a good night's rest instead of wracking one's exhausted brain all night.
    In the Meat Loaf song, he wants to "sleep with" her. But she says no, unless you tell me you with "love me forever." His response? "Let me sleep on it." In this case, sleeping on the issue is done instead of sleeping with his girlfriend.