Monday, October 10, 2011

Hearts and Bones

Before we get into the song, it is important to note some dates. The song was copyrighted 1982, and the album on which it appeared was released in 1983. Paul Simon married his second wife, actor/author Carrie Fisher, in 1983, and they divorced in 1984, one month shy of their first anniversary. (True, they had dated since 1977, but still.)

So, while it is tempting to say that the song is about this couple and the dissolution of their marriage, Simon wrote it before they were married and released it before they were divorced. So it's about some other couple, or an imaginary one. Either that, or Simon predicted the ending of the marriage before he even proposed.

The opening line certainly lends itself to the speculation that the subjects are Simon and Fisher. Simon is Jewish; Fisher is Jewish on her father's side, which some count as only being "half Jewish," since Judaism is traditionally a matrilineal (passed down through the mother's side) religion.

The couple, whomever they are, are "free to wander wherever they choose" (which may be a riff on the idea of the "wandering Jew," and perhaps even the idea of the Jews being "the chosen people.") But then, during a trip to New Mexico, they choose differently from one another. (The Latinate guitars and drums of the region are heard throughout the song.)

It is significant that they are in the Sangre de Christo mountains. As the song itself explains, the range is named for the blood of Jesus, the ultimate martyr. Someone here feels that they are sacrificing themselves.

The journey is supposed to be ending; it's on its "last leg." The "arc" of their relationship is compared to a "rainbow," which is both beautiful and illusory. They are "high" in the mountains, where the air is thin and hallucinations are possible. Also, while there must have been rain for there to be rainbows, the area is a "desert" and bereft of the practical needs to sustain life. "Mountain passes," or pre-cut trails, are also becoming "stone," and more difficult to navigate. As pretty as things appear superficially, they are in fact bad and getting worse.

Then the man begins to wonder when the trouble started. He recalls a wedding that was somewhat scandalous-- "The act was outrageous"-- and the bride may have gone through with the wedding even though she was ill. She was "contagious," and she "burned" with a fever.

Either that, or her fervor caused his girlfriend, with whom he is travelling now, to catch the wedding bug: "These events may have had some effect/ On the man with the girl by his side." Wait, what was the effect on him? Did her passion stir his, in turn? "His hands rolling down her hair/ Love like lightning, shaking till it moans," is a very evocative phrasing (and it's better than what Simon came up with in "How the Heart Approaches": "I roll in your arms/ And your voice is the heat of the night/ I'm on fire.")

And then a question from her jerks our man back to now. They are already in New Mexico, so she asks him; "Why don’t we drive through the night? We’ll wake up down in Mexico.” After all, they are "free to wander," and Mexico is just across the border.

The next bit of the conversation is muddled, at least for me. This is how I have always heard it go:

She: "Why don't we... wake up down in Mexico?"
He: "I don't know nothin' about no Mexico. And tell me why won’t you love me for who I am, where I am?”
She: “'Cause that’s not the way the world is, baby. This is how I love you, baby."

To me, this makes sense. She says, let's go. He says, I don't want to, "AND" [emphasis mine, as it seems to indicate a further thought by the same speaker] why do we need to keep moving, anyway-- love me here! She says, that's just the way I am. Take it or leave it, sorry.

Now, according to both Simon's website and the liner notes on the original LP, it goes like this:

She: "Why don’t we drive through the night? We’ll wake up down in Mexico.”
He: Oh, I don’t know nothin’ about, nothin’ no Mexico.
She: “And tell me, why won’t you love me for who I am where I am?” [Why is she asking this? She's the one that wants to love him somewhere else! Namely, Mexico! He does want to love her where they are... and not go to Mexico.]
He said: “Cause that’s not the way the world is, baby. This is how I love you, baby."

(The words "He said" are on both the site and the notes; the quotes are as depicted at the site.)

So you see my problem with this. The difference in the reading is critical. It goes to the whole point of who was not accepting, who is inflexible. In my reading, she wants to go and he wants to stop; he asks her why they keep moving and she says "just 'cause."

In the official reading, she both suggests they go and then demands to know why they should go. Which I hold makes no sense. And if she is making no sense (as people sometimes do), why does he accept the blame for being inflexible about going when she is the one who wanted to go?! Instead of saying, "But you were the one who wanted to go!"

Anyway, they break up. They "returned to their natural coasts." If this were about Simon and Fisher (which it does not seem to be), he would go back to New York and she would head back to LA. In any case, they "resume old acquaintances" and date other people. Again, if this were about the couple people think it is, the line "speculate who had been damaged the most" would refer to her novels and his songs, each of which are at least semi-autobiographical and mention the other.

The line "easy time will determine if these consolations"-- their friends, dating, and artistic pursuits-- "will be their reward" reminds me of line in a Shawn Colvin song, about what her friends say after each breakup: "At least you got a song out of it."

And is it over? No. The "arc" that began in rainbows and peaked in sensuous lovemaking is now a broken bridge "waiting to be restored."

And now, on the last leg of this song's journey, we learn what the title and refrain are about: "You take two bodies and you twirl them into one/ Their hearts and their bones/ And they won’t come undone." The idea of "hearts" being an image of love is popular enough... but Simon adds "bones."

"Bone of my bone," Adam calls Eve, and indeed she is made of his bone. "I feel it in my bones," is a deeper, more intuitive sense than "I know it in my heart." Under all of the "flesh and blood," the very core of your physical being is bone. (How bad is George Thorogood? "Bad to the bone.")

It's not just "hearts" and emotions here. It's physicality and bones that are intermingled, and inextricably so.

This is one of Simon's prettiest and saddest songs. It is about how each love and loss shapes a person, potentially forever.

"Didn't it work out all right in the end?" Ozymandias asks Dr. Manhattan in the graphic novel The Watchmen. "End?" he supernatural superhero replies, "Nothing ever ends."

The song did not chart, but the album did make the top 100 in the US and throughout Europe, and even Japan and Australia. It reached #3 in Norway, the Top 20 in Sweden, The Netherlands, and France, and the Top 40 in Switzerland, Japan, the UK, and the US.

Next Song: When Numbers Get Serious


  1. The text in the CD booklet has one 'She said' and one 'He said' fragment.

    She said:
    "Why? Why don't we drive through the night, we'll wake up down in Mexico?
    Oh, I - I don't know nothing about, nothing about no Mexico.
    And tell me why - why won't you love me for who I am, where I am".

    [each of these three verses are sung on the same melody, as if they belong together]

    He said:
    "Cause that's not the way the world is, baby - this is how I love you, baby - this is how I love you, baby".

    [which is sung in a very emotionless, bland, reinforced-by-echo kind of way]

    So it's actually very simple. She emotionally says X, he blandly responds Y.

    She wants to experience something new, something romantic, and wants him to love her for whatever she is, wherever she is. She wants him to love her unconditionally.

    Yet he responds by saying he can't love her for something or somewhere or someone else than the person he fell in love with. He won't particularly love her in New Mexico, in a new situation. He won't love her after they have changed things - he wants to love her 'just the way she is', and loves her here & now - no changing conditions accepted or appreciated.

    This is a truly tragic situation. She wants to change things in order keep on loving it, or loving him - he wants to remain things in order to keep on loving it, or loving her. They won't get together.

  2. Hannes, Thank you for your insights. I am not sure how vastly your interpretation differs from mine, except for who says "I don't know nothin' about Mexico." I say it makes more sense if he says it, as she is for going and he is against it. I think whoever typed in the liner notes messed up.
    Also, to be clear, they are IN New Mexico (a state in the US) discussing about doing TO Mexico (another country, to the south). Yes, New Mexico was named after the country Mexico, but it is no more the same thing as New York, USA is the same as York, England.

  3. The analysis is very good. As for who said what, it is what Hannes states. I don't know nothing about Mexico is a sentence she speaks to convince him to, please, let me get to know Mexico. But it does not matter which version you believe... As long as the song keeps its mystique the version you believe is correct. I know hiw it was meant, since I am able to

  4. Anonymous, thanks for the compliment. But as to your other point, I think rather than go back and forth on this, I concur would just adopt an "agree to disagree" stance.

  5. Sometimes the initial meaning has slipped away, here it hasn't :-)

  6. The reference to "where I am" seems to be a central issue between Carrie and Paul of why he can't love her for where she is in her life or who she is rather than trying to make her into a more submissive, housewifey mold. I believe he even gave her the song as a present. There couldn't be any doubt to whome the lyrics referred.

  7. Elizabeth-- That makes sense. What starts off as a discussion of where to go, literally and geographically, could have opened up a deeper issue of "where are we going-- as individuals and as a couple?"

  8. This song is one of my favourites. I always felt there was a double-meaning in the use of the word 'arc', that it could also be taken to mean 'Ark' as in 'Ark of the Covenant', relating to (one & one-half) Jews and their wait for it to be restored, as also symbolic for the love affair in the song. And in an interesting twist it is the Ark that is waiting to be restored...

  9. Listening to the song again just now (on vinyl :-)), the first line bridge definitely starts 'She said', and the last line definitely 'He said', so my assumption has always been each line is alternatively coming from 'she' & 'he'.

    The bridge seems like a classic lovers' bust-up but I think it's archetypal of so many relationships. There's a huge amount of love but tragically radically different ideas about what love is and how it's shown, and hearing different things from what each is saying. She loves him but pines for something more daring in their lives, so suggests a spontaneous, romantic escape to Mexico, into the unknown (recalling Kerouac's 'On the Road', and obviously countless outlaws over the years), with the promise of actually being there in the morning if they just pile in the car & go now. He has a simple view of things: he loves her very much and is happy where they are (geographically & emotionally). He's taken by surprise, initially he just echoes her 'Whyyyy...?' but then what she's saying registers with him, he's kind of hurt that she feels the need for something more & responds a bit dismissively that he can't see what would be so great or different about being together in Mexico instead of where they are. What she hears is that he's dismissing HER, so she comes back to him that if the relationship is to survive then she needs to have her dreams/desires valued right here & now. So her 'who I am, where I am' ironically is about emotional not geographical location. His final line sounds to her like an off-hand rejection of her plea. What he's actually saying is repeatedly 'I love you', but sadly asking her to consider whether love is really about romantic dreams because he can't give her that (nobody can of course). But what she's hearing, to her it's the end, so that's what it is. It seems they both have valid positions but mis-matched. So their love arc (or Ark) is left hanging, waiting to be restored, possibly forever.

  10. I also feel this song goes hand-in-hand with Hearts & Bones (b), with 'the smartest people in the world gathered in LA, to analyse our love affair & finally unscramble us. They sat among our photographs, examined every one, in the end they compromised & met the morning sun.'

  11. Anon., Yes, and several others here. The album is close to being a concept album-- a collection of songs on the same topic.

  12. Anon-- As for "arc"/"ark," I suppose that's one way to look at it. The word always, for me, calls to mind those images of the arched land bridged in, I think, Monument Valley, also in the US Southwest.
    But yes, the Ark of the Covenant is lost, at least for now.

  13. Anon-- Lastly, about the whole who-said-what debate, I think I have said what I wanted to about that, and I'm not sure I want to go over it again, if that's OK.
    I think that, like many conversations (and relationships), as you say, it will likely never be resolved.

  14. An interesting note: a "wandering jew" is also a type of house plant. It's a clever poetic insert on Paul's part, without many knowing it!

  15. Emily-- True, but I think the plant itself was also named after the mythical figure.

  16. It is just best guess conjecture but I'm pretty sure what is going on here is that Carrie is identifying herself as someone who does crazy things and then wonders (rhetorically) how he can not fully accept her for it. Since she had been diagnosed as bipolar at the time I am sure, just like her family, they both realized something was wrong but as Paul has said were too spoiled and immature to work out their problems as reasonable adults.

  17. Elizabeth-- It is true that, simply because you have identified a problem, you have not solved or even dealt with it.