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