Is it necessary to analyze this song? It's one of the most straightforward of all of Simon's songs, telling the story of a marriage, from its prelude through to its epilogue. The "moral of the story" is even spelled out in the final chorus.
Now, there is a mistake in the lyrics at Simon's website. It says "He was old/she was young." This is wrong. In the song itself, Simon seems to sing: "He was old/ he was young." This, which it seems self-contradictory, is corroborated by two sources. One is the liner notes of the album.
The other is the new book Lyrics: 1964-2011, which I purchased at Paul Simon's concert here in the Chicago area last night. (Now that the book is out, someone at the website should really spend a couple of says doing line-by-line proofreading.)
The difference is enormous. The incorrect version seems a simple statement of fact as to their relative ages. The correct version provides one of the only enigmatic lines of the whole song. "He was old," in years, perhaps-- but in every other way, he was "young." Romantic, impulsive, ambitious...
The story starts with a older man attracted to a younger, married woman (her husband is immaterial to all concerned, dismissed as a mere "someone"). Our hero would "tip his heart" instead of his hand (the term comes from playing cards), meaning that he made his amorous intentions known. But even though she initially "withdrew," she hears the sound of the distant train as much as he does ("everybody" hears, it, after all).
The next steps seem automatic and inevitable: "Eventually" they marry, "sure enough" they have a boy. But even while she was pregnant, "disagreements had begun."
It is not clear when the child is born, relative to their divorce. But divorce they do, although they "they remain in contact." The line "Let us say it’s for the child," implies that this is not the true reason, but one that seems reasonable and acceptable to both and to the families and community involved (is the real reason that they are still somewhat attracted to each other?).
The word "disagreements" comes up again, this time with regard to the "marriage contract," but again more is going on. Certainly lawyers can (although expensively) debate that, professionally and coolly. Their "conversations," meanwhile are "hard and wild" and obviously about things more personal and intimate than just legalities.
Was there something there? Well, "from time to time, he just makes her laugh/ She cooks a meal or two." Here, we have a disagreement, to borrow a word, about lyrics again. The website and album notes say "he makes her laugh," while the song itself and the Lyrics book have it "he just makes her laugh." This is not as crucial an issue as the disputed pronoun above, but it does go to a central theme of the song.
Which is that it had to happen this way, going back to when he "doggedly" hounded and wooed her. This goes through the "eventual" and "sure enough" phases discussed above to how they "just fell apart." And now, he "just makes her laugh." He doesn't seem to mean to, but something he says "just" strikes her as terribly amusing.
The narrative breaks, during the divorce chapter, for the speaker to insert an observation about the characters: "Two disappointed believers/ Two people playing the game." They do believe in love, but are disappointed by marriage. Instead of loving each other and working toward compromises for the advancement of the union, they are "playing" against each other, each trying to win and advance his or her own interests.
The phrase "negotiations and love songs" would become the title of one of Simon's compilations of hits, but here it means that love songs, through which one hopes to win the heart of the other, are often little more then sales pitches, in which the singer hopes to win, period. But while dogs chase cars, what would a dog do with a car if it caught one? What good is winning if now that you have sealed the deal and gotten married, the game is over? Then the power struggle moves into the marriage itself, with everyone losing.
Why? Why does all of this have to happen, with the forgone nature of one "train" car following the next down a predetermined track?
It is not outside fate exactly, Simon theorizes, but how our brains are wired (or "woven") for ambition and improvement of our situations: "The thought that life could be better/ Is woven indelibly/ Into our hearts/ And our brains."
It's not the song that needs to be explained, after all. It's the people in the story, a tale so lacking in detail that the characters never even get names. We have all heard of some couple that this story, in some form, has happened to. So it is important to ask why such a story is so sadly common.
Still, there is some growth. "The boy and the girl get married," but after they divorce, "the man and the woman remain in contact." They haven't simply grown older, they have grown up.
And, if either one does marry again, it might actually go "better." For her, she left her first marriage for this man. But this time, she leaves her second husband for herself. Certainly, she will have to be mature enough to think of the impact this would have for her child. But if she does marry again, it should be for the right reasons.
Meanwhile, he was old when he started this adventure, and now he is a father. Still, he is "dogged" and "young" in a way, so maybe he will have another shot as well.
Did ambition and competition destroy this marriage, even before it had begun? Yes. Will the same thing happen in the next go-round? Well, as Samuel Johnson explained, "Second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience."
Next Song: Rene And George Magritte with Their Dog After The War