“You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free.”
Musician David Berman had a great line about Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. Berman wrote that Simon was wrong: There are only two ways to leave your lover. He wrote: “You can up and leave, Steve. Or you can go to your grave, Dave.”
50 Ways to Leave Your Lover is one of those songs that resonates, to this day, with many listeners. This is the story of Paul Simon’s 1976 # 1 hit, as well as another song he wrote about his former lover, Carrie Fisher – and how she was the one who left HER lover…
Up until Simon & Garfunkel’s breakup in 1970, the duo was a dominant commercial force. But while they gave off the impression that they were a lot more serious than all their peers, Simon & Garfunkel were more playful than they got credit for. Whereas the poetic duo hit # 1 three times, Simon hit # 1 on his own, and he did it with what might be the silliest divorce song in music history.
After he and Garfunkel split and went off on different paths, Simon chose a path that became quite an artistic journey. He had already started to play around with different sounds by the end of the Simon & Garfunkel period, but then he started putting out solo records…
The whole thing about his time in Simon & Garfunkel was that he was seen as the less good-looking or less charismatic one, compared to Garfunkel. But once he was set free to do whatever the hell he wanted, Simon became a star. Once Paul Simon went solo, it was like he turned into a kid in a candy shop.
He had the world at his fingertips and wind in his sails. He dabbled with reggae, gospel, and even Peruvian folk music. He set these confident, joyous sounds to breezy, nostalgic lyrics. It didn’t seem like he was taking anything too seriously post-Garfunkel, which was likely a direct reaction to ridding himself of his other half.
Throughout the early ’70s, Simon stayed on the charts as a pop staple. In 1972, he released his reggae experiment called Mother and Child Reunion, which peaked at # 4 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. That same year, he released Kodachrome, in which he dismissed everything he learned in high school, and it reached # 2.
Then, later that same year, Simon made it to # 2 again with the gospel-infused Loves Me Like a Rock. By the time he recorded his late-1975 album Still Crazy After All These Years, Simon was all inflated with well-earned confidence. The album was full of jazz and R & B but they never overwhelmed his melodies.
“You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan.”
The album’s greatest legacy, though, turned out to be its silliest song. Simon started writing 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover as a children’s game of sorts. In early 1975, the 33-year-old and his first wife, Peggy Harper, ended their six years of marriage.
One day, when their three-year-old son Harper was at Simon’s apartment, he was trying to teach the toddler how to rhyme. That’s how the singer/songwriter came up with the chorus – you know, the parts with all those rattled-off names. (It looks like that early rhyming lesson did the trick seeing as Harper became a singer-songwriter himself).
Simon went on to record the song in his small New York City studio on Broadway. In a 1975 interview, Simon admitted that 50 Ways (its short-form name) is “basically a nonsense song.” But “nonsense” isn’t the word most of his fans use to refer to the song, as childish as it might sound.
50 Ways has a lot more than meets the eye. The song is actually an interesting little piece of storytelling. If you read between the lines, it’s about a man who is having an affair, but he’s hesitant about ending his core relationship.
“The problem is all inside your head, she said to me
The answer is easy if you take it logically
I’d like to help you in your struggle to be free
There must be fifty ways to leave your lover.”
He wants out, but he isn’t sure if and how he should go through with it. As for the “other woman,” she wants him to get the hell out already. She doesn’t flat-out say it, though. Instead, she gives him some helpful advice… which is to just do it – do any of the 50 things to become single again.
“She said it grieves me so to see you in such pain
I wish there was something I could do to make you smile again
I said I appreciate that and would you please explain
About the fifty ways.”
Simon wrote the song’s lyrics as a dialogue, like a scene from a movie. He didn’t give any details as a narrator or the woman who’s helping him get free; he didn’t need to. The truth is Simon never even said that he’s cheating with this other woman; it’s just heavily implied.
In a simple stretch of dialogue, we understand the situation this man made for himself. And we can see him slowly realizing that, yes, he can do it. He can leave. Simon has said that he didn’t write 50 Ways about his ex-wife Peggy.
But come on! When you release a song like that a few months after your first divorce, it can’t be just nonsense. Either way, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover is still one of the few divorce tunes that aren’t just a ticket to self-pity town.
Quite the opposite of self-pity, the song is something of a celebration of the whole idea of freedom after marriage. In the mid – ‘70s, the divorce rate was on the rise, which might have something to do with the song’s popularity at the time. There were a heck of a lot of baby boomers who had gotten married right after college.
Then there were the ones slightly before the boomers — like Simon – who were starting to figure out that they didn’t have to stick with the same person for their entire lives. Some see 50 Ways as a triumph in being able to set yourself free from old-fashioned rituals and losing the stigma around divorce in general.
Simon wrote the song to the beat of a drum machine, which apparently was a technique many ’70s songwriters did. When Simon recorded it, studio drummer Steve Gadd came up with a marching patter-riff. Simon said he wanted to keep the song simple and arranged the track around that marching drum.
50 Ways, in effect, turned into a casual and bubbly track. The chorus never explodes. The drumbeat is the reason that the song has been sampled dozens of times (including Eminem. Yes, Eminem). The beat is also why the song never came off as cold-hearted, despite the subject matter.
All three of the backup singers on 50 Ways — Valerie Simpson, Patti Austin, and Phoebe Snow — were well-known musicians in their own right. Simpson was the Simpson in Ashford & Simpson, who wrote Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and produced Diana Ross’s 1970 version.
The singer-songwriter Snow had been touring with Simon all year and already peaked at # 5 with 1975’s Poetry Man. Speaking of chart numbers, Simon never reached # 1 again after 50 Ways. But it doesn’t really matter – he did just fine for himself. The night the song was kicked out of the # 1 spot, his Still Crazy After All These Years album won the Grammy for Album of the Year.
When it comes to divorce, Simon has some experience. In fact, he has two under his belt (married three times). And it probably didn’t feel so silly after his second marriage, to actress Carrie Fisher, came to an end after 12 years of a roller-coaster romance, all with intense highs and extreme lows.
The late Star Wars heroine (who died in 2016) and the singer-songwriter were one of those fast couples who connected right away. They were also one of those couples whose troubles eclipsed their tranquilities. In other words, to call Simon and Fisher an on-again, off-again couple would be an understatement.
For 12 years, the pair dated, split up, got engaged, went back to dating, and then decided that rather than break up again, they should just get married and get it over with. After the marriage ended technically, after just one year (between 1983 and ’84), they continued to date practically for another decade.
Fisher summed it up in her 2008 memoir, Wishful Drinking: “Years ago there were tribes that roamed the earth, and every tribe had a magic person … Now, as you know, all the tribes have dispersed, but every so often you meet a magic person, and every so often, you meet someone from your tribe. Which is how I felt when I met Paul Simon.”
The two met in 1977 when Fisher was still an aspiring actress filming the first Star Wars movie. Simon was internationally recognized at that point for his musical partnership with Art Garfunkel. Simon and Fisher reunited a year later when she appeared on Saturday Night Live. The story goes that Richard Dreyfuss served as their matchmaker.
Simon proposed to her after a New York Yankees game (they were living together on New York’s Central Park West). “Once they saw each other, no one else mattered to either of them,” Peter Ames Carlin wrote in Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon. He noted that Fisher added “velocity” to Simon’s life.
Carlin’s 2017 biography of Simon came out a year after Fisher died, and he wrote that Fisher added a “kind of wild energy that often set him alight and sometimes made him scream.” He also mentioned that her drug use and mental health issues (she was diagnosed as bipolar) became a major factor in their regular fights and breakups.
According to Carlin, Simon didn’t want to deal with her powerful highs and crashing lows. It was during one of their off periods that Fisher fell in love with and agreed to marry her Blues Brothers co-star, Dan Aykroyd.
Reportedly, it was after the comedic actor saved her from choking on a piece of food. In fact, Aykroyd proposed to her in the trailer on set a matter of minutes after doing the Heimlich maneuver on her. “He asked me to marry him, and I thought, ‘I better marry him. What if that happens again?’” she recalled.
She said they got the rings, did blood tests, “the whole shot.” But then she got back together with Simon. Fisher didn’t grow up in a household that modeled healthy relationships. She had firsthand experience of dysfunctional relationships as the daughter of Hollywood actors Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher.
Her father left her mother for Elizabeth Taylor when Fisher and her brother were still in diapers. Uncertainty became a certainty in Fisher’s life, in stark contrast to Simon’s more mundane upbringing in Forest Hills, New York.
They dated through the early ‘80s and were on the edge of splitting up once again when, according to Carlin, they thought breaking up would just be too sad. So, what did they do? They got married instead. I mean, why not, right? (If you didn’t read that with sarcasm, then go back and read it again.)
In retrospect, we know that the pair wasn’t happy. But Carlin explained that at that point, the marriage was “such a happy prospect, they fell in love all over again.” At least in the meantime. Fisher and Simon walked down the aisle of Simon’s NYC apartment with a guest list that included George Lucas, Lorne Michaels, Kevin Kline, Teri Garr and Billy Joel.
Eventually, the honeymoon phase quite literally ended, and the issues that had plagued the couple prior to the wedding returned, and they went back to their old routine of fighting. Fisher wrote in her memoir that they fought on their honeymoon…
“We once had a fight (on our honeymoon) where I said, ‘Not only do I not like you, I don’t like you personally!’” She then described how they tried to keep the argument going after that, yet they were laughing too hard.
Laughter evidently helped them overcome some of their disagreements, but it wasn’t enough to sustain the marriage. After 11 months, they divorced. They couldn’t deny the connection they had, though, and began dating again about a year later. At the end of the day, “he loved her, with a desperation that could frighten him,” Carlin wrote.
Seeing each other post-divorce worked … for a while. They saw each other over the rest of the ‘80s, with Fisher helping Simon raise his son Harper. Fisher wrote: “Paul and I dated for six years, were married for two, divorced for one, and then we had good memories of each other, and so what do you think we did?”
They split up again around 1990, and this time it was for good. The thing that brought the relationship to its final stop was their trip to a spiritual healer in Brazil, where they drank some psychedelic tea during a spiritual cleansing ceremony.
Carlin wrote in Homeward Bound that Fisher said she had a vision where she felt “pinned beneath Paul’s ever-spinning, ever-controlling brain.” Once they returned from Brazil, Fisher ended the relationship for good. “I’m not good at relationships,” she admitted to Rolling Stone the same year she died.
“I’m not cooperative enough. I couldn’t give [Paul] the peace that he needed.” Simon dealt with the end of his and Fisher’s love story by doing what he did best – making songs about it. Ironically, his song Hearts and Bones basically described that trip and the end of the relationship. The only thing is, he wrote it before they ever got married…
“One and one-half wandering Jews
Free to wander wherever they choose
Are traveling together
In the Sangre de Christo”
In 1983’s Hearts and Bones, you can hear Simon’s mature and honest musings on the turbulent love story between him and Fisher.
The song is about two people reconciling their expectations of love with the imperfections of life’s circumstances. The music is classic Simon: light enough that the listener isn’t initially aware of how heavy the lyrics really are. Everything seems ideal at first, with two lovers on a romantic retreat in New Mexico.
“And tell me why
Why won’t you love me
For who I am
Where I am?
He said, “Cause that’s not the way the world is, baby
This is how I love you, baby.”
The song is about two people desperately trying to connect. The illusion of idea love is shattered when the pair “return to their natural coasts” to “speculate on who has been damaged the most.” The irony of the song is that he wrote the song before he and Fisher were married and divorced. It was almost as though he anticipated their struggles, helpless to avoid them.
“I feel good; it’s a fine day
The way the sun hits off the runway
A cloud shifts, the plane lifts
She moves on.”
Another song Simon wrote about Fisher was She Moves, which marked the end of their post-marriage relationship, on his 1990 album The Rhythm of the Saints.
Fisher herself said the song was about her in her memoir, adding, “If you can get Paul Simon to write a song about you, do it. Because he is so brilliant at it.” So, did Simon move on as he said she did? The song even starts optimistic (“I feel good/ It’s a fine day”), but we know now that his songs are deeper than that.
“And I know the reason I feel so blessed
My heart still splashes inside my chest
But she, she is like a top, she cannot stop
She moves on.”
While Simon seems to feel happy just to have survived having been left, he can’t help but notice that she just keeps moving on. She calls him her “storybook lover,” and it’s clear that he worshipped her (as Carlin noted in the biography), with lyrics like “Then I fall to my knees/ Shake a rattle at the skies.” In the end, she’s the one that wants him. But still … she moves on.
Fisher died at the age of 60 on December 27, 2016, from a heart attack during a flight from London to Los Angeles. A day later, Simon tweeted, “Yesterday was a horrible day. Carrie was a special, wonderful girl. It’s too soon.”
While Fisher never married after Simon, he did tie the knot again in 1992. His third and current wife (he’s now 79) is singer Edie Brickell, and the two have three kids together: Adrian, Lulu, and Gabriel.
The thing about his marriage to Brickell is that it too has its share of drama…
In 2014, Simon and Brickell were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The then-72-year-old musician and his 48-year-old wife were arrested at their home in New Canaan, Connecticut, for what Simon claimed was due to a “rare argument.”
The Associated Press reported that the couple held hands at the Norwalk Superior Court as they told the judge that they saw no need for a protective order – that they don’t feel threatened by each other. The judge ordered them to return to court at a later date. So, what was this rare argument all about?
Connecticut police officers responded at around 8:20 p.m. on a Saturday night to investigate a “family dispute.” Reportedly, Brickell’s mother called 911 and then quickly hung up. According to Police Chief Leon Krolikowski, instead of being officially arrested, they were each given a misdemeanor summons, and one of them agreed to go to another location.
“There was aggressiveness on both sides,” he said. “They’re both victims, and they have children involved, and we’re trying to be very cautious of that.” At court, they told the judge that there was “nothing to see here.” Apparently, one of them pushed the other.
According to the couple’s attorney, Allan Cramer, “On a scale of one to 10, it was a one.” Simon was trying to leave their cottage, but Brickell blocked the door. Paul Simon is one of the last people any of us would expect to be summoned to court for violence.
After all, he’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not once but twice. He’s been honored by the Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress. As for Brickell of the New Bohemians, she hasn’t done so badly herself. In fact, she won a Grammy with Steve Martin.
The couple has been married for nearly 30 years. So, what gives? Why go to court over an argument? Well, as Brickell said, “I got my feelings hurt, and I picked a fight with my husband… The police called it disorderly. Thank God it’s orderly now.”
Okay, so they got over this apparent blip in their otherwise orderly relationship. A few years later, though, on February 5, 2018, Simon shocked fans again by announcing – in a letter to his fans – that he’s retiring from touring.
Simon cited time away from family and the death of longtime guitarist Vincent Nguini as key factors in his decision to stop touring. But, then again, he didn’t rule out performing live altogether. On September 7, 2018, Simon’s 14th album, In the Blue Light, was released.
The album contains re-recordings of lesser-known songs from his catalog, where he altered their original arrangements, harmonic structures, and lyrics. “I felt there were some really good songs that got lost,” he says. “And some that were almost good songs, that just needed a little nudging.”
“When I finished that last album, a voice said, ‘That’s it, you’re done,’” Simon said three years ago after his 13th album in an interview with The Telegraph. “It’s fine. I don’t feel nervous or uncomfortable or anything. I think it’s a good idea.” He was 76 at that point.
He said he wasn’t stopping because he’s exhausted; he’s stopping because he “can’t sing well anymore, or think well,” he insisted. “I’m stopping because it feels like a good moment to think about other things.” Simon has been in the business since he was 16 and hasn’t taken a break since.
He “never really seriously thought about anything else other than music,” he asserted. So, he wanted to see “what stopping does.” The night before that interview, Simon played his final show in London’s Hyde Park, in front of 65,000 lucky fans.
He closed the show alone in the spotlight, singing an acoustic version of The Sound of Silence. “For the last time,” he said, smiling. While you might be feeling a little sentimental at just the thought of it, Simon doesn’t feel particularly moved by the experience. “There’s no time to get sentimental.”
He trained himself to focus on the performance, as opposed to saying, “Wow, look at all the people and the sun going down, and this is the end.” Despite all this talk of retirement, his 14th album was about to come out.
He edited several songs on In the Blue Light, making significant changes to Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy (from 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years) and Love and the Teacher (from 2000’s You’re The One). “It’s unusual for an artist to have a second shot at fixing the original work,” he admitted.