"If you can get Paul Simon to write a song about you, do it. Because he is so brilliant at it."
Carrie Fisher offered this sage advice in her 2008 autobiography, “Wishful Drinking.” She should know. Her passionate and intense relationship with -- and brief marriage to -- Simon brought forth some of his most incisive and deeply moving songs.
Fisher, who died Tuesday after suffering a heart attack a few days previous, will forever be remembered as the iconic "Star Wars" character Princess Leia. I was 10 when that first film in the series was released, and like everyone else I knew, I loved Leia. It's hard to separate Fisher from that character, but I’ll also remember her as an author, an advocate for those battling mental illness and drug addiction, and an immensely bright and strong woman in a field dominated by men.
However, it's as Simon’s muse that Fisher most directly impacted my life. Without her, we would not have several songs on Simon’s transcendent 1990 album “The Rhythm of the Saints,” and the title tune from the 1983 effort “Hearts and Bones.” These are among the most devastatingly poetic love songs in 20th century popular music. They are songs I return to consistently, and their resonance remains undiminished despite the passage of time.
Fisher and Simon were an item from 1977 to 1983, and were married from 1983 to ’84. Even after they divorced, their relationship endured sporadically for several years, before finally ending on a trip to the Amazon, where the couple shared a psychedelic tea during a healing ceremony under the guidance of a brujo, a sort of shaman and spiritual guide.
During their shared hallucinogenic trip, writes Peter Ames Carlin in his recent Simon biography “Homeward Bound,” Simon rested his head in Fisher’s lap, and she experienced a feeling of being “pinned beneath Paul’s ever-spinning, ever-controlling brain; about the way he, like so many powerful men she knew, assumed his expertise and control over every situation.” When the couple returned from their Amazon sojourn, they split for good.
Simon offered an abstract rendering of these events in the “Rhythm of the Saints” piece “She Moves On,” in a voice that blended the stoic and the forlorn. “She can’t sleep now/The moon is red/She fights a fever/She burns in bed/She needs to talk so we take a walk/Down in the maroon light/She says ‘Maybe these emotions are as near to love as love will ever be’/So I agree/Then the moon breaks/She takes the corner, that’s all she takes/She moves on.”
Simon goes on to offer images that present him as naive, all but infantile, humbled by the power of this feminine presence. “Then I fall to my knees/Shake a rattle at the skies/and I’m afraid that I’ll be taken/abandoned and forsaken/in her cold coffee eyes,” he sings.
From the first moment I heard this tune, it both terrified and compelled me. It also underscored my disdain for conventional love songs. They’ve never spoken to me, precisely because their idealized notion of romantic love is, generally speaking, frozen in the adolescent notion of everlasting, unblemished love, of the sort that begins with first sight and proceeds unchallenged. I’ve never experienced this. Has anyone? Love is work. Relationships that endure involve struggle, compromise and disappointment. Commit to all of these and you still might end up alone. That’s just the way it is. In life, there isn’t always some financially stable hunk with a rose waiting to sweep the perfect blonde off to never-never land.
Simon was clearly ruminating on his relationship with Fisher when he wrote “Hearts and Bones,” a tale of “One and one-half wandering Jews/Left to wander wherever they choose.” (Fisher is of half Russian Jewish descent on her father Eddie Fisher’s side, and Simon is the son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants.) Here is Simon doing something that no other American songwriter of his generation has done quite as well – summoning the idea that love relationships can fail even when no one is wholly to blame, and that their failure does not necessarily diminish the depth of the love upon which they were founded. “You take two bodies and you twirl them into one/But their hearts and their bones/won’t come undone,” he sings at the song’s emotional coda.
Here’s a love song that dares to be honest. It speaks to us where we live. It has resonance in life, not in the land of fairy tales. And we have Simon’s relationship with the troubled, mercurial and brilliant Fisher to thank for it.