Monday, August 16, 2010

The Boxer

One of the songs on which S&G's reputation, indeed Simon's reputation, rests.

Less a full narrative like a Harry Chapin or Bruce Springsteen song-- or Simon's later "Duncan"-- "The Boxer" is a character study. In the few minutes of a song, Simon sketches a young male character as identifiable and indelible as Holden Caulfield, and one with a similar attitude of disappointment with the world (although Holden had higher hopes and was therefore more disappointed).

One might think that the second line of the song refers back to the first, given when the rest falls (at the end of that second line). But that would make little sense. Why would there be a "though," as if he expected his "poor boy" story to be told? Poor boys stories are seldom told, aside from those of Twain, Dickens, and Algren. It's mostly the rich boys' stories, like that of Richard Cory, that are recounted.

Rather, the second line addresses what follows: "Though my story's seldom told, I have squandered my resistance for a pocketful of mumbles." Rather than hold out and insist that his story be told, he has used up his "resistance"-- or failed to use it-- and so has had to settle for "mumbles... lies and jests."

But he remains philosophical about that situation, noting that people will "hear what (they) want to hear" in any case. Since no one else will tell his story, he proceeds to, himself.

He started off "I am just a poor boy," but now says "I was no more than a boy." So how old is he now, and how old (or young) was he then? In the first line, he means "boy" as "guy," in the sense of being a "child" of certain circumstances. Compare this to, say, "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," meant to be sung by a person old enough to "have a fine wife." And in the second instance, he means it in the literal sense of "youngster."

But it is significant that he does not characterize himself as "a poor man." With everything he has been through (as we shall see), he is resigned to dealing with life as it comes, with the powerlessness to change his situation equal to that of a boy's. At this point, anyway.

He leaves his home while still a child, at least at a child's small level of worldliness and maturity. He tries not to draw attention to himself, sensing he will be accepted or at least ignored if he stays among "strangers"-- others who also prefer to remain anonymous and mind their own business.

The phrase "quiet of the railway station" is odd, considering that such places are usually bustling with human and vehicular traffic. He must go there after the crowds have left for the evening, perhaps to pick up some scraps of food or clothing.

Eventually, he grows to young manhood and decides that such a hand-to-mouth existence is no longer necessary. He is old and strong enough to be a "workman," and seems willing to sell his efforts to the lowest bidder, if only to get a foot in the door. Frustratingly, not even this compromise is accepted.

While he found somewhat of a community among "the ragged people" before, he now finds himself only attractive to "whores." Given how everyone else in society has rejected him, he admits to taking "some comfort" in their embraces. He doesn't dare the listener to judge him for this sin or crime, figuring he is already beneath their notice, let alone contempt.

Now it comes clear that he is not from New York. Possibly, he was at that railway station coming in from somewhere else, somewhere warmer and more rural. Perhaps he was "laying low" and "running scared" from the inbound train's conductor, since he was stowing away on board, too poor for a ticket.

Next, see him "laying out [his] winter clothes." On what? A bed? Does he finally have enough wherewithal for a room, perhaps with a closet, and enough clothes to take him through seasonal changes? He must have finally found a job of some sort.

He is laying out winter clothes to prepare, presumably, for the winter. But while he does so, he longs for the milder winters of wherever his boyhood home was.

Then comes the line "leading me." Usually, things "lead" one to stay, or they "drive" one away. In this case, the "New York City winters" are (he wishes they weren't, which indicates that they in fact are) "leading [him] to go."

The syntax then breaks down, as if the speaker is trying to assemble his thoughts: "Wishing I was gone, going home, where the New York City winters aren't bleeding me... leading me... going home..."

"Hey," he seems to think, "Why not? What do I have here that is keeping me?" And a decision is made. The clothes are not laid out on bed now, but folded into a suitcase.

Just a few guitar notes later, bent in country-music fashion, we have a radical shift. Now the point of view is third person instead of the first is has been thus far.

We are to presume that the "boxer" in the last verse is in fact the same person who had just been speaking to us all along. We assume that the job that enabled him to get his furnished room was prizefighting. We assume he has now gone home, to a place rural enough for a "clearing," which must mean far from New York City.

But why the shift in point of view? Why now "his" and "him" instead of "I" and "my"?

Because now, finally, someone else is telling his "story," which is what he said he wanted in the first verse.

And what is his story? One of survival. While he "carries the reminder of every glove that laid him down," he "still remains." His survival is his triumph. The hands of others made him fall, both before his boxing career and during it.

But the last verse asserts that he "stands," despite it all. He stood, and withstood, all of those hardships. They turned him from a "boy" into a "fighter," and while he was not a winner, he is far from a loser, simply because he endured and "remained."

The music is fascinating. It starts with a simply folk ramble, then adds a galloping drum, perhaps to signify the train that brought him to New York. There is also a twangy instrument, perhaps a bass harmonica, which disappears, then returns for the last verse, to make sure we know it is still the same character. This rustic instrument also marks his departure from and re-entry into the rural world.

The time lapse during which the young man takes up boxing and finds his apartment is marked by an electronic instrument tuned to sound somewhat like an oboe.

The famous "lie-la-lie" chorus hearkens back to ancient ballads, but the cymbal crashes give them significance of the cannons of the 1812 Overture. These choruses build and fade throughout.

Then, after the last line, they crescendo and swell to truly orchestral proportions, with soaring strings and a profound tuba filling in the bottom. Compare this symphonic arrangement to the one at the end of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," and you will find it much more cohesive and melodic (this is not a criticism of the Beatles' crescendo, just a mark of contrast; the effect is different, but so is the motive).

Why all the fireworks? Because the boxer is worthy of such a fanfare. As Willy Loman's wife ruefully observes after his death: "Attention must be paid." There is something to honor in the simply act of surviving excruciating circumstances, of enduring heaps of humiliations with one's dignity intact.

"The fighter still remains." He never won a belt, or perhaps even many matches. But through jobless poverty and friendless isolation, he still remains... and that is a triumph in itself.



IMPACT: The song is a unanimously hailed part of the S&G canon, and no S&G, or Simon, compilation is complete without it.

If the duo plays just one song for a public appearance, it might well be this one, and the audience is satisfied. This is only true of a handful of their hits, also including "Mrs. Robinson," "Scarborough Fair," "Sounds of Silence," and "Bridge."

When Paul Simon received an exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a nearby Cleveland university held a smaller exhibit of materials regarding just one song-- this one. While it is true that many individuals have received museum exhibitions of their life and work, for how many songs is that true?

Next song: Baby Driver

21 comments:

  1. funny, I always thought the subject/character of Cool Cool River could have been the same as the Boxer, decades later. "who is a witness, who is a warrior, who denies his urge to break and run".

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  2. Philip-- Take it further. What does the warrior say? He talks about being used to hard times, etc.

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  3. This song fills me with so much euphoria! I could listen to the "lie la lie" chorus on a loop for hours!! This song is Simon and Garfunkel's five star masterpiece that still sounds just as amazing as it did in 1969. This song is not only my favorite Simon and Garfunkel song, it is my favorite song of all time. The main reason this is an excellent song is because every single element of the song works especially the music, the vocal harmonies, and the lyrics. I tend to pay close attention to lyrics!

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  4. Zane-- Interesting you should highlight this song, as it was recently given its own exhibit! It was presented as an adjunct to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit on Paul Simon's life and work. The exhibit on The Boxer, which featured handwritten lyrics, demos, and more, was at a nearby local university.

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  5. This song always reminds me of "Midnight Cowboy". I know it wasn't in that movie, but it could have been written about Joe Buck. The song was released just a couple months before the movie in 1969.

    I don't take the lyrics so literally. It never occurred to me that the boy became a professional boxer. I just took it to mean he was a fighter, he was battling the world, he has a lot of scars to show for it, he'd like to get away from it, but he "still remains".

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  6. Oh and I meant to add, I think the section that begins "In the clearing stands a boxer" is meant to be a vision, not just a continuation of the narrative, which is why it shifts from first person to third. The music indicates some sort of shift has happened, some change of mental state or perspective; and the lyrics shift from some little rented room in the darkening colding of the coming New York winter to - "in the clearing". There is no "clearing" in New York City. A "clearing" is a place in a forest. I see a dimly lit figure in a misty woods, slowly raising his bowed head to show he has not quit, not conceded. There are such vision scenes in other Paul Simon songs. I think in "The Only Living Boy in New York" there is a vision section: the "ahhh ah a ahhhhh" in the echo chamber, "Here I Am". That is a vision, or a dream - clearly a break from what comes before, which contain complex thoughts, but in a normal waking state.

    Anyway, Paul Simon is one of the few true poets who ever decided to write a song.

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  7. Anonymous-- interesting thoughts. Although our character here paid for sex, and Joe Buck got paid for sex, there is a similarity in their poor, outcast positions in society. As for parts of songs not being "of" the same mind-frame as the rest, well, that opens up many possibilities. I like to think that while each song creates a setting, it stays within the bounds of it.

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  8. What a thought provoking song! Love the commentary.

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  9. This song will forever be lined in my memory to 9/11, because of the first SNL after the attack. This was the most appropriate response.

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  10. Phil (or is it Vera?)-- It was an interesting choice, I grant, and one that ends on a note of endurance and defiance. There were others, like Bridge, that also would have worked (and that he did use in other 9/11 events).

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  11. Phil (or is it Vera?)-- It was an interesting choice, I grant, and one that ends on a note of endurance and defiance. There were others, like Bridge, that also would have worked (and that he did use in other 9/11 events).

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  12. I just saw an interview with Paul Simon where he said the "lie-la-lie" was accidental (sorry, can't remember where, just trolling around on YouTube). He said he'd always planned to write a chorus where the "lie-la-lie" was, but couldn't think of anything that worked better, so left it as it was.

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  13. Anon--That's entirely possible. The whistles at the end of "Dock of the Bay" were, similarly, filler for future lyrics that never materialized. Sometimes the accidents are happy ones.

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  14. The Boxer is often mistaken as a triumph of perseverance. However, the last line, "the fighter still remains" is sung as a sad resignation that he cannot give up, but will continue to fight and be beaten by life, with the drums symbolizing every blow he takes.

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  15. Matt-- So he perseveres because he cannot give up, and that's worse than him doing so because he will not? I'm not sure I agree. All of his life, he has struggled. Now, he is fighting back. Still losing, perhaps but at least on his own terms.

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  16. This song brings me joy and pain. Joy for such a beautiful son, pain for looking at the mirror and see the years are rolling by, wishing I was gone.

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  17. Anon-- I see the song as mostly hopeful. The song starts off with an impoverished young man who literally fights his way to stability by his sheer persistence.

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  18. Great analysis.
    I've never seen the Narrator and the Boxer as being the same person. Rather, the Narrator is watching a match ("the clearing" being the boxing ring). He sees himself in the Boxer's struggle. The Narrator wants to leave New York and the Boxer wants to leave the ring because they're both facing odds they are unlikely to overcome. Yet they both remain.

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  19. Ruthvan-- Thank you. Your interpretation is entirely justified, given the change in pronouns. I'm not sure I buy the clearing being the boxing ring but it certainly makes more sense than a man in boxing shorts and gloves standing out in the middle of a forest. I mean, if he weren't dressed like a boxer, how would anyone know that what he was?

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