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