Simon & Garfunkel, ‘The Boxer’ – Lyrics Uncovered
By 1968, Simon & Garfunkel had produced a string of folk-rock hits that included ‘The Sound of Silence,’ ‘I Am a Rock’ and ‘Mrs. Robinson.’ But their chart success brought the duo criticism from folk music purists.
“For the first few years, it was just pure praise,” Paul Simon told Playboy magazine. “It took two or three years for people to realize that we weren’t strange creatures that emerged from England but just two guys from Queens who used to sing rock ‘n’ roll.”
Simon’s response to his critics was ‘The Boxer,’ an autobiographical tale of a young man down on his luck in New York City. “I am just a poor boy / Though my story’s seldom told / I have squandered my resistance / For a pocket full of mumbles such are promises.”
“I think the song was about me,” said Simon. “Everybody’s beating me up, and I’m telling you now I’m going to go away if you don’t stop.”
Simon found inspiration for the second and third verses during an airline flight. “I had taken a Bible from one of the hotels,” Paul said. “And I was skimming the Bible.” It would yield some of his most memorable lyrics: “Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters / Where the ragged people go / Looking for the places only they would know… / Asking only workman’s wages / I come looking for a job / But I get no offers.”
“That’s where I think phrases such as ‘workman’s wages’ came from, and ‘seeking out the poorer quarters,’” Paul said. “That was biblical.”
Between those verses is the stirring “lie-la-lie” chorus, intended as a placeholder until Simon could write the lyrics. He never did. “It’s not a failure of songwriting,” Simon explained. “The rest of the song has enough power and emotion, I guess, to make it go, so it’s all right.”
The chorus was recorded in St. Paul’s Church in New York City to achieve what Art Garfunkel called the “high ceiling stone sound.” Producer Roy Halee added the distinctive “crash” at the beginning of the chorus.
By the final verse, Simon shifts to the third person and we meet the title character: “In the clearing stands a boxer / And a fighter by his trade.” Simon makes clear his critics won’t keep him down: “And he carries the reminders / Of every glove that laid him down / And cut him till he cried out / In his anger and his shame / ‘I am leaving, I am leaving’ / But the fighter still remains.”
Simon wrote an additional verse, left off the single but often performed live. “Now the years are rolling by me / They are rocking evenly / I am older than I once was / And younger than I’ll be / But that’s not unusual / No, it isn’t strange / After changes upon changes / We are more or less the same / After changes we are / More or less the same.”
While its lyrics are compelling, Paul and Artie’s harmonies make ‘The Boxer’ a classic. “We were tapping into something that went way back for us,” said Garfunkel. “I had a particular feel that I could do really well, and match Paul and make the whole thing ripple and articulate it just right.”
‘The Boxer’ would reach No. 7 on the charts and was included in the triumphant ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ album. It would become one of S&G’s best-loved tunes.