Paul Simon: “The Boxer” (1. General Observations)

[This is the update of a post already published on 29 March 2017]

The Boxer
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
All lies and jests,
still a man hears what he wants to hear
and disregards the rest
When I left my home and my family
I was no more than a boy
in the company of strangers
in the quiet of the railway station
Running scared, 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,
just a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue
I do declare, there were times when I was so lonesome
I took some comfort there

Now the years are rolling by me
they are rockin' evenly
I am older than I once was
and younger than I'll be and 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
Lie la lie ...
Then I'm laying out my winter clothes
and wishing I was gone
going home
where the New York City winters aren't  bleeding me,
leading me,
going home
In the clearing stands a boxer
and a fighter by his trade
and he carries the reminders
of every glove that laid him down
or cut him till he cried out
in his anger and his shame
"I am leaving, I am leaving"
but the fighter still remains
still remains

“The Boxer” (translation here: The Concert in Central Park) is a song by Simon & Garfunkel from their fifth studio album, “Bridge over Troubled Water” (1969). The song, a folk-rock ballad, was written by Paul Simon as a first-person lament about the difficulties of survival in New York City, the struggles to overcome loneliness and poverty in New York City. The last part is a third-person sketch of a boxer. who, despite losing the battle, will remain and never be defeated.

The chorus of the song is wordless, consisting of a series of “lie-la-lie”, originally intended only as a placeholder because Simon couldn’t find the right words. Later it became a crucial part of the song, like a lot of other placeholders that worked, such as Otis Redding’s whistling in “(Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay”. The author stated that the essentially wordless chorus gave the song more of an international appeal, as it was universal.
It has sometimes been suggested that those words represent an attack on Bob Dylan, identified by his experience as an amateur boxer, and accused of lying about his musical intentions. (Lie-la-lie). Anyway, Paul Simon noted they’re largely autobiographical, written at a time when he felt unfairly criticized and had found inspiration in the Bible, which he would sometimes read in hotels. That’s where phrases such as “Workman’s wages” and “Seeking out the poorer quarters” came from. He stated: “I think the song was about me”
Anyway, the boxer is not just Paul: it is basically anyone or everyone. It is a metaphor about how life is a boxing match against not only the people who are fighting against us, but also ourselves.
We all struggle to survive and are battle weary, and even though we may keep on, that doesn’t mean we are victorious.

The song is a character study. In a few minutes, Simon sketches a young male character that might recall Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J. D. Salinger‘s novel “The Catcher in the Rye”.
Both of them are sensitive, lonely, with a similar attitude of disappointment with the world.
During his wanderings, Holden longs for a connection with someone and meets different strangers, but he is always depressed, full of discontent, and also “laying low” so that his parents will not notice he is back, after being expelled from prep school.
His loneliness leads him to have a prostitute visit his room one night, and he spends another night in a waiting room at Grand Central Station
Losing hope of finding companionship or a sense of belonging in the city, Holden decides that he will leave New York.

The additional verse, not present in the “Bridge over Troubled Water” version, may confirm that the lyrics are largely autobiographical.
This verse was performed by Simon & Garfunkel on tour in November 1969 and sometimes by Simon in solo after the duo’s breakup. It was also performed when the duo reunited for the triumphant Central Park Concert in 1981.
This song was sung by Simon when Saturday Night Live comedy show came back for the first time after the September 11th attacks.
In 2016 at his concert in Berkeley, California, Paul Simon stopped singing partway through “The Boxer” to announce Muhammad Ali’ s death
Last March, Simon released a YouTube version of the song dedicated to fellow New Yorkers during the coronavirus pandemic including the additional verse.

53 thoughts on “Paul Simon: “The Boxer” (1. General Observations)

    Lorenzo marinucci he was almost 20 years older than gene he was the first born Gene was the last I heard very good things about him I met him a few times he became a janitor in a fast food place he died of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease an alcoholic about 75 years old but gene told me the great love that the older brother had for the little crippled boy himself and how he would massage his arms and legs he came down from New York with an infrared heating bulb to help the baby long long long long time ago I think Larry would be maybe about a hundred and 18 years old or something like that now oh my God thanks dear it was wonderful story ⚘💋

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I find it very interesting about The Boxer and inspiration from The Catcher in the Rye. I think that there are some elements of that comparison in Paul Simon’s song “Duncan”, too. He’s truly a giant among songwriters, and one of the most poetic writers I’ve had the privilege of listening to.

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  3. […] “The Boxer” is a character analysis: a young man disappointed with the world, who leaves home while still a child, and tries not to draw much attention to himself, because he knows he will be accepted or at least ignored only if he stays among “strangers”.The portrait that emerges remains indelible because it represents each of us. In a few verses Paul Simon has managed to sketch a young man that might recall, as I wrote in the previous post, Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s novel “The Catcher in the Rye”. (see: Paul Simon: “The Boxer” (1. General Observations)) […]

    Liked by 1 person

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