[This is the update of a post already published on 30 March 2017]
“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))
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
The opening verse introduces the character: a young man who has left the comfort of his home and family and has ventured out into the world, going to a big city, in pursuit of his dreams.
He cannot resist alluring promises – even if he knows they are transitory or false (“a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises”) – and does not want to believe the nasty things he has heard about New York. The metaphor: “I have squandered my resistance / for a pocket full of mumbles such are promises” implies that he has deceived.
He seems hopeless, unable to get what he wants from his life, which is also a story no one wants to hear, because “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
Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters
Where the ragged people go
Looking for the places only they would know
The second verse offers the image of a lost, timid boy, whose only companionship derives from “the company of strangers” around him. But strangers are not company and a railway station is not quiet. The “quiet of the railway station” sounds so strange! Unless it indicates that he goes there after the crowds have left, perhaps to pick up some leftovers. All of this increases the loneliness of the narrator, lost in a crowd, surrounded by indifferent people.
The lines “Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters / where the ragged people go, / looking for the places only they would know”, which contain alliteration and a lot of imagery, represent the hardships that the narrator – and Simon himself – grew up with, starting at the bottom and having to work their way up.
Lie la lie, lie la la la lie la lie, lie la lie
Lie la la la lie la lie, la la la la lie
Paul Simon uses deliberate instrumentation to produce a more vivid image of a “boxer”, the percussion suggesting the sound of the punch of a glove, from boxer to boxer
The chorus is wordless: the songwriter stated that “lie-la-lie” was originally intended only as a placeholder, but then it became a crucial part of the finished song.
“Lie la lie”, which contains both repetition and alliteration, also served to give the song more of an international appeal, as it was universal, according to the author.
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, but Simon revealed that the lyrics are largely autobiographical and were written at a time when he felt he was being unfairly criticized
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
Simon said he had found inspiration for this song in the Bible, which he used to read in hotels. That’s where phrases such as “workman’s wages” and “Seeking out the poorer quarters” came from.
The narrator is looking for a job, he is old and strong enough to be a “workman,” but he only finds opportunities to spend money, “on the Seventh Avenue“, once a place for easy hooking. He felt so bad he turned to the whores. While he found somewhat of a community among “the ragged people” before, he now finds himself only attractive to “whores.” So, he turns to them for consolation. (prostitutes were sometimes called ‘comfort women’)
During a benefit performance at the Hard Rock Cafe in a New York City in 2010, Paul Simon paused while singing “The Boxer” and told a funny story about this ‘bad word’.
He said that a woman had stopped him one day and told him she edited the lyrics when singing the song to her young child: she transformed “the whores” into “toy stores on Seventh Avenue”. Laughing, he commented that it sounded ‘a better line’.
… to be continued…