Folk rock duo Simon and Garfunkel’s hit single, The Boxer, is full of personal memories and deep meanings for songwriter Paul Simon. Every time he plays the song, it strikes a chord for many different reasons.
The melancholy lyrics summed up the way he was feeling at the time, but today, it has both happy and sad memories for the 77-year-old star. Although he wrote The Boxer when he was feeling at a low point in his life, he also met his future wife, architect Linda Grossman, while recording it. In a way, it changed his fortunes.
Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were long-time friends and established recording stars when they released The Boxer in March 1969. They had become friends in 1953 at Parsons Junior High School in Queens, New York, due to their shared love of music – in particular, rock and roll.
After forming their first band, a doo-wop group called The Peptones, they then started a pop duo called Tom and Jerry and earned a recording deal when they were only 15 and still at Forest Hills High School. Playing on the TV show Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, they earned $4,000 royalties, but their two follow-up singles didn’t chart.
On leaving school in 1958, they went their separate ways to different universities and looked set to be one-hit wonders, but on meeting up again in 1963, their education completed, they reformed as a duo, initially calling themselves Kane and Garr and then changing their name to their real surnames.
As Simon and Garfunkel, they won their first record deal with Columbia Records in 1964 and had a massive hit with their debut single, The Sound of Silence.
Although they had moved away from their early doo-wop and rock and roll roots, the genres’ influences were unmistakable in their music and they established themselves as a unique rock-folk duo.
They went on to have many major hits, including albums such as Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, which went triple platinum in the United States in 1968, and singles including Mrs Robinson, which was a number one US hit and number four UK hit in the same year.
After the massive success of Mrs Robinson, Simon and Garfunkel received their first criticism from the music press – a factor that influenced Simon when he was writing The Boxer for the album, Bridge Over Troubled Water.
He later said he had written The Boxer about himself. In an interview in 1984, he explained that during the first four years of their career as Simon and Garfunkel, it had just been “pure praise” from the music press.
However, as the main songwriter of the duo, he said that after the initial surge of success and compliments, the first criticism of his music hit him hard. He felt like people suddenly looked upon them as “just two guys from Queens who used to sing rock and roll”.
Although as Simon and Garfunkel they had distanced themselves from the Everly Brothers comparisons they had drawn as Tom and Jerry, there were suggestions from the critics that they “weren’t real folkies at all” and “weren’t even hippies”, implying they were fakes.
When he wrote The Boxer, Simon was still smarting from the criticisms and the lyrics were very personal to him. He wrote of being “no more than a boy” when he left his home and his family to live in the poorer areas of town, looking for a job and “asking only workman’s wages”.
The narrator of the song said the only offers he’d received were from “the whores” – a line that some women didn’t like. He related the tale of how a woman had approached him one day, while walking down the street, to tell him how much she loved The Boxer.
However, when she sang it to her young child, she replaced the words “the whores” with “toy stores”, so her child thought it was about the toy shops on Seventh Avenue! Simon laughingly said this was a “better line” than his original lyric.
In the final verse of the song, the narrator describes a boxer, a “fighter by trade”, carrying the “reminders of every glove that laid him down”. The boxer now felt “anger and shame” that he had announced “I am leaving,” after suffering the painful cuts, insisting “the fighter still remains.”
Simon revealed that when he wrote The Boxer, he felt “Everybody’s beating me up,” and was telling people “I’m going to go away if you don’t stop,” as he was on the verge of bowing out of his musical career.
The last line, about how the fighter still remained, summed up his attitude that he really wasn’t going anywhere, and he was just angry.
Simon also revealed that he still hated singing the chorus – a series of the repeated lyrics, “Lie la lie,” sung many times – because he had never meant to include it in the finished song.
The nonsensical chorus was intended to be a “placeholder”, filling in space until he thought of the right words, but it ended up becoming part of the finished song. He said in an interview in 1990 “I didn’t have any words, then people said it was ‘lie’, but I didn’t mean that.”
Simon said he had forever thought of the repetitive “lie” chorus as “a little embarrassing” every time he had to sing it, but he added it wasn’t particularly a “failure of song writing”, as people seemed to like it and put meaning into it, while the rest of the song had sufficient “power and emotion” to compensate for the chorus. If anything, he found it had given The Boxer “universal appeal”.
The Boxer (a top 10 hit in 1969) has both happy and sad memories for Simon. It represents a period in his life that had been miserable initially, due to the music press criticising his work, but suddenly, his life turned around when he met his future wife.
He had invited Linda Grossman to the recording studio in Nashville, as he thought she would be interested in seeing how it worked when they recorded The Boxer. His hunch proved correct, as despite Linda being reluctant at first, she became very interested in the recording process and sat in the studio for hours, watching from the engineering console.
Simon admitted to feeling “impressed and flattered” by her continued interest and the fact she wanted to “know everything”, recalling how she sat with her chin resting on her wrist, watching the recording unfold, apparently fascinated.
Afterwards, they went out on a date and Simon admitted Linda “charmed” him. After dating for three years, he proposed and she said yes. Sadly, some years later, they divorced, but the star still has fond memories of how writing and recording The Boxer lifted him from the pit of dismay and anger that he’d been feeling.
It also has memories that aren’t so happy. Ironically, Simon and Garfunkel were performing The Boxer on stage on 3rd June 2016, at a concert in New York, when the tragic news broke that legendary boxer Muhammad Ali had died at the age of 74.
They stopped the song midway through and Simon announced the breaking news, “I’m sorry to tell you, but Muhammad Ali has passed away.” They went on to sing the final verse of The Boxer, beginning “In the clearing stands a boxer,” in tribute to the sporting icon.
Simon and Garfunkel today
During their long career, Simon and Garfunkel have released 24 albums and 26 singles. One of their most famous albums, Bridge over Troubled Water, has been voted number 51 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It was certified eight times platinum and sold more than 25 million copies.
The duo performed live regularly until 2010, although had a few break-ups over the years, citing artistic differences. They have won 10 Grammy Awards and became inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Around half a million watched their free concert in Central Park, New York, in 1981.
They have continued to play the occasional reunion gig and this year celebrated 50 years since the release of one of their greatest hits, Mrs Robinson.
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