How Paul Simon Wrote “The Boxer”

The word­less cho­rus has become a gim­mick in sing-along bal­ladry and throw­away pop. Done bad­ly, it sounds like lazy song­writ­ing or — to take a phrase from Som­er­set Maugh­am — “unearned emo­tion.” At its best, a word­less cho­rus is a moment of sub­lim­i­ty, express­ing beau­ty or tragedy before which lan­guage fails. Either way, it usu­al­ly starts as a place­hold­er, in brack­ets. (As in, “we’ll put some­thing bet­ter here when we get around to it.”) Only lat­er in the song­writ­ing process does it become a choice.

In what may be one of the great­est choic­es of word­less cho­rus­es on record, Simon and Gar­funkel’s “The Box­er” chan­nels its raw pow­er in only two repeat­ed syl­la­bles (and pos­si­bly a word?): “Lie-la-lie, Lie-la-lie-lie-lie-lie-lie.…” The cho­rus of Paul Simon’s hit from 1970’s Bridge Over Trou­bled Water needs no more elab­o­ra­tion than the “arrest­ing whipcrack of a snare drum” (played by wreck­ing crew drum­mer Hal Blaine), Dan Einav writes at Finan­cial Times:

[The Box­er] was the result of a painstak­ing and pro­tract­ed record­ing process that took more than 100 hours, used numer­ous back­ing musi­cians and even spanned a num­ber of loca­tions — from Nashville, to St Paul’s Chapel at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, to the some­what less ethe­re­al set­ting of a hall­way abut­ting an echoey ele­va­tor shaft at one of Colum­bia Records’ New York stu­dios.

Simon’s epic nar­ra­tive song was hard­ly like “the unvar­nished, home­spun records that were per­haps more close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with folk music at the time,” and that was exact­ly the idea.

Some saw the “lie-la-lie” as a dig at Bob Dylan’s inau­then­tic pre­sen­ta­tion as a Woody Guthrie-like fig­ure. Simon debunked the the­o­ry in a 1984 inter­view quot­ed in the Poly­phon­ic video at the top. “I think the song was about me: every­body’s beat­ing me up.” He explained the theme of the beat­en but unbowed con­tender as com­ing out of the fig­u­ra­tive drub­bing he and Art Gar­funkel had tak­en from the crit­ics:

For the first few years, it was just praise. 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. And maybe we weren’t real folkies at all! May we weren’t even hip­pies!”

He wise­ly steered the song away from a nar­ra­tive about a guy who wasn’t even a hip­pie. And being a guy from Queens, he could tell a New York Sto­ry like few oth­ers could. Simon ref­er­ences his frus­tra­tion at being mis­un­der­stood, but his pro­tag­o­nist’s strug­gle to make it in the big city is far more uni­ver­sal than a song­writer’s angst.

The box­er is an “arche­typ­al char­ac­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the strug­gle and lone­li­ness that can come with work­ing class life,” notes Poly­phon­ic. “The sec­ond verse is a care­ful por­trait of this exis­tence, depict­ing the box­er as a young man try­ing to find his foot­ing in a harsh world.”

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

The mid­dle-class Simon did­n’t live this char­ac­ter’s life, nor did he pur­sue a box­ing career. But his abil­i­ty to imag­ine the lives of oth­ers through sto­ry-songs like “The Box­er” has been one of his great­est strengths as a writer. Simon’s nar­ra­tive gift served him well over and over in his career, and has served his fans. We can feel the feel­ings of Simon’s school­yard delin­quent, his frus­trat­ed lover look­ing for a way out, and his bit­ter, down-and-out trag­ic hero try­ing to make it in the big city, whether or not we’ve been there our­selves.

In the videos above, you can learn more about the writ­ing of this clas­sic cry of des­per­a­tion and strug­gle from Poly­phon­ic; and, learn about the record­ing from musi­cians who played on it, includ­ing drum­mer Hal Blaine. Then, see Simon and Gar­funkel fill out the song’s melody with their time­less har­monies live in Cen­tral Park, and, just above, see Simon by him­self in 2020, play­ing a solo ver­sion ded­i­cat­ed to his fel­low New York­ers com­bat­ing the fear and suf­fer­ing of COVID dur­ing lock­down.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Watch Simon & Gar­funkel Sing “The Sound of Silence” 45 Years After Its Release, and Just Get Haunt­ing­ly Bet­ter with Time

Paul Simon Tells the Sto­ry of How He Wrote “Bridge Over Trou­bled Water” (1970)

Paul Simon Decon­structs “Mrs. Robin­son” (1970)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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