‘The Boxer’ — Simon and Garfunkel, May 1969
Ask the casual Simon and Garfunkel fan what their classic song “The Boxer” is all about and most would likely declare it a sketch of a down-and-out pugilist who struggles to survive with dignity in a harsh and indifferent world.
The song’s creator, though, says otherwise. “The thing is the song was about me,” admitted Paul Simon years later. “Everybody’s beating me up, and I’m telling you now I’m going to go away if you don’t stop.”
Beating him up? What was that about?
Simon and Garfunkel had exploded onto the mid-1960s folk-rock scene with the chart-topping 45 “The Sounds of Silence.” Three years and nine Top 40 singles later, the pair had, to some critics, come to be seen in the music scene as two hitmaking but unevolved folkies being left behind in a fast-changing music world. That world now embraced the styles of Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, and the latter-day Beatles.
As teenagers, Simon and Garfunkel had recorded as Tom and Jerry and landed on the 1957 Billboard chart when their Simon-created “Hey! Schoolgirl” became a minor hit. But after six years of follow-up flops, the partners decided to split up for a while. In 1963, Simon finished an English degree at Queens College and set off as a solo folk act. Garfunkel stayed behind to pursue a master’s degree in mathematics at Columbia University.
Paul Simon is one of popular music’s most astute poets, and he sometimes makes us dig a bit to find deeper meanings in his lyrics; such is the case with “The Boxer.” As a metaphor for the author, the protagonist leaves home as a “poor boy.” In Simon’s case, he moves to England, where he frequents railway stations and “lays low” while struggling to find work not in the fight ring but in London clubs and pubs.
Back in New York, the boxer admittedly takes some comfort later “from the whores on Seventh Avenue.” However, Big Apple prostitutes usually worked 42nd Street; Seventh Avenue ran through Manhattan’s business district and was the locale of Columbia Records, Simon and Garfunkel’s recording home. Were the “suits” at Columbia the actual whores —people who were only in the game for the money — or were the whores Simon and Garfunkel themselves, artists who sold their souls for success in the world of music?
Near the end of “The Boxer” comes a shift from a first-person voice to a third-person voice. This switch allows Simon to tell the world — and his critics —that he might be beaten, but he’s not beat, and that “the fighter still remains.”
When Simon performed a solo concert in New York City later on, he stopped during “The Boxer” to tell of meeting a woman on the street who admittedly edits his tune whenever she sings it to her young child. Her altered lyric: “I get no offers, just a come-on from toy stores on Seventh Avenue.”
Simon laughed — and credited the lady with creating a better line!