The Big Apple... The City of Lights... The City that Never Sleeps... The Five Boroughs... The City so Nice they named it Twice... The Center of the Universe...
New York, New York has so many names. It is so well known that it hardly seems appropriate to spend any characters, words, sentences, and paragraphs discussing it. I don’t think it’s possible for any single writer to encapsulate everything that is New York in a series
of articles, let alone only one. To really understand New York, you have to go there; whether it be to visit or to live. Nobody can adequately explain the present-day capital of the free world until you’ve been there.
That being said, it is the song place for the Simon & Garfunkel song "The Boxer" (another one of this writer’s favorite tunes of all time). The music scene in New York is literally as diverse as its population. The history of the music scene from Tin Pan Alley (at the turn of the 20th century) through the legendary Brill Building of the '50s and '60s and to the underground punk rock movement of the early '80s - not to mention Broadway (duh!) - the Big Apple is a musical melting pot. It was this vibrant tradition that caused many unknown, starving artists to move there seeking fame and fortune. Paul Simon was no different.
Born just a stone’s throw away from Manhattan in Newark, New Jersey, Simon began his musical career at an early age. He even began performing with Art Garfunkel before their teen years. Not much is written about his struggle to break into the entertainment industry, especially since their song "Hey, Schoolgirl" (recorded under the moniker Tom & Jerry) reached No. 49 on the Billboard charts while they were still in high school. One must pay close attention to Simon’s lyrical poetry for an accurate concept of how he felt at early parts of his career.
"The Boxer" tells the story of a man toiling with his career after having relocated to New York. Simon specifically used the symbolism of a prize fighter in spite of the fact that the character isn’t necessarily a boxer. The song is autobiographical, Simon explained in an interview with Playboy
in 1984. “Everybody’s beating me up. And I’m telling you now, I’m going to go away if you don’t stop.” The melody is beautiful, which offsets the depressing and gut-wrenching lyrics.
A bridge in Harlem where you might spot The Boxer
“Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters where the ragged people go.” The narrator laments as he tries to overcome his loneliness, poverty, depression, and isolation. The first two thirds of the song is in the first person; the boxer himself is singing to the listeners. “Asking only workman’s wages, I’ve come looking for a job, but I get no offers.” He takes us along this journey with him, and between the finger-picked guitar and the heartfelt vocals, we feel his pain and agony.
The final verse is different; it switches to a character sketch sung in the third person. Some outsider has met or seen the boxer when he’s finally reached the end of his rope. Like the listeners, this second narrator is an eye-witness to the boxer’s struggle. In a clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade…
The song is a sad one, but it would’ve been even sadder with the inclusion of the missing verse. Now the years are rolling by me
They are rockin’ evenly
I am older than I once was
And younger than I’ll be; 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…
The duo performed this missing verse live a plethora of times dating as far back as their 1969 tour. Simon has also performed it solo, following the break with Garfunkel (as well as their reunion shows). Where does it fit into the song? Prior to the third-person verse, but after the “New York City winters" line. The vivid imagery Simon paints of this pathetic man’s life just adds to the tugged heartstrings, each one plucked time and time again along with the guitar.
The chorus, humorously enough was meant to only be a placeholder. Songwriters often compose melodies without words and then fill in the words later. For example, Paul McCartney originally sang "Yesterday" as "scrambled eggs." The "lie-la-lie" refrain was left in only because Simon felt the rest of the song had so much power and emotion, he didn’t need to worry about crafting additional lyrics. Therefore, the placeholder stuck and was recorded as-written (it’s a good thing McCartney didn’t do the same thing or the world would be left with the single most-covered song in popular music history being about breakfast foods).
The Boxer reached #7 on the Hot 100 and appeared on Simon & Garfunkel’s final studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water.
The Boxer Songfacts
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