Lyric Theory: “The Boxer,” Simon and Garfunkel (1970)

The poet reads his crooked rhyme…
Thirty dollars pays your rent on Bleecker Street. (Paul Simon)

Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village

Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village

One endearing feature of music trends is their habit of hopping from one local scene to another. Picture 1960s Motown in Detroit, or Prince’s funky 1980s enclave in Minneapolis, or the early 1990s Seattle grunge scene, or the hippies in greater Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon circa 1970. Musicians cross-pollinate in communities that form, flourish for a few years, and then wither into legend. Greenwich Village, NYC hosted one such scene in the mid 1960s. Its cheap rents attracted impoverished artists who collaborated, conspired, and competed in coffeehouses and clubs such as Gerde’s Folk City and The Bitter End. The artsiness of the general Greenwich/SoHo area has been widely celebrated in song by its present, former, and would-be denizens: Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning,” Dar Williams’ “Spring Street,” Paul Simon’s “Bleecker Street,” and the like.

I could find a small apartment
Where a struggling artist died
And pretend, because I pay the rent,
I know that pain inside (Dar Williams)

Simon and his sixth-grade classmate Art Garfunkel had participated in a school play together and performed on and off as “Tom and Jerry” for years in high school and college while Simon studied English and Garfunkel, math and architecture. In 1964, they recorded an album for Columbia Records as “Simon and Garfunkel.” It went nowhere, and Simon decamped for England, where he wrote songs for other artists, including “Red Rubber Ball,” a #2 hit stateside for The Cyrkle. That song, like Simon’s later work with Garfunkel, featured acoustic rock stylings and close harmony singing reminiscent of late 50s country-pop teen idols The Everly Brothers.

Meanwhile, in Simon’s absence, S&G’s producer remixed their sparse folk ballad “The Sounds of Silence” with rock instrumentation. It went to #1, and Simon renewed his partnership with Garfunkel, releasing a string of four huge albums that helped define intelligent late ’60s pop.

Simon wrote all the lyrics, wrote all the melodies, sang, and played the guitar. Garfunkel … sang. He sang very prettily, but Bob Dylan’s nasal twang had rewritten the rules of pop listening expectations on that account. Garfunkel knew he was dispensable, and he attempted to build an acting career with the aid of director Mike Nichols, who had previously used S&G’s repertoire heavily in his film “The Graduate.” Simon, for his part, found the life of S&G so busy that all of his new songs were about their whirlwind pop star lifestyle, and the rising drama of their partnership. By the end of 1970, it was all over, save sporadic reunions for short-term projects.

I’m laying out my winter clothes
And wishing I was gone, going home
Where the New York City winters
Aren’t bleeding me (Paul Simon)

All these influences came together on their final studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. The title track, a gospel piano-drenched hymn of brotherly comfort, became one of the most recorded songs besides “Happy Birthday.” “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” declared the narrator’s desire to escape the hubbub and quietly “sail away like a swan, here and gone.” “Cecilia,” referencing the Roman Catholic patron saint of musicians, lamented Simon’s bouts of writer’s block, depicting his muse of inspiration as a fickle lover who abandons him mid-coitus. “Keep the Customer Satisfied” re-imagined S&G as a duo of petty criminals, skipping from town to town but concluding, “I’m so tired.” “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” (nodding to Garfunkel’s interest in architecture) and “The Only Living Boy in New York” directly addressed the duo’s imminent dissolution. “Baby Driver” recalls Simon’s musical upbringing, including a bass-playing father. “Bye Bye Love” covered the Everly Brothers while reinforcing the theme of farewells.

I can’t believe your song is gone so soon.
I barely learned the tune.
I remember, “Frank Lloyd Wright,”
All of the nights we harmonized ’til dawn.
I never laughed so long.
So long, so long. (Paul Simon)

"That's OK, Paul. 'Just Like a Woman' is really about you."

“That’s OK, Paul. ‘Just Like a Woman’ is really about you.”

After the celebrated title track, the album’s other cornerstone was the five-plus-minute “The Boxer,” which although produced by Roy Hallee follows good Phil Spector production technique, building from a quiet country guitar lick to a howling banshee finale with choral harmonies, buzzing bass harmonica, fuzzed up bass guitar, and even massive chains slapped against the floor of a vacant warehouse. The lyrics describe a man who tried to make a career in New York City, is weighed down by failure, and leaves for pleasanter climes, insisting nonetheless that he’s not beaten. Simon apologists saw in the song a satire targeting his rival Bob Dylan, allegedly a “poor boy” prone to “lie lie lie lie lie lie” about the circumstances of his past, building a personal mythology to confound the press and his fans.

Such a jab would not have been unprecedented; Simon had already poked fun at Dylan with the parody song “A Simple Desultory Phillipic (Or, How I was Robert McNamara’d into Submission)” back in 1966. But with “The Boxer,” Dylan, who covered the song himself on his “Self Portrait” double album the year it was released, surely knew better. Carly Simon’s (no relation) “You’re So Vain” has been dissected similarly for 40 years. Is it about Warren Beatty? Jack Nicholson? Some other famous beau? Yes, to all. It’s about all the powerful, entitled litterati of the Manhattan publishing industry in which she grew up as part of the Simon & Schuster conglomerate, and all the privileged, preening glitterati she met in Hollywood before and during her marriage to James Taylor.

You’re where you should be, all the time,
And when you’re not, you’re with
Some underworld spy,
Or the wife of a close friend. (Carly Simon)

Joe Frazier vs Muhammad Ali, Madison Square Garden, 1971

Joe Frazier vs Muhammad Ali, Madison Square Garden, 1971

In the same way, “The Boxer” is about Dylan, but also about Paul Simon, and every street corner busker in Greenwich Village. They come to town seeking a music career but find only “a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue,” probably a reference to Columbia Records’ Studio C (701 Seventh Avenue) or Studio A (799 Seventh Avenue), or perhaps to Madison Square Garden, which opened in 1968 at its new Pennsylvania Plaza location on the block contained by 7th and 8th Avenues, and 31st through 33rd Streets, or to Carnegie Hall (881 7th Avenue). The promises of concert promoters and music industry executives are eventually recognized as “a pocketful of mumbles… all lies and jest.”

Hustle's the name of the game, and nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain

Hustle’s the name of the game, and nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain

The “musician as prostitute” theme has been mined by other stars through the years. In 1975, Glen Cambell recorded Larry Weiss’ “Rhinestone Cowboy,” which depicts a man endlessly treading “the dirty sidewalks of Broadway” in hopes of gaudy glory (rhinestones, not real diamonds) with “the lights shining on me… and offers coming over the phone.” The cowboy image likely came from “Midnight Cowboy,” the 1965 book made into an Oscar-winning 1969 film starring Dustin Hoffman (post -“The Graduate”) as a pimp attempting to help Texan Jon Voight  make his way as a gigolo in NYC. Weiss, like Paul Simon, had grown up in New Jersey and Queens and knew the musician’s career frustration of “riding a train that’s taking the long way.” North Carolina-based singer-songwriter David Wilcox’s 1999 album track “Sex and Music,” in an extended metaphor, also ruminates on the uncomfortable parallels between his career and the oldest profession:

“At first you say you do it for love
But then you do it with friends
As soon as you do it for money
Right there’s where the innocence ends…
And it leads you to strange addictions
like image and marketing spin
You’re just trying to get them to like you,
and how could that be such a sin?” (David Wilcox)

Many’s the musician with misgivings about the intersection of art and commerce. As for Paul Simon, his fortunes undulated from peaks in 1976 (Grammies for Album of the Year and Best Male Pop Performance) and 1981 (rejoining Garfunkel for a Concert in Central Park before an awed hometown crowd of half a million New Yorkers)  to a subsequent nadir followed by a triumphant comeback on 1986’s “Graceland” album, which won Album and Record (i.e. recorded song) of the year awards. He has finally settled comfortably into the role of musical elder statesman in the thirty years since then, but still puts out new records. The fighter still remains.


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