Songs that made us Episode 4: The Boxer by Simon & Garfunkel

Written by Holly Cooper - July 2020

Simon and Garfunkel are a folk-rock duo that consisted of singer/ songwriter Paul Simon and singer Art Garfunkel. The pair met at Parsons High School in Queens, New York City and when they were teenagers started performing under the name Tom and Jerry. They recorded their first single “Hey Schoolgirl” which was a success (selling 100 000 copies and reaching 49 on the Billboard charts). However, this was just the beginning of a rocky relationship between the two of them. 

Simon made the first mistake of agreeing to record two singles as a solo artist without telling Garfunkel. Garfunkel when asked about this said his friendship with Simon was “shattered”. The distrust between them eventually caused them to disband in 1958. In 1963 they decided to once again try to work together. They got signed by Columbia Records under their new name Simon and Garfunkel. Between 1963 and 1970 they released some big hits including The Sound of Silence, Mrs. Robinson, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and The Boxer. All of these songs gained huge popularity not only because they were fantastic songs but also the very public feud between Paul and Art. Soon after the release of the album, Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970 the duo once again went their separate ways. 

The pair got back together one last time in 1981 at a gig in Central Park, New York but the follow up album that was expected never materialized. “We had grown apart,” Simon said. “We didn’t think the same musically. We’d had 11 years of making our own records, where you didn’t have to agree on it. You just did what you wanted." Simon further explained this by saying "But if you were pulling at each other, it was torturous, and that’s what that was," he said, adding: "Artie would write a harmony that he really liked, and I would say, 'I don’t like that harmony,' and he’d say, 'Well, that’s the harmony,' and I’d say, 'No, you can’t just write the wrong harmony to my song.'" 

“For the first few years, it was just pure praise,” Paul Simon told Playboy magazine. “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.” In response, Simon wrote The Boxer when critics were writing their harshest criticisms about his music in 1970. "I think the song was about me: everybody's beating me up, and I'm telling you now I'm going to go away if you don't stop. By that time, we had encountered our first criticism.” In a sense, Simon was “The Boxer” fighting against criticism which he had previously never received. 

The Boxer was written in the duos home city, New York. The recording was however done in three locations, Columbia Records studios in New York City, as well as Nashville but the most interesting location, was St. Paul’s Chapel in New York. The chorus vocals were recorded here and definitely provided an interesting challenge for the recording crew but ensured great acoustics with the tiled dome of the Chapel. With all of the material that got recorded a standard 8-track recorder wasn’t enough so producer, Roy Halee, lobbied for a 16-track recorder from the boss of Columbia, Clive Davis who bought the machine. 

The Boxer in a sense is an autobiographical song about a man who is down on his luck in New York City, this was perfectly written in the first verse 

I am just a poor boy 
Though my story's seldom told 
I have squandered my resistance 
For a pocket full of mumbles, such are promises 

Simon also took inspiration from passages in the bible with lyrics such as “workman's wages” and “seeking out the poorer quarters" He found these during an airline flight. “I had taken a Bible from one of the hotels," Paul said. "And I was skimming the Bible." 

When writing the chorus Simon struggled to find something that fit and eventually put “lie la lie” as a place holder. "I thought that 'lie la lie was a failure of songwriting. I didn't have any words! Then people said it was 'lie' but I didn't really mean that. That it was a lie. But, it's not a failure of songwriting, because people like that and they put enough meaning into it, and the rest of the song has enough power and emotion, I guess, to make it go, so it's all right. But for me, every time I sing that part, I'm a little embarrassed." The chorus then proceeded to become the most memorable part of the song. 

In the final verse, Simon finally shifts to the third person so that the listener is able to meet the namesake of the song. 

In the clearing stands a boxer 
And a fighter by his trade 
And he carries the reminders 
Of ev'ry glove that laid him down 
Or cut him till he cried out 
In his anger and his shame 
"I am leaving, I am leaving" 
But the fighter still remains 

Simon makes it explicitly clear in this verse that his critics will not keep him down just like The Boxer will not be kept down by “every glove that laid him down”. 

The melody of the song works perfectly for it with the soft picking of the guitar strings throughout the verses starkly contrasted with the heavy, consistent drumbeat used in the chorus. The drum in the chorus helps to lift up the very simple “lie la lie” to make it incredibly memorable. 

Since the song was written many artists have covered it including Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond. However, none of these covers quite lived up to the popularity of Simon and Garfunkel’s original rendition and I believe none ever will. 



The extraordinary story of Simon & Garfunkel’s life-long feud, 
Art Garfunkel on His Unusual New Book, the End of Simon and Garfunkel, The Rolling Stones 
Simon and Garfunkel lyrics uncovered,