This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #73: The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel.
Some songs just have the loveliest writing.
“The Boxer” was written by Paul Simon for inclusion in Simon and Garfunkel’s fifth album, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”. It strikes me as possible that it took Paul Simon five albums worth of writing to feel confident enough to put pen to paper and dare to tell his life story in song. For that is what “The Boxer” is all about. It is Paul Simon’s autobiography, up until that point in his life. It is, also, a love song to New York City, where he was from. In less talented hands, the opening verse, which describes how he got into the music business, could have been leaden but, from Simon’s mind came the following poetry:
“I am just a poor boy
though my story’s seldom told
I have squandered my resistance
for a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises.
All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
and disregards the rest, mhmm.”
“The Boxer” was the follow-up single to the hugely successful, “Mrs. Robinson” and, as such, Simon and Garfunkel knew that they needed to craft a song that measured up to the high standards they were now regularly attaining. So, the story is that “The Boxer” took over 100 hours of studio time to record. Part of the reason for that was the perfectionist nature of Paul Simon. But, not unlike other contemporaries at the time, like The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel began to broaden their interpretation of what was possible when it came to recording sounds. As a result, one example of their expanded attention to detail can be seen in the fact that they used seven(!) different microphones to record session player, Fred Carter Jr, when he recorded his guitar part. One of the seven mics was used to record the rhythm of Carter’s breathing which, according to Paul Simon, had such a strong, rhythmic quality to it that they keep it and added it to the recording!
Another example of innovative use of recording sounds can be seen in how they got the one loud bass drum sound that you hear at the end of the “lie-la-lie” segments of the chorus. In order to make the drum sound loud, like cannon fire, they took the drummer down to the front lobby of an office building after hours, when it was relatively empty. Then, they placed him different locations to measure the decibel levels as the sound waves bounced off of the marble flooring, the smooth walls, etc. Finally, they found a sweet spot in front of a bank of elevators. So, as you listen to “The Boxer” today, try to visualize that lone drum beat being made in an office building, in front of elevator doors. In any case, it is easy to see how meticulous Simon and Garfunkel were when it came to recording “The Boxer” and why it took 100 hours to get it the way they liked.
Once recorded and released, “The Boxer” was a big hit with fans and quickly climbed the charts, making it a worthy successor to “Mrs. Robinson” for Simon and Garfunkel. But, far from just being a hit for them at the time of its’ release, “The Boxer” has figured prominently in all live concerts since and can easily be found on any Greatest Hits album. But, even more importantly than that, “The Boxer” has carved out a place for itself in History by being the first song sung on live tv from NYC after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. This moment occurred two weeks after the Towers fell. Paul Simon was asked to sing the song during the cold open for Saturday Night Live which was, that night, becoming the first live tv show broadcast since the tragedy happened. It was felt by President Bush and by then, NYC Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, that it was important to show the world that New York was still alive and kicking and that the city had conquered the fear and sadness of the attacks and were rising above it. Giuliani appeared with a contingent of fire fighters who had been working at Ground Zero trying to rescue lost and missing colleagues. After a few short words from the Mayor, Paul Simon opened with his song of perseverance and determination, as he sang, “I am just a poor boy, though my story’s seldom told…..” and, with those words, the city (and the country) began to heal.
Music is a powerful elixir.
I will include a live performance of “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel, along with a video that recaps the use of the song on Saturday Night Live after 9-11. All in all, “The Boxer” is one of my own personal, favourite songs of all-time. I adore the language Paul Simon used to describe his own journey through life and how so much of it was shaped by the city he loved, New York. For my money, it is some of the very best songwriting ever. I hope that you agree and that you enjoy listening to his story as it unfolds in the videos below. So, without further delay, here is “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “The Boxer” as sung live by Simon and Garfunkel, can be found here.
The link to the official video for the song, “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel, can be found here. *Listen for the big drum beat that was recorded in the office tower lobby.
The link to the video about how Paul Simon came to sing, “The Boxer” on Saturday Night Live right after 9-11, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Simon and Garfunkel, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP. for supporting the best music of all-time. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.