Album: Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon and Garfunkel
Rank: Song peaked at number 3 in the charts in 1969
The Boxer, by Paul Simon, is one of the iconic folk-rock ballads of the Baby Boomer music era. Released in 1969 as a follow-up to Mrs. Robinson, Simon wrote the autobiographical lyrics of the beatings he received from the music industry as they criticized his music.
In his 1984 Playboy interview, Simon revealed that he wrote this song when critics were writing harsh things about his music – he was the boxer. Said Simon: “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. For the first few years, it was just pure praise. 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. And maybe we weren’t real folkies at all! Maybe we weren’t even hippies!”
The song’s lyrics take the form of a first-person lament, as the singer describes his struggles to overcome loneliness and poverty in New York City. The final verse switches to a third-person sketch of a boxer, who, despite the effects of “every glove that laid him down or cut him till he cried out”,”I am leaving, I am leaving”—”but”, the lyrics continue, “the fighter still remains.”
The chorus of the song is wordless, consisting of a nine-time chant of “lie-la-lie”. Simon stated that this was originally intended only as a placeholder, but became part of the finished baby boomer music .
In a 1990 interview with SongTalk magazine, Simon said: “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.”
Simon added that the essentially wordless chorus gave the song more of an international appeal, as it was universal.
Simon found inspiration for this song in The Bible, which he would sometimes read in hotels. The lines, “Workman’s wages” and “Seeking out the poorer quarters” came from passages.