We’ll Perfect Our Chemistry: Simon & Garfunkel, “The Boxer”

An ode to dreaming of living somewhere else, only to stay in the place where your grief got its name.

Music Features Simon & Garfunkel
We’ll Perfect Our Chemistry: Simon & Garfunkel, “The Boxer”

In April 2015, as the end of my junior year in high school was coming to a close, my friends and I petitioned the administration to bring back a dormant creative writing course. The previous autumn, I wrote an essay about the symbolism in The Great Gatsby, got a high-mark and decided that, just maybe, I had a knack for the writing game. After laboring through semesters of reading Shakespeare and The Crucible, I quickly found myself knocking on the door of college applications with no real sense of what job I wanted to do as an adult. I was a closeted queer with no real tangible physical skills or trade knowledge (not mutually exclusive, just a matter of fact); I could name every member of the 500 home run club from memory, style my hair into a mean pompadour and, in middle school, had gathered a reputation for being pretty good at drawing. But once I figured out that drawing portraits of your crushes was not a practical business model for dating, I abandoned my sketchbook in favor of weed and a “cinephile phase.” I watched Almost Famous and thought I could do that, but my parents didn’t buy into the idea of me having a creative career immediately. They thought I should go be a lawyer instead (because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut and loved to argue.) What good was I gonna do in the real world as an artist? Move to New York City, become the next Warhol and die alone? Nah. So, I became a writer instead.

Paul Simon was born in October 1941 in Newark and, four years later, his family moved to Kew Garden Hills in Queens and then, in 1952, he met a kid named Art Garfunkel while performing together in Alice in Wonderland at their sixth grade graduation—only to begin singing together and performing at dances when they were 13. Cut to 1968, and Simon penned “The Boxer” in the same year he and Garfunkel released their brilliant, folkloric concerto Bookends. The duo co-produced the track with their longtime boardsman Roy Halee, but it didn’t make it onto that record, instead landing on Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970 after a single release the March prior (an anomaly of the era, as most singles weren’t released that far in advance of albums). One Christmas, my mom put a Paul Simon compilation CD (a non-Essentials release that, to my knowledge, there is no record of ever existing online) in my stocking and it brandished a live version of “The Boxer” at the tracklist’s end.

It was a disc that went Platinum in my mom’s Pontiac, as we’d listen to it over and over every time we’d make a day out of going to Cleveland for a baseball game or have a long trek to the foothills of Western Pennsylvania for a family reunion neither of us really wanted go to. And of course, I adored “Graceland” and “Kodachrome,” as any 10-year-old proudly would, but that rendition of “The Boxer” always transfixed me—though I still don’t know when or where it was recorded, as the CD has fallen victim to car trade-ins and the sands of time. Six or seven years later, though, after I got a driver’s license of my own and spent aimless hours in my mall’s FYE store pouring over their vault of CDs, I picked up a used copy of Bridge Over Troubled Water—on account of “The Boxer”’s inclusion on side two.

“The Boxer” had the unfortunate destiny of following up “Mrs. Robinson,” one of the most commercially successful folk rock songs of all time (it went #1 on the Hot 100 and clocked in at #9 on the year-end chart). The Bridge Over Troubled Water cut would soar to #7 and hit the Top 10 in eight other countries, but it’s softer palette was not quite gentle enough to be a stand-still ballad and its vibrant swells weren’t quite explosive enough to register as anthemic—though I would argue it’s one of the few songs that very gracefully exists as both a ballad and an anthem. The story goes that it took Simon and Garfunkel more than 100 hours to finish recording “The Boxer,” performing it at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University in New York and Columbia Records’ studio in Nashville—the latter of which was done on a 16-track—with Curly Chalker, Charlie McCoy, Fred Carter Jr., Jimmie Haskell and Ernie Freeman and the Wrecking Crew’s Hal Blaine.

It wasn’t hard to get a class reintroduced into the curriculum at my school, which housed about 490-ish kids K-12 when I was enrolled there. As long as a teacher gave the O.K. to teach it and a handful of students were interested enough in taking it, all you needed to do was snag a few signatures and say “please” to the principal a few times. Creative writing became my elective senior year, and it was taught by a woman named Mrs. Paul, who, when I was nothing more than a 13-year-old agent of chaos with undiagnosed ADHD and a penchant for bullying the only other overweight kid in my class, showed me The Outsiders and The Giver—two books that effectively altered my brain chemistry during the recession. She was barely in her 20s herself when I fell into the lap of her 7th grade English course. I suppose back then, I was subconsciously searching for some kind of magic I couldn’t make on my own. And sometimes I still dream about her classroom, which resided on the top floor of the oldest building in town, where the wood floors sang their song with every step and the walls were lined with bookshelves that held a thousand stories. At night, when I sit alone on my couch typing away, I imagine the wind outside my window is the same gust that used to buckle the rusted fire escape just outside the back-row window I’d stare out of when I wasn’t being disciplined. Stay Gold, Ponyboy, indeed.

After watching the Simon & Garfunkel-scored The Graduate, I decided that I was going to, after graduating college, move to New York City and try making it as a writer—not a journalist, but maybe a poet or a novelist. It was a California movie that, to me, felt quintessentially East Coast—perhaps on account of Simon & Garfunkel’s folkloric soundtrack, or perhaps because of the proximity I felt to the character of Benjamin and his familiar lack of purpose. I’d been accumulating loss and grief slowly, and I felt like it could all be a story worth telling in the one place where everyone else was telling their stories. Something felt good about that dream, one that millions and millions of would-be creatives have had at least once in their lives, as I was not yet conscious of what it takes to survive in a city with 8 million living in it. To me then, the idea of leaving a 3,000-person rural Ohio town for the sleepless Eden in bed with the Hudson felt possible.

My mom was a bit more level-headed than I was, and she knew I should probably visit NYC before I packed up and moved there. So that winter, we took a few-day trip there together—doing the touristy things like everyone else, like trying to navigate the busyness of Times Square and watching the city from the Rockefeller Center rooftop. When you’re 17 and the devotions of your life are not yet smothered by rent hikes and industry layoffs (and the general downturn of adulthood that, if you’re extra unlucky, gets squished into an extra-depressive pulp during a global pandemic), even the one place everyone lives and dies and shines and fails in feels like a blank canvas. You’re the first person to ever see their reflection in the Jackie Kennedy Reservoir; you’re the first person to have their picture taken in the same spot on Jones Street where Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo once stood on an album cover. While laying in my hotel bed, I heard the noise outside the window beside me and hoped it would never leave me.

Long before writing “The Boxer,” much of Simon and Garfunkel’s work was rooted in more traditional folk scoring. Rarely did their music flirt with the ornate stylings we often associate with their later period—though, on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme the duo began using the Wrecking Crew as backing players and experimented with more lavish soundscapes that included organs and harpsichord. It was a method Simon and Garfunkel would adopt in full on Bookends, abandoning their subway singer roots for dense, full-bodied productions. “The Boxer”—along with all of Bridge Over Troubled Water—embraced everything from gospel to world music to pop and even jazz, becoming a cornerstone of what Stephen M. Deusner once called their “most effortless record and their most ambitious.” Knowing what we do about the track and its 100-hour production time, it’s a miracle that the final cut doesn’t sound overwrought, too fine-tuned or far more concerned with Simon’s own perfectionism.

There’s a story that Carter told Fretboard Journal 15 years ago about how he came to play five guitar parts on “The Boxer.” On a baby Martin 000-18, he and Simon (who was playing a Martin D-18) fingerpicked a melody together in open C before Carter turned the first string down to a D and ticked the bass string up to a G—making the whole guitar part done in open-G (except for, as Carter explained, the fifth string). The two pickers “lucked into a lick” and miked Carter up with seven microphones as he played parts on a Telecaster, 12-string and a six-string finger Dobro, too. “I never heard the total record until I heard it on the air… I thought: That’s the greatest record I heard in my life, especially after the scrutiny and after all the time they spent on it and breakin’ it apart musically and soundwise and all of it,” Carter said. “There was some magic in the studio that day, and Roy Halee captured it. Paul and I had a really nice groove.” And from the first note of Carter’s guitar, the emotional spectrum of “The Boxer” widens.

“The Boxer” only has one drumbeat—a part that plays out behind Simon and Garfunkel’s “lie-la-lie” refrain that carries the song home. Blaine and Halee tracked the reverbed drums in front of an elevator at the Columbia Records office building while the live band was playing the song in another room. Scaring a security guard in the process, Blaine’s signature percussive thunder shines in a minimal stroke of rhythmic genius on the song, erupting with a level of restraint that aches to overshadow the refrain but generously kneels before the energy swarming around his pounding. “There we were with all these mic cables, my drums, and a set of headphones. When the chorus came around—the ‘lie-la-lie’ bit—Roy had me come down on my snare drum as hard as I could. In that hallway, by the elevator shaft, it sounded like a cannon shot! Which was just the kind of sound we were after,” Blaine said.

A few years ago, I found a plastic bin full of my “senior year mementos”—also known to the layman as everything my mom couldn’t bring her to get rid of after I graduated. There were the usual suspects in there, like my cap and gown and diploma, but there was also a folder full of my assignments from Mrs. Paul’s creative writing class. Most of it is rubbish that I wouldn’t dare read again, even if you paid me to. But, in there was my final project, which was a long essay (in 12th grade, “long” means about five pages) I’d written about my mental health getting worse in parallel to my grandma’s dementia growing more and more unreasonable—all with a backdrop of our Rust Belt outskirts town, abandoned steel plants and all, in the wallpaper behind us. I titled it “Punch-Drunk” as a cheeky wink at brain-fog and used a lot of boxing imagery to convey the root of my suffering; I’d recently seen Raging Bull and really wanted to be like Ernest Hemingway.

The “Punch-Drunk” essay was fine, but I definitely cribbed a lot of the language in it from some pop-punk songs I was particularly stoked on around that time. I remember having an advisory meeting with Mrs. Paul to talk about my first draft of the story, and I think that was the very moment when I realized I wanted to be a writer. She wasn’t praising the work, but I could tell that she liked it. I don’t think a teacher had liked anything I’d done before, not up until that point at least, and I think she could sense that the act of writing those five pages brought me a lot of joy that I, to be completely honest with you, really desperately needed back then. And I have to believe that seeing the lightbulb in a student’s head click aglow is a gift. Mrs. Paul wasn’t all that great of a writer herself, but she was quite good at shepherding me into being a good writer. I get asked all the time by undergraduates or prospective journalists what got me into writing—and the funny answer is the Gatsby essay. But the real answer is a mid-class meeting in 2016 when my favorite teacher bought into my newfound dream without saying so—which is maybe funny in its own way.

I enrolled in Hiram College—one of the few institutions in Ohio that offered a creative writing program—that August. It’s a small liberal arts school posing as a village, with nearby attractions like Amish communities, the home where Mormon zealot Joseph Smith once lived, an apple orchard, a drive-in movie theater and a coffee shop with a bible verse as the wifi passcode. James Garfield was president at Hiram before he was president of the country; the poet Hart Crane was born 10 minutes away at the turn of the 20th century. My mom had gone to college there in the ‘90s and always spun the autumns on campus into proverbs. I wanted to go to Cleveland State University or, unrealistically, NYU, but, upon seeing the canopies of technicolor leaves hugging the sidewalks and the old colonial homes fashioned into classrooms across the village, my destiny changed.

If you went to Hiram College at the end of the 2010s, we most likely crossed paths on a sidewalk and did our best to avoid the mythical pleasantries of a “Hiram Hello.” Explained to us students as a never-ending stream of energetic, momentous and warm welcomes, I preferred to consider it one of those very universal wrinkled-frown-plus-eye-brow-raises that us Midwesterners have perfected instead of a smile in passing. Perhaps we exchanged a nod, or a quick “hey” as we crossed the intersection near a hillside of dorms, as our backpacks full of books or drugs or hawked red baskets of lukewarm French fries plopped against our backs while we trekked above sea-level. Maybe we knew each other by name, maybe we didn’t. In another lifetime, we might have considered each other beautiful and fleeting. In another lifetime, we might have never been there to begin with.

And I think about how, despite my one-time dreams of living in a place where you can see memories of your entire life on the faces of strangers, I spent the first 22 years of my life in towns where “stranger” wasn’t a part of the local lexicon. It wasn’t in my vocabulary to be in community with someone whose name I did not know, but a part of me yearned deeply for stable-footing in a city with lots of places to hide and people to forget. Going to Hiram—though only 15 minutes northwest of the house I grew up in—came packaged in the same, frustrating shapes as the punishing haunts of displacement that Paul Simon wrote about in “The Boxer.” I came of age in a straight man’s hotbed, where I wrestled with false identities as placating placeholders and watched loved ones die slowly until, at long last, the company I kept became, as Simon tells it, “a pocketful of mumbles.” That’s how the world aches for the poor boys; I felt like the embodiment of “when I left my home and my family, I was no more than a boy in the company of strangers” eight years and one gender ago.

When my friends and I were planning a trip to New York in August 2016, I sat in my grandmother’s upstairs bedroom and put together a Spotify playlist of songs about the city. I think, in retrospect, I fell in love with New York from afar because it felt like a place I could run to and finally be free of death. But to exist there is to survive and to flirt with endings—both your own and everyone else’s. I don’t believe in fate, but there was something cosmic, to me, about falling in love with “The Boxer” in my mom’s car years ago—only to later buy into the riches of New York’s promises during teenagerdom and write a high school essay about the vestiges of dementia through similar costumes of violence and sorrow. Even when Paul Simon is lamenting loneliness and poverty through biblical phrasings of “workman’s wages” and alley-dwellers “seeking out the poorer quarters,” there is something attractive about it all—about the heartbreaking reality of even our most marvelous utopias being plagued by undercurrents of piercing, damning alienation. We could see lonesomeness as a gift and stick around. We could always just do that.

New students at Hiram had until the end of the first semester of their sophomore year to officially declare a major. I declared as a creative writing major less than one month after moving to campus and, at the registrar’s office, as I handed in the paperwork, I decided then and there that I would get a tattoo to commemorate that very moment. I sat on it for a while, letting my body fill up quickly with other half-considered ideas that I’d end up regretting or cover up before leaving undergrad. My grandmother passed away two months later, having starved to death for a month after falling and shattering her pelvis—the shock of which caused her dementia to expedite the last few years of her life into a little more than 30 days. I felt inexplicably alone, but the time eventually came to get the ink, so I drew the design myself: an orange typewriter with an old-school, black-and-white boxer rising out of it—his hair quaffed in a way not unlike that of my grandfather’s when he was in the Marines in World War II—and a set of forgetmenots. It was an all-encompassing homage that made sense to get then—and it remained, for a little while, a callback to feeling alive in that advisory meeting with Mrs. Paul—but there came a time when the tattoo started to exist only as a reminder of loss that couldn’t outmuscle a 17-year-old’s wide-eyed hope.

While Garfunkel brought a nearly operatic, higher-pitched singing voice to the duo, I contend that Simon’s dulcet tenor-baritone was better-suited for most of their songs. There’s even that old tale about how Simon allegedly regretted not taking the lead on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which would go on to become Garfunkel’s signature song (and endure as one of the most beloved in all of the American songbook). But on “The Boxer,” Simon gets his chance at a star-turn and, in the fifth verse, he seizes it when the song switches from first to third-person and the track’s Paul Simon-shaped protagonist bemoans his own beatings as Blaine’s colossal snare pounds steer the instrumentation’s sonorous ballast. “In the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade,” Simon and Garfunkel harmonize. “And he carries the reminders of every 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.” Like all of Simon & Garfunkel’s music, it is so painfully and beautifully New York, a glint of survival one imagines can only be possible there and then. It’s a puzzle, it’s spiritual and it’s the kind of music that makes you believe you can go to a place and do everything you want to.

At the end of my senior year of high school, just days before graduation, Mrs. Paul gifted her entire creative writing class composition notebooks with personal notes written on the last page of each. I don’t know what she said to everyone else, but in mine she wrote that, if someone had told her six years prior that I would become one of her favorite students ever, she’d have laughed. She also wrote that I could go anyplace I dreamed of without leaving all of this behind, with a farewell and a demand to stay gold. I took that message to heart then, not yet knowing that not even New York could wash away the agony she’d given me an A for writing about. But when I had my first story published in a literary magazine later down the line, I messaged her on Facebook with a link to it immediately. She gave me a warm congratulations, and we haven’t spoken since. I think about the grief at the core of “The Boxer,” how what Simon is getting at is when he sings “I am leaving, I am leaving,” he is actually announcing his plans to stay. Too, I think about Mrs. Paul’s classroom often, how there is likely still a place in the back of that room where the shape of my prepubertal body still lingers. I know it’s waiting for me to return, and I think that maybe, one day, I will go.

“The Boxer,” like many of the songs in Paul Simon’s catalog, takes place in New York—and I’ve always considered it to be the spiritual sibling of “The Only Living Boy in New York,” which appears two tracks later on Bridge Over Troubled Water. Simon wrote most of the record (save for “Bye Bye Love”) while separated from Garfunkel, as the tenor vocalist was working on Mike Nichols and Buck Henry’s Catch-22 film in Mexico at the same time. You can hear that distance in “The Only Living Boy in New York,” especially when Simon sings “Tom, get your plane right on time, I know your part’ll go fine,” nodding to the duo’s original stage name of Tom & Jerry. But I’d argue that “The Boxer” remains a greater depiction of longing, as Simon’s lament of “I’m laying out my winter clothes and wishing I was gone, going home where the New York City winters aren’t bleeding me, leading me.”

There is a verse that doesn’t appear in the Bridge Over Troubled Water version of “The Boxer,” though, and it is maybe my favorite verse in all of modern music. You can hear it on the Live 1969 record, performed at Long Beach Arena in California during their final North American tour before breaking up in 1970: “Now the years are rolling by me, they are rockin’ evenly,” Simon and Garfunkel sing. “I am older than I once was, and younger than I’ll be. That’s not unusual. It isn’t strange; after changes upon changes, we are more or less the same. After changes, we are more or less the same.” We can go anywhere we want to, but it’ll always be us wherever that is. And as it were, every time I return to New York—on a whim with my best friends; a bus trip with my mom, aunt and cousin to climb every step in the Statue of Liberty in honor of my late grandmother, who had done so herself 30 years prior and spent the last era of her life bragging about it to anyone and everybody; for one-night on the town with a woman I am no longer in love with—I am still me but the city only feels ready to hold me and my hurt less and less. I suppose that is the case of any home that isn’t yours but, once upon a time, you’d wanted it so badly to be. Maybe it’s because I see my grandmother’s face in those of everyone in Manhattan; maybe it’s because it is easier to grieve here, at home, where the faces still remember you. But even when I stay, I am leaving and I am leaving.

New York City has known me by two sets of pronouns, but when I remember a time that I was still a man and sitting in an alcove in Grand Central Station with my mom—whose ankles were swollen from climbing the 354 steps necessary to reach the top of Lady Liberty that morning—I remember seeing the hours of the city washed across her face, which had certainly felt much longer to her then than they had when she and her own mother first felt them decades earlier. It’s fascinating to me, though—how a place you don’t live in can disappoint you as if you’ve long known every block by memory. It feels naive to me now, to believe so much in the potential of a place I cherished simply because it felt like a place I could grow into. I used to resent the home I have now—the home I’ve always had—because I couldn’t go anywhere without remembering what it once took from me. But I’ve been told the world is quieter when you forget to tend to the fire lit from within it, that there is comfort in lonesomeness. So Mom and I waited for our bus to return all the same—ready to leave the noise of New York as something to remember but not adore, to retreat with empty thighs from the remnants of fascination before the rest of it all fell away.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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