Episode 79: The Boxer

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hi! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and has anyone seen spring? I think we skipped straight to summer.

Hey, don’t forget to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.

PR

Before we begin, here’s this week’s trivia question: There’s a song in the Rolling Stones’ catalogue that they didn’t sing in concert for several years because people erroneously thought that that’s the song that they were singing when an audience member was killed at the Altamont concert. What’s the name of that song, and what were they really singing?

I’ll have that answer at the end of the program.

Bridge Over Troubled Water was the final studio album for Simon and Garfunkel, and it was not only their biggest album, it was the best-selling album for the years 1970, 71 AND 72, and it was the best-selling album of all time until Michael Jackson’s Thriller was released. But the first single from that album, while easily the most produced, was not their biggest hit by a long shot.

[MRS ROBINSON version 2]

Between the album Bookends and the subsequent release of the film The Graduate, Simon and Garfunkel were one of the biggest acts in the music industry. Paul Simon was being asked to write music for several film and Broadway projects, and it was around this time that Art Garfunkel began his acting career, appearing in Catch-22, a film project that took much longer than originally planned. Because of the long shooting schedule and the fact that Paul Simon’s part in the film had been written out, that left Simon to do most of the writing on his own. The way they’d typically work is that Simon would write a couple of songs, and then they ‘d go in and record them, then they’d knock off for awhile while Simon wrote another couple of songs. Now, with Art Garfunkel away for eight months, the pair’s musical relationship started to deteriorate. But ultimately they managed to put together their biggest—in terms of scope—and perhaps most experimental album. And the opening track of Side Two, “The Boxer,” bears witness to this.

[THE BOXER]

“The Boxer” was recorded in several different locations and over 100 hours of recording time. There was so much material that a standard eight-track recorder just wasn’t going to get the job done. Producer Roy Halee said in an interview with BMI that he devised a way to fake 16-track mastering by using two eight-track machines. There were a couple of technical problems created by doing this. First, you had to hit the Start buttons on both machines at exactly the same time. Then, as the machines started to heat up, their motors would start working at different speeds. So what he wound up doing was mixing about eight bars, then stopping, then mixing another eight, and so on. As a result, there was a lot of editing that went on as they reassembled this work, because Halee was working on maybe 15 seconds of the song at a time. And this is on top of the hundred hours that were put into recording.

So what took up all that time? To begin with, there were several different locations where different parts of the song were recorded. Columbia Records had studios in both New York City and in Nashville, and that’s where some of it was recorded. The chorus was recorded in a church, specifically St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University. The church had a tiled dome in it that made for some great acoustics and gave Simon and Garfunkel’s voices some terrific depth.

[LIE LA LIE]

Now, I bet I know what you might be thinking about: that big drumbeat. Believe it or not, that wasn’t recorded in the church but at the Columbia Studios in New York City. Hal Blaine was the drummer for this track, and he created that sound along with Roy Halee. They set up the drums in the hallway out in front of the elevator bank, and then they blocked the doors open, so that the drums were next to an open elevator shaft. So all the other musicians are in the studio, and down the hall is Blaine, with cables running from one end to the other for the microphones and a set of headphones, so Blaine can tell what’s going on. And whenever the chorus came around—the “lie la lie” part—Blaine would come down on his snare drum as hard as he could.

[LIE LA LIE]

Blaine himself recalled that, in that hallway, next to the open shaft, the drum sounded just like a cannon shot, which was exactly the sound they were after. There’s also a story that at one point, an elderly security guard came out of one of the other elevators and was startled by Blaine banging out this huge drum sound.

Now, about that “Lie la lie” lyric. We’ve talked about this a few times with regard to other pieces of music. Many times, a songwriter will have the melody they want but not necessarily the lyric, so they just put anything in as a placeholder. And that placeholder is typically called a Scratch Lyric. Probably the most famous version of this is Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday”, which started out as “Scrambled eggs, oh my baby how I love your legs”. Or less famously, this:

[I KNOW]

That wasn’t supposed to be part of the song, but everybody liked the way it sounded, so they left it alone. Well, it turns out that “Lie la lie” was, in fact, a scratch lyric. Paul Simon once said in a 1990 interview with SongTalk Magazine that he viewed it as a failure of songwriting because he didn’t have any words there. And what further complicated it for him was that people were viewing it as a lyric, like he was calling out lies that people were telling. So now there was an extra level of meaning that listeners were giving it. In the end, he decided that it was OK and the rest of the song has enough power behind it to carry the whole thing, so he’s kind of come to terms with it, especially inasmuch as the chorus now being wordless gave it a more international appeal.

But he said personally, every time he had to sing that part, he was a little embarrassed.

[LAST THIRD from second source]

OK, now listen in on this section of the song. There’s an instrument in there that I had a hard time identifying. It sounds kinda like a harmonica but not quite:

In fact it is a harmonica. It’s a BASS harmonica, being played by Charlie McCoy. I have to admit that I didn’t even know a Bass Harmonica was a thing until this week, so we’re all learning something here.

But this brings me around to something I like to call the Sneaky MVP of the record. Some people will listen to a Jimmy Page lick, or listen to the Beach Boys’ harmonies, and say “yeah, that really makes the record”. But when I talk about the Sneaky MVP, I’m talking about stuff that’s easily overlooked that really elevates the song. Right here:

The strings are practically sneaking their way into the record, and just underlining everything until they take greater precedence and now everything else is starting to fall back. The singing and the drums aren’t getting lost, but they’re certainly deeper in the mix, while those strings are just soaring above it all. This is what I’m talking about when I say “sneaky MVP.” The record’s good already, but something like that makes it even better.

. But wait, it gets even better. Listen closely the next time it comes around:

Now, along with the drum you’ve got this really deep sound that sounds almost like a ship’s horn. I actually crowdsourced this one among friends of mine who know orchestral instruments. Their consensus was that it’s tubas, but one person thought that the bass harmonica was also being used in there. At any rate, a song that starts out very sparsely has now grown into a full-blown gigantic sound until finally giving way to the original fingerpicking guitars.

[THE BOXER when needed]

So let’s talk about those guitars, because there are two of them. One of them is Paul Simon, and the other is being played by Fred Carter, Junior. He did an interview in the magazine Fretboard Journal—and I’ll bet you didn’t know THAT was a thing—where he talks about recording the song. Carter says that when they started working on it in New York, it still wasn’t finished lyrically, so he didn’t know the whole thing coming in. Carter’s guitar was naturally a little bit higher than Simon’s soundwise, so he tuned the first string down to a D, and the bass string to a G, which made it an open-G tune. As I’ve said elsewhere, “open tuning” means setting up the strings so that when you strum across them without any fingers on the fretboard, the guitar will naturally play a specific chord. But Carter left the fifth string standard, so it wasn’t quite an open-G tuning. With that, the two of them started noodling around until they landed on the lick they liked. Carter said that they had about seven mics on him, with a near mic, a distant mic, another one on the guitar’s neck, another one on the hole, another one from behind, and another one that caught his breathing. Supposedly if you listen really carefully you can make out the breathing because they left that one in the mix. Carter also played a couple of other guitars on the record with chord and rhythm patterns. He said he never heard the finished product until he heard it on the radio, and even he was amazed with how it sounded.

We need to get into the lyrics a little bit, I think. Paul Simon has said that the lyrics are mostly autobiographical, written at a time when he thought critics were being especially harsh about his work. Thus, he himself was the boxer in question. As he explained it in his interview in Playboy Magazine in 1984, Simon and Garfunkel were getting almost nothing but praise, so when the first critical reviews started coming in, they stung extra hard. He said, (quote), “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 and roll. And maybe we weren’t real folkies at all!” (unquote). The first couple of verses are in the first person, of someone struggling to make it through both loneliness and poverty in New York City. There are some phrases in there that Simon has said come from The Bible, such as “workman’s wages” and “seeking out the poorer quarters”.

The last verse shifts into the third person, talking about a literal boxer, who manages to stick around despite being tagged constantly by the fighters around him.

There’s also another verse that didn’t make it onto the single, but there are recorded performances available,

[LOST VERSE]

such as this one from November of 1969, where they’re playing at the Long Beach Arena, and they announce it as a song from their upcoming album:

…The verse takes the place of the short instrumental break that includes the piccolo trumpet. You can hear this track on the Live 1969 album, which was released in 2009.

The song was released as a single in March of 1969 and made it to Number Seven on the Billboard Hot 100. It charted higher in Canada, Austria, South Africa, the Netherlands, Sweden and in the UK it was a Number Six record. With the exception of a couple of Adult Contemporary charts, it did not reach Number One anywhere.

As far as covers of the song are concerned, there have been many, including by Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, The Celtic Tenors, Bruce Hornsby and Mumford and Sons. I find it interesting that all of them keep it pretty low-key, avoiding the big drums and the orchestral section.

Emmylou Harris did a cover which made it to Number 15 on the Country charts, and she made an interesting change to one lyric…

[HARRIS]

I’m not sure if you caught it, but she changed “I have squandered my resistance” to “I have squandered my existence”, which is interesting mostly because for a long time, that’s what I thought the lyric was. So maybe Emmylou made the same mistake and decided it made more sense that way.

And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you

{UNDER MY THUMB]

to name the song that the Rolling Stones refused to sing in concerts for awhile because people associated it with the death of Meredith Hunter, the person who was killed at the 1969 Altamont Free Concert. Well, the song that the Rolling Stones were playing at the time was “Under My Thumb”.

[SYMPATHY]

But the song that people seem to think was being played was “Sympathy For the Devil.” Why did this rumor get started? Well, who knows. Maybe because of the Hell’s Angels and people thinking that the song is about Satanism—which it’s NOT—and, I don’t know. It’s on film and people are stupid about it anyway.

Now, to be fair, “Sympathy For the Devil” was on the setlist, but they’d already played it as their third song. “Under My Thumb” was the seventh song they played, and from the band’s perspective there was just another scuffle in the crowd. In fact, it was one of several, since they’d already stopped the song and resumed it because of fights breaking out. So when Wilson was stabbed near the end of that song, they had no idea what was going on, and it wasn’t until afterward, when Mick Jagger saw the footage that happened to capture the incident, that he realized what had happened, and of course he was appropriately horrified. This whole thing became the centerpiece of the documentary film, Gimme Shelter. But it was in 2006 that filmmaker Sam Green released his documentary, titled Lot 63, Grave C, that people learned that Meredith Hunter’s grave was unmarked, and it generated donations to the cemetery to have one installed, which they did in 2008.

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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is, when you’re at the YMCA. This one’s gonna be fun.

Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you next time.