“Although the masters make the rules for the wise men and the fools, I’ve got nothing, Ma, to live up to.” — Dylan
While the Fifties Beat poets howled against the machinery of Moloch, what they saw as the corroded condition of the industrial complex that was America, a great mass of popular culture was emerging, led by network television, but also supported by the pervasiveness of radio driven primarily by the music industry. The broken, disenfranchised characters that populated Howl and other writings of the Beats were at polar opposites with the bubblegum-chewing bobbysoxers at sock hops, the Cleavers, baseball-loving, apple pie chortling Americans who spread like moist butter into the crannies surrounding all our big cities to become Suburbia. These were those who bought into the American Dream and had begun spreading their wings.
Most of the kids of these families, the Boomer generation, listened to Top 40 radio for at least a portion of their young lives. DJs like Murray the K and Cousin Brucie on WABC, NYC’s top rock station on the AM dial, owned the airwaves, slinging out super hits one after another from sea to shining sea. Consider the contrast between “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (#1 song of 1964) and the opening line of Howl:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…
But during the Sixties the dark themes began seeping into popular music through various channels. I’ve frequently written about Dylan as the tip of the spear, bringing the sensibilities of folk into the rock scene (The Times They Are A-Changin’, Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall). The Animals took House of the Rising Sun to #38 in 1964. And the songs of Simon & Garfunkel dealt with territory the Beat poets had dredged such as alienation (I Am A Rock, Fakin’ It), suicide (Most Peculiar Man, Richard Cory), adultery (Mrs. Robinson) and brokenness (America, Over).
Which is why The Boxer was such a powerful songs of that time, one of those songs which takes you places you don’t expect….
I am just a poor boy
though my story’s seldom told,
I have squandered my existence
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, mh — hmm.
When I left my home and my family
I was no more than a boy
in the company of strangers
in the quiet of a railway station
runnin’ scared, laying low,
seeking out the poorer quarters
where the ragged people go,
looking for the places
only they would know.
Asking only workman’s wages
I come looking for a job
but I get no offers,
just a come on from the whores
on Seventh Avenue. I do declare
there were times when I was so lonesome
I took some comfort there.
Lie la lie…
And 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, going home…
In the clearing stands a boxer
and a fighter by his trade
and he carries the reminders
of every glove that laid him down
or cut him till he cried out
in his anger an his shame:
I am leaving, I am leaving,
but the fighter still remains
Lie la lie…
Do you think this song would have had the same impact had been called The Golfer? Food for thought. Is this a song about a boxer? Or is it a metaphor. You already know the answer.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com