Saturday, December 22, 2018

In the clearing stands a boxer, and he goes doot! (Doot doot!)

It has become clear over time that my views on music are not always shared by others.

I've learned that few, if any, other people believe that "The Lebanon" is one of the Human League's greatest songs.

I've learned that few, if any, other people believe that "Total Devo" is one of Devo's greatest albums.

And, a recent web search has confirmed that few, if any, other people believe that "The Boxer" and "Doot-Doot" are the same song.

Now I'll grant that there may be reasons that others have not yet realized this. After all, Simon & Garfunkel approached things in a literary, sedate way. Any other composer would have named "Feelin' Groovy"...well, "Feelin' Groovy." But they had to call it "The 59th Street Bridge Song." And their reputation was so serious that Simon could subsequently get laughs by standing on stage in a turkey suit. (More on that at the end of this post.)

Which brings us to "The Boxer." Now back in those days, boxing was looked at more favorably than it is today. Literary giants would praise the sport, and the then-current controversy was caused by a heavyweight champion - sorry, a former heavyweight champion - espousing pacifism and racial equality. So, taken in the context of the time, it's not surprising that a song called "The Boxer" would begin with lyrics like this.

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...

The boxer of the title doesn't appear until the song is nearly over.

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
'Til he cried out in his anger and his shame
"I am leaving, I am leaving", but the fighter still remains

Fast forward a little over a decade, and cross the Atlantic to Wales, and you'll find that two former members of The Screen Gemz had started a band with an unpronounceable symbol, even though they weren't signed to Warner Brothers. When they did get signed to a record label, they compromised and decided that the band name was Freur. (Underworld would come later.) This band became most famous for a song for which the lyrics were obviously NOT written by Paul Simon:

What's in a name?
Face on a stage
Where are you now?
Memory fades, you take a bow

Here in the dark
Watching the screen
Look at them fall
The final scene

And we go doot
Doot doot

OK, to be fair, there is a similarity between the chorus of "Doot-Doot" and the chorus of "The Boxer." When Simon got to writing the chorus, it came out like this.

Lie la lie, lie la lie la lie la lie, la la lie la lie

Sounds like something a fifties band would do.

Oh, and there was one more similarity between the two songs.

After Paul and Art sing about New York and the boxer in the clearing, and get to the final Lie le lies, the song takes a definite non-folk turn. The dobros and guitars from earlier in the song are overwhelmed by horns recorded at Columbia University, strings recorded at Columbia Studios (not related), and drums recorded in a corridor near an elevator shaft. The result was characterized by AllMusic as "strings and thunderous percussion on the stirring "lie-la-lie" chorus" - a description that does not do it justice.

Now "Doot-Doot" was not recorded at multiple locations, and it probably didn't take 100 hours to record the song. And there weren't any string players - synthesizers had emerged over the intervening decade, so the entire song (including the sound effects) could be performed by a normal band. The drums didn't have to be recorded specially - electronic drums could produce any sound that you desired.

Yet "Doot-Doot" has an ending that is extremely reminiscent of "The Boxer" - namely, a swelling coda in which nonsense lyrics are sung over majestic strings and horns (or string and horn sounds).

Judge for yourself.

P.S. Earlier in this post, I mentioned Paul Simon's appearance on Saturday Night Live in which he sang "Still Crazy After All These Years" in a turkey suit. That whole episode resulted from Simon putting his trust into Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, a trust that has been amply rewarded for both of them. Simon's appearances on SNL have ranged from the silly, to the moving (Simon's duets with George Harrison on two songs from their former bands), to the iconic:

When [Saturday Night Live] eventually came back on the air on September 29th, 2001, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani opened the show, telling the world that the citizens of New York would “choose to live our lives in freedom.”

Behind Mayor Giuliani stood firefighters and police officers who had just come Ground Zero, the dust of the rubble dancing off their clothes and visible under the bright lights of the studio audience.

After Giuliani spoke, the camera cut to singer Paul Simon, a native New Yorker and beloved songwriter who captured the evening’s somber tone with a performance of “The Boxer.”

“I though that Paul singing, particularly singing that song would capture the strength of the city and the emotion,” SNL mastermind Lorne Michaels would later say.

Speaking of trust, on that particular evening another non-comedian put his trust in Lorne Michaels - Mayor Giuliani (back in the days when Donald Trump was a failed casino operator).

When Simon finished his song the camera returned to Lorne Michaels, who had now joined the mayor on the main stage.

“Can we be funny?” Michaels asked, setting up one of the greatest moments in television history.

“Why start now?” Giuliani responded, sending the audience into hysterics.

Should some tragic circumstance ever strike Britain, I don't think that Freur will be called upon to comfort the nation.