Public performance is always a reciprocal process– the performer does something, the audience reacts, the performer reacts, and so on, in a comodius vicus of recirculation. So when every so often someone says, “Play your favorite song,” my reaction — though I sometimes try to be polite and not express it — is to think the request is ridiculous.
What they mean is, “Play what you love to play for your own pleasure.” But what I love to play for my own pleasure — in the sense of what I’d play if I were by myself, with no pressure to please someone else — is usually something I’m working on or trying to learn, not something I want to play with other people around.
By contrast, my pleasure when I’m playing for other people is to find something that pleases them and me both, which may be a song I would not have the slightest interest in singing if they were not there. Which, in numerous instances, was “The Boxer.”
I hadn’t heard that song (or at least hadn’t noticed it) before getting to Europe in the late 1970s. I inevitably knew some of Simon and Garfunkel’s music, could play “Sounds of Silence,” had heard “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” “America,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Me and Julio,” and some other stuff, and we even had the Bookends album at home. But “The Boxer” was part of my European experience, along with “Heart of Gold” — and in both cases, that experience was hearing amateurs and other street performers singing those songs in their various voices, with their various skills.
I’m guessing I learned “The Boxer” from Doug, who played bass with Vince and me on the Paris subway trains, because it was his stock in trade — some people actually called him “The Boxer,” because for a while he made his living by getting on a train, singing that song, passing the hat, going to the next car, singing it again, passing the hat, and so on. (I similarly knew a guy who made his living in the London tube singing “Mr. Tambourine Man.”) The logic was simple: it was no fun playing on the trains, so you might as well maximize the economic returns, and that was the song that got the most money.
As I explain in the video, “The Boxer” was particularly popular in Europe because everyone knew it and the chorus just went “Li, li, li,” so they could sing along without knowing any English. And it was a well-written song, with some interesting lines, so I picked it up.
I didn’t play it all that much, because I generally found I did better by singing and playing old pop tunes, thus distinguishing myself from the hordes of people singing Dylan, Beatles, and Simon & Garfunkel. But, especially when I went around the bars late in the evening, someone might request this, and I’d do it, and everyone would sing along, and it was fun — at those moments it was one of my favorite songs, because it’s a nice feeling to get a whole room of people exuberantly singing along with you.