Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Boxer

I am just a poor boy; though my story's seldom told....

This past week I have been working on an old favorite tune on my banjo.  And it makes me smile in memory every time.


The year was 1990.  I was in my junior year at Wofford College, and I was auditioning for the annual voice scholarship.  The Boxer, by Paul Simon, has always been one of my favorite of his tunes, and I decided I would give it a shot. 

I did some preparation, but mostly I just got myself mentally ready to go in and audition.  Auditions are an unnerving thing, even if you are going in among people you like and respect.  Maybe even more so for them.... 

Mr. Gary (the group's incredible pianist, who later became the music director) and the director Vic Bilanchone had both known me for three years, and knew what I was able to do, vocally.  I was unlikely to surprise them.  I had been singing second tenor in all of the choruses I joined, because, well, everybody needs more tenors. Because baritones are a dime a dozen.

I wanted more.  I knew the richness of my range was a little lower than I usually sang.  But solo auditions were traditionally kept in-section.  Awarding a second tenor a bass solo was simply not going to happen.

I wanted more chances.  I wanted more respect.  I wanted the money.  I wanted the attaboy.

So I auditioned.

All lies and jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.  Mmmmmmm

At the end of the number, Vic looked at me thoughfully.  "I didn't know that one," he told me.  For the first time, I saw him looking at me a little differently.  It had gone well.

And then Mr. Gary ruined it for me.  "You probably should have let me know that you were skipping the second verse."

Um.  Yeah.  I had frozen at one point, and just skipped one of the most beautiful lyrics in the song...

Asking only worksman's wages, I come looking for a job, but I get no offers.  Just a come-on from the whores on 7th Avenue.  I do declare, there were times that I was so lonesome I took some comfort there.

I fumbled some explanation about appropriateness of lyrics in an audition, apologizing for not letting the pianist in on the 'plan' I had for not singing the right part of the song.

I did not get the scholarship.  That was not a huge surprise.  And I don't remember who did, so it was not an external competition that makes me remember the scene.  It was the failure.  The fact that something I did - or rather, that I didn't do - that kept me from achieving the goal.

But my music was never just one song.  Not just one audition.  I continued to sing.  I continued to push.  During the dark years of the dissertation, I dropped music from my life, and it was the first thing to be brought back when I emerged from that bleak time.

Because there is something of that energy that I get with every attempt.  Leading the folks at my Tuesday gathering of the Lambeth House in worship.  Singing full voice from the back of the congregation at church.  Singing at work.  Singing in the parking lot on the way out the door (Sixteen Tons is an end-of-the-day favorite.) Singing in the shower.

And with this song, I am brought back - both to that time and to all of the struggles since then.  And while I am holding the notes a little longer during those painful pauses between chord changes, I continue to learn and improve on my banjo.

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.

Singing lets me do that.  Lets me get up off the mat.  Wipe off the blood.  And look away until my embarassment from a missed note fades, and I sing again.  And again.

And in singing this song particularly, there is something in me that makes me look around at my friends... and look admiringly on those who have taken a hit and, improbably, stood back up.  The cancer survivors.  Those who weathered tough family situations.  Those who struggled through brutal patches in their professional life. Heath struggles.  Emotional struggles.  Live struggles. 

You guys get knocked down.  And then get back up.  Scarred.  Cut.  But upright, once again.

Those scars - those 'reminders of every glove that laid you down or cut you till you cried out'... those scars are beautiful, and I glory in seeing them.

Because of them, I recognize a fellow boxer.  A fellow fighter.

So when I sing, it is you who I am singing about.  Every painfully slow move from D7 to Fmaj chord, I sing a triumphant ballad to David.  To Kim.  To Brian. To Julie.  To Yvon.  To John.  To Caroline, Parker, Patty, Nate and Jacob.  To Harry, Chelsea, Melanie and Rachel. 

When I watch you, I marvel at the beauty of your resilience and your fight. 

You are my heroes.