Pervasive Melancholy in Andrew Gold’s “Lonely Boy”

by criticalhit009

I never grew up knowing who Andrew Gold was. All I ever knew was one song, 1976’s “Lonely Boy”. I found myself humming the song today, and was struck by the lyrics. Take a listen, and read along to the lyrics below:

He was born on a summer day, 1951
And with the slap of a hand
He had landed as an only son
His mother and father said “what a lovely boy”
We’ll teach him what we learned
Ah yes, just what we learned
We’ll dress him up warmly and
We’ll send him to school
It’ll teach him how to fight
To be nobody’s fool

Oh, oh, what a lonely boy
Oh, what a lonely boy
Oh, what a lonely boy

In the summer of ’53 his mother
Brought him a sister
But she told him “we must attend to her needs”
“She’s so much younger than you”
Well, he ran down the hall and he cried
Oh, how could his parents have lied
When they said he was an only son
He thought he was the only one

Oh, oh, what a lonely boy
Oh, what a lonely boy
Oh, what a lonely boy

[Instrumental Interlude]

Goodbye Mama
Goodbye to you
Goodbye Papa
I’m pushin’ on through

He left home on a winter day, 1969
And he hoped to find all the love
He had lost in that earlier time
Well, his sister grew up
And she married a man
He gave her a son
Ah yes, a lovely son
They dressed him up warmly
They sent him to school
It taught him how to fight
To be nobody’s fool

Oh, oh, what a lonely boy
Oh, what a lonely boy
Oh, what a lonely boy

There are appealing aesthetic qualities to the piece. The play on words between “lovely” and “lonely” is clever, and the attention to detail in the lyrics draws us in to a specific setting and melancholic mood. The phrase “pushin’ on through” alludes to pushing through pain, but also perhaps birth imagery, if we take the psychoanalytic route. The hooks are catchy, if not repetitious. The piano sets up the main riff, and propels us throughout the story. I still puzzle a bit with the lyrics. The first “lonely boy” ends up leaving at 18 due a lack of love. But is this accurate, or merely his perception as a jealous child? Moreover, is this a story that laments the fragile masculinity of the protagonist – his need for attention as an only child – or is it merely a reflection of such masculinity, lamenting the boys loneliness? Of course, in the story itself, the boy gets a sibling, so ideally he shouldn’t be lonely at all! I think perhaps that is the grand irony of the piece, that a boy gains a sister, but feels that he’s lost something precious to him. And why does he feel this way? His nephew goes to school just like him, and the lyrics confirm it “taught him how to fight to be nobody’s fool.” There is no such confirmation for the original lonely boy. Why this is remains a bit of a mystery, as the song alludes to a lack of attention and love – but is this real, or merely perceived by a jealous child who was no longer the only child? This is a central point of mystery to the song that eludes an easy answer.

There’s an underlying, persistent melancholy to the piece, despite the piano hooks, and perhaps it’s that combination that proves alluring. I’m glad to remember this piece so long after hearing it. Perhaps that illustrates it’s long-lasting appeal.