Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Andrew Gold's Lonely Boy: A Critical Analysis

While strolling through my local Price Chopper last Spring, I was serenaded by the 1977 hit single Lonely Boy by Andrew Gold. Hearing the song somehow evoked memories of high school football two-a-days, and I was suddenly overcome by the urge to stink. My next move was to promptly go home and downloaded this iconic song from the Oracle of iTunes.   Because I’m avoiding preparing my turkey for its Thanksgiving frying, I decided to dissect this song for your pre-Thanksgiving pleasure. It’s a song about loss and the fleeting period of one’s life called toddlerhood. And it’s a song about a desperate longing to be an only child and to pummel all the other kids in first grade.

The song begins with a complicated piano descant consisting of two chords. These chords are pounded over and over until we are finally rescued by these opening lines:

He was born on a summer day, 1951
And with the slap of a hand
He had landed as an only son

From these lines we learn that the Lonely Boy is at his core a baby boomer. Born into the bliss of post-WWII Americana, the boy was slapped by the obstetrician (probably family practitioner) while his father bought cigars at the gift shop. For those in Generations X, Y, Z and Facebook, this was an ancient tradition that was obliterated when it became politically correct, if not mandated, that the birthing experience be a sort of clean-room family reunion. This was a paradigm shift from which we as a society won’t soon recover. But we digress…

The first verse continues and we learn of the Lonely Boy’s (let’s call him “LB”) parents’ first reaction to this new and emerging experience of parenthood:

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
We'll teach him how to fight
To be nobody's fool

Most parents in 1951 would be thinking about protecting their newborn from nuclear holocaust or wondering what the impact of the Eisenhower Interstate System would be on urban sprawl. But not LB’s parents. Instead, they were obsessed with warm coats and street-fighting. Fortunately before we can fully contemplate the parents’ obsession with schoolyard bullying, we are rescued by the catchy and melodic chorus:

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

We’re not sure why he was born lonely, but it may have had something to do picking on the babies in neo-natal intensive care. We learn little more about LB during the ensuing two years, and presume his father is busy attaching a pediatric punching bag on the aerial mobile in his crib and working on his rope-a-dope footwork as he’s fitted for his white high-top walking shoes. Then, finally, we get another glimpse through the window of LB’s life as the next verse pounds on….

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

This verse is rich and provides much fodder for psychological analysis. We learn that LB’s little sister, simply by virtue of being born, creates the greatest case of sibling rivalry observed in history until the creation—much later—of Drs. Miles and Frasier Crane. We also learn that LB was in fact a genius, capable, at birth, of discerning the meaning of being the “only son.” And we learn that his parents were not only abusive war mongers, but turned their back on young LB as he reached his second birthday, forcing him to terrorize the hallways of preschool and kindergarten on his own, devoid of any parental love, support, or munitions.

After Mr. Gold shouts the chorus a second time, we engage a killer guitar solo that lasts an electrifying 16 years. In reality, this solo only takes about 47 seconds of the song, but when it concludes we discover LB has reached adulthood and we find him dodging the Vietnam draft. Let’s rejoin the song as passes from the innocent Fifties into the turbulent psychedelic Sixties…

He left home on a winter day, 1969
And he hoped to find all the love
He had lost in that earlier time

Evidently his parental hatred had festered long enough. He had fought all the fights and attended all the schools and worn all the coats that his parents would fund. So he moves out, in search of the love that he lost when his sister had the audacity of being born. It’s at this point the story shifts to LB’s sister, and we’re saddened to learn that the dysfunction of this family has festered into a multi-generational slugfest. Consider:

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
They taught him how to fight
To be nobody's fool

Learning nothing from the train wreck that was her brother’s life, the sister married someone just like her father, and adopted the values and mores of her mother as they pertained to parenting on the edge. The sister and her husband employed the narrow focus that had rendered LB a ne’er-do-well. Ignoring the past, they were doomed to repeat it with the nephew that LB, sadly, would never meet.

After some more guitar licks, and some energetic keyboards, the piano reins us back in and we’re bid farewell as Andrew Gold sings one last time:

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

What can we learn from this almost forgotten 1977 classic? You can do a lot with two hard charging chords. But when the music ends a few lessons remain. Surely we can teach our children well, and let them lead the way by discouraging violence. Sure, we need to dress them up warmly and we need to avoid truancy at all costs. But besides that, let’s encourage family unity and avoid sibling rivalry. Make sure your newborn understands there in fact may be other children that come into your nest. And most importantly, make sure you read him, in uteroHow to Win Friends and Influence People. That way he'll not be so lonely in the hospital nursery.

And maybe he'll stick around past his 18th birthday.
Editors Note: Follow this link to watch Andrew Gold's performance of Lonely Boy on Youtube.


  1. Always enjoy your analysis Greg!! :) Can't help but wonder if the sister hadn't been born how things would have turned out. My only concern is where all those fun two-a-days came into play? Cause we really did stick back then...

  2. Thanks for the comments Craig. Nobody else has either a)read the post, or b)liked it (Sanndee):-). After taking my son to football practice this past season, I can assure you no strides have been made to eliminate the stenches of two-a-days.

  3. You must be pretty old to admit you know a song from 1977

  4. At least I was still in high school Mr. Anonymous, a.k.a. "Bruce"

  5. But, but I just started college in 1978 (well ok, restarted).

  6. Get off Facebook and get some new material on this site.

  7. Greg

    I am so glad you took the time and analyzed and interpreted this goofy song as I was searching for the hidden meaning and now realize that it wasn't complex at all. I had it on a 45 rpm and would play that Warner Asylum single over and over in my room at age 12 on the RCA phonograph.... I just liked the guitar licks...still do.

  8. I just want to know why his sister got married at the age of 16 and had a son. I guess she couldn't have waited to get out of her house and her overprotective parents

  9. For some strange reason,this song has been occupying my mind and seemed to make no sense as in WHY was this boy so damn lonely! So thank you, Mr River, for your witty and astute analysis.

  10. This song is in my head for some reason, so I googled the meaning of it when I cam across this brilliant analysis. I thought I was missing something, but now I realize it is just a catchy meaningless song, and that you are hilarious. Good work.


  11. Very entertaining!
    But it's "Niles" Crane - and that in itself needs a blog analysis.

    1. Thanks for the clarification--I will now stand corrected! I always liked that show but didn't ever seem to get to watch it. Thus, my error!

  12. Apologies for being Anonymous - I don't have any of the offered logins...

  13. Probably I also will be named anonymous. But let me introduce myself. I'm Doortje Oerlemans (so don't even start on trying to pronounce my name, you will most definitely get stuck!) I'm from the Netherlands.

    I've always liked this song and stumbled on your analysis... Love your interpretation of this song! That's why I'd love your feedback (call it analysis) on some things that have been occupying my head for several years now...

    Though I wonder if it ever was the writers intention, indeed L.B stays a lonely boy and just the sibling rivalry can't be the cause of that loneliness (that sure is my opinion too).

    About me...
    I'm born in the spring of '67- the youngest girl in a party of five children and never felt a lonely child at all, in fact I'm a person used to be - from the day I was brought into this world - to be showered in attention...I am very glad to say that there are absolutely no resemblances between mine and L.B.'s childhood.

    About things on my mind...
    ● In my opinion sibling rivalry is a normal part of growing up. In fact the children learn to speak up -for themselves ass well as for others- children not having siblings might in fact have a disadvantage on that part...
    So my question is this... Might sibling rivalries in fact be about:
    Learning assertiveness much needed when they are an adult?
    ● I think that pre-puberty (the 'angry I say NO to everything' phase) around the age of two year old children. Are in fact a remaining of our evolution... What I mean is, in the early stage of human - after the child was weaned - most likely the female became pregnant again. The child that was always stuck on mom, needs literally to break free from her arms (otherwise there is no place for the new born baby)
    My next question is... Might that phase in fact be about:
    The child being able to let go of the mother, so the mother was able to conceive again and at the same time the child was able to learn from others?
    ● And an automated step further in my mind... I think teenage puberty also is an evolutionary remains... Because when girls were able to conceive, they often became mothers themselves. They had to break free of the parent even a bit more. The parent otherwise would never be able to let go of their 'little' children. Last question to you is.... Might that phase in fact be about:
    The mother being able to let go of her children and therefore the children being able to raise the next generation?

    I would really love to hear from you!!!

    Sincerely, Doortje Oerlemans

  14. And reading back I notice a poorly written comment.... My excuse I'm Dutch so English is not my 'natve tongue'... I sure do hope you can make sence of what I wrote... lol

  15. (Part I)I was 17 when Lonely Boy was released. It wasn’t until 2009 that I understood why the song has always been so unsettling to me. Five years of therapy have helped me accept the reality of the abuse I suffered at the hands of my parents that I had locked away as a child. And I see a much darker picture the Lonely Boy’s life than has been discussed so far.

    He was born on a summer day, 1951
    And with a slap of a hand, he had landed as an only son

    Set in the quintessential idealism of the 1950’s, the contrast of the upbeat rhythm and violence in paradise in the very first line hints the song may not be what seems. The lyrics goes on to describe the cycle of child abuse, from the “slap of a hand” that left Lonely Boy’s battered mother pregnant to his sister repeating the same atrocity with her own 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

    Lip service praise and showy gifts, typical ways abusive parents keep up airs so no one suspects the way they mistreat their children. By maintaining the illusion of the “perfect family,” they invalidate the child’s complaints about their parents to anyone outside the family. Raising their own child as they had been raised, the parents see nothing wrong with the way they mistreat their child. Physical or psychological abuse, as the twig is bent so grows the tree. They “teach him what we learned, ah yes just what we learned.”

    Torture and deprivation under conditions of complete dependency elicit a terrible and terrifying combination of helplessness and rage. “It'll teach him how to fight to be nobody's fool.” Siblings tend to be the first scapegoats of the abused child, his hostility eventually displaced onto people in his life with parental roles who are dependent like servants or waiters.

  16. (Part II)
    In the summer of '53 his mother brought him a sister
    And 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

    The breaking down of the human psyche through a pattern of alternating love and abuse is well documented. Struggling to preserve the critical image of the loving parents a child so desperately needs, Lonely Boy blames himself for the horrible things his parents do to him. Their relentless reminding that something, anything, is always more important than him, he slowly replaces his own needs and wants with guilt and shame.

    Oh, what a lonely boy…
    The abused child is held close, his parents selectively limiting his circle of friends and exposure to healthy families so he cannot to see how warped his own life and parents are. At some point the need to keep away is taken over by the child victim to maintain his own illusion of his parent’s goodness. One brick at a time he builds a wall around himself to keep himself safe, trapping himself and his rage against his parents inside. Scarred for a lifetime by the damage done by his parents, dysfunctional in his relationships and incapable of love; he is in every sense, a very “lonely boy.”

    Goodbye mama, goodbye to you
    Goodbye papa, I'm pushing 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

    “The only way out is through.” Aware at some level of the wrong done to him and finally at a point he can break free from their stranglehold, “pushing on through” Lonely Boy leaves home in search of the love he never got from his parents. A sad reality for survivors of childhood trauma is that the walls he built to protect himself will push away anyone who begins to get close to him, a self supporting cycle that feeds Lonely Boy’s rage against his parents.

    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, what a lonely boy

    Abusers raise their children to become abusers; Lonely Boy’s sister is no exception. The compulsion to repeat her traumatic past focuses the abused child’s rage on her own children. The atrocity gets worse, generation after generation, until the child, often without even realizing what he is doing, will decide the cycle of abuse ends with me. And choose not to have children of his own. The song leaves us sad but hopeful this will be the case for Lonely Boy.

  17. (from yet another anonymous)....Wow - that's deep. I've just been googling these lyrics as I love this song. I thought the "slap of the hand " was just the midwife making him breath. It always used to be a birthing cliche but is probably not done now. I then thought the rest of the song was just about a rather selfish only son becoming a teenage brat- from the the dates it could be about my ex!

  18. Just as a means of introduction, I'd like to say: This goddamn song has been stuck in my brain lately, and I need to get it the hell out of there; That aside, it's a great '70s pop song except for the hokey, oddly melodramatic lyrics. Andrew Gold was one heck of a multi-instrumentalist/producer, but if this song is any indication of what the rest of his lyrical output was like--he weren't no wordsmith.

  19. Hey guys it's just a song, lighten up!

  20. I always thought this song was so catchy until I finally paid attention to the lyrics and realized it was an annoying, whiny pity-party.

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  22. In the summer of '53 his mother
    Brought him a sister....... Was it to his father in fact???

  23. I only came across this bc I was researching about a dream, it led me to this song I'm 39, my son is 15. He identifies as a lonely for reasons and his dad had a child with another woman then hasn't had anything to do with him since [8 yrs ago] then I just found out TODAY {haven't told a soul} that another woman he's been with 2 mos is now pregnant. It's going to send my son spiraling I'm afraid.....

  24. After finally looking closely at the lyrics of this song, I do not identify - I mean, my sister was 2 when I was born and I was the lonely one growing up. She was always the social butterfly, and I've never been comfortable with myself. So the message of this song is fine, but the math may be all wrong.

  25. So, his mother brought him a sister. But maybe not his father? Maybe a mixed family where he was unloved? And he left at 18. Undoubtedly died in Vietnam. A throw-away life. And his half-sister may risk repeating the pattern. A warning to love our children if we want a better world.

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