Wounds inflicted in childhood tend to take the longest time to heal. Perhaps that’s why Andrew Gold’s “Lonely Boy” struck such a chord, reaching the Top Ten in the U.S. back in 1977. Forty years later, there’s something about the turbo-charged melancholy of the song that still makes it a favorite of soundtrack-makers everywhere. (The stunning use of it by Paul Thomas Anderson in Boogie Nights alone puts it in the movie song Hall of Fame.)
For Gold, who made his bones as a key component of Linda Ronstadt’s band throughout her 70’s string of successes before becoming a solo artist, the song that became his biggest hit didn’t take too long to write and only took its form because he couldn’t be bothered to work on it longer. “So it took about four hours,” Gold told interviewer Mike James. “It was gonna be a real long song, because back then that’s what people were doing a lot. They would cut it down for radio. But I got bored after the third verse.”
Gold’s story of sibling rivalry certainly wouldn’t have made as much impact without the dynamic music that surrounded it. Many of his cohorts from Ronstadt’s band were along for the recording, while West Coast studio legend Waddy Wachtel played lead guitar and added the solo that tears through the middle section of the song. Gold himself played the syncopated piano part that pulls you back in every time it appears.
As for the story, much has been made of the fact that the timeline (boy born in ’51, sister born in ’53) matches Gold’s biographical details. He showed a bit of regret for the fact in an interview with Spencer Leigh. “Maybe it was a mistake to do that but I simply put in those details because it was convenient,” Gold said. “I hadn’t been a lonely boy at all – I’d had a very happy childhood.”
In any case, the symmetry and inevitability of the tale of the “Lonely Boy” can’t help but break your heart. His parents have the best intentions when he is born: “We’ll teach him what we learned, ah yes, just what we learned.” Just two years later, however, they tell a different story when a sister is born: “We must attend to her needs/She’s so much younger than you.” Needless to say, that’s information that a two-year-old kid has a hard time processing: “Well he ran down the hall and he cried/Oh how could his parents have lied?”
After the galloping bridge, Gold takes his back to the story, only much later down the road. It’s now 1969, and there’s a symbolic edge to the fact that the boy, born in a summer of endless possibilities, leaves home in a winter of discontent. “And he hoped to find all the love he had lost in that earlier time,” Gold sings. The circle is completed by the reference to his sister, the former golden child, now married and producing a son of her own. Left unsaid is the possibility that she might do the same damage to this boy that was once done to her brother.
Gold’s career may never have reached the commercial heights of “Lonely Boy” again, but he stayed ubiquitous on the scene as an artist and as a collaborator with many top artists until his sudden death in 2011 at the age of 59. But his biggest hit remains remarkable, potent music attached to a striking story about how initial emotional experiences can shape an entire life.