There are certain songs that are disliked and then there are songs that are hated. Of the many songs I get to write about in this blog, this is one of the most hated, to the point where it is some people's least favorite song of all time, which is saying something.
That the song is hated so much at least shows that it touches something primal, and in this case that primal feeling is a surprising one: dignity. This song, which tries so hard to be heart-tugging and tear-wringing, gives us a "kinda dumb and kinda smart" figure whose death, just from that description (and the lament at the beginning, not to mention the funeral home 'your call is important to us' music) is beyond foretold: it's mandatory. Once again we are at home, seemingly outside, with a man who is telling his sorry tale to a 'friend' (presumably the audience, as this man doesn't have friends - I'll get to that in a second) who is given a description of a woman so utterly depressed and lonely, that tears may indeed be shed, though another emotion might come to the fore afterwards...
It is hard to kick, if only metaphorically, a man when he's down; the narrator here is sorry and trying to be "good" and misses Honey, but it is he who is himself the cause of his own misery. He laughs at her when she plants a tree; he, even though he's her husband, never seems to question why she might be crying, or even why she would wreck the car. She is, to him, "young at heart" and perhaps messed up in ways he can't understand, but his lack of curiosity or empathy are his undoing. Is her crying "needlessly" due to his lack of sensitivity, care? There is a coldness at the heart of this song that gives me the chills; placidly Goldsboro tells the pathetic tale of a woman who would literally rather die than live with a man who cannot give her the dignity of being a real, living person whose life is worth taking seriously. That he keeps saying he misses her and would be with her "if he could" doesn't help matters any; sure his life is an "empty stage," but by the end of the song he surely deserves his fate, and indeed is doomed to repeat his story again and again, about the "kinda dumb" girl he mocked and condescended to while she was alive, and now pathetically mourns*.
That this song was such a hit shows a few things: there's no accounting for taste, some people don't listen to lyrics, and that if they do the wash of sentiment can outweigh anything else. The dignity of the listener is ultimately what is offended here, as the audience is called upon to be sympathetic with a narrator who is lamenting a death that did not need to happen, one which he no doubt contributed to; marriage is unity, but there was no unity in this one and I can't help but feel that I am listening to a story narrated by a man who is more than "kinda dumb" myself.
Bobby Russell was responsible for writing this, though, and not Goldsboro (who, to his eternal credit, didn't think much of the song and had to, according to Randy Bachman, keep doing takes as he kept laughing during the recording - right at the end you can sort of hear a suppressed smile). Russell also wrote the only slightly less unbearable "The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia"; Goldsboro went on to host his own tv show and have other, less maudlin, hits. Just why he recorded this I don't know; perhaps he was needled into it, and perhaps it was simply that he needed a hit...
That this was such a success (it got to #2 again in the UK in '75; I'm just posting about it the once) could only be explained by a nationwide sulky/self-pitying mood that this song plays into like a home run with men on all bases**; but even here not once does the narrator look at himself and try to figure out what went wrong, and my only (thankfully unnecessary) fear is that he will fall in love with another woman who is "young at heart" and he will be just as callous to her and the whole thing will happen all over again.
I wonder if any of the Housewives of Valium Court had their consciousness raised by this song; in the shared miseries of '68 something is stirring, even as the songs of women's deaths and woes continue to pile up.
Next up: A woman's gotta do what she's gotta do. I guess...
*This song reminds me, of all things, of the sadness that Thomas Carlyle had after his wife Jane's death; not that she killed herself, but that she had a miserable life with him (he read her journals after her death) and he never really appreciated the continual sadness and anger that she felt.
*This song was #1 in the US in the weeks after Dr. King's assassination; having this reach the top was just more misery than was needed.