"I believe that 'Rose Garden' was released at just the right time. People were trying to recover from the Vietnam years. The message in the song — that if you just take hold of life and go ahead, you can make something out of nothing — people just took to that." - Lynn Anderson
The early 70s was a time, amongst many things, of people who were either pulling back the reins from 60s excesses or people who were sufficiently mellowed out by them to continue being casual and laid back right through the 70s. Opposites attract, and that seems to be where this song (an NME #2) steps in. The woman is a (cold) realist, a Ms. Light-at-the-break-of-Dawn type who seems to be upbraiding her more good-timey Other here for some untold reason. “There’s going to be some rain” she says, as if the “melancholy” other didn’t already know about rain; and she compares happiness to a rose garden, when anyone who’s had to deal with roses knows darn well that where there’s roses, there’s thorns*. I begin to wonder exactly what on earth is going on in this song – why is he sulking and pouting (presumably)?
Why does she say “Come along and share the good times while we can”? Somewhere in the background here there’s a clock ticking, ticking, and for all I know it’s a biological clock. Is there a baby on the way? Has he been drafted? The song was written by Joe South, and thus there any number of odd undercurrents going on here. There is clearly a problem between the narrator and the Other, but what it is – besides general dissatisfaction – isn’t at all clear. The line “so smile for a while and let’s be jolly” is perhaps the least happy version of happiness this blog has yet encountered; and Lynn Anderson’s rather acidic voice makes this more than clear; the clock is running, for certain, on a relationship where one person has hopes and dreams and the other is unable, it seems, to even sympathize with their longings.
Indeed, the narrator seems to equate such dreams as “big diamond rings” and promising the moon, very traditional romantic tropes that are more or less getting the Lysol treatment here, sprayed and wiped away like so many germs on a kitchen counter**. I know that country music prides itself on down-home realism, but this is a bit too stern-rolling-pin-and-apron even for me, and I’m related directly to people who can more than identify with this song. At the end I can only wonder why these two are still together – and that “while we can” hangs over this song and dominates it much more than any promises of real, lasting love (again, represented by the whole “still waters run deep” trope, which South turns into a potential drowning hazard). “I beg your pardon***” the song says, and then goes on to trample all over any ideas of mercy or pardoning whatsoever.
The rather cold tone of this song was used perfectly in 1988 by Canada’s own Kon Kan in their hit “I Beg Your Pardon”; a KLF's Manual-inspired worldwide hit that mixed this song up with a good imitation of New Order, disco samples and modern technology to depict a relationship that is on its way out, because of the other’s inability to commit; Anderson’s despairing voice makes a lot more sense here, somehow. Perhaps some songs are better sampled than in the original? Taking hold of life may make sense to some, but here it’s a rather sorry consolation; are the dreams and hopes of the 60s so trampled that settling for a little happiness sounds like a victory?
Up next: some songs are beyond me.
*As Poison kindly reminds us in a decade and a half’s time.
**In a kitchen that perhaps has a harvest gold, burnt orange or avocado theme.
***I Never Promised You A Rose Garden is also the title of a semi-autobiographical book about a young woman’s struggles with deep depression; it came out in 1964 and plotwise has nothing to do with this song, though in true 70s tradition it was made into a movie in 1977, as part of the 70s strand of young-women-struggling-with-society-by-going-nuts movies, including a really bad version of Plath’s The Bell Jar and Sybil. The 70s was obsessed by “issues” and “movements” and being frank and open, which is why so many remember the decade with a little embarrassment, even in the U.S.