Wednesday, April 11, 2007

In Defense of the Worst Song Ever

Last year a columnist declared that Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey,” a number one hit for five weeks in the spring of 1968 – dethroning Otis Redding’s immortal “Dock of the Bay” -- was the worst song ever. Actually it was worse than that; it was capitalized: Worst Song Ever. Not too many people leapt up in protest, as it’s been a long time since anyone took “Honey” seriously. The 1992 Rolling Stone Record Guide declared, “Even soap operas seldom stoop so low as did Goldsboro’s massive 1968 hit ‘Honey.’” (The most recent edition of that publication, from 2004, mercifully omitted the Goldsboro entry.)

In case you’ve forgotten, or had it erased from your memory Eternal Sunshine-style, “Honey” is the tale of a young woman who plants a tree, gets a puppy, watches the late show, then -- seemingly out of nowhere -- dies. It’s sung in a rueful but hardly heartbroken tenor by Goldsboro, who also hit big with the egregiously sappy “Watching Scotty Grow.” “Honey” bridges the gap between the dead-teenager songs of the early 1960s --- “Teen Angel,” “Last Kiss,” etc. – and the wimp-rock fare that would blow up in the 1970s with Bread and Lobo. Spanning two genres that everyone hates is no way to write a classic song.

Yet the song is really kind of brilliant, a subtle examination of a topic too raw and painful for even the tumultuous days of 1968. Honey’s death, in the song’s third verse, comes so weirdly out of left field – “one day while I wasn't home, while she was there and all alone, the angels came” – that it makes most people throw up their hands, if not their lunch. “Even in 1968, what kind of jerk wouldn't be at his wife's bedside as she died?,” wrote CNN’s Todd Leopold.

The song’s earlier stanzas, so uneventful on first listen, provide clues to the answer to that question, although they don’t really make sense until you know how the story is going to end. In the first verse, the narrator tells how he would commonly arrive home from work to find Honey “sittin' there cryin' over some sad and silly late, late show.” That’s not so alarming, but things get worse in the second verse. “I came home unexpectedly,” the narrator says, “and found her crying needlessly in middle of the day.” Now it’s not just a late show that can set her off, but nothing at all. How often, one wonders, did Honey spend her days weeping?

The narrator then foreshadows the end, saying, “It was in the early spring when flowers bloom and robins sing, she went away.” (Note who is controlling the action in that line.) After the chorus, the angels arrive in the next verse. Now it is strange, as Todd Leopold has noticed, that the end comes “one day while I wasn’t home.” Honey’s death doesn’t happen in a hospital, like in Love Story, or out on a highway, like in “Last Kiss.” If she was ill, it came up all of a sudden, and if it was an accident, it must have involved pruning shears.

And the narrator doesn’t seem especially surprised by her death. He’s saddened, to be sure, but it seems inevitable rather than shocking. How does a young person die suddenly, at home, in such a way that doesn’t take her loved ones by surprise?

Once you start to think about what may have caused the end of Honey, earlier lines take on a weird resonance. In the song’s most famous line, Honey is described as “kinda dumb and kinda smart” – is she bipolar? She then wrecks her husband’s car, but he shrugs it off with a “what the heck” – has he learned not to overreact to Honey’s foibles? The chorus repeatedly promises Honey, up in heaven now, “I’m being good.” Does the narrator hold himself responsible for Honey’s death?

As far as I can tell, no one divined any subtext to Honey’s story back in 1968 – or now, for that matter. Certainly, nobody expected a twee little pop song with a melody borrowed from Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound” to confront a serious topic like chronic depression.

I’m not saying it’s a great song or anything, although it is on my iPod. Goldsboro’s smiling-through-the-tears delivery can easily be construed as simple blandness, and maybe that’s all he was capable of. I have no doubt, though, that songwriter Bobby Russell (who died in 1992, so we can’t ask him) had more in mind than puppy love and sudden death. And I have this crazy notion that some of the people who made “Honey” a Number One hit may have understood that. Rest in peace, Honey.

1 comment:

MJN said...

All of that may be true, but still, using "what the heck" to rhyme with "hugged my neck" after a car wreck is just bad, on a par with Neil Diamond's "not even the chair" line.