Singer-songwriter Andrew Gold, who died of heart failure in 2011, is primarily remembered today for two songs, both of which were top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 1970s: “Lonely Boy” and “Thank You For Being a Friend.”
The former was the bigger hit (No. 7 in 1977) and by most measures, the superior song. A sparkling and sneakily bombastic mini-epic about the endlessly perpetuated cycle of young male entitlement, “Lonely Boy” is an absolutely masterful piece of pop-rock storytelling, with incisive and emotional lyrics, perfectly orchestrated production and instrumentation and an all-time knockout chorus. It’s one of the best radio hits of that decade.
In contrast, 1978’s “Friend” was — by Gold’s own admission — “a little throwaway thing,” tossed off in about an hour and not given much consideration. Based on the final product, it’s not hard to believe: Unlike the immaculately crafted “Lonely Boy,” “Friend” kind of ambles, loose and free-associative. The lyrics feel occasionally misshapen, or even like placeholders for proper lyrics yet to be written. The structure is unpredictable, lacking a conventional refrain, digressing into a mildly psychedelic breakdown section and eventually settling into a sort of late-period Beach Boys groove for its outro. Yet 40 years after its release, it’s arguably endured in the public memory better than “Lonely Boy.” There are a couple explanations for that — including one very specific reason — but broadly speaking, it’s because there might never have been a more effective song written about friendship and gratitude.
For the song’s scattered, slightly shambolic nature, there’s a sincerity that shines through its oddball lyrics. “Thank you for being a friend/ Traveled down a road and back again/ Your heart is true, you’re a pal and a confidant,” the song begins over Gold’s insistent piano, laying it all out from the very beginning. The “confidant” ending is the part that sticks with you because it almost rhymes — would rhyme, if you pronounced “confidant” like “confident” — but just doesn’t quite. It’s like Gold landed on the word, thought he could make it rhyme for a second before realizing it was off, then decided it was still too appropriate a vocab choice and feeling to consider changing. Like the entire song, it feels genuine and not second-guessed.
The song’s famous “If you threw a party…” section — either its refrain or its bridge, depending on what angle you look at “Friend” from — continues with this open-hearted, off-kilter sentimentality. “If you threw a party, invited everyone you knew/ You would see the biggest gift would be from me/ And the card attached would say, ‘Thank you for being a friend.” It’s a strange theoretical to start such a section with — especially after such a dramatic piano lead-in — and the idea of proving one’s friendship best by giving the biggest gift at a party feels similarly askew. But it’s saved with its closing, in which Gold describes the card attached, simply stating the titular sentiment. He doesn’t even mention what the gift would be — though later in the song, he offers up a Cadillac, why not — because the message would be the important thing.
Of course, those two sections of the song are its best-known parts, because they’re the two featured in the Cynthia Fee-sung cover version the late-’80s TV smash The Golden Girls used as its theme music, ensuring the song’s immortality. “Friend” was an ideal match for the classic sitcom, about four female companions of advanced years sharing a home: Its charming and quirky mushiness led naturally into a show that, while unconventional and occasionally tart in its plotting and humor, never lost its core sweetness. But what’s most notable about the specific version used is that it specifically cuts out a section in Gold’s original about aging — “And when we both get older, with walking canes and hair of gray/ Have no fear, even though it’s hard to hear…” — which you might consider an obvious fit for a show with an older cast. That would’ve been distractingly on the nose, though, when what both the song and the sitcom are really about is friendship, and the abridged version that Golden Girls fans know by heart after a couple hundred episodes of opening credits gets that across beautifully.
Yet as much as the song stresses the importance of friendship, it makes it clear that gratitude for that relationship is equally crucial. “Friend” offers thanks several dozen times, with Gold declaring himself “not ashamed” to do so, offering the truest tribute to his pal and confidant’s companionship just through his own sheer effusiveness. Big parties and bigger gifts aside, the best thing we can all do for one another is just to tell each other in no uncertain terms how much we value what the other person brings to our life, and to let them know their efforts are never taken for granted. It’s worth heeding this Thanksgiving, as we assemble with our relatives once again, to try to look past whatever frictions may exist within those relationships and find the best way to properly tell them, individually and collectively: Thank you for being a family.