Inappropriate Walk Up Music: “Goodbye Cruel World”

For an intro to this series, click here. For the original series way back in 2009, click here.

One of my collegiate roommates had had an extensive music collection. Most of it fell under the heading of punk, with a particular fondness for Johnny Thunders live bootlegs where poor Johnny was barely coherent. (I remember one that started out with him announcing, in his intensely Elmhurstian accent, “This song goes out ta Yassah Arafat. I heah he’s movin ta Queens.”) But he also had a weakness for doo wop of the late 1950s/early 1960s, the more New York-y the better (think Dion).

In keeping with this latter category, he had a few Billboard compilations from that era. Once, he burst into my room and demanded I listen to a song from the 1961 collection because it was so singularly bizarre: “Goodbye Cruel World” by James Darren.

Mr. Darren was best known as an actor, most notably as Moondoggie in the Gidget movies. He also had a recurring gig on T.J. Hooker. If you’re a nerd of more recent vintage, you may recall him as the holographic crooner Vic Fontaine on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But he enjoyed a singing career in the early 1960s, and “Goodbye Cruel World” was his biggest hit, charting at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 1961.

The pre-Beatles pop music landscape was really weird. If you weren’t aware of that fact before, you will be now. “Goodbye Cruel World” is a song in which the protagonist uses the titular phrase to signify that he’s “off to join the circus” to be “a broken-hearted clown.”

Let’s review: A song named after a saying that usually means someone is going to kill themselves, weirdly censored to mean the singer is merely becoming a carny, was the third biggest hit in 1961.

The circus milieu of this composition was not subtle, either. The song has blaring carnival horns, booming drums, and calliopes. It’s like “What’s New Pussycat,” only a thousand times less swinging. And I know that if I ever saw a batter come up to the plate to it, I would lose my mind.