Randy Newman

For decades, he has pulled us in two directions at once by expressing sentiments we don't want to hear in songs we never tire of hearing.

Published August 24, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

By way of introducing his song "Naked Man" to audiences, Randy Newman tells the story -- a true story, mind you -- that inspired it. Seems a public defender he knew in New Orleans was called upon to represent a man who was accused of stealing a woman's purse while naked, just like the man in the song. His alibi was even more remarkable than the charges leveled against him: He had been in the bedroom of a woman who was not his wife when her husband returned and he jumped out the window, naked as he was when he came into the world. Running down the road he encountered another naked man carrying a purse who handed it to him, without comment, before disappearing into the night, leaving the defendant to explain it all to the police.

In this song (from his 1974 opus "Good Old Boys"), and in the shaggy dog story he uses to introduce it, you'll find the keys to much of Newman's music. There's the lyric itself, with the comic image of an old lady "shufflin' uptown against the wind"; all the Freudian implications of a naked man stealing a purse; the grotesque, as evidenced in the proffered explanation of the culprit ("They found out about my sister/Kicked me out of the navy/Would have strung me up if they could"), all set to what sounds like an organ grinder's shuffle. And then there's the singer/storyteller himself, an unreliable narrator offering the story of another unreliable narrator (or maybe two) as an unlikely pair of naked men go running off in opposite directions, one of them bearing the prize.

Randy Newman's best music often pulls the listener in two directions at once, against the expectations the sound sets up. Coming from a family of film composers, he knew the effect music could have on a story and the audience's reactions. Greil Marcus, in his groundbreaking 1974 essay on Newman ("Every Man Is Free") in "Mystery Train," wrote, "He uses the familiarity of the music to set us in the moods and situations the music automatically calls up; we respond in predictable ways to the music, and as we do, Newman's words and his singing pull us in other directions, or shift the story just enough to make it new." The most famous example of this sort of cognitive dissonance may be in the singer-songwriter's 1972 composition "Sail Away" -- still regarded by many as his best song. Born aloft by a soaring melody and a full orchestra (conducted by uncle Emil), Newman assumes the voice of a slave trader wooing Africans to the new world: "Ain't no lions and tigers, ain't no mamba snake/Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake." The truth of the reality that awaits them rests with the listener: You become one with the singer's lie. "It's great to be an American."

There are other examples of Newman's unsettling talent -- the tentative, haunting melody of "In Germany Before the War" (1977) belies the story, told in sketchy detail, of a child murderer ("A little girl has lost her way/With hair of gold and eyes of gray/Reflected in his glasses as he watches her") -- and on the recent "Bad Love," Newman's first studio album in five years and his best in over 20, the tradition continues. The album's opener, "This Is My Country," begins simply and nostalgically, like Archie and Edith sitting around the piano: "Let's go back to yesterday/When a phone call costs a dime/In New Orleans, just a nickel/Turn back the hands of time." By the time we've reached the chorus the melody has assumed a sort of martial air -- rolling drums, trilling horns -- that cues a vaguely patriotic, family-values zeal as Newman sings, "This is my country/These are my people/This is the world I understand ..."

And how that feeling dissipates as you realize he is singing about television ("Watching other people living/Seeing other people play/Hearing other people's voices in our minds") and the family is the singer's grown children:

When they speak to you

You got to listen to what they have to say

But they all live alone now

They have TVs of their own

But they keep on coming over anyway

And much as I love them

I'm always kind of glad when they go away

This is disquieting stuff, best left unsaid, and there certainly aren't many people hearing it. Despite strong notices, only a few months after its release "Bad Love" has all but disappeared from the charts, even as Rhino Records has released a stunning four-CD box set ("Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman") and California's South Coast Repertory Theater is mounting a musical based on his work ("The Education of Randy Newman"). Rock is seldom given to nuance, and with his challenging song craft and sardonic eye, Newman can only be called a rocker in the way Andy Kaufman was a comedian. Pop fortune is usually bestowed upon numbers that are personal ("I Love You Just the Way You Are") or anthemic ("No New Tale to Tell"), and Newman's lyrics are more like short fiction, with stories told by all kinds of people. Problems have arisen, then, when his songs were taken at face value, most notably (and incredibly) in 1977, when some short people actually thought Newman's one bona fide national hit, "Short People," was an attack on them and not a parody of prejudice itself. Singer-songwriters are supposed to sing about themselves, rock listeners reckon; they are supposed to stand naked to the world. And when presented with two naked men, one of whom may not be telling the truth, people get confused.

"Maybe people want personal confessions. Maybe that's why I don't sell 2 million records. In fact, I always thought people could tell what I was like from my stuff more easily than they necessarily could tell about a confessional kind of songwriter ... I don't know what [Dan] Fogelberg is like from his songs. You can tell what I'm like."

-- Playboy interview, 1987

People feel like they know Randy Newman, that they know someone just like him. Tall and a little awkward, cynical but sort of sensitive, smarter than you but not shouting about it. Someone who wants you to like him, though you can't imagine being really close friends. Someone who lives like you -- wife, a couple of kids, maybe even watches the same TV shows you do. But someone who thinks about things you never do and maybe late at night, after he's had a couple, even talks about them.

Newman was born Nov. 28, 1944, in New Orleans, where his mother's people were from. It was there, in that jambalaya of colors and creeds, that he learned some of the puzzling rules of race, as recalled in a rare bit of autobiography, "New Orleans Wins the War":

Momma used to wheel me past an ice cream wagon

One side for white, one side for colored ...

Momma used to take me to Audobon Park

Show me the ways of the world

She'd say, "Here comes a white boy

There goes a black one

That one's an octoroon ...

The boy's puzzlement over society's divisions continued after the family moved to Los Angeles when he was 7. His father, Irving, dabbled in songwriting but became a successful doctor with a celebrity practice. His brothers were stars, too; Alfred composed or conducted the music for more than 200 films, everything from "Dead End" to "The King and I." As musical director at 20th Century Fox, he wielded considerable power (his brass fanfare is still heard when the studio's logo is shown at the beginning of a Fox film), but there were other forces afoot in the world, as Randy discovered.

"When Randy was a kid, he was invited to the Riviera Country Club by some girl for a cotillion," Randy's father told Timothy White (in an article included in the "Guilty" booklet). "The night of the ball the girl's father called and said, 'I'm sorry, Randy, my daughter had no right to invite you because no Jews are allowed.' Randy said, 'That's all right sir,' and he hung up the phone and said, 'Hey, Dad, what's a Jew?'"

Clearly, the Newmans weren't what you would call observant and the revelation of his Jewishness prompted in Randy a study of comparative religion that made him a devout atheist ("except when I'm sick"). But the awareness of his otherness (like the otherness he'd seen assigned to blacks in New Orleans) had a subversive effect on his schooling as well. He already hated school (his glasses and a cross-eyed condition made him the subject of much derision), but his pursuit of America's other history put the lie to what he was being taught as well. Those contrary currents in America's story run throughout his work, from "Sail Away" to all of "Good Old Boys" to "Bad Love's" Gilbert-and-Sullivanesque "Great Nations of Europe," with its cheerful description of Indians "torn apart by dogs on religious grounds they say." The message throughout is woe be to the outsider, and Newman would doubtless delight in the joke Stanley Kubrick told Michael Herr: "What's the American dream?" "A million blacks swimming back to Africa with a Jew under each arm."

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Everybody gather round

Pick up what I'm putting down

Got to dig this crazy sound, it won't hurt you

If you've got music in your heart

Then you've made a real good start

Your love of music never will desert you

-- "Days of Heaven," 1987

It may be unfair to call Newman a child prodigy though there is a photo of him sitting at the piano in his diapers, at age 8-and-a-half months, and it looks like he knows his way around. He learned firsthand of scoring films, as lifelong friend, producer and proponent Lenny Waronker recalls in his notes in the "Guilty" boxed set:

"When we were kids, Randy and I used to hang around the soundstage and watch his uncle work," Waronker writes. "It was unbelievable -- to be seven or eight and watch a piece of film go by in a room filled with 85 musicians playing the soundtrack. We saw the whole thing happen. It helped us understand how music transforms film. And it influenced the way we listen to music."

By a form of musical osmosis (family, radio, self-education) young Randy picked up on everything from classical to classic American (Stephen Foster, Scott Joplin, George Gershwin) and spiced it all with a dose of New Orleans soul, courtesy of Fats Domino. Not that those influences were evidenced in the pop ditties he wrote for Metric Music as a teenager. "He was a lonely guy," Waronker recalls, "no girlfriends, was hard to get through to, and he'd work so hard on those songs. But he'd get terrible writing blocks and couldn't ever satisfy himself." But the numbers he created (unremarkable June-moon stuff, by and large) were soon being covered by everyone from Irma Thomas to Harper's Bazaar, culminating in an entire album's worth of his material done by then-boy-wonder Harry Nilsson ("Nilsson Sings Newman"). The oft-tackled "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear" (1965) was, according to Newman, "the first song I wrote where I wasn't trying to be Carole King. It was the first song I wrote that sounds like me." True, with its stride piano and comic imagery, there is something distinctly likable about "Simon" (which Newman himself recorded on "Sail Away"). But there is a note of apprehension there as well -- "They'll love us, won't they?/They feed us, don't they?" -- boy and bear linked in servitude, performing for each meal.

In 1967 Waronker (who had joined Warner's Reprise label as an A&R man) signed his boyhood friend to the label and, working with legendary producer and Beach Boy collaborator Van Dyke Parks, began work on Newman's debut, "Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun" (1968). Even in the post "Sgt. Pepper"/"Pet Sounds" musical landscape of the day, Newman's opener was a stunner: Eleven songs (most under three minutes long), filled with shifting beats, obscure lyrics and varied landscapes, were brought to life in arrangements that involved everything from solo piano to a 75-piece orchestra. Then there was Newman's voice (which one critic likened to "a frightened bison") croaking its way through tales of lost cowboys, Utah ("the friendly Beehive State") and the songwriter's first masterpiece, "Davy the Fat Boy." The narrator, asked by Davy's parents to look after their charge, puts him in a sideshow instead, challenging people to guess his weight. It contains the immortal call to accept the grotesque -- "You've got to let this fat boy in your life!" -- that Marcus likened to Nathanael West and Sherwood Anderson, and set a standard Newman often felt he fell short of.

"I'm interested in people's reactions to 'Davy the Fat Boy,'" he told Chuck Marshall in 1978. "I never get tired of doing 'Davy,' when I really think of it ... it depresses me that I wrote it so long ago. I don't know that I've written stuff much better than that."

Audiences apparently did not want something new under the sun, though, and Newman's debut slipped away largely unheard (though critics were mostly kind and even the Beatles were said to have dug it). With "12 Songs" (1970), Newman and Waronker tried a whole new approach: Armed with a stripped-down quartet (featuring Ry Cooder on slide guitar and Milt Holland's percussive genius) and a dozen gem-like story-songs, Newman's second album blew holes in the increasingly bombastic pop music fabric of the day. "Suzanne" was decidedly not the Leonard Cohen composition (this girl's name is found in a telephone booth, inspiring rape fantasies in the singer), "Lucinda" featured a girl in her high school graduation gown killed by a beach-cleaning machine, and "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield" was an invitation to do just that. And after the experimentation of his first album Newman had found his vocal style as well, singing in a voice that could only be called black-influenced. This, taken with the sleeve photo of the singer standing with his wife and child, backlit by a Vons supermarket, explains Waronker's handle for his friend: "The King of the Suburban Blues Singers."

Conveniently labeled and bolstered by a popular live album and an evolving stage persona (self-deferential, neurotic in a sort of Woody Allen way), Newman scored a popular and critical success with the 1972 "Sail Away." Here was more evidence of his hard eye ("Old Man") as well as his humor. "Memo to My Son" remains perhaps the most realistic song about raising children ever written ("What have you done to the mirror?/What have you done to the floor?/Can't I go nowhere without you?/Can't I leave you alone anymore?"). But the album's most popular numbers, "Political Science" and "Burn On," scored hits with easy targets (American jingoism and water pollution), and Newman developed a following of well-intentioned, liberal, college-educated listeners who treated each song as a sort of inside joke. And Newman, to his own remorse, would often pander to them. When I saw him in the '70s, I recall him introducing "Yellow Man" (a fantasy of anti-Oriental racism) as he was hit with a yellow spotlight. "Very sensitive," he wisecracked, and the audience howled. Nearly 10 years later, I saw him again, and when he introduced the number he again got the yellow spotlight and made the same crack. You can call it stage nervousness, but the gag seemed studied and cruel the second time; he wasn't the insensitive one, mind you, and neither were you for laughing. It was that imaginary oaf of a stagehand.

"His best songs implicate the listener," Greil Marcus wrote of Newman, but by the mid-'70s it
seemed his audience didn't want to be implicated. "Good Old Boys" still stands as his masterpiece; what began as a the story of one man in Alabama ("Rednecks," "Birmingham") and his marriage ("Marie," "Guilty") and crazy brother ("Naked Man," "Back On My Feet Again") stretched into a tapestry devoted to the tragedy of the South, with songs evoking Huey P. Long ("Kingfish") and the Mississippi flood of 1927. But for a lot of listeners it was an opportunity to laugh at those very rednecks laughing back at you. In the second verse of the opening track, the narrator mocks the free "nigger" of the North:

Yes, he's free to be put in a cage

In Harlem in New York City

And he's free to be put in a cage on the South Side of Chicago

and the West Side

And he's free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland

And he's free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis

And he's free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco

As Newman performed the song at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco in the late '80s, an audience member actually applauded at that last line, pleased, no doubt, to hear his city represented in the singer's litany of American apartheid.

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Of all of the people that I used to know

Most never adjusted to the great big world

I see them lurking in bookstores

Working for the public radio

Carrying babies around in a sack on their back

Moving careful and slow.

-- "It's Money That Matters," 1988

This number (the well-duh sequel to the 1979 song "It's Money That I Love") comes right out of the gate on Newman's uneven and largely personal album "Land of Dreams." For once, his loyal audience couldn't laugh so easily at the singer's subjects because they now seemed to be them. It's a nifty little number, kicked along by a rocking Mark Knopfler riff, and Newman's comments on it are typically ambiguous: "When I learned a couple of years ago that the world isn't fair, I fairly jumped for joy and reveled in my own good fortune."

Newman has been telling this story to us for a while and continues in this vein on "Bad Love" with "The World Isn't Fair," in which he explains the facts of life to Karl Marx. His output grew spottier in the '80s -- the singer seemed subdued by both the Epstein-Barr virus and the very crassness of the Reagan-Bush years -- but "Land of Dreams" was a partial return to form. Especially the closer, "I Want You to Hurt Like I Do," which he calls "an authentic rock ballad in the manner of 'We Are the World.'" Again he is expressing sentiments no one wants to hear, yet it is hard to turn away:

I ran out on my children

And I ran out on my wife

Gonna run out on you too, baby

I've done it all my life

Everybody cried the night I left

Well, almost everybody did

My little boy just hung his head

I put my arm around his little shoulders

And this is what I said:

"Sonny, I just want you to hurt like I do ...

Honest I do, honest I do, honest I do."

It is the song of selfishness and we are all singing it, from the folks who want to be left alone to watch a little television to the mass murderer dragging his family with him into his black hole of rage. That Newman envisioned it as a rock anthem, complete with satellite coverage "and all of the world singing along," just emphasizes the distance he feels from the music community whose nexus is in Los Angeles. L.A. is identified with Newman the way Lou Reed is linked to New York (due in part to his 1983 "I Love L.A." having been adopted by the Olympics in the summer of '84), and he is certainly no outsider to the industry. Waronker is now at Dreamworks (Newman moved to Dreamworks for "Bad Love"), and his 1995 "Faust" opera featured such varied big-name talents as Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor and the recently impoverished Elton John. But Newman manages to remain without, dangerous to the end.

On the cover of "Bad Love," Newman faces the camera square-on for the first time on a record, and the effect is disquieting: His eyes appear to be looking in different directions, just as his songs pull you apart in surprising ways, making you care and making you hate yourself for caring. Yes, "Faust" was a fulfillment of the Twainesque pessimism found in the 1972 "God's Song," and the Lord (sung by Taylor) is sort of a cruel imbecile, the kind of god who puts the Buddhists out with the trash. But there is no Faustian finality here: The Lord advises Lucifer (Newman, of course) to "Relax Enjoy Yourself" and Gretchen's love song, "Feels Like Home," is as simple a paean to romantic love as "Toy Story's" "You've Got a Friend In Me" is a joyous ode to camaraderie. (Newman's softer side finds great expression in his movie work, especially the scores he's written for children's films such as "James and the Giant Peach.") Even Lucifer finally reinvents himself in classic American style by heading for Vegas ("You can take your desert/Goddamn it, give me mine").

A happy ending after all? Newman is more suspicious of happy endings than you are, and has seen plenty of life's travails. (He overcame an addiction to ups and downs, and his 20-year marriage to Roswitha, which yielded three sons, ended in divorce; he has since remarried and has two new kids.) He speaks of his work in the film business as a form of indentured servitude, and his definition of a director is "a guy who owns a CD player and thinks he's an expert on music." But like most of us, "moving careful and slow," he sees the trade-off and splits the difference. "'I Love to See You Smile' [from the movie 'Parenthood'] made more money for me than anything else I've done," he told the Film and TV Composers' Conference in 1997. "I sold it to toothpaste companies, mule-packing teams, anywhere I could. I worked eight to 10 months on 'Faust' but never made a dime on it." Most of us, trading off the toothpaste ads for the work that matters, would have to call the acceptance of the arrangement -- a devil's bargain, if you will -- a form of wisdom. And looking at Randy Newman full on, trying to meet the gaze of one of his eyes, you may just see yourself.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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