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During the opening day of the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas, where Kim Fowley is still revered and everyone gets a backstage pass for a weekend, Randy Newman sat uncomfortably on a stage in the Austin Convention Center's ballroom. He was there ostensibly to promote Microsoft's CD-ROM version of Faust, his take on Goethe, which casts James Taylor as God and Newman himself as the devil; but the appearance was billed as a "celebrity interview." It was a Q&A with one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century, the George Gershwin of his generation; it was a glimpse into the mind of one of pop music's few true geniuses, an artist who has crafted his best work for the fervent cult.
Yet the room was nearly empty. The music industry was off listening to other panels that afternoon, taking care of business and handing out cards and collecting demos and doing lunch and finding the afternoon parties where the free beer was hardly worth the price of listening to mediocre rock 'n' roll. Maybe a hundred people turned up that day to listen to Newman espouse his caustic wisdom and take his turn at the piano performing "Davy the Fat Boy" and "Rednecks." Maybe a hundred people soaked in his weary wisdom, listened to him explain why he sells out (doing soundtracks for such films as Toy Story and Maverick, letting Colgate toothpaste use "I Love to See You Smile" in its ads) without stooping so low as to get mud on his loafers.
"I always had a whiff of the hack about me," he told the crowd. "I always wanted to write songs millions of people would like. I wanted to write, 'I love you just the way you are,' but then I always add, 'I love you just the way you are, you stupid bitch.' I'm so self-destructive. I was always trying to get people to like me, but until rap I was writing the roughest stuff imaginable--the worst language, the most raw stuff. The stuff I do is so fuckin' offensive. The Disney people and Microsoft can't be checkin' my past."
He gave insight, opened up, revealed a sense of how difficult is the life of the songwriter who ships gold only to be returned copper. He told the audience he is unhappy with the amount of work he has turned out in 28 years--that 11 albums (including such essential and even immortal works as 12 Songs, Sail Away, Good Old Boys and Land of Dreams) are hardly a substantial legacy. "Elton John has made that many records in one month," he said with dubious affection. John appears on Faust, after all.
"I lowered my standards years ago," he said, shrugging, his joke cut with the powder of truth. "I can't help it if I'm shitty. It's okay to be stupid as long as you're trying."
It was classic Newman, the deadpan delivery relaying more than his acerbic words. After all these years, after so many wonderful albums and Oscar-nominated soundtracks that failed to put statues on his mantle, he still uses self-deprecation as a weapon; he's the last sane man standing who claims insanity as his defense, the better to throw you off.
He didn't become Billy Joel or Elton John or James Taylor or any of those other timid hacks simply because he was better than they were, more honest about himself and the way people interacted with one another. Newman told you about inbred weddings and flag-waving hatemongers, painted a portrait of an American landscape you saw every day but tried to ignore. He proclaimed his love only when he was drunk ("Marie"), then turned around and spat in his lover's face when she cried herself to sleep ("A Real Emotional Girl"). His love songs were brutally honest, sometimes mean and bitter; they made you uncomfortable, sad.
Newman was the antithesis of the singer-songwriter scene of the '70s, those performers who confessed their sins in public and wanted you to wipe the tears from their sincere faces. He was the nephew of men (uncles Alfred and Lionel) who scored movies and created music on an epic scale; Randy just shrank their grand scores down to the size of a broken heart and a bitter word.
His first album, 1968's Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun, was an orchestral classic still ignored even by his acolytes (Reprise recently reissued it on CD, along with his 1971 Live album), and it introduced audiences to fat boys and Midwestern yahoos, cowboys and other assorted stooges who lost their hearts and their ways following the golden path leading to the American dream. Twenty-eight years later, he is still trying to get it right: Newman is once more rewriting and reworking Faust, which debuted earlier this year at La Jolla Playhouse, for a Chicago premiere in September. David Mamet also is putting his hand into the mix, though Newman's publicist, Ronni Chasen, says Newman is unsure how involved the playwright will be in the finished product.
Newman, who is currently writing the score for Nora Ephron's Michael, has been working on Faust (the musical, the album, the CD-ROM, the whole goddamned thing) for more than a decade--so long, he says, that often he considered putting it down and never again picking it up. The songs for Faust were written over a span of years, during which Newman wrote the autobiographical Land of Dreams and soundtracks for such films as The Natural, Avalon, The Paper and Awakenings. Most likely, that's why the music for Faust sounds like a summation of Newman's career--sweeping and grand orchestral moments alongside faux hard-rockers, intimate songs sandwiched between sarcastic and lurid lyrics.