Good Old Oy

Twenty-eight years later, Randy Newman is still America's last great grumpy songwriter

More than that, it's a celebration of sin in which Newman's devil sings of a "Happy Ending" filled with "destruction and corruption and reproduction" and in which Don Henley's Faust imagines a world where he can walk into any restaurant with his bodyguards and say, "That's Mr. Faust's chair your big ass is in, don't you understand, motherfucker?" And at the end of the play, Faust is allowed to ascend to heaven after he's betrayed the woman he claims to love and proved himself soulless and selfish 'til his last breath.

As with so much of Newman's work, it is difficult to separate the sarcasm from the sincerity, the merely irreverent from the meanspirited. By casting James Taylor as the golf-playing God--this deity so thoroughly out of touch with reality--and casting himself as the devil, Newman is both playing off their respective images (white-bread Wasp coasting on past success, self-effacing Jew who wishes he had more faith) and mocking them at the same time. But then, Newman's the kind of guy who poked fun at Paul Simon in the song "The Blues" (about an upper-class white boy singing his pitiful and rather unbelievable tales of drug-hustling brothers and incarcerated uncles), then actually hired Simon to sing it.

"My Faust is not about good and evil," Newman says. "It's not an allegory. First of all, it's about the unpredictability of mankind and how I find it difficult to presume that anyone could imagine what people are going to be up to and actually know everything and be omniscient and omnipotent. And it's about the relationship between these two sort of out-of-touch yet still very powerful deities and their sort of consternation with the way things turn out.

"The devil says things are a little too easy for him now, and the Lord says he hasn't been paying attention because he didn't know what to do with these people. He pretends he's concerned with big cosmic concerns and other parts of the universe, but he just found it so difficult to deal with people. And, ya know, people are difficult."

Randy Newman is America's best songwriter precisely because he so eloquently, so perfectly documents what it means to be an American--"the man who does not like what he sees but is wildly attracted to it anyway," as Greil Marcus wrote in Mystery Train, "a man who keeps his sanity by rendering contradictions other people struggle to avoid."

Whether dissecting the large issues--war ("Political Science"), bigotry ("Rednecks" and "Short People"), classism ("My Life Is Good") or greed ("It's Money That I Love")--or revealing the smaller, private ones, Newman has painted a vivid portrait of this country. He is Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Marvin Gaye, Muddy Waters and Ray Charles packed into the body of a modern-day Gershwin; he is the rock 'n' roller who uses strings and piano, so angry and repulsed by what he sees that all he can do is play his beautiful music as the cities and the cornfields burn.

"It's hard to say," Newman says when asked if he considers himself a documentarian. "Naturally, I try, but you get changed by the fact your life becomes different. My life is the same [as most Americans] in that I had kids and brought them up and was active and got divorced and lived in this country and watched television and all that stuff, but you're changed a little by what you do for a living. It's an odd job."

Newman's fame and success, such as they are, rest primarily with two songs: "Short People" and "I Love L.A." The first went to No. 2 on the Billboard charts in 1977 (the album from which it came, Little Criminals, was in the Top 10); and "I Love L.A.," from 1983's Trouble in Paradise, quickly became that city's benign anthem, with Newman filming a popular video that further perverted the song's meaning (which was, "I Also Kind of Hate L.A.").

Perhaps no pop song of the past 20 years was more misinterpreted than "Short People," which was actually a hamfisted reworking of his own "Rednecks" from 1974's Good Old Boys; it was a song about bigotry, how some people will hate all people for any reason. But when Newman sang "Short people got no reason to live," those who were diminutive in stature took the song as a slight--just as some African Americans were offended when Newman's redneck sang of "keepin' the niggers down."

They missed the point, got lost in the irony, failed to distinguish between songwriter and character. Those familiar only with Newman's hits, those who know nothing of such songs as "Dixie Flyer" or "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear" or "Sail Away," think of him only as a writer of novelty songs--the guy who goes for the easy laugh, the schmuck cruising around L.A. in a red convertible with the bimbo by his side. Those who got the jokes knew Newman's hatred was the kind borne only from great affection; those who didn't simply wrote him off, dismissed him as a parodist and failed to appreciate the darkness underneath so much light.

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