Good Old Oy

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

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.

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.

"I never thought they were like novelty songs," Newman says. "I mean, I just thought 'Short People' was about someone who was crazy in a very peculiar way. It's an odd mania. There's hardly some kind of short-people oppression going on, but I like to make people laugh, and it's another thing that isn't done much with the [songwriting] form. It's taken very seriously, and so I've written more comedy songs than any other pop writer that I can think of. So I guess it's like novelty songs."

Even when singing in the first person, Newman writes simple and powerful character studies--the down-and-out Southerners who populate Good Old Boys, the slave-ship captain of "Sail Away," the kid who promises to take care of "Davy the Fat Boy" and then sells him into the freak show. He has been Sigmund Freud mocking Albert Einstein's love for America, the poor man watching his land destroyed by flood and the rich man laughing at the homeless, the Jew who wants to be a Gentile and the white man who wants to be black, the impotent devil and the spiteful God.

But Newman's greatest talent lies in his ability to subvert, even pervert, the songwriting form--to write around a subject without becoming abstract, to make his point without preaching or becoming condescending. He will write a love song but never stoop to sentimentality (in the haunting "Marie," from Good Old Boys, the narrator only professes his love when he's drunk), and he will write an antiwar song but still play it for laughs ("Boom goes London and boom Paree/More room for you and more room for me," he sings on "Political Science").

"I guess I don't think songs are such a great medium for directness," Newman says. "I'm happier with the indirection of it. What are you going to say--'War's bad?' Yeah, sure it is, but I'd rather do 'Political Science.' What do you say--'Don't be an asshole and act like a rich fool?' Or do you do a song like 'My Life Is Good'? I think I like 'My Life Is Good' better than that. I think I'm setting up straw men and knocking them down left and right . . .

"Of all the things I do, like soundtracks or write one of these concept things, probably the most individual thing about me and the thing that makes it different--the reason to do anything--is the songs I write are strange. I mean, they're different from most people's, and if I do any kind of work at all after this, I should be doing that--writing strange songs.

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