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Good Old Oy

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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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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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