Randy Newman The Underdog
Published Feb 01, 2000Loving Randy Newman is a solitary proposition. Not just because his is music for home listening, unsuitable for stadiums, raves or even small parties. Not just because it's music for listening , not a pleasant backdrop. No, loving Randy Newman is a lonely life because there just aren't that many of us: old enough to vote, but with taste buds not yet so deadened that we'll submit to the creamy innocuousness of adult contemporary.
It's unfair that Newman gets such short shrift. He's written some brilliant pop songs in his life, catchy and melodically memorable with enough left turns to keep you interested. But the saccharine, diabetic shock-inducing Burt Bacharach gets the revival, the kitschy props for writing brilliant, timeless melodies. Newman has a touch with an orchestra that would make orch pop pretenders like the High Llamas hand in their batons, but his name is absent from discussions that include other pop arrangement innovators like Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks (who produced Newman's debut). Like Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, he has a non-traditional voice that has put him on the fringes of popular culture, even while he writes hits for other people, but Newman doesn't get to move in the same circles of cache.
Perhaps Randy Newman's closest contemporary, in pop culture terms, is Lyle Lovett, with whom he dueted on Toy Story 's Oscar-nominated "You've Got Friend In Me." They both work on the fringes of popular music, they both write beautiful, challenging work with a skewed perspective, and they share a twisted, ironic sense of humour. But Lovett's big band country swing, coupled with his memorably deadpan acting work, make him quintessentially cool - on his 1994 album, he can casually declare, "I Love Everybody." Newman lives far away from the world of hip - on the final track of his new album, Bad Love , he declares "I Want Everyone to Like Me."
"I've even been over-tipping lately," he deadpans. "There are very few people who are doing something so esoteric they don't hope there's an audience for it somewhere. Captain Beefheart wanted people to like him - and he found them. It's a prime force. The seminal fact of show business."
For many, the reason why they won't give Randy Newman the time of day - and no pile of critical accolades and Oscar nominations will alter that - can be summed up in two words: "Short People." It remains the biggest hit of his career, a #2 in 1977, and is typical of how people respond to him. The song is simple enough, a satire about prejudice, taken to the most ridiculous degree, culminating in the song's most quotable line: "Short people got no reason to live." Despite its success, it spawned a certain amount of controversy, and for many of smaller stature, led to more than a little schoolyard torment.
But taking the unexpected route through a story is what nourishes Newman's entire sensibility. The title track for his 1970 album Sail Away is sung from the perspective of a recruiting slave owner; it contains no liberal platitudes, no acknowledgement of wrongdoing. In the liner notes to the recently released box setGuilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman , he writes of "Sail Away": "How else could I do it - slavery is bad?"
"Sail Away" is a perfect example of Newman's strength as a writer, and what lends his studio albums their bite and his film scores their authenticity - his ability to write songs in the first person, always in character. Newman's "Suzanne" beat Sting to the stalker theme a decade-and-a-half before "Every Breath You Take," while "Burn Down the Cornfield" enthuses about pyromania. His entire 1974 album Good Old Boys was suffused with a Southern sensibility, in all its nuance, from the twisted anthem "Rednecks" to the oddly touching drunken love ode "Marie." Not to mention rhyming Birmingham with Alabam'.
While many of these songs are funny, and some of them are mean, very rarely are they condescending - Newman doesn't speak down to his subject matter; he's more likely to save those barbs for his social betters. Newman consistently looks for the disenfranchised, the ignored, seeking out and lifting the most unlikely rocks.
One of the reasons why Newman's solo work tends to click only with a small audience, is that what he offers isn't what people expect, or even want, from music. No matter how brilliant, satire like "Davy the Fat Boy," or "Political Science" is a bit of a shotgun wedding with the popular song form.
His film work has afforded Newman a new opportunity - an excuse to write beautiful love songs, sentimental stuff he'd otherwise avoid. "It's a way for me to get outside myself," he says. "I'm very grateful for the movie songs for allowing me to say 'You've Got A Friend In Me.' I'd never say that. I'd feel like I was trying to sell you a rug. I'm glad I do those, and people like them more than what I usually do, but I don't, to be honest. I don't like them as much. I prefer things like [Bad Love's] 'The World Isn't Fair,' 'Great Nations of Europe,' or 'Better Off Dead.' They're not even necessarily better songs - I'm just more interested in the subject matter."
His film success may even be keeping listeners looking for something different away from his solo work. Isn't he the guy who scoredJames and the Giant Peach , and wrote songs like "I Love To See You Smile" forParenthood ? He's been out of the loop, too -Bad Love is his first studio album in 11 years (not counting his ambitious theatrical effort,Randy Newman's Faust ).
But film composition has proven to be an effective use of Newman's unique abilities, not often found in one writer. He can write a beautiful character song that covers some narrative ground, like Toy Story 's "I Will Go Sailing No More." On the other hand, he has a brilliant touch with an orchestra, an ability to work to deadline, and is able to satisfy someone else's artistic vision. For it, he's been rewarded with 12 Academy Award nominations, including three in different categories in 1998 alone (Best Musical or Comedy Score,A Bug's Life ; Best Dramatic Score,Pleasantville ; Best Song, "That'll Do,"Babe: Pig In the City ).
Film music is like working really hard to come up with a new bridle when everyone's got cars.
"Doing film music is the hardest work I've ever done," Newman says. "It's a lot of music, a lot of notes, the orchestra, and you just hope you're doing the right thing and helping out the picture. And yet it's not important - it's like working really hard to come up with a new bridle when everyone's got cars. They turn it down, you can't hear it. The little things you worry about - using an oboe, two oboes, and oboe and a clarinet, or a flute - who gives a shit, there's a loud footstep over it. Hey, you saved the picture! An oboe, that's great!"
It may surprise you to know that Randy Newman shares a lot in common with Nirvana, or that he and the Smiths tread a lot of the same ground. It was the clever chord structures and catchy riffs that helped Nirvana break - understanding Cobain's skewed, ironic lyrical perspective came later; Morrissey's black humour was always most effective when accompanied by Johnny Marr's catchiest pop. Similarly, albeit in a different vein, Newman polishes his music to a high gloss, even while his lyrics scrape it off.
"Even in the ugliest of subjects like [Little Criminals' ] 'In Germany Before the War,' about a murder, there's always been a dichotomy somehow with the music. I like Mahler, and Strauss and all these decadent late romantics; for the lyrics, I've read Phillip Roth and Joyce - it's a different sensibility."
OnBad Love , "The World Isn't Fair" is the ambitious star of the album, an epic that brilliantly muses on the return of Karl Marx, the death of socialism, and the world's injustice as beautiful young women marry "froggish men, unpleasant to see."
"It's a truism to say it: the world isn't fair. But it's kinda funny too - you know, I realised it, like, two years ago. And I was glad! You know, why don't school teachers get a million dollars, and not Madonna? Oh, I don't know. Why? Gee, God's ways are mysterious.
Life has a way of jumping up and smacking you with a wet fish.
"I'm here doing my little promotion job, and I deserve to be rewarded slightly in my odd show business world - accepting that it's all foul and evil and I'm trying to sell myself - but I'm doing this work and I will be rewarded. Not necessarily. Life has a way of jumping up and smacking you with a wet fish."
Of course, much of Newman's noise about not selling records, or wanting the respect of his peers, "wherever they are" is just that. In 1996, when the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers unveiled their Henry Mancini award for lifetime achievement, they gave the very first one to Randy Newman.
He's had some success, but it seems to have affected him less than it might have. What for others would be a career milestone, for Newman is a piece of absurdity, like performing at the Academy Awards "to an audience of losers." Or getting lost at the Golden Globes - stuck between Gwyneth Paltrow and Val Kilmer, sitting beside the cast ofFriends , he quips, "I could go nude."
He will continue to do great work, on screen and hopefully on studio recordings. And other people will get more accolades, and leave a bigger mark on the world, despite the fact that there may be no better orchestral arranger, and he is, at times, unmatched as a songwriter. He may not get his due, but he will receive praise for his ability to give the world - through individual assignments, on deadline - what they want.
But if he was cooler, more successful, hipper, or even more popular, I don't think I'd like him as much. Randy Newman remains one of the little people he's always written about. Full of insecurities and contradictions, some great moments and some weaknesses. One of us. Our underdog.