I may have liked Randy Newman's work even before I heard a note of his music. Newman happened to be on the cover of the very first issue of Rolling Stone I bought when I was twelve years old back in 1972. Since my music listening at the time was limited to Top 40 radio and albums by the Beatles and Who, I'd never heard of most of the musicians written about in the magazine, much less Randy Newman, but I read the issue from beginning to end anyway. I still remember reading that Paul McCartney himself had telephoned Newman just to let him know how much he had enjoyed the songwriter's first album. An endorsement from one of the Beatles was impressive enough but what struck me even more were the quoted lyrics to "Davy the Fat Boy," one of the songs from the album that McCartney had praised. The song concerns a kid named Davy whose dying parents put him in the care of his one and only friend. This "best friend" then turns Davy into a circus sideshow act, and makes him do his "famous fat boy dance" as Newman plays what was described in the Rolling Stone piece as a halting, sad little tune. As I read this, I could picture the hapless Davy, pathetically twirling around for the gawking spectators. I thought it was a bizarre idea for a song but still caught on to its poignancy and black humor. I was intrigued but my financial resources were much too meager at the time to even consider buying the album. It took me months to save for the latest solo Beatle album as it was. But I never forgot about the singer/songwriter Randy Newman or the fat boy named Davy.
A couple of years later, it dawned on me why Davy's strange story may have struck a chord with me. My physical therapist at the time was sponsored by the local Elks Club so once or twice a year I'd have to go to a lodge meeting and demonstrate my exercise routine to show how much good their patronage was doing. Part of me kind of liked these show and tell sessions because I always was served a nice steak dinner and sometimes got a gift certificate good at one of the downtown department stores (which I immediately blew on records). Another part of me was bothered by these performances. I didn't quite know why until after one of my demonstrations, a blue haired lady came up to me and said, "I know you're going to heaven since you've already been through hell." I managed to give her a wan smile, though inside I felt like she had slapped me across the face. In this woman's eyes, things wouldn't be good for me until after I was dead! My disability had elicited pitying looks and stares before but no one had ever directly called my life a living hell. Now, don't get me wrong. The therapy that the Loyal Order of Elks provided had done me a lot of good. But my eyes were opened by this remark and now I realized what was behind the condescending smiles and patronizing comments I often received from the lodge members. I was a poster boy for their charity. Like one of Jerry's kids. Then it occurred to me: I was like Davy the fat boy, doing my little fat boy's dance for them! This ugly crowd was gawking at me! Randy Newman's song was right on target, at least for me, in a way that the songwriter probably never intended. I doubt Newman had disability rights in mind when he wrote the song. For all I knew, he may have been laughing at Davy right along with the audience who bought tickets to see the fat boy dance. Still, I identified with his disturbing, yet oddly moving lyrics, even though I hadn't heard the song yet.
Around this same time, I did manage to finally hear some of Newman's music though. By 1974, I had moved from listening to Top 40 radio to the FM part of the dial. The homogeneous Album Oriented Rock format hadn't quite taken hold of the FM band yet so there were still a few free form "underground" stations that really didn't keep to any particular type of formula. It was on such a station that I was first exposed to people like Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart. They also happened to play virtually every song off of Randy Newman's then current album, titled Good Old Boys. The album is Newman's caustic view of the American South and one of the more popular songs that the station played was the album's lead off track titled "Rednecks", which features the chorus: "We're rednecks, we're rednecks/We don't know our ass from a hole in the ground/We're rednecks, we're rednecks/We're keeping the Niggers down." The song appears to be a scathing put down of Southern bigotry but listen a little further and you'll hear the following:
Now your northern Nigger's a Negro
You see he's got his dignity
Down here we're too ignorant to realize
That the north has set the Nigger free
Yes he's free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City
And he's free to be put in a cage on the South Side of Chicago
And the West Side
And he's free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland
And he's free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis
And he's free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco
And he's free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston
They're gatherin' 'em up from miles around
Keepin' the Niggers down
What starts out sounding like a caricature of the Southern redneck turns into an indictment of racism as a whole. Despite these good intentions, I can't even imagine hearing such lyrics on the radio today. Who knows, in this day and age, such politically incorrect words might even cause a riot. The music on Good Old Boys wouldn't exactly be radio friendly these days either. Programmers would have a hard time making it fit neatly into the AOR, AAA, Alternative or whatever other stale formats radio forces on unsuspecting listeners. Newman's music sounds like a hybrid of Fats Domino's New Orleans rhythm & blues and old Stephen Foster tunes mixed with movie scores from the 40's and 50's. It's not surprising that two of Newman's uncles are well known for writing and arranging music for countless 20th Century Fox movies. I believe one of them even wrote the famous fanfare heard at the start of nearly every one of the studio's films.
The influence of his musical relatives is clearly present in many of Randy Newman's songs, especially in "Louisiana 1927", a Good Old Boys song about the great Mississippi flood. The song begins with a stately orchestral prelude that could have come straight from one of his uncle's films scores, and leads into Newman's mournful piano lines that set the stage for the story. Newman takes the point of view of one of the flood's victims who simply states what has happened in the opening verses ("The river rose all day, the river rose all night") and then uses the chorus to express his bewilderment over these terrible events i("Louisiana, Louisiana/They're trying to wash us away"). With each chorus, the orchestra builds evoking the awesome power of the flooding river itself. Very effective. Very cinematic. The song could very well be Randy Newman's masterpiece. Even though I loved this song and everything else I had heard from the album, I didn't immediately run out and buy Good Old Boys either. I don't exactly know why. I remember Rolling Stone voted it as one of the best albums of the 1974 and that didn't even push me to get it. It would be three years before I bought any Randy Newman music.
It turned out that a few other people besides me would buy Randy's next album too. Enough people to give him a gold album and (gulp!) an actual hit single. One day in 1977, my dad and I were driving to the dentist to get my tiny little teeth checked, when a piano riff with a highly recognizable style came on the radio. A familiar rough and somewhat slurred voice then sang the lines "Short people got no reason/Short people got no reason/Short people got no reason to live." My dad asked, "What is this?" "It's Randy Newman!" I exclaimed, feeling like I'd just found a long lost friend. I hadn't heard his music in years and here he was, on the radio with a new song. "Short People" is a catchy, silly swipe at prejudice. Or it could be just a catchy, silly song. Sometimes, you're not entirely sure where Newman is coming from with his songs. Whatever the song was about, it was a huge hit and playing it on the radio very nearly did cause a riot. Newman was called sizist, television newscasts showed little people throwing eggs at pictures of Randy, there were stories in all the major magazines about the uproar and the song was banned in some places (even in Boston!). I thought it was a big fuss over nothing. The song seemed pretty lightweight to me, especially compared to what I'd heard of Newman's previous work. I'm only five feet tall, so the song could have been directed at me and I wasn't offended by it in the least bit.
What "Short People" did do was spur me on to finally go out and buy a Randy Newman album. His latest album was titled Little Criminals and it must have remained not only on my stereo, but also my parents stereo, for the better part of a year. (Yes, my parents, both classical musicians, ended up liking Newman's music as well.) Little Criminals showed that Newman still had a unique talent for coming up with unusual subjects for songs. Besides "Short People," the album contains "In Germany Before the War," a chilling portrait of a child murderer that could have come straight out of Fritz Lang's film M. There is also "I'll Be Home," a beautiful love song that turns around the song writing cliché of "I'll come running, baby, anytime you call." Instead of running to his lover, Newman's character says he'll be sitting at home waiting, most likely in vain, for her to call. It's easy to overlook this subtle lyrical twist because the breathtaking piano and orchestral arrangements make you think you're hearing a standard love song. Even though there was a lot that I liked about Little Criminals at the time that I bought it, I still had the feeling that there was something missing. I felt when I first heard "Short People" that it wasn't as incisive as some of Newman's earlier songs and Little Criminals as a whole does seem to lack the bite and dark irony found on Good Old Boys.
The weaknesses of Little Criminals were even more evident once I heard Newman's first three albums. Each one of these albums is a masterpiece but each in a different way. It's hard to believe that his first album, Randy Newman, was released in 1968 since it still sounds as out of time as ever. I can't think of any other recorded work that sounds quite like it. Newman doesn't seem to have mastered his rather unwieldy voice when he recorded his debut. He slurs his words more than ever and his phrasing is sometimes a bit behind the beat. But this vocal quality only matches the startling string and horn arrangements by sometime Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks. The sound of the album reminds me of a calliope falling apart piece by piece, with notes and melodic phrases sticking out at unexpected places. And the song writing lives up to the promise of a different kind of listening experience that is signaled by the production. Things start off with a genuine love song called, appropriately enough. "Love Story". Newman adds a dose of reality to the usual tale of romance and wedded bliss however: The song's ending finds the couple put away in a nursing home, alone and forgotten. Loneliness seems to be a prevalent theme on the album. The opening lines of "Living Without You" masterfully evoke facing the day waking up alone and depressed. One of the classic symptoms of severe depression is difficulty sleeping so all the sights and sounds of the dawn are all too familiar to the song's narrator:
Milk truck hauls the sun up
The paper hits the door
Subway shakes my floor
And I think about you
Time to face the dawning gray
Of another lonely day
Baby, it's so hard
Living without you
And the stark "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" paints a picture of desolation and gloom with a few simple images:
Broken windows and empty hallways
A pale dead moon in a sky streaked with gray
Human kindness is overflowing
And I think it's going to rain today
Once again, Newman's intentions are blurred. Is he serious or is he lampooning songs about loneliness and despair? As with "Davy the Fat Boy", presented on Randy Newman with orchestrations that sound like they could be from a David Lynch carnival, he keeps the listener guessing as to where he stands. Perhaps that is what makes Randy Newman such a special artist.
Newman presents a whole new cast of quirky and sometimes frightening characters on 12 Songs, released two years after Randy Newman. We meet "Lucinda," a girl who refuses to leave the beach and gets, literally, swept up by the beach cleaning man and his beach cleaning machine. (Is this a poke at the Beach Boys' surfing songs?) On the more sinister side of the spectrum, "Suzanne" is told through the eyes of a rapist who is stalking the title character. A creepy, twisted love song to say the least. It makes the listener feel like a voyeur who is listening in on something that they may not want to hear. This one makes you squirm but Newman probably wants it that way. He's sticking your face into a painful reality like some of cartoonist R. Crumb's work. "Old Kentucky Home" isn't the Stephen Foster tune, though if a family of hillbillies drunk on moonshine got a hold of the song, it might sound like Randy's variation. The words roll off of Newman's tongue as he and the musicians meld ragtime influenced piano with a country hoe-down:
Turpentine and dandelion wine
I'm turning the corner and doing fine
Shootin' the birds off the telephone line
Pickin' 'em off with this gun of mine
I've got a fire in my belly and a fire in my head
Going higher and higher till I'm dead
Oh the sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home
And the young folks roll on the floor
The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home
Keep them hard times away from my door
The sound of 12 Songs is more stripped down and basic than on the first album. Newman's New Orleans-style piano lays the foundation, while a small group of crack studio musicians back him up on bass, guitar and drums. Sometimes the songs sound like an old blues 78 recording, other times the rocking spirit of Fats Domino appears to be leading the sessions. Randy Newman's r&b roots are never heard more clearly as they are on his second album.
For his next album, Newman combined the approaches of his previous two albums to come up with what could be his best work, Sail Away. Some songs incorporate lush orchestration, others are more rock 'n' roll influenced and nearly half the album is just Randy on piano and vocals. The title song takes the point of view of a slave trader trying to convince his future cargo to board his ship by extolling the rewards awaiting them once they arrive in America. "It's great to be an American," he gushes, as he recites a litany of the most racist black stereotypes ("Ain't no lions or tigers/Ain't no mamba snake/Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake"). As the orchestra swells majestically on the chorus ("Sail Away, Sail Away/We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay"), you don't know whether to laugh at the idiocy of such an arrogant attitude or cry because you know racism like this still exists. On "Political Science." Newman once again skewers America's superiority complex as he finds a reason to bomb every other country in the world except Australia ("Don't want to hurt no kangaroos"). This ragtime version of Dr. Strangelove concludes with Randy emphatically singing "They all hate us anyhow so let's drop the big one now!" "Dayton, Ohio 1903" presents a more positive picture of America, though it's viewed through the rosiest colored glasses ever worn. It is charming piece of ersatz nostalgia that is so convincing George Burns did his own cover of the song on one of his own albums. One gets the feeling that ol' George really does yearn for the times when "people'd stop to say hello or they'd say hi to you" and that the gentle sarcasm of the song probably escaped him.
America isn't the only big subject that Randy Newman tackles on Sail Away. One of Newman's favorite philosophical musings is over what I call "God's inhumanity to man." There is evidence of this on his first album. "I Think He's Hiding" questions God's motives and existence before reaching the conclusion of the title. Sail Away covers the same territory with two of it's songs, only with an even more cynical eye. "He Gives Us All His Love" is a tongue in cheek hymn full of platitudes and clichés that isn't nearly as comforting as it's title implies:
He knows how hard we're trying
He hears the babies crying
He sees the old folks dying
And he gives us all his love
If you need someone to talk to
You can always talk to him
And if you need someone to lean on
You can lean on him
But "He Gives Us All His Love" is a subtle nudge and wink compared to the album's final cut titled "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)". Newman portrays man as little more than fools who put their faith in a God who sees them as only a source for his amusement. The music is slow and halting, a combination of a dirge and the blues, as God expresses his bemused disgust at what he has created:
I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
From the squalor, and the filth, and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That's why I love mankind
I burn down your cities - how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That's why I love mankind
You really need me
That's why I love mankind
The key to the song, I think, is the "You really need me" line, which is thrown off quickly after the preceding line like an aside. Without it, the song would have been a purely cynical exercise. It's inclusion opens the song up and raises questions. It appears that God still gets something out of the worship that he receives from humankind, despite all their flaws and follies. Could it be that God needs mankind as much as mankind needs him? Interesting question. Maybe God is more human than we usually give him credit for. Newman will return to such spiritual matters and examine them in more detail in some of his later work.
In a live version of a song from Sail Away called "It's Lonely At the Top," Newman cracks up with laughter over a line that refers to all the money that he has made, since at the time his career hadn't yet brought him any measure of fame or fortune. But with the success of Little Criminals, he really did have to deal with being at the top. He addressed his new found stardom head on with his next album, Born Again. The cover depicts Randy sitting in a plush high-rise office, dressed in a suit and tie, in full KISS-style makeup with dollar signs painted over his eyes. A picture on his desk shows the wife and kids in similar makeup, the kids complete with cent signs on their eyes. "They say that money can't buy love in this world," sings Newman in "It's Money That I Love," the opening track of the album. "But it'll get you a half pound of cocaine and a sixteen year old girl/And a great big long limousine on a hot September night/Now that may not be love but it's all right." Here he is taking pot shots at his own stardom. On the basis of the cover picture and this song, it appears that success hadn't changed Randy Newman a bit. He is still aiming his sights at the absurdity around him. Unfortunately, the rest of the album is even less distinguished than Little Criminals. "They Just Got Married" is merely a rewrite of "Love Story" from the first album, only this time we leave the couple as the wife dies of cancer while the husband runs off with a rich nymphet. Born Again closes with "Pants," where Newman announces over and over again that he's going to take his off, then asks at the end, "Will you take off my pants?" Instead of the ironic wit and black humor of his previous work, we get the aural equivalent of a joke that my five year old niece might find funny. Maybe. A disappointing effort to say the least. Perhaps the pressures of fame did get to Randy after all.
The 1980s saw only two Randy Newman albums and such a leisurely release schedule seems to have brought about a return to form for him. The first, 1983's Trouble in Paradise, includes "I Love L.A.," a rollicking ode to the pleasures (or the horrors, depending on how you look at it) of southern Californian life, which scored him another hit and heavy airplay on M-TV. A Hollywood snob brags about how wonderful he is just because of all the beautiful southern California people knows in "My Life is Good". The song turns into a sly poke at Bruce Springsteen as the braggart claims he's been asked to take over as the Boss for awhile, as a wicked send up of Bruce's sideman Clarence Clemons' honking sax enters as the song fades out. Another paradise and another kind of trouble is present in "Christmas in Capetown," which is an Afrikaner's view of South Africa's crumbling apartheid. His solution of "Maybe we should blow up the whole damn country, I don't know" sounds eerily familiar. But what was taken as black humor on "Political Science" turns into a chilling statement against change here. Newman's unflinching eye has returned.
One look at the cover of Land of Dreams, released five years later, tips you off that it's different from the rest of Newman's albums. The front shows a young Randy squinting into the camera, dressed in a cowboy outfit, complete with two toy six-shooters. The back cover is a picture of him a few years older, a determined grin on his face as he hits what has to be a home run. It looks like Randy may be thinking back to his childhood and sure enough, the first three songs on Land of Dreams appear to be autobiographical, which is something Newman has never done before in his work. He usually takes on a character's voice or the role of the devil's advocate but this time he offers a glimpse of his own history. "Dixie Flyer," the first part of the trilogy, is about how Newman's family "got on the Dixie Flyer bound for New Orleans" and went "across the state of Texas to the land of dreams" when Randy was very young. Of course these lyrics have the patented Newman-style New Orleans boogie-woogie to go along with them. "New Orleans Wins the War" continues the story of his childhood as Newman delightfully returns to the type of wordplay that he used on "Old Kentucky Home" to conjure up memories that are in turn poignant, funny and unsettling. He has said in interviews that he remembers that even as a child, he was appalled by the signs of segregation that he saw while growing up in the south:
Momma used to wheel me past an ice cream wagon
One side for White and one side for Colored
I remember trash cans floatin' down Canal Street
It rained every day one summer
Momma used to take me to Audubon Park
Show me the ways of the world
She said, "here comes a white boy, there goes a black one,
that one's an octoroon
This little cookie here's a macaroon, that big round thing's
a red balloon
And the paper down here here's called the Picayune
And here's a New Orleans tune"
I doubt that Newman's account of his first day of school is entirely accurate but he probably remembers it as told in the next song, "Four Eyes." Five year old Randy is stunned when he is awakened before dawn and ordered to dress himself ("Here's your little brown shoes, can you tie them yourself?") and even more bewildered when his dad drops him off at a strange place and then drives off into the morning light, leaving Randy standing alone with his Roy Rogers lunch box in his hand. I seem to remember my first school day starting out something like this too. Come to think of it, I still feel the same way now when I go to work each morning.
Many of the non autobiographical songs are quite good too. I can't think of a better summation of the selfish attitude of the Reagan/Bush era than "Roll With the Punches". The song's title is the only advice given to the poor, homeless and hungry and to top it off, this callous ideology is wrapped up in the American flag and patriotism. American greed even infects Newman's sharp attempt at rap music called "Masterman and Baby J." Instead of seeing all the violence and suffering on the streets, Masterman's only vision is of himself and his partner playing in front of 100,000 fans at the L.A. Coliseum. Could a Jewish white man possibly have written the most honest rap song ever? More honesty, painful honesty, ends Land of Dreams with "I Want You to Hurt Like I Do." A father, who has run away from his problems all his life, explains to his son that he is now running out on the family because he just wants other people to feel his pain too. Newman manages to bring a slight ironic smile to the material as he uses the "Honest I do, honest I do, honest I do" line from Sam Cook's classic love song "You Send Me" in the chorus of his own song. I think of my dad when I hear this song. I gave him this album when it came out and wonder if he recognizes himself in the song at all. Probably not. He would most likely run away from such a realization.
Throughout the eighties, Newman followed the family tradition and composed music for numerous movie soundtracks. Ragtime in particular is a charming work, perfectly suited to Newman's musical style and enabling his to combine his love of both the music of the film's title and his uncles' movie soundtracks. Less artistically successful but perhaps more well known is his soundtrack to The Natural. The main theme here sounds like a second rate imitation of the music from another athletic movie Chariots of Fire, and it is repeated over and over without many interesting variations. I've heard this same music used in countless other movies though, so it must have been success at least on a financial level. It appears that movie work has been quite a lucrative career move for Randy Newman. Even up to the present, songs from his later albums pop up over the end credits of quite a few romantic comedies. And my mom has informed me that when she took her grandkids to see Toy Story, she recognized a familiar voice singing some of the songs.
With the success of his film scores, it's not surprising that Newman would want to try his hand at writing a musical for the stage too. Faust is a project that he has been working on for years and it finally made it to the stage for a short run in the Los Angeles area last year. The album version of the musical was also recently released and includes an all star cast, with Newman in the prime role as the Devil, James Taylor has his work cut out for him playing God, no less, and Don Henley is the title character. Elton John, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt handle supporting characters. With the exception of Newman, I normally wouldn't go near an album by any one of these performers but I have to admit the casting on the Faust CD is inspired. Taylor has the kind of bland, gentle, faceless voice that is just right for God and Henley sounds suitably snotty as the loathsome Faust. And Newman, well, a case could be made that he has been playing the Devil for nearly his entire career, so of course he's a natural as the Prince of Darkness.
In the light of some of his earlier work like "God's Song," one could see how the old story of a man who sells his soul to the devil would be irresistible material for Newman to tackle. And Faust does include some fine examples of the razor sharp Newman wit. In "How Great Our Lord" God starts to get a bit egotistical over all the praise he receives and claims that he really does know why things go so wrong on earth but that he'll never tell. Later, the Devil meets a little girl in heaven in "Relax, Enjoy Yourself" and as the music lapses into a gentle country tune, complete with twanging steel guitars, he explains that:
The man who shot you in the head
In that Burger King in Tucson
Well, he never will be punished, you know
He will move to Big Pine, California
Become the richest man in Inyo County
While that may not be much, it's enough
When he dies sixty-five years from today
With his loved ones all around him
He'll be whisked right up to heaven
He won't pass go or have to wait
He'll just march right through the Goddamned gate
And why, you may ask yourself why
For thousands and thousands of years
I have asked myself why
God's answer of "Predestination," followed by the admission "My ways are mysterious/Sometimes even to myself" shows that God may not know all the answers, dispite what he said earlier. The Devil knows exactly how to get under God's skin. The Devil looks like a pretty nice guy compared to Faust however. Henry Faust is described as "a schizophrenic student from Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana" with a soul "so tiny as to be almost invisible." To display Faust's split personality, "Bless the Children of the World" begins with Faust contemplating suicide and murder, backed by crunching electric guitars, and then it segues into a heart tugging ballad with a children's choir and orchestra as Faust implores "Bless the children of the world/Give them all a chance to grow and live." (I know Newman is sending up such syrupy "We Are the World"-type tunes but musically this part of the song is so convincing that I find myself anticipating it every time I listen to the album.) Even the Devil can barely tolerate Faust. All Faust wants from the Devil is to become "The Man", he says in the song of the same name, so he can have an entourage of bodyguards and is able to get the best tables in restaurants. The Devil assures Faust that he is indeed "The Man," but you get the feeling that he says this not so much because it's true but more just to shut Faust up.
What I find disappointing about Faust is that there isn't enough sparing between God and the Devil and Faust himself doesn't make enough appearances either. Much of the rest of the musical concerns the two love affairs of the story. One with Faust and Margaret (Linda Ronstadt), "the poorest, nicest and most beautiful girl in South Bend," and the other between the Devil and Martha (Bonnie Raitt), "the most sophisticated girl in Indiana." The relationships are not the most interesting aspects of the story and there doesn't seem to be enough here for Newman to sink his teeth into. And then there is Elton John's cameo appearance. John plays an English army officer, now an angel, who expresses his love of his country and how it won two of the Big Wars. I don't know what this song is doing in Faust. I guess Newman's humor moves in mysterious ways sometimes. With a story like Faust, I expected Newman to really let loose and be outrageous. There are moments when he comes close but much of this pet project of Randy's seems rather tame.
My faith in Randy Newman isn't shaken though. Around the same time that the Faust album came out, I uncovered a gem that proves that not only is Newman a scathing social observer but also a touching and poignant performer as well. In 1970, singer Harry Nilsson recorded an entire album of Newman's song's. Nilsson Sings Newman was a risky move for the singer to make so early in his career since the songwriter he was covering was virtually unknown at the time. The album is a very good one and, at the time of its release, was voted album of the year by Stereo Review. Even though the two artists musical styles blended well together, I always felt that Nilsson slightly distanced himself from the material. Sometimes it seemed that Nilsson was more concerned with perfecting his multi-tracked vocals than bringing anything unique to the songs. In any event, with the first song on For the Love of Harry, a tribute album made up of the late singer's songs performed by other artists, Newman finally returns the favor that his old friend paid him years ago and does his own rendition of Nilsson's tune called "Remember." But unlike Nilsson's covers, Randy completely makes the song his own and it may be one of his most affecting performances ever. Sitting alone at the piano, Newman sings, "Remember/Life is never what it seems/Dream," his voice evaporating like dreams in the daylight as he strains to sing the last word. It's a moving and tender moment. It reminds me of the feeling I got when I first encountered the story of a certain fat boy named Davy long ago. Remember indeed.
SEPTEMBER 1995 - FEBRUARY 1996
I like untrustworthy narrators and things where the audience knows stuff that the narrator doesn't know.- Randy Newman
A sizist bigot.
A huckstering slave-trader.
A southern redneck.
A dysfunctional hillbilly family.
An Afrikaner witnessing the fall of apartheid.
A Hollywood schmoozer.
A rapist and stalker.
A child murderer.
An egocentric rapper.
A naked purse-snatcher.
The diverse cast of characters listed above is in reality one person in disguise. Each persona is the narrator in a song by musician Randy Newman. Instead of writing the usual singer-songwriter lyrics, which seem to reveal the feelings of the artist, Newman uses an "untrustworthy narrator," a flawed commentator, to provide the listener with a unique point of view. This is a literary device uncommon to songwriting and it establishes the premise for Kevin Courrier's excellent book Randy Newman's American Dreams.
This isn't the first time that Courrier, a Canadian journalist, has investigated the work of a maverick American composer and musician. His previous book was Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, a critical analysis of the music of Frank Zappa. Naturally, Courrier compares the two artists. Both eschewed confessional lyrics and became cultural outsiders in the music business. When commercial success did come their way (Newman's "Short People" and "I Love L.A.," Zappa's "Valley Girl"), mass audiences often misunderstood the artists' intentions.
Courrier believes such outsiders and their masks are deeply embedded in the fabric of American history. He cites Herman Melville's The Confidence Man, a satire about a riverboat gambler who cons his fellow passengers and ultimately reveals their unconscious desires. Courrier also refers to the use of blackface among Jewish performers in vaudeville. Both examples are crucial when analyzing Newman's work. His vocal style is strongly influenced by black blues and R&B singers, while his piano playing often recalls the ragtime genre. Also, like Melville's riverboat gambler, Newman's masks himself in order to "con" the listener and reveal unrealized truths about themselves and society. Even though the song "Rednecks" is from a Southern perspective, it is an indictment of racism in America as a whole. "Old Man" is a son's lament for his dead father that speaks volumes about the breakdown of family relationships. These are just a few instances of the "untrustworthy narrator" from songwriter's vast catalog that Courrier examines in Randy Newman's American Dreams.
[While growing up in Hibbing,] the circuses came through. . .
You could see things like George Washington in blackface,
Napoleon wearing blackface, weird Shakespearean things,
stuff that didn't even make any sense at the time. . . People
on the Carney team would do different jobs. . . I once saw
somebody coming back from running the Ferris Wheel
putting on makeup, and thought that was interesting.
Wow, a guy could have more than one job.
- Bob Dylan
Actually, the first time I met him, Bob was acting, in a way.
And that's good, because you can go anywhere if you're
- Folksinger Mark Spoelstra
in No Direction Home
The untrustworthy narrator may be something of a rarity in popular music, but Randy Newman is not its only proponent. Courrier astutely points out the most untrustworthiest narrator in musical history is Bob Dylan, whose entire career has consisted of swapping one mask for another. It may appear that Dylan is letting us have a glimpse behind the masks with his autobiography Chronicles and the just-released documentary No Direction Home, but as usual with Dylan, all is not what it seems.
In fact, in some ways, the whole concept behind No Direction Home is one big ruse. The project is touted as a Martin Scorsese production, leading to the assumption that it was the famed filmmaker who got the elusive Dylan to finally be interviewed on camera for a look back on his childhood and rise to fame in the 1960s. In reality, Dylan's manager Jeff Rosen has been compiling archival footage and conducting filmed interviews for the last fifteen years. No Direction Home is an authorized Dylan biography masked by a Scorsese production credit. The disguise seems to be working, too. Just last night, I read a review of the film in the online journal Pop Matters that criticized Scorsese for his uninformed questions during the interviews!
Despite all its masks, No Direction Home still presents an intriguing portrait of one of America's most mercurial artists. Not surprisingly, Dylan's interviews don't really reveal anything new. Like his Chronicles book, it's not so much what he says, but how he says it. It's fascinating just to hear the way he turns a phrase. More informative are interviews with the likes of fellow Greenwich Village folk singer, Dave Van Ronk, and the queen of protest, Joan Baez, who probably know more than anyone what makes Dylan tick, but admit, even to them, he's often a slippery character. The documentary also presents Dylan's metamorphosis from a Woody Guthrie-wannabe to a full-blown electric rock 'n' roll poet through stunning performance footage from 1962 to 1966. It is mesmerizing to watch Dylan through the years, as he effortlessly dons one mask after another. Especially breathtaking are performances from the confrontational 1966 UK tour, when Dylan appeared with a backing band playing electric instruments, eliciting boos and jeers from folk music-loving audiences. You can feel the electricity in the air as Dylan literally leaps at the microphone with every line he sings, looking like a skinny, crazed marionette.
Some of the other archival material is equally fascinating. Odetta's thundering performance virtually nails your soul to the wall, and the footage of Gene Vincent displays the rockabilly giant's wild, manic energy. Perhaps the most interesting find is a performance by obscure folksinger John Jacob Niles, who sings in a high, lonesome voice and begins his song with the lyric, "Go away from my window. . . ", which Dylan borrowed for "It Ain't Me, Babe." The film only starts to drag when newsreel footage of protest rallies and hippies, as seen in countless other PBS documentaries about the 1960s, is inserted for historical context. Since much of the interview and performance material itself is so riveting, it is difficult to realize at first that No Direction Home is actually rather conventional in form. You would think that Scorsese would push the documentary boundaries a little more and avoid many of the newsreel cliches (but then who knows how much he was involved with the project?).
A friend and fellow fan complained to me how little Dylan reveals in No Direction Home. (As the man himself said in one of his songs, "nothing is revealed.") I responded that Dylan is a master at generating his own mythology, so how could we expect anything more? The film merely preserves the ultimate untrustworthy narrator of rock music for the ages. Yes, Dylan is "conning" us. He always has. That's what makes him so interesting. Artists such as Bob Dylan and Randy Newman are the confidence men of our time, using masks not to directly reveal anything about themselves, but to expose what's going on around us all, making their work all the more engaging and lasting.
They all hate us anyhow
So let’s drop the big one now…
-- Randy Newman, “Political Science,” 1972
“Political Science” is Randy Newman’s scathing portrayal of America’s superiority complex gone awry and the song has only become more relevant with each passing (gulp) decade. On his latest album Harps and Angels, Newman shows that he’s still keeping a sharp eye on the state of the union. “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” is almost an update and coda to “Political Science” that compares Hitler, Stalin and the Spanish Inquisition to our current administration, proving the United States really isn’t so bad. Whereas the narrator of “Political Science” is indignant that the rest of the world doesn’t like us, “A Few Words” seems resigned to such a fate.
Just a few words in defense of our country
Whose time at the top
Could be coming to an end
We don’t want your love
And respect at this point is pretty much out of the question
But times like these
We sure could use a friend
“A Piece of the Pie” examines the collapse of the American Dream (“You say you’re working harder than you ever have / You say you got two jobs and so’s your wife / Living in the richest country in the world / Wouldn’t you think you’d have a better life?”) backed by a unique melody as chaotic as the average working day. It also sneaks in a few jabs at politically active musicians Bono, Jackson Browne and John Mellencamp. “Korean Parents” suggests a solution to the education crisis by hiring the titular couples to whip American kids into shape (“They’ll be strict but they’ll be fair”), set to a lovely oriental-tinged samba. And if all the country’s problems start to get you down, Newman has an answer for that, too with the platitudinous “Laugh and Be Happy.”
Harps and Angels looks at a few personal crises as well. The title track’s character has a near-death experience (due to a “clerical error”) and is sent back to the living after being advised to “keep your business clean.” The loping narrative “Only a Girl” sketches the hazards of falling for a younger woman (“She don’t eat meat / But she’ll eat you alive”). In “Potholes,” Newman bemoans his own failing memory, while at the same time wonders how his father manages to dredge up a painful childhood event to embarrass him time and time again.
Newman’s previous album, 1999’s Bad Love, was filled with mostly brilliant songs hampered by Mitchell Froom’s sterile production. Randy’s old friend Lenny Waronker assists Froom on Harps and Angels and returns to the sound of Newman’s classic Sail Away and Good Old Boys albums. Newman’s Fats Domino and ragtime piano style is firmly in place and augmented by stately brass arrangements, lively percussion and occasional vocal choruses. It’s the warmest and most natural Newman recording in ages.
The album closes with “Feels Like Home,” a song originally performed by Bonnie Raitt for Newman’s 1995 production of Faust. It’s a nice love song that has apparently become a very popular wedding selection. And that’s the problem, it’s just a nice love song. It doesn’t feel at home here. After the biting wit of the rest of the disc, Harps and Angels deserves a finale with something more, perhaps a clever ironic twist or at least a big laugh. Instead, it signs-off with a tepid leftover. It’s a curiously lazy move, but fortunately the only misstep on an otherwise fine album.
* * *
It’s surprising to hear a rollicking piano, not unlike Randy Newman’s, gracing a number of songs on Red Dog Blues by Michael Fracasso. The Austin-based musician recently took up the instrument and it brings a new dimension to his latest work. Also much like Newman, Fracasso takes the role of the “unreliable narrator” in the song “There Goes the Neighborhood” to depict post-9/11 paranoia.
They don’t dress like we do
They talk funny when spoken to
I never see them at our church
They may be pagans or even worse
Oh no, there goes the neighborhood
The lovely neighborhood
A backwoods drifter hopes to find salvation in the Lone Star State in “Texas Lost Highway,” while the title tune muses on loss, from the death of a favorite dog to watching a father fade away in a rest home. “Red White & Blue” takes the perspective of a wounded soldier. Its traditional folk sound evokes the Civil War, but it could be about a more current conflict, too.
Unlike Newman’s “Feels Like Home,” Fracasso’s songs display affairs of the heart with poetic aplomb. The pride, joy and awe that he feels watching his new daughter is palpable in “Naked Fool.” Even though the New Orleans-flavored horn and piano arrangement brings Katrina to mind, “Hurricane” subtly mourns not only storm victims, but also casualties of love and life in general. “That is Life” shows how love and romance can flourish amid everyday routine as Fracasso utilizes a keen eye for small details that populate his songs.
Now she lies on the sofa in a feathered sweater
We’re both so tired but it’s our only time together
Mama, mama turn that TV off
There’s just one thing I wanna get across
That is life
Red Dog Blues blends folk, blues and country, and adds a little R&B swing to Michael Fracasso’s already impressive repertoire. This varied album proves he remains one of Austin’s premier lyricists and tunesmiths and is too good to be kept a secret for much longer.
* * *
A post on a music forum recently alerted me to another piano player concerned about America’s mindset. The poster raved about Roscoe Gordon’s No Dark in America, a CD found in a dollar bargain bin. Gordon was one of the founders of the Memphis Blues genre and known for his unique piano style that Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips called “Roscoe’s Rhythm.” He recorded a number of hit sides for Sun and other labels in the 1950s that made their way to Jamaica, where his piano shuffle sparked the burgeoning ska scene. After retiring to Queens, New York, in the 1960s, he was rediscovered in 2000 and prompted to return to recording and performing. Just one month after he completed No Dark in America, Gordon passed away in 2002.
The album is a fine epitaph for this largely overlooked musical innovator. His lopsided piano boogie is prominently featured and is unmistakable as the forerunner of ska rhythm. Sometimes the band struggles to keep up with Roscoe’s idiosyncratic rhythmic sense. He has a tendency to unexpectedly stretch out notes that makes it challenging to follow the beat. But this is Gordon’s style and most of the time it works, particularly on the title tune, written in response to the events of 9/11. “No Dark in America” is a gritty slab of R&B with a monster roadhouse groove big enough to shake off America’s woes.
This song alone is worth much more than a dollar, but the disc holds other gems as well. Gordon shows his humorous side by revisiting his early Sun hit “Cheese and Crackers” and on the ribald “You Look Bad When You’re Naked,” a home recording performed on his charmingly out of tune piano. The blues lament “Are You Mine?” has Gordon strumming an electric guitar, utilizing a stop-start arrangement for dramatic effect. Even on another instrument, he can’t resist messing with the rhythm! The album concludes with the understated tender ballad “Now You’re Gone.” The lyrics address a long lost lover, but they only remind us how much we lost now that Roscoe Gordon himself is gone.
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