Not everyone shares my love for Randy Newman. Although he’s an accomplished and oft-covered songwriter, many can’t get past his clownish voice and bizarre lyrical content. Throughout the seventies, as rock morphed into the bloated, macho and painfully earnest spectacle that would antagonize the punk movement into being, Randy championed irony.
Newman was born in 1943 in L.A. and spent his early childhood in New Orleans before moving back to southern California. His uncles Lionel, Alfred, and Emil were all successful composers of movie music. Randy was trained classically on piano at UCLA. Wistful and cinematic, his music harkens back to the blues and tin pan alley, utterly oblivious to rock’s trajectory in the 60s. Tracks like “It’s Money that I Love” and “Short People” feature a heavy guitar, and you’ll hear a rock drum beat behind much of his music, but he summed it up well saying, “It’s like we’d never heard the Rolling Stones… like homo erectus that didn’t become homo sapien.” And he considers a good drummer to be one he doesn’t notice.
“Short People,” his first charting single, and one that would pigeonhole him as a novelty act, is somehow his only composition to stir up significant controversy. My mother, a short person, never forgave Randy this insult. First hearing the song in a car on the radio, she was excited to hear a song for her people, only to be let down by the refrain, “Short People got no reason to live.”
Randy has long ago lost “his sense of humor about it,” after the record was dissected on the news, banned by radio stations, burned, and eggs and darts were thrown at his image. He goes on, “You take [the song] at face value—but I don’t know how you could. No one is that nuts. No one has that peculiar phobia… against short people. [People] would say ‘it’s about prejudice, isn’t it?’ I’d say ‘Yeah it’s about prejudice.’ It wasn’t about anything! It’s about a lunatic.”
Randy Newman has always risked misinterpretation, and although he felt “punished” by his hit song, he’s really quite lucky it was “Short People” to receive such scrutiny. This is a man whose sung songs as––not about, as––a rapist, slave trader, and child murderer.
Those who know him best from Toy Story would be shocked to hear him sing in “It’s Money that I Love”:
They say that money
Can’t buy love in this world
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
Pure filth released when rock was, perhaps, its most icky. The song was released in 1979, still in an era of teen and pre-teen groupies for brain-zonked rock stars carted from place to place by their management. On the cover of the album Randy sits at a desk in KISS make up with dollar signs painted over his eyes. If you know the song the artwork is an fitting compliment. But, as Randy said, “It presumes that people know who the hell I was—it’s just a jerk in kiss makeup otherwise.”
Indeed he can be witholding to a fault when it comes to information key to understanding his work. On the haunting “In Germany Before the War,” Newman has confessed “It requires an intro, which is cheating. When I play it live I say ‘This is a song about a child murderer.’”
His taste skews toward pop’s misunderstood figures, other dark-minded comedians. In recent years he favors Kanye West, Eminem and Lady Gaga, names he lists in his interview at the Library of Congress. He says of Gaga “It’s not the songwriting it’s the whole thing. It’s her fashion stuff that’s so funny. People don’t exactly get it that she’s making fun of that, but you’d think they would.” Newman has a sore spot for people not getting the joke.
But not every time he sings in character is he joking. “Suzanne” could easily pass for a standard love song, only a few key lines give it’s narrator away as a rapist hiding in the bushes. Beck would pick up this trope some thirty-five years later with “Girl,” in which he sings:
I know I’m gonna make her die
Take her where her soul belongs
And I know I’m gonna steal her eye
Nothing that I wouldn’t try.
Yikes. No subtleties in the lyrics, but the song’s cheerfulness and upbeat pace disguise the meaning on the first few listens. What’s the take away of such songwriting? What’s the point? Songs sung by characters no one would like to see themselves in. But disarmed by the composition and the hooks, the bombs hit harder.
Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With some smart ass New York Jew...
Take “Rednecks,” a song that gets pretty NSFW and, given the frequent use of a certain racial epithet, I can hardly argue with those who’d just rather turn it off. But argue I will. What impresses me about the song is the shift in blame from the beginning to end. It opens with racist thoughts from a self-proclaimed redneck who “don’t know [his] ass from a hole in the ground.” Okay–an easy shot, but entertaining and I’m sure apropos of the political climate in 1974.
But then there’s that last verse, the genuinely subversive verse. When Randy, in character as the Redneck, muses about the actions and attitudes of the supposedly progressive North and how their treatment of black people:
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
Randy puts the sticky, shitty mess of racism on the table. If any song by a white man has reached a racist, I expect the subversive and satirical approach hits deeper than a self-righteous call for social change. John Mayer waiting on the world to change, Dispatch’s morality tale of the general, Bruce Hornsby lamenting the way it is—what can be said? These are all songs written for and sung to the choir.
Greil Marcus has an interesting perspective on Newman’s tactic with social issues. He writes in his book Mystery Train,
As with any popular art, the moment rock ’n’ roll tries to criticize something, it becomes hopelessly self-righteous and stupid. It effectively criticizes by rending a situation with such immediacy, or by affirming it to the point of such absurdity, that you can no longer take it straight. That is why there is no tougher antidrug song than the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin,’ which also risks creating new addicts.
Randy explains the writing process in his Library of Congress interview:
Lester Maddox was on television, the audience was rude to him. Lester Maddox was a bad man in those days, a horrible segregationist, but the audience in the New York acted as if they were great civil libertarians themselves on the Dick Cavett show. They yelled and screamed, didn’t let him make a fool of himself as he would have done. And I thought if I was a citizen of Georgia I would have been offended, so I wrote a song in the guise of a citizen of Georgia who was offended.
Randy Newman goes looking for a perspective outside his own. Rock can be incredibly solipsistic. Even it’s most socially agitated progeny, punk, can often still have its lyrical themes boiled down to “having a good time.” Pizza punk bands of today glorify a constant buzz.
The only musician at the local level I know currently employing a strategy like Randy’s to these ends is Jonee Earthquake. He sat down to write his most recent single, “I Feared for My Life,” as a modest contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement. He didn’t start off writing from the point of a view of a homicidal white police officer, but that’s where his writing took him. He found himself sounding at times dangerously sympathetic, and so, as he put it in a phone interview, he “had to add in a few more zingers” lest he be misinterpreted. He pulls a similar move taking up the perspective of the bouncer on “Moshing is Dangerous.”
President Coolidge come down in a railroad train
With a little fat man with a notepad in his hand.
President say, “Little fat man, isn’t it a shame
What the river has done to this poor cracker’s land?
Now, Randy doesn’t only sing slime. He’s capable of writing something beautiful without an ugly twist. This playlist contains three early ballads, “Marie,” “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” and “Louisiana 1927.” The latter was my first introduction to Newman’s work outside of movie music, his elegy for those lost in the Great Mississippi flood of 1927. I tuned into Randy singing this on TV at a benefit for Katrina. I flipped the channel away after the third line: “rained real hard and it rained for a real long time.” That’s a bit literal, isn’t it? I thought. Like a moron. I was a teenager and judged quickly that he was living up to the Family Guy joke, that he sings everything exactly as it happens. Stick with the song and you’ll hear pure empathy for a plight from another time.
Save me white Jesus!
Randy Newman was the first thing I thought of watching Father John Misty’s piano-fakeout on David Letterman. The longer lines in “Bored in the USA” tray from Randy’s sing-song lyric writing, but the thickly ironic yet authentically emotive ballad is very Randy.
“Shame” is the only song on the playlist from the latter part of Randy’s career. The best part is when he impotently rebukes his background singers: “Hey shut up!” Here he’s like a more dangerous Homer Simpson. But his light touch on the keys juxtapose brilliantly his clumsy persona. He’s continued to put out strong songs with little (compared to his movie money) commercial return. He’s said, “If I could write something I liked every day I’d take that over anything else… because that’s how I judge myself and how I feel best.”
Ultimately, just as it was for his uncles, Randy’s wealth is derived from music for movies. Often these are kids movies, like the three Toy Stories, Monster Inc, and James and the Giant Peach. Such a project robs him of his caustic irony, his penchant to harp on uncomfortable truths and the evil that men do. Small wonder this is worth more money than his typical œuvre. My generation was introduced to Newman’s voice in Toy Story, the heartwarming loyalty in, “You Got a Friend in Me.” Of this beloved ballad, he speaks frankly “Is it my natural style? Would I ever have written it? No. I sound like a used car salesman in normal context. You don’t have a friend in me, not as an artist.”
The other place the mass audience has gotten to know Randy Newman is through cover versions of his music. Often, it’s the parts of the music that make them especially of his style, and especially non-commercial, that get lost in translation. He described “You Can Leave Your Hat On” as sung by a “meek kind of sexual bully.” Joe Cocker’s version of “You Can Leave Your Hat on” strikes it of its meekness. As Randy put it, “They made it a song about a girl taking her clothes off.”
The change there comes down to style, arrangement, and delivery, but his lyrics have been messed with too. Oft covered, “Sail Away” is often sung with a small but important revision. The slur “wog” is replaced with “children,” “child” or “one” in the line “Climb aboard little wog, sail away with me.“ Dave Matthews and Ray Charles have sung cleaned up versions, while Harry Nilsson, Etta James and Linda Ronstadt keep the line as written. Thus a song that already sounded too pretty to be the sales pitch of a sociopathic slave trader, is rendered prettier and more comfortable. To change only the most revealing line is a lazy re-rendering of the song for a general audience, and the underlying theme of abuse and deception is still there. I can’t help but think of “Ring Around the Rosie,” that ubiquitous children’s rhyme we all eventually learn has its origins in the superstitious cures for the Bubonic plague.
It’s a weird world, pretty fucked up from a lot of angles, and Randy Newman knows it. And he’s not shy about it.