This is my country: Randy Newman tells it like it is
Tuesday 14 October @ 19:03:38
by Tom Hallett
Decades before the term “politically incorrect” became popular in the modern lexicon, singer/songwriter/composer/pianist Randy Newman was the living embodiment of the phrase. While many of his peers in the early ’70s were living out a self-indulgent rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, Newman consistently banged out dead-on, cutting-edge social commentary.
Giving no quarter to sitting presidents, ruling governments, societal norms, or religious traditions, the native Californian offered up his work in a decidedly non-traditional voice and over music that ran the gamut from Tin Pan Alley to R&B to rock ’n’ roll, blues and country. From the scathing indictments of songs like “Mr. President (Have Pity On The Working Man),” “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind),” and “Political Science” (“Let’s drop the big one...boom goes London!”), to twisted American morality plays like “Rednecks” and “Sail Away” (“...climb aboard, little wog...and we’ll cross the mighty ocean/Into Charleston Bay...”), the man spared absolutely no expense in taking to task “the system.”
“This is my country/These are my people/This is the world I understand/This is my country/These are my people/And I know ‘em like the back of my own hand“ - from the song “This Is My Country”
Despite that great body of work, mainstream America didn’t really recognize Newman as a force to be reckoned with until he hit the Top 40 charts with the goofy novelty song, “Short People” in 1977. The tune, catchy and nasty-spirited on first listen, both shocked and drew in the average radio listener with all the ease of, say, Newman’s fellow songsmith Loudon Wainwright III’s single Top 40 offering, “Dead Skunk.” And though the general public may have soon forgotten about the number, smart music fans dug deeper, and found that the tune (written by a none-too-tall anti-rock star who’s since referred to himself in song as “froggish”), and virtually all of the man’s back catalog—from “Davy The Fat Boy” to “My Life Is Good”—was actually scolding a society that was chock full of phony peace, love, and understanding.
In between those delightful jabs, he could also knock out a love song that could give his heroine, Carole King, chills down her back (“Marie”), a debauched rocker that’d make Don Henley blush (“I Love L.A.”), and a motion-sick party anthem (“Mama Told Me Not To Come”) that could (and DID) propel a hack bar band like Three Dog Night to the top of the charts. He name-dropped more geographical locations (“Birmingham,” “Louisiana 1927,” “Baltimore,” “In Germany Before The War,” “Christmas In Capetown,” “Old Kentucky Home,” “Yellow Man”) than just about any songwriter this side of Lucinda Williams, lending understanding and historic authenticity to those locales as he was gleefully shredding their time-worn traditions. And, above all, he proved that by employing sheer tenacity, raw talent, and a healthy dose of self-deprecation, any good songwriter can survive the test of time. But that’s all ancient history now.
Newman, who came up amid mighty musical talent (his uncles, Alfred, Lionel, and Emil, were all respected Hollywood film scorers), went on to garner a huge worldwide fanbase, 16 Oscar nominations, an Emmy, and the respect of his peers, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Neil Young. Beginning in the early ’80s, he wrote the scores for one hit movie after another, including “Ragtime,” “Maverick,” “The Natural,” “The Paper,” “Parenthood,” “Avalon,” “James & The Giant Peach,” and both “Toy Story” films. He took other detours, as well, fantastically recreating Goethe’s “Faust” in musical form, and penning the Emmy-winning score to TV’s “Cop Rock” series.
Recently, he wrote a brilliant return to form in 1999’s wonderfully skewed Bad Love, a testament to (somewhat) gracefully coming of age in a world that’s still refusing to grow up.
In 2001, Newman signed to the hipster label Nonesuch, where he was commissioned to resurrect a few dozen of his classic cuts, including “God’s Song,” “Rednecks,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and his wise-acre musical letter to Karl Marx, “The World Isn’t Fair.” Though he initially had reservations about sitting down alone at the piano to sing and play songs he’s already released, with the able assistance of producer extraordinaire Mitchell Froom (Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello) and the constant cheering of his new label, Newman seems content with the end result. The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1 (out September 1st), is a rare glimpse into the intricate, intimate workings of some of his tastiest material, and one not approximated on record since 1970’s Live at The Bitter End LP.
Pulse spoke with the 59-year-old consummate songwriter recently from a hotel room somewhere on the road, where he’s taking great delight in wowing audiences old and new with his eclectic, heartfelt singing and playing, and where he’s hoping to expand his current fan base. Today’s Randy Newman is — despite raising a young family (his daughter is 10), having received the ultimate in accolades and awards from his peers, and (at least, according to the song “Shame” from Bad Love), driving a Lexus — still the same cantankerous, smart, devil-may-care wit he’s always been. And, whether the subject is politics, the bizarre world of the music business, or social injustice, he’s still not one bit afraid to tell it like it is:
Pulse: Let’s talk for a minute about the Songbook deal, you’re on Nonesuch now.
Randy Newman: Right. And happy to be on ‘em. Everyone I’ve met there is bright and they’re enthusiastic, so it’s a good—it’s the place for me to be. Emmylou (Harris) is on there, Wilco, (Ry) Cooder...
Pulse: You kind of feel like—I don’t know, you did say something in the bio I read that you’d still like to reach more people at this point—and that this (label change) is kind of going to help you with that?
RN: Yeah ... I’ve always felt that way. Yeah, I think that they are smarter about non-traditional ways to sell records. Which you know, when Sting is doing a Jaguar commercial just to get his music heard, that times are changin’. Or Paul (Simon) doing a—music for a kid’s thing ...
Pulse: Or Randy Newman doing James And The Giant Peach ... (laughs)
RN: Yeah! Well, that’s different, I mean ...
Pulse: That’s cool stuff, man. My son is 14 now, and that’s how he got into Randy Newman, was those movies.
RN: (surprised) Oh, really?
Pulse: Yeah, and now he’s a teenager, and he’s really into it, he knows what you’re saying, now, he understands a little bit about politics and so forth.
RN: I’m glad to hear that! You know, people are smart, if they’re exposed to stuff, they get it. I always thought, to get my stuff, you sort of have to listen to it. You know how people listen to music, they’re at parties, they’re eating potato chips, they’re in a car, and you sort of can’t do it that way. In a car you can, but I mean, but that isn’t the way music’s been used the last fifty years or so. They don’t listen close. It’s amazing. I have a friend—a guy who’s a public defender in L.A.—he says, you know, they just won’t listen. You can’t get ‘em to listen to music that way.
Pulse: Well, yeah. I mean, you mentioned Wilco—bands like that, Son Volt—I try to get people to listen. People who really use lyrics as a strong part of their songs. And I think part of it is that people are scared. When they hear something that real, it blows ‘em away and they don’t wanna hear it, you know?
RN: Maybe ... I don’t know. There’s people that get it done, like Neil Young, but he also is producing a really good pop record at the same time.
Pulse: Speaking of Neil, there’s a guy who’s never sold a song for an ad, and he still manages to connect with every new generation. It’s a bizarre thing, maybe it’s the pop thing that you’re talking about ...
RN: Yeah, but you know ... you’re seeing people—I don’t know whether he’s been doing it—but like him, getting up at four in the morning to do the Today Show. It’s just...you know what I think? I think that in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s like a tough bunch that came up, because they’re still out there. I would bet that there are more people from (that era) still on the road than there are people from the ’90s. I don’t think it’s a function of the music being better. Ah, it’s just some kind of—I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the record companies not letting people have second chances, or ...
Pulse: Well, think about it, too. The music isn’t quite as tangible. Generally, if you were a band that hit the Top 40 in the ’90s, you certainly didn’t have as much to say as somebody that did that in the ’60s or early ’70s. It was vapid—a lot of it was vapid music.
RN: You know, you hear a band like Everclear, ah, Wilco, you know, I mean, I know they’re out there successfully. But I mean, they could be out there. Good Charlotte is good, you know? I mean, I would assume they could travel, or tour big. But for 30 years?
Pulse: Yeah, that’s the thing. I think a band like Wilco will have something to say 30 years from now. Just because Jeff Tweedy actually reached back a little, and took something from Woody Guthrie and kind of perpetuates something that was already there. But a band that hit with a Top 40 song in 1995, nobody even knows who they are anymore, and they don’t have a “catalog” to tour on, you know?
RN: Sometimes, you know. But Eminem makes great records, if he wants to go out, I mean, he’ll be able to. I don’t see anything stopping him. And we’ll see how Good—the Good Charlotte writer—have you heard their record? It’s good. I mean, I would’ve never heard it had not my 10-year-old daughter played it for me. But you know, there’s—it sounds like early Carole King. He’s a white punk, you know, but he’s got a pop sensibility that she has. The same thing.
Randy Newman is always cool and confident at the piano
Pulse: It seems like everytime you put out one of these “Best Of”-type packages, you come out with a really kick-ass album within a year or so. Are you working on something?
RN: No, but I will be when I get done with this next thing.
Pulse: Are you even inspired to write about what’s going on now, politically? I mean, is there anything more to say than “Mr. President?” Is there anything beyond that?
RN: This is a little different. This is public arrogance and clumsiness that, in my lifetime, I’ve never seen. I mean, I don’t think [Richard Nixon’s press secretary John] Ehrlichman was like [George W. Bush’s] press secretary, like Rumsfeld. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anyone consign France and Germany to Old Europe. You know, I wrote that in a song, that Europe’s too old, but I never thought anyone would say it like they did.
Pulse: Are you embarrassed when you see him on TV speaking, as an American?
RN: Yeah, though he looks a little chastened lately. What he is, is ... is ... you know, he’s talking like a TOUGH GUY. Like somebody with a tough brother behind him ...
Pulse: Or a father ...
RN: But an American president, you don’t have to do that here. Really, there is no other power. It doesn’t do any good. It makes you think about Teddy Roosevelt, speak softly, carry a big stick. Ah, not bad advice, except the stick part, for this guy.
Pulse: But for you to write a song about it ...
RN: (Getting excited) You know, to tell you the truth, for the first time, really the first time—they used to attack us for such stupid reasons in Europe, when you’d go there, you know, they’d be simplistic on the racial issue, or blast California for just stupid reasons—but it’s a little tougher to defend it this time, this time around.
Pulse: Yeah. But at the same time, for you, a guy with your wit and the dangerous edge to your lyrics, it would be like shooting fish in a barrel to write about this guy.
RN: It would, but I don’t work, usually, right on the money. Right on the time. I don’t know, in a few years, I’ll have something about current events. That’s why the stuff’s sort of held up, I think, and applies now. “Mr. President” almost applies to this—to THIS.
Pulse: Yeah, that’s what I was getting at. I mean if you look around you at the economy, I mean, it’s just falling apart, man. Everywhere you go.
RN: Yeah. It’s like either they’re not noticing or they’re figuring there’ll be a recovery. But places I go, except for a couple towns, New York seems sort of OK. I didn’t hear anything, anyway. But everywhere—I mean, Santa Fe looked like a ghost town. I think people are gettin’ hit.
Pulse: Do you think Bush is gonna make it back in again?
RN: Ah—a year ago I would’ve said certainly. But now I would say, maybe not. You know, maybe not. Fifty-fifty.
Pulse: But it’ll probably be another Republican anyway, right?
RN: No, he’ll get the nomination.
Pulse: So who would beat him, though? I mean, the Democrats don’t have anybody, the one they want the most doesn’t want to run—Mrs. Clinton.
RN: You don’t know. I mean, ANY alternative might be good. Whoever wins the nomination presumably will have won some elections in the primary.
Pulse: Alright. Well, let’s talk for a minute about the songs you are putting out on this latest collection. It’s kind of like a best of package, but you’re reworking the songs. I mean, obviously from my point of view, it looks to me like you got a deal with these guys and they’d love to put out some old classic Randy Newman stuff, but they don’t have the original recordings, so you decided to do something new with the songs. Is there more to the story than that?
RN: No, they wanted to do a Songbook record, to get me looked at, I guess, as a songwriter. And this is how I wrote ‘em, this is how I play ‘em live. (deadpan) But I think they just wanted it documented before I kick off.
Pulse: (Laughs) That’s a wonderful way to look at it.
RN: I think it was the idea of the record company, and I think, you know, initially it didn’t hold much appeal for me, the idea, but once I started to do it, I began to think that it was a good idea after all.
Pulse: I guess you played some—or sang some—songs that you aren’t even really used to singing anymore, huh?
RN: I did. And I recorded about 12 others that we didn’t use—just because of sequencing.
Pulse: Sure. How did this differ for you—obviously it was a live show, the live album in 1970—but did this have any of the same feel for you, that it was just you at your piano, doing it?
RN: No, this was recording studio feel. In that there’s no audience, audience changes everything.
Pulse: Yeah, I guess. Although I don’t hear too much of the audience on that record, I’ve got the vinyl of it ...
RN: (almost palpably shrugs) Well, there weren’t many people there ...
Pulse: (Laughs) Well, you worked with Mitchell Froom again on this, who also worked on Bad Love, and I gotta tell you, that’s one of my favorite recent albums of yours. That is so good, man. “Shame” is such a dirty, nasty, sexy song, I just love the shit out of it.
RN: Thanks. I was happy that that album is like—you know, it doesn’t sound like I’m deteriorating too badly.
Pulse: Not at all, no. You’re very contemporary with that. And I can hear from what you’re saying now, that there’s gonna be another one coming out that’s at least as powerful, if not more so.
RN: I hope so. You never know what—you know, in rock and roll, people usually don’t get better and better. They usually do their best work young, before they’re 30.
Pulse: Well, let me ask you about that. What do you think about Dylan and Neil Young’s newest stuff—have you heard any of that stuff? Bob seems to be going back to the 1930s with his muse, I think ...
RN: I haven’t heard either of their new records. I just got the new Neil Young, but I haven’t heard Dylan. What’s the name of Dylan’s new record?
Pulse: It’s called Love And Theft.
RN: Love And Theft. Yeah ... I sometimes think the best of his stuff is the acoustic stuff from way back ...
Pulse: The early days ...
RN: Yeah. With exceptions like John Wesley Harding and “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues” you know?
Pulse: So what do you think about this controversy over downloading music on the Internet? I just saw LL Cool J last night on C-Span talking to like, the governor of Minnesota about the whole thing.
RN: You know, I don’t know. In my case, anything you give away can’t hurt me. I mean, if they hear me, I’m happy. But in the case of someone who’s losing millions of dollars, I can understand. It is theft of a copyright, of artistic property. There’s no doubt about that. But speaking personally, it does me more good than harm in the long run, I’d imagine.
Pulse: Alright, I’ve got one more for you. Are you still looking for the perfect song?
RN: (Long pause) No. I mean, you never get it. You know, I’ll write things sometimes, like “Great Nations Of Europe,” and I’ll think well, you know, look at this. This is kind of perfect in a way. No, it isn’t perfect, come to think of it, I’m thinking of some little thing. But there’s a big thing about it that bothers me, you know? Or, “The World Isn’t Fair” is like a really big idea, and kind of a great song, I think, you know. But “perfect,” it all sounds like an intro, you know? I mean, so there’s ... that’s impossible. I mean, I hear things like “Vincent” by Don McClean, that I have to look at it hard, that I love, or “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles. But perfect, you can’t do. It’s impossible.
Randy Newman plays the Pantages Theater on Sun., Oct. 19, at 7:30 p.m. $49.50. All-Ages. 710 Hennepin Ave, Mpls. 612-339-7007.