Randy Newman

Today I’m enjoying Randy Newman. I can’t exactly remember when I first picked up the Randy Newman box set, but I believe it was right after Jennifer left me. I’ve been listening to Newman for a year or so now, and I believe him to be a genius.

I distinctly remember asking fellow coworkers and friends whether I should get obsessed with Randy Newman or Warren Zevon. In the end I decided on Newman.

Here’s a citation from last June, where I quote Bleeding all over the place – a lament for a lover or wife who has cheated and left. So we know at the very least I started in June 2002.

In that time I’ve come to really appreciate Newman. His voice astonishes. He’s an artist who can ably sing songs sung by truly odious characters. One of his best songs, Sail Away is a song sung to a would-be slave about how great America is:

Ain’t no lions or tigers, ain’t no mamba snake
Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake
Ev’rybody is as happy as a man can be
Climb aboard, little wog, sail away with me

Sail away
Sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay
Sail away-sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay

He’s also astonishingly funny. Political Science is in the voice of the put-upon USA, deciding the best thing is just to be done with it and bomb everybody:

Asia’s crowded and Europe’s too old
Africa is far too hot
And Canada’s too cold
And South America stole our name
Let’s drop the big one
There’ll be no one left to blame us

We’ll save Australia
Don’t wanna hurt no kangaroo
We’ll build an All American amusement park there
They got surfin’, too

In addition to pithy, smartass lyrics, the man is a real musician, well, at least he composes in the format where most people hear classical music — the movies! He’s done scores for The Natural, Ragtime, Parenthood, and many others. Check out his imdb page – James and the Giant Peach, Toy Story, wow! Even I hadn’t any idea he was involved with so many films.

So now you’re skeptical. You’re thinking, “isn’t this the same guy who wrote ‘I will go sailing no more’ and ‘Short People’ and ‘I love L.A.’ — this guy’s nothing but a novelty-song writer!

I respectfully disagree. Songs like Dixie Flyer, God’s Song, Real Emotional Girl show an artist who can tap into subjects and depth. I do think his best work is in a voice that’s peculiar. He inhabits these characters and shows a bit of their humanity, as well as their faults. He’s fearless in that way, unafraid to include racial epithets and the rawest slang to make his characters come alive. His work is really challenging, and makes me uncomfortable often. I certainly would not want my headphones to come out at work and have to explain why I have a song with these lyrics playing:

We’re rednecks, rednecks
And we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground
We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks
And we’re keeping the niggers down

That’s from Rednecks. And yes, it’s quite a shocking song. It was released in 1974, 30 years ago. The song of course talks about a bald-faced racism of some Southerners, but also points out that the North is not much better, blacks are free, but only to a point:

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 in 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

I really like the way that Newman seems to be trying to get us to have a laugh at the ignorance of these fools “Hustlin’ ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes” – then switches it around on the listener, as if to say, “Oh, you think you’re enlightened do you? Well here’s your own treatment of your fellow man, jack”

The thing is, it’s not a protest song, and how could it be. With a chorus that includes the “N” word, it’s hardly radio-friendly. It’s the voice of an artist with a unique and ambiguous point of view. He simply paints portraits of the world as he sees it, and lets the cards fall where they may. How about another song, another pleasant sounding ballad/lament: I want you to hurt like I do, which includes a sad truth about how so often we wish ill on others, perhaps not because we are bad, but because often we ourselves are not happy:

If I had one wish
One dream I knew would come true
I’d want to speak to all the people of the world
I’d get up there, I’d get up there on that platform
First I’d sing a song or two you know I would
Then I’ll tell you what I’d do
I’d talk to the people and I’d say
“It’s a rough rough world, it’s a tough tough world
Well, you know
And things don’t always, things don’t always go the way we plan
But there’s one thing, one thing we all have in common
And it’s something everyone can understand
All over the world sing along

I just want you to hurt like I do
I just want you to hurt like I do
I just want you to hurt like I do
Honest I do, honest I do, honest I do”

And on the other end of the spectrum, here’s a song called “Laugh and Be Happy”

laugh and be happy
don’t you ever wear a frown
don’t let the bastards grind you down
laugh and be happy
it’s a simple thing to do
believe in your dreams and
your dreams will come through for you

Which contains such a great section I have to include it:

now the country that we’re living in
you mean the good old usa?
thats right!
has never been about keeping you out
it’s about inviting you in and letting you pay

so laugh and be happy
don’t you ever wear a frown
get back up on your feet whenever they knock you down

And that’s I guess the great thing about being a fan of artists with careers of a great length. There’s a richness about having had a great deal of time to live life and make songs. Frank Zappa is an obvious parallel artist for me, having had a 30 year career as well. Newman is still alive and producing records, too.

If this has piqued your interest in Randy Newman, I encourage you to check out the The Randy Newman Homepage, which has an extensive biography, including more information about the controversies surrounding some of Newman’s songs.

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