By Mike Greenblatt
If rock and roll was originally perceived as a slap in a face, a kick in the butt and an affront to a complacent, conservative establishment, then Randall Stuart Newman is the living personification of that original spirit.
His compositions dig down deep into the heart of human frailty. He doesn’t mind exposing the ugly, the blunt, the evil, the most base instincts in all of us … and that includes lust, greed and fear (which, when coupled with ignorance, equals bigotry). Think about it. Rock was dangerous to the status quo. Preachers preached against it. Politicians tried to ban it. Parents tried to stifle it. Newman oftentimes takes that which is offensive and repulsive and — instead of sweeping it under the carpet to be ignored, like polite society likes to do — gives it a voice. He plays a role in every song, and many of his roles are totally unlikable. If you’re too uptight, if you’re too starched-white, you won’t get it. You’re going to be upset.
And that’s just the way he likes it.
In true rock and roll tradition, Newman lives to ruffle feathers. His lyrics, his melodies, his expressive “Black Man’s Voice,” his New Orleans aesthetic and his unerring orchestration genius should have put him in the Rock Hall years ago. Who else would have the balls to write from the perspective of God and say, “You must be crazy to put your faith in me?”
Then, there’s the eerie, haunting, scary music that accompanies the creep at the center of “In Germany Before The War” who, we are led to believe, is a child killer. The racist in “Rednecks” doesn’t know his “ass from a hole in the ground” and knows he’s “too dumb to make it in no Northern town.” Never one to shy away from controversy, Newman uses the “N” word eight times in three minutes, giving movie director Quentin Tarantino a run for his money.
Newman’s “The World Isn’t Fair” is a letter to Karl Marx, of all people. In “Political Science,” he advocates bombing the whole world (“they all hate us anyhow”) except Australia (“don’t wanna hurt no kangaroo”). And, I must say, I have a cousin who was totally offended by “Short People.”
“It’s Money That I Love,” a song that, over and above its lyrics, certainly falls into any genre checkpoint as real rock and roll, was first recorded in 1979 for Newman’s “Born Again” album on Reprise. Twenty-four years later, in 2003, upon re-recording a stripped-down, intimate version of just Newman and his piano for “The Randy Newman Songbook Volume No. 1” (Nonesuch), it was changed to a “19-year-old girl,” probably over Newman’s objections.
But that’s just the point: Newman doesn’t mind playing the heel. It’s what puts the rock in his roll. It’s what puts the strut in his step and validates his lofty position as a true rock and roll poet. Keep your 16-year-old daughters away from Jerry Lee Lewis, sure, but also keep them away from Randy Newman! Many of his protagonists are total assholes and people you love to hate. Yet Newman brings them to life with humor, irony and a self-mocking wink and a leer. The irony of all this is that parents and children do listen to Randy Newman, because of his day job as a Hollywood soundtrack composer, a role that could honestly be considered part of the “family business.” His uncles, Alfred Newman and Lionel Newman, were both noted film composers; between them they racked up roughly 60 Oscar nominations, about one-fifth of which translated into wins.
Randy Newman’s trophy shelf isn’t empty, either; it holds Oscars, Grammys and Emmys — among others. Still, he’s been censored and has been the object of scorn. In 1977, the great state of Maryland tried, in a special legislative session, to make it illegal to play Randy Newman’s biggest hit, “Short People,” on the radio. Newman, a tall man, sang that “short people have no reason to live.” Uh, he was kidding, people, and pointing out the hypocrisy of bigotry. Some just didn’t get the joke.
Much as is the case with 2012 Rock Hall inductee Laura Nyro, other artists love interpreting the songs Newman writes, and music lovers more often know the songs for the artists who covered them than for Newman’s own performances. The late Harry Nilsson recorded a whole album of such with 1970’s “Nilsson Sings Newman.” Eight artists have covered “Baltimore,” including Nina Simone and Nils Lofgren. In fact, more than 200 recording artists have covered Newman’s songs, including Joe Cocker, Steve Earle, Eric Burdon & The Animals, Judy Collins, Dusty Springfield, Peggy Lee, Three Dog Night (who took his “Mama Told Me Not To Come” to No. 1), Little Feat, Fats Domino, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, Bobby Darin, Linda Ronstadt, Dave Van Ronk, Aaron Neville, Tom Jones, The Doobie Brothers, UB40, Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson.
Listen to Bonnie Raitt’s aching cover of “Guilty.” The singer’s drunk, in trouble and in possession of some cocaine from a friend. She’s asking, “How come I never do what I’m supposed to do? How come nothin’ that I try to do ever turns out right?” She admits, “I just can’t stand myself.” Then, in the last line of the song, comes the kicker: “It takes a whole lot of medicine for me to pretend that I’m somebody else.”
Fellow Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer Etta James (1938-2012) recorded numerous Randy Newman songs. She explained why she found his songs so appealing in her 1995 autobiography, “Rage To Survive: The Etta James Story.”
“I loved Randy’s point of view,” she writes. “It was young and fresh and different. Plus, he had a fiery black feeling. He composed from a keyboard steeped in gospel and charbroiled blues. But the best part were his lyrics. ‘Sail Away,’ for example, was this ironic take on the slavery trade coming to America, an angry epic that also managed to be beautiful. I dug the song for its rebellious spirit and reverse patriotism. ‘God’s Song’ had a similarly skeptical attitude toward the Bible. But my favorite, the third Randy Newman song on the record [“Etta James,” 1973] was ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On.’ [James is one of 16 artists who have covered this song.] I dug the tune, not just for the sneak-and-creep-around-the-corner groove, but for the story. The story’s a mother! Randy’s view of love — Randy’s view of everything — is different. There’s a hint of danger and intrigue. ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’ ain’t nothing but slow seduction, with me telling my man just how to undress. I like a song where the woman’s telling the man what to do: She wants him to leave the lights on, to take off his shoes, to stand on a chair, raise his arms up and shake ’em high in the air; she wants him to strip, article by article, but, listen here, baby, you better leave your hat on! Randy Newman cracks me up, and today, 20 years later, I’m still singing his witty, wild-ass songs!”
When it was announced that Randy Newman made it into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, a generation of 20-something, know-nothing music journalists bemoaned the fact that he got in before some of their heroes.
“Where’s the rock and roll?” The question resounded in blogs and even in major Internet and print outlets. Apparently, they haven’t actually been listening to Newman’s music.
“Have You Seen My Baby” and “Take Me Back” are deliciously rocking songs. “Mikey’s” meets a Talking Heads kind of jagged, jangled, rhythmic craziness while lyrically pining for some oldies-but-goodies. (“Whatever happened to the f**king ‘Duke Of Earl’?”) In “My Life Is Good,” he’s called into the teacher’s office because his kid is acting up. He tells her of hanging with his good friend Bruce Springsteen. He tells her that Bruce said to him, “I’m tired, Randy. How would you like to be the boss for awhile?” “Well yeah,” Randy answers before commanding The Big Man to blow his saxophone … which blares out with pure rock and roll joy right quick. “My life is good, you old bat,” he yells in the teacher’s face.
In “Miami,” Newman sings the city’s praises for something city officials no doubt wish he would’ve left unsaid: “Miami! Best dope in the world! And it’s free!”
Newman’s “Four Eyes” approaches Frank Zappa territory in its angular oddness, lyrical sickness and convoluted arrangement. So to all you junior music journalists who haven’t done your homework, go whining back to the lousy Radiohead albums you think are so profound, because, yeah, Randy Newman’s life is good.
Rock and roll trash talk, by the way, is not something Randy Newman is above, but he elevates it into an art form in his “I’m Dead But I Don’t Know It” about tired old rock bands from the 1960s who insist on continuing to tour. Just like punk pranced on the still-living corpse of bloated rock excess, Newman, on his “Live In London” (Nonesuch), even name-checks fan favorite Moody Blues. Ouch! Now that’s punk!
A professional songwriter at 17, Newman dropped out of UCLA upon being signed to the Reprise label. His mostly-ignored self-titled debut came out in 1968. In 1970, “12 Songs” might not have sold, but now the critics and other artists were listening. The mini-hit Newman waited for came in 1972, with “Sail Away.” Constant touring cemented his reputation, and by 1974, he had recorded his masterpiece, “Good Old Boys.” The controversial concept album about the South took aim at and offended practically everybody without a sense of humor, from the lyrics’ laundry list of “smart-ass New York Jew” to the “no-necked oilmen from Texas/Good ol’ boys from Tennessee/College men from LSU/Went in dumb come out dumb, too/Hustlin’ ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes/Gettin’ drunk every weekend at the barbecues.” (And don’t forget about the impotent hillbilly who marries a circus freak in “A Wedding In Cherokee County.”)
“Little Criminals” (1977) was Newman’s first “star” album, as he had finally, after nine years, cracked the veneer of mass acknowledgement. “Born Again” (1979) preceded “Trouble In Paradise,” (1983) which contained the hit “I Love L.A.,” still used today at Lakers’ basketball games despite the fact it is a put-down of young urban professionals fondly known as “yuppies” back in the 1980s.
Newman turned inward and finally got personal on “Land Of Dreams” (1988), which spawned the hit “It’s Money That Matters,” another anti-yuppie song. By now, though, Newman was confusing the thin-skinned folks who thought he might actually be inhabiting some of the loathsome characters he wrote about. He continued to rub people the wrong way, but, hey, that’s OK, because they were the wrong people anyway. Could it be these characters of his were, indeed, some small part of his multi-faceted personality? Maybe they only came out at night … or when he was composing at the piano. Hell, someone has to give the cretins, the mental midgets, the child molesters, racists, crooked politicians, white trash, smart-ass Jews, short people, dictators, fat people and carnival freaks their say. So what if they’re less than empathetic? Randy Newman’s shoulders are broad. He can take it, just like he can take folks saying he doesn’t belong in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. His life is good.
Listen to the 1998 four-disc boxed set “Guilty: 30 Years Of Randy Newman,” and then decide for yourself. Each aspect of his fractured personality, including his alternately sophisticated and Dixieland-styled orchestral work, is included. “Bad Love” (1999, Dreamworks) and “Harps And Angels” (2008, Nonesuch) have been his only all-new studio albums since leaving Reprise. The former is vintage Newman. The title track on the latter has a man dying in the gutter. Yet the music is jaunty, swinging and soulful. God himself looks at the poor, crying man and apologizes for basically what amounted to a clerical error. Dude wasn’t supposed to die. Glad to see that the years have yet to soften Randy Newman’s genius.
As for Newman himself, he’s taking this Rock Hall induction in stride.
“I really thought maybe I’d have to die first,” Newman says of his induction on his website, www.randynewman.com. “I didn’t think it would happen if it didn’t happen, you know, a little earlier. But this is great. I’m really glad it happened when I was still around to see it.”