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Randy Newman: ‘America-watcher, political satirist, psychic explorer, bittersweet balladeer’

Randy Newman: ‘America-watcher, political satirist, psychic explorer, bittersweet balladeer’
Randy Newman onstage during the 92nd Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on 9 February 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Photo: Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

Randy Newman’s most recent album, ‘Dark Matter’ (2017), his first in nine years, is as experimental, wickedly probing, and in places deeply touching, as anything he has done.

Randy Newman tells the story of how, after a triumphant concert at LA’s Universal Amphitheatre, when he received a lengthy standing ovation, his father came to see him backstage. “Did you have a cold tonight?” Newman senior inquired.

It is a revealing anecdote, showing up Randy’s self-deflating irony and ruthless, often self-mocking candour. It also hints at his uneasy bond with his father, which seems to have fed his fascination with the dynamics of the family.

Ironic humour, mockery and the pains of love and family life have been integral to the work of Newman, America-watcher, political satirist, psychic explorer and bittersweet balladeer that some consider the finest songwriter in America.

At 77, with a hip disorder and loss of feeling in the fingers of his left hand — a serious impediment for a keyboard player — he is approaching the end of a long and often controversial career.

He has the highly unusual distinction of two Oscars for movie scores and induction into the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame. Film music was almost the family business: three of his uncles composed for Hollywood — one, Alfred Newman, conducted the 20th Century Fox Orchestra for 20 years and won nine Academy Awards.

A musician’s musician, he has studied harmony and counterpoint, can compose for and conduct an orchestra, and counts among his influences Wagner and Stravinsky. 

But one senses he is far happier about being immortalised alongside Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis than as the Hollywood tunesmith who wrote Disney-Pixar’s “We Belong Together” (Toy Story 3) and “If I Didn’t Have You” (Monsters, Inc).

Newman has never had a mass following, and one suspects that this is because he does not look or play the entertainer. In his youth he came across as too smart, a little weird and forbidding behind his thick-lensed spectacles. His stage presence and records were too challenging for all but a small, determined band of devotees. 

Now grey-haired, about 5 feet 9, (1.75m) a little overweight, slightly rumpled in open-necked shirts and suit jackets with unmatched trousers, he looks like someone’s retired uncle.

But appearances should not mislead. His most recent album, Dark Matter, his first for nine years, is as experimental and wickedly probing, and in places deeply touching, as anything he has done. 

It covers the same gamut, from brutal satire to poignant ballads of love and loss, delivered in the same clipped, Southern-inflected, semi-conversational vocal style and with the same instantly recognisable keyboard harmonies — Dave Brubeck meets Stephen Foster.

His music offers a guided tour of the Great American Songbook, by a songster who spent his summers in New Orleans until the age of 11. 

Ray Charles has been his lodestar, but there are pinches in the mix of New Orleans jazz, ragtime, country, George Gershwin, the soundtracks of the silver screen, Broadway musical theatre, and Foster’s parlour and minstrel ditties.

From rock ’n roll keyboard men like Fats Domino he has adapted the “shuffle” piano style, where the melody plays over a repeated pattern in the left hand.

Newman is a militant atheist who says he was raised in a household devoid of religion — he remembers his father pointing out sick children in a hospital ward, each in turn, with the words: “That’s God’s will; that’s God’s will…”.

In God’s Song, on his brilliant album Sail Away, the Supreme Being is portrayed as a celestial Donald Trump, a psychopath with a narcissistic personality disorder who loves his creatures because they worship him despite the misery he inflicts on them.

“I burn down your cities, how blind you must be
I take away your children, you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind…”

Newman says he first became aware of being Jewish when his girlfriend’s father told him he was not welcome at the local country club. His Jewishness is not an explicit concern, but the strong impression is that his songs are coloured by the age-old melancholy of the shtetl and the sense of being an outsider.

We laugh at, but also pity, his gallery of misfits and losers — the purse-snatching “famous naked man”, the hick bridegroom whose bride laughs at his “mighty sword”…

Dark Matter picks up the thread in the song On the Beach, about a school friend who drops out to become a beach bum. Its jaunty major key and strolling rhythm evoke LA’s sun-soaked languor, and Willie, we hear, never gets old. 

But clouds are gathering. The lifesaver’s towers are coming down and the 20-foot sets (of waves) they used to lie about finally rolling in. The implied question is: what happens to beach bums after they turn 50? 

A master of ambiguity, Newman rarely confronts his audience head-on and makes extensive use of a Brechtian distancing device he calls the “unreliable narrator”.

This tinges even some of his most beautiful love lyrics. Real Emotional Girl, narrated by her male friend, seems at first a tender vignette of a woman who wears her heart on her sleeve. 

But we learn that she is unhappy — the narrator says he often hears her cry in her sleep. He also spills the unsavoury disclosure that “she turns on easy/ it’s like a hurricane”. It is suggested that because of her neediness, she is sexually misused.

The inability to read Newman’s irony has undoubtedly been a stumbling block to wider acceptance — or has attracted praise for the wrong reasons. 

Short People was a rare hit single that also brought him death threats (They stand so low/ You got to pick ’em up just to say hello). But all sides got it wrong: the vertically challenged hate-mailers and the liberals who defended it as a plea for tolerance. In fact, it is a joke song about the lunatic narrator.

Newman leans pretty far left, and in fact lampoons himself as a communist in Dark Matter’s eight-minute opening track, The Great Debate.

But he is more interested in the political sins of complacency, hypocrisy and greed than in ideology. And he is not averse to taking potshots at other musicians who transgress — the song My Life, for example, contains a sly poke at Bruce Springsteen, proletarian posturer with an estimated value of $500-million.

Newman’s ironic use of the third eye as a distorting lens is nowhere clearer than in his Grammy-winning spoof, on Dark Matter, of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is intrigued by Putin’s clothes-shedding rituals — one of the world’s richest and most powerful men still needs to strip down for the camera “like Tom Cruise”. (Putin puttin’ his pants on/ one leg at a time... the song begins.)

Presented with four viewpoints — the singer himself, Putin, a Putin praise-singer and the cheerleading “Putin Girls” — the listener is left a little unclear about where Newman stands.

He admits that during the writing he worried about being too soft on the Russian leader. Is there a hint of sympathy for Putin as an oddball and geopolitical outsider?

His complicated attitude towards the American South, as one half of the Disunited States of America and cradle of its music, but seat of its racial oppression, is borne out by his most controversial album, Rednecks

In the song Louisiana 1927, the great Mississippi River flood that left 640,000 Southerners of all races homeless becomes a metaphor for northern hypocrisy and indifference to the suffering of the South that followed the civil war.

Louisiana, Louisiana, they’re trying to wash us away, runs the chorus, followed by the bitter irony of the second verse:

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.

Newman does not shy from the legacy of slavery and institutional racism in the South, but tackles it, typically, through a third-person lens. In the song Sail Away, a caricature slave recruiter tells Africans: In America you’ll get food to eat/ You won’t have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet.

It is with similar brutal honesty that Newman reflects on his father. He implied to Mojo magazine that when George Newman lay dying in 1990, he thought: “This is the way you raised me (to be unsentimental about death) so this is what you get.”

Is Wandering Boy, the last track on Dark Matter, its saddest and most beautiful, about his and George’s relationship? To a sorrowful old-time melody, it tells of a father’s pining for his estranged and long-lost son:

He went off from that high board there
When he was five years old
Laughing like a maniac
Shining in the sun like gold
He was afraid of nothin’ then
He was loved by everyone
I see it as clear as I see you
That day there in the sun.

Newman said the song “came hard. I was choking up when I was writing the thing. I would play it for someone, and I’d get to, ‘Where’s my wandering boy’…

He added: “Anything that makes you cry must be something to do with yourself.” DM/MC/ML

Dark Matter by Randy Newman, Nonesuch Records, was released in August 2017.

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