If you’re among those who only know Randy Newman for his work on Pixar’s soundtracks, you might be excused for writing him off as a one-note hack long past his prime. The rest of us, however, know he’s hands down the most brilliant songwriter and satirist of the last century, well deserving of his chance to join the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the 2013 class.
I hadn’t heard much of his music prior to taking Andy Hollinden’s Rock and Roll History course at Indiana University back in 2002, but hearing the brilliance of “Sail Away” led directly to my infatuation with that entire album, and then its successor Good Old Boys, which did more to explain the whole “duality of the Southern thing” than anything Drive-By Truckers ever concocted. From his deft dissection of the mock American dream spread through the slave trade on “Sail Away” to the stark honesty of “God’s Song,” distilling the plight of Job through a modern examination of why believers still follow such a vengeful God, nothing tops the audacity and wit of a Randy Newman original.
A few of his greatest songs, described in his own words, below.
It was fast. I think I got into a character, this sort of jingoistic type of fellow. You know, it isn’t the type of song I wanted to write much of. Not that I didn’t love Tom Lehrer, but I don’t want to be, like Don Henley says, “What’s this, another novelty song” (laughs). And I do write a lot of those, songs that are meant to be funny in a form that listeners take the people in it more seriously than literature. (1)
That was actually one of the rare events where I actually saw the character. I saw Lester Maddox on The Dick Cavett show. They sat him next to Jim Brown, the audience hooted at him, and he didn’t say a word. Maddox didn’t get a chance to be bad on that show. And I thought, “Now, I hate everything that he stands for, but they didn’t give him a chance to be an idiot.” And here he is, governor of a state—these people elected him in Georgia, however many million people voted for him—and I thought that if I were a Georgian, I would be angry. I would be angry anyway, even if I were a nice, liberal, editor of the journal in Atlanta. And so I wrote that. And there are some mistakes in it, like, that guy wouldn’t know the names of all those ghettos, but, so what. (1)
I think if I had more success it might have pressured me out of writing just whatever I wanted to write– I don’t have that strong a character. But when I did Born Again, that was after I did “Short People”, which was a hit but a novelty hit. And Born Again, just looking at the cover, seems like a reaction to that, presuming that people would know I’m not just some asshole with makeup on. They’ll know who I am. Which was a mistake– they don’t know who I am. That’s the weirdest album I ever made. But “Short People” was the worst kind of hit to have. If you can have a bad hit, that would be one of them. (2)
I’m Dreaming of a White President
I have some concern that kids will hear this and think, “What is he talking about?” If you have a kid and you try irony out on them, they don’t get it at 7, 8 years old. “What do you mean, you’re dreaming of a white president?” It’s a problem. You can’t really hide the Internet from kids. It worries me some particularly because I’ve done Disney and Pixar stuff. In Toy Story, there’s my voice saying, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” And then here’s my voice singing that I want “A real live white man / Who knows the score.” I’d like it to be clearer which side I’m on. Of course, it comes a little late. (3)
I Miss You
I think as an exercise I’m going to write just some straight love songs to see if I can do it. I know I can, actually. So I will. But “Marie” has an idea. With “Marie” a guy’s drunk and he’s able to tell her these things, and he recognizes that. It’s a simple, kind of humble thing but, you know, honest. Things he’d never say. “Losing You” has an idea that at a certain age you reach a point where you don’t get over stuff that happens. You don’t live long enough to do it. And “Miss You” is about giving up on a first wife, and it’s about writing. It’s about saying, ‘I know all the harm this is doing, but I’d sell my soul, your soul and my soul, for a song.’ And I would. Almost. That’s kind of writerly bravura. You know, I’d dig up my mother for a song. I believe that it’s true of me, that it’s important enough to me that I would sacrifice quite a bit for it. (4)
1. Hutchison, Lydia. “Randy Newman: A Character Study” Performing Songwriter — http://performingsongwriter.com/randy-newman-songs/
2. Klein, Joshua. “Interviews; Randy Newman” Pitchfork — http://pitchfork.com/features/interviews/7535-randy-newman/
3. Yagoda, Ben. “‘I’m Dreaming of a White President': Randy Newman on His New Song” Slate — http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2012/09/18/_i_m_dreaming_of_a_white_president_randy_newman_talks_about_his_new_song_.html
4. Trucks, Rob. “Interview: Randy Newman on ‘Harps and Angels” and Hurricane Katrina” Village Voice – http://blogs.villagevoice.com/music/2008/09/randy_newman.php?page=2