Randy Newman was always a man out of time, composing piano-driven, classically orchestrated character studies and social commentaries that have more to do with Stephen Foster than the blues/rock tradition that’s dominated all of popular music for the past 70 years or so. Though he’s been writing songs professionally since he was 17, and been covered by myriad artists over the years, he’s about as obscure as a successful genius can be, having spent a lifetime writing as if he knows nobody’s going to buy his stuff, but figures he may as well keep going anyway. By turns witty, sardonic, scathing, and sentimental, Newman crafts sophisticated pieces about real emotions and real human weaknesses, and invents characters that are sometimes truly distasteful yet somehow, in his portrayal, deeply sympathetic. People are complex, you see, their souls run through with contradictions, and sometimes they find themselves lost, lonely, and haunted by honest introspection that reveals themselves to be far less than they once hoped to be, and could well have been, maybe, if a few things had broken the other way. Newman writes about love lost, chances missed, character flaws that were never overcome, and the shame that often accompanies those moments when you can’t quite muster up the self-delusion that otherwise generally gets you through the day.
He can fool you, too, luring you in, all sweetness and light, until you realize you’re actually hip-deep in something awful. In Sail Away, you discover about half way through that the nice man delivering a group of immigrants to the promised land of America is a slave ship captain spinning tales to keep his human cargo duped and quiescent. In Marie, what starts out as a beautiful love song ends up being a confession of at best passive-aggressive spousal abuse. You’re the song that the trees sing when the wind blows, he tells her, a sentiment haunting and beautiful enough to grace an Elizabethan sonnet, before admitting:
Sometimes I’m crazy but I guess you know
I’m weak and I’m lazy and I hurt you so
And I don’t listen to a word you say
And when you’re in trouble I turn away
Yet you come away believing that he really does love this woman with all his heart, and deeply regrets that he can’t understand his own behaviour, or where his dark impulses come from. You can’t forgive this guy, but still he makes you sad.
So it goes in Newman world. His perspective can seem almost olympian, as he surveys the human condition from the standpoints of different generations and cultures, always conscious of the weight of the past, the events that led us down the twisty road to leave us standing here in the dog’s business. His experiences growing up in the corrupt political swamp of New Orleans loom large – he once wrote a whole song cycle, Good Old Boys, about the South of his youth and the political landscape dominated by Huey Long, which includes the epic recounting of one of the most massive floods in American history, Louisiana, 1927 – but over the years he’s trained his jaundiced eye on everything from the fatuous culture of sun-drenched L.A., to the cruelty of European imperialism in the age of empires and colonization, to the mind-set of the white minority governing Apartheid era South Africa. He criticizes, yes, he even makes fun, but you’re as likely to find him full of sympathy as contempt. Newman understands. He gets it, which isn’t the same thing as agreeing, or approving (though casual listeners have sometimes thought so), but he knows where the feelings come from, why the enraged ex-lover might dream of murdering the woman who left him in Bad News From Home, why the hard-hearted father might tell his son I Want You to Hurt Like I Do, or why the naive mind of a child could be over-awed by the sight of an essentially fascist, preening formation of motorcycle cops in Jolly Coppers on Parade. His songs can be about anybody, anywhere – who but Newman could write from the perspective of a pained and bitter angel, a dead Englishman, remembering all that was lost by his homeland during two World Wars? This is from Little Island, sung on record by Elton John:
In two long wars, my country bled
To spare the world the fearsome Hun
As through the years, the fight we’d led
Too long, we stood alone, too long alone
And when at last, battle’s won
We asked for no reward and no reward was received
The empire gone
Two generations turned to blood and dust
Only the best were lost
Only the best…
Newman understands the ways in which history, culture and context shape the present, how attitudes are formed and patterns of behaviour come to be set by forces most of us don’t bother to think about. To him, life is mainly a series of tragedies, some we create, and some that were foisted upon us, and it’s hard to say who’s to blame, really. It all seems inevitable, and that’s the worst part.
By contrast to much of his best work, I think it’s Going to Rain Today, which was released on his very first album in 1968, is straightforward and in the moment. There isn’t a great deal to interpret, no narrative twist to figure out, no mystery to the back story. It’s merely popular music’s purest and most unblinking expression of loneliness, betrayal and depression. It begins with an almost cinematic mise en scène, broken windows, empty hallways, and a pale dead moon in a sky streaked with grey, before laying bare the lies that underpin feigned, feckless, purported human kindness, and the hopelessness of trusting anybody but yourself:
Tin can at my feet
Think I’ll kick it down the street
That’s the way to treat a friend
It could have been written a century ago. Longer. They could have used it in a Greek tragedy.
Barely anybody noticed, at the time. Newman’s eponymous first record probably sold fewer than 5,000 copies, and of course never came close to the Billboard Hot 200. It was even out of print for about 15 years, beginning around 1980. There were some critics who praised the effort, and there might have been some solace in a congratulatory telegram that was sent, immediately upon the album’s release, by an English kid named McCartney, but other than that the thing sank without a bubble.
Oh well. In later years, Randy would earn serious coin writing soundtracks for movies, most notably for Pixar titles like Toy Story, so he wasn’t about to starve or anything. Meanwhile, if he wasn’t going to be top of the pops, he could at least stay true to himself, and such has its own rewards, right? Sure! Better to stay true to yourself and be fabulously wealthy, though, that’s likely what Randy would say.