A recent article in Rolling Stone on Randy Newman, headlined “Still Grouchy After All These Years,” did its bit to perpetuate his image as a cynical wiseacre who writes cruel novelty songs.
Possibly one of the most misunderstood people in popular music, Newman refuses to spell things out in his songs, which address all manner of bigotry and intolerance. And he has paid a price for assuming people will read between the lines.
Because of the subtlety of his approach, he is often condemned as being guilty of the very injustices his songs speak out against.
While Newman has insisted throughout his career that the viewpoints expressed in his songs were those of fictional characters and not his own, his record company claims that his new album is undoctored autobiography.
“Land of Dreams,” which is being touted as the most nakedly personal album of Newman’s career, opens with three songs set against Newman’s childhood in New Orleans, then segues into a trilogy of songs chronicling the rise and fall of a love affair. Though the record has the appearance of being a confessional work, some major events of New man’s recent life are only obliquely hinted at.
In 1986, Newman fell prey to a 2 1/2-year bout of Epstein-Barr syndrome, a debilitating illness whose chief symptom is severe fatigue, and three years ago he separated from his wife.
So exactly how factual is “Land of Dreams?”
“First off, I’ve always thought people would know more about me without talking to me than they’d know about almost any other writer you could name,” says Newman, 44. “I don’t often write in the I-did-this-I-did-that mode, but my feelings and thoughts are clear in my songs.
“As to how factual this record is, I love the idea of taking dates, people and events and jerking them around the way I want--which is what I did to some extent. I think we all construct pasts for ourselves out of pieces we pick up here and there, and how true that imagined past is doesn’t matter. If you built it, that’s what your past is.”
Newman, a New Orleans native, moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was 5 and began playing piano at 6. Three of his uncles--Alfred, Emil and film composer Lionel--are respected conductors, and Randy joined the ranks of accomplished Newmans in 1968 with the release of his debut LP, which introduced the themes and stylistic approach he continues to develop.
A narrative writer whose songs are often structured as richly detailed short stories, Newman resurrects the misfits and dreamers who have fallen through the cracks of the workaday world--characters he describes as “a little off.”
Like the late author Raymond Carver, Newman often fits his stories with trapdoors and quirky trick endings, and you have to listen closely lest you miss the crucial word or phrase that reveals how Newman feels about the subject at hand.
Combining elements of Tin Pan Alley, the broken-hearted balladry of Gershwin and flourishes of country, blues and gospel, his music evokes a sense of the American dream gone slightly sad and sour.
“There are some musicians who have a musical personality that evolves out of the chords they favor and Randy has a very specific musical signature,” says Newman’s longtime friend Lenny Waronker, president of Warner Bros. Records and the producer of most of Newman’s music. “And as a lyricist, the way he uses different voices to get between the black and the white is unique to his music.”
Using different voices is Newman’s central writing device and is the technique that gives him access to a wide range of subject matter, and allows him to deal with serious issues without climbing atop a soapbox.
“I love the idea of the untrustworthy narrator or speaking from the point of view of a guy who doesn’t have the whole picture,” says Newman. “This guy doesn’t know he’s insensitive--but hopefully we can see that he is. It’s an unusual approach to pop songwriting and that may be part of the reason my songs are often misunderstood.
“They also get misread because they’re a little tough and they’re different. Listening to a car radio you’re not used to irony or third-person narrators, but I think people are capable of understanding them or I wouldn’t write them.”
Afflicted with a chronic case of writer’s block, Newman always struggles with his records, but the five-year layoff since “Trouble in Paradise” was long even for him:
“This record was difficult because I was sick and I didn’t know if what I was doing was worth anything. I kept asking Lenny if my writing was getting a lot worse because I wasn’t getting anything out of it. Finally, Paul Simon heard the stuff and said, ‘This is good, representative work for you,’ and I guess that’s all I wanted. I just don’t want to get worse.”
While Newman’s faith in his talent may waver, his belief in the validity of certain themes remains unshaken.
“Racism exists throughout this country and while it’s slowly changing, it continues to bother me. I keep thinking that I’ve written enough about it, but then it turned up on this record in a number of the songs.”
Newman’s emotional involvement with the issue of racism is unchanging, as is his overall approach to his work; he is as deadly serious about it today as he was when he first began.
“Randy continues to be so uncompromising in his writing that you’re never gonna see a fall-off in the quality of his work,” says Waronker about the changes he has seen in Newman over the years. “I wouldn’t call him a pained artist but he’s close to that.
“He’s very funny and knows how to cut through tension by poking fun at himself or at others, and he can make you feel up-tight when he wants to, but he doesn’t do that anymore. He does have a streak of grouchiness but he seems to be growing more good-natured over the years. He’ll probably kill me for saying this, but I think he has a better outlook on things and is more at ease with himself.”
“Lenny says I’m more at ease with myself?” Newman asks with surprise. “I think he would know better than I, although I still feel that life’s a struggle. I wouldn’t have said that at 25, but as time went on, I grew increasingly surprised at how difficult things are.
“But I do think I’ve become more reasonable and I’m happier with the work process. In Primo Levi’s book ‘Monkey Wrench,’ he says that the best thing in the world is a job you like where you do some sort of creative work and people don’t mess with you, and I believe that.
“Family, relationships--those things sort of go by, but if you look forward to going in and working--I’d give a lot if I could be guaranteed that. I don’t have that now because I don’t like the work that much. I’d like to love it and do it all the time.”
While Newman places his faith in the work process, throughout his career he has cast a skeptical eye on systems of belief that offer pat solutions to the mysteries of life. (Newman’s skepticism reached full boil in 1972 with “God’s Song,” a devastating tune that paints a portrait of a callous God, amused that people continue to worship him despite the savage way he treats mankind.)
Reflecting on the human compulsion to seek out a believable ideology, Newman concludes that “people are always looking for something. God doesn’t seem to be there much for people in this century so they gave Maharishi a try, they tried dope, they tried all kinds of things because they need some sort of ideology--that’s why they’ve invented all this stuff over the years. As for myself, I have this sort of work belief, and I believe in the Golden Rule, and I have plenty of crutches, but theology? I don’t have any in me. And I think it’s tougher to live without it.”