It seems that Randy Newman, the unmannerly cuss who insulted all those short people back in 1977, has written a new hymn so pure, so honest, so right-thinking and unobjectionably full of fervent faith in his fellow man that, given the right break, it could become a standard at high school graduations.
But with Newman, who plays Saturday and Sunday at the Coach House, seems is an awfully big word. Newman is pop music’s preeminent satirist, and that means his songs are seldom, if ever, as they seem.
So it’s not easy to tell what Newman is up to in “Follow the Flag,” the seemingly earnest hymn from his most recent album, “Land of Dreams.” The song--like half the Bruce Springsteen songbook--is an ode to dreamers, and what could be satiric about that? Its speaker cherishes a sense of community and belonging as he envisions people going forth to “follow the flag"--to pursue a patriotic ideal, or any other lofty goal that a “flag” might symbolize. “If you can believe in something bigger than yourself/You can follow the flag forever,” Newman sings in a plain, humble voice that betrays no sarcastic intent.
It’s only in the songs that surround “Follow the Flag” on “Land of Dreams” that Newman’s intention becomes clear. The album is made up of a series of cycles in which dreams are hatched, only to be dashed in harsh awakenings.
“It’s a blue blue morning, a blue blue day/All your bad dreams drift away,” Newman sings in “New Orleans Wins the War,” a sweetly idyllic, semi-autobiographical song about his toddler days in New Orleans. A moment later, in “Four Eyes,” harrowing, percussive blasts of sound explode the dream as the song recounts young Randy’s rude expulsion from the cocoon of babyhood into an all-too-real, school-days world of parental demands and classmates’ cruelty.
In the album’s context, the ideals of “Follow the Flag” are just one more pathetic pipe dream. No sooner does the innocent hymn end, than Newman cranks up his half-mocking, half-lamenting account of society’s real ideals: “It’s Money That Matters.” Not a song that you would care to have high school kids sing as they get their diplomas, even if it’s what they might indeed be thinking.
For Newman, the hidden and delayed ironic punch of “Follow The Flag” is a way of keeping his songwriting fresh after so many years of writing satires that strike with a quick, sharp bite.
“A song like ‘Follow the Flag’ is very close (to being straightforward),” Newman said in a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Portland. “There’s almost no hint that I think the guy (in the song) is dumb. Yet I don’t believe much of what he’s saying. I thought of putting a coda on the song (to make its irony more evident), but I didn’t. It’s close to the line, which I may do more of in the future.”
The autobiographical element that crops up in the opening, childhood-days sequence of “Land of Dreams” marks another new approach for Newman, whose previous work usually found the singer donning one assumed persona after another. And one further change could be in the offing: “I’ve never written songs where the singer in the song is intelligent,” meaning, presumably, that the persona would be too smart to fall into the ironic traps that Newman perpetually digs for his characters. “I don’t know what intelligent people would say in songs, but I’d like to try it.”
At 44, Newman said, he is conscious of the need to keep experimenting to avoid staleness.
“There is some evidence that this is a young person’s business. A lot of (songwriters) aren’t getting better--they’re getting worse. I want to be at least as good as I was in the past, and I certainly don’t want to get any worse. If I didn’t think I was doing at least as well, I’d do something else.”
Through nine albums, plus the film score he wrote for “Ragtime,” Newman has become one of the most acclaimed songwriters in pop. Other songwriters often cite him as a favorite for nuanced songs that can be funny, bitter, and warmly humane--sometimes all within the same number.
While such excellence has had its rewards, Newman is quick to note that mass appeal isn’t one of them. He remains a cult figure whose husky, drawling delivery and frequently acerbic stance make him an artist too demanding for audiences not willing to invest their intelligence and imagination in listening to music.
“If the world were made up of songwriters, I’d be Phil Collins,” Newman said, with more humor than bitterness in his voice. “In England, Mark Knopfler (the Dire Straits leader who produced and performed on most of the songs on ‘Land of Dreams’) wanted me to be successful so badly that he did this British Music Awards thing with me on TV. It was like charity. It was his Amnesty tour.”
This star endorsement and television exposure didn’t help much, Newman said. “I sell more albums in Belgium than in England.”
While his persistent use of irony and satire may limit Newman’s sales, he doesn’t think his indirect method has kept his ideas and values from being properly understood.
“Maybe I don’t take this medium seriously enough to express a direct emotion,” said Newman, whose craftsmanship attests to a serious-enough regard for his art. “But I think you can tell what I think about things as clearly or more clearly than any songwriter you could name.”
In some of his darker, dagger-pointed songs, one gets the impression that Newman--like such great literary satirists as Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain--doesn’t have a particularly high opinion of the human enterprise.
Newman said he tries to be careful not to fall into cynicism. Ultimately, like Swift and Twain, Newman rises above cynicism by endorsing, however indirectly, feelings and values that cherish the good in man, even as his songs mock or lacerate the bad.
“The only song that really bothers me in retrospect is ‘The Blues’ (from his 1983 album, ‘Trouble in Paradise’), where I sort of made fun of a kid who finds solace in music. I think about it all the time: ‘Are you being just a crusty, misanthropic type?'--which I’ve always hated. I always think that the people in the audience are better than the people I’m singing about. I know they are.”
If Newman has stayed clear of cynicism, he has been less successful in overcoming a tendency to procrastinate. “Land of Dreams” arrived 5 years after Newman’s previous album, “Born Again.” A 2 1/2-year struggle with Epstein-Barr syndrome, an illness that causes severe, lingering fatigue, prolonged the delay.
“I wish I could have five more albums out,” Newman said. “Ten albums in 20 years doesn’t make me happy. I admire someone like Elton John, who can turn out a good deal of work. Or Johnny Williams, who can turn out a (movie score) in 6 weeks and then do another one. I have bad work habits and not enough of the old American work ethic. I spend my life wondering where the time goes--reading, playing basketball, playing with the kids, watching television.”
Randy Newman plays Saturday and Sunday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets are $32.50 and are available only for the 10:30 p.m. show on Sunday. Information: (714) 496-8930.