If today’s pressure for politically correct speech had been in effect 15 or 20 years ago, Randy Newman might have been shouted down before he got the chance to emerge as one of the most respected songwriters in pop music.
Nowadays, mouthing a derogatory term is enough to get a student kicked out of some universities. One wonders what the certifiers of what’s proper and what’s offensive would make of an index of selected lines from Newman’s catalogue.
“Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show/With some smart-ass New York Jew.” (from “Rednecks,” 1974 ).
“They’re gatherin’ ‘em up from miles around/Keepin’ the niggers down.” (also from “Rednecks”).
“Our country . . . found itself endangered . . . by these very gooks who lie here beside you, forever near.” (from “Song for the Dead,” 1983).
“Climb aboard little wog, sail away with me.” (from “Sail Away,” 1972).
“Every night in Jungletown/All the boogies in the street, radios turned up very loud.” (from “Christmas in Capetown,” 1983).
“Short people got no reason to live.” (from “Short People,” 1977).
Ugly words, without a doubt. But anyone willing to regard words as more than red flags for outrage knows that context is all. Newman’s context is satire, in which the words he feeds his bigoted characters become the plastique for their own moral demolition. By getting down in the very mud of racism, Newman has been able to show just how dirty it is.
At the same time, he isn’t willing to turn his benighted targets into weightless stick figures that can be flicked away with a casual wave of the hand. Their wrongs are glaring, but Newman gives them strong characterizations, and lets them state their case vividly. Racism isn’t trivial, so why should racists be characterized that way?
“Sail Away” is presented as a swelling, patriotic hymn to the glories of America. The slave trader who delivers it has convinced himself that he’s doing his chattel a favor by bringing them in chains to such a noble land. Change the scenario just a tad, and “Sail Away” would become an ode to the American immigrant dream. The underlying lesson: Racism will always garb itself with a supposedly higher purpose that can make it seductive to those who don’t already have strong moral defenses in place.
The white South African in “Christmas in Capetown” isn’t about to denounce apartheid, but he experiences a chill of recognition and foreboding in which he sees a violent pay-back looming for a historic wrong. Though he’s a blatant racist, the song’s speaker is given the capacity to think and understand--but not to shake the pull of his ingrained bigotry.
In “Rednecks,” a concept album about the white South, Newman, who spent his early childhood in Louisiana, accords warmth and respect to some aspects of the Southern character--racial attitudes not included.
Outrage and pain are the satirist’s fuel, and Newman tends to paint the world as a cruel, indifferent place, even when bigotry has been removed from the picture (in “God’s Song,” Newman portrays the deity as a contemptuous master who sees no reason to heed or bless anything as puny and corrupt as humankind).
Newman’s satire doesn’t announce itself with obvious venom. His piano accompaniments, tinted with R & B, ragtime, and lush, old-time film score airs, are often sunny. He frequently delivers pointed, bitter subtexts in a drawling, crustily conversational voice that on its surface is full of unassuming good-nature.
It’s a subtle approach that hasn’t reaped huge commercial rewards for Newman since his 1968 debut. A handful of his songs have found their way into general circulation. “Short People,” a bouncy novelty, was a No. 2 hit. “I Love L.A.” was an ambivalent anthem that combined affection for Newman’s hometown with a poke at the sort of civic boosterism the song embodies. “Mama Told Me Not to Come” was a hit for Three Dog Night; “Guilty” has been a staple of Bonnie Raitt’s repertoire, and “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” Newman’s odd tale of sexual need and fetishism, gets a big reception when Joe Cocker sings it in concert.
Newman hasn’t been prolific: his 24-year output stands at eight albums of original studio material, plus a live album and film soundtracks for “Ragtime” and “The Natural” (he did move with uncharacteristic speed early this year when he rushed out a song called “Lines in the Sand,” a protest of the Persian Gulf War).
For all the soured views in his songs, Newman said in a 1989 Times interview that he tries to see humanity in a more hopeful light.
“I think about it all the time: ‘Are you being just a crusty, misanthropic type?'--which (is something) 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.”
Who: Randy Newman.
When: Friday, Nov. 1, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.
Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit. Left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza.
Where to Call: (714) 496-8930.