He’s back in the saddle
Randy NEWMAN strolled along the wooden planks of the Santa Monica Pier on a recent summer afternoon, a balmy ocean breeze rustling his short, curly hair that, at age 64, is mostly salt but retains a dash of pepper. A crowd of onlookers craned their necks in his direction, some with video cameras, others with cellphone cameras, but a female security guard quickly waved them back.
In a just universe, this small throng would have been jockeying to celebrate the unique place Newman holds in contemporary pop music -- anxious hordes looking to pump him for details about “Harps and Angels,” the long-overdue album he’s releasing on Tuesday. Instead, the teens and twentysomethings looked right past one of the most respected songwriters of his generation to where Miley Cyrus was filming in front of the pier’s roller coaster and Ferris wheel.
“Maybe,” he said with characteristically deadpan delivery, “they think I’m Hannah Montana.”
Newman long ago came to terms with the fact that he and the masses wouldn’t be spending much time together, choosing instead to concentrate on creating a compelling and varied body of work that has spanned some 40 years and a number of different venues. He’s spent most of this decade being introduced as “Academy Award-winning composer Randy Newman” thanks to his Oscar win for the song “If I Didn’t Have You” from 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” He’s crafted more than a dozen film scores in all and even penned an autobiographical musical revue, “The Education of Randy Newman.”
Each of Newman’s albums has practically constituted a one-man reunion, because they’ve been relatively few and far between. Despite the long gaps between studio releases -- there have been just three in the last 20 years -- Newman has plumbed the depths and shallows of the American psyche with greater consistency than perhaps any of his contemporaries, certainly with more precise musical acumen and lyrical illumination.
He’s peeled back the curtain on stalkers (“Suzanne”), child murderers (“In Germany Before the War”), alcoholics (“Marie”), materialism (“It’s Money That I Love "), American chauvinism (“Sail Away”) and bigots and hypocrites (“Rednecks”). He’s often done so by inhabiting a range of characters, from a son who’s emotionally isolated from his father in “Old Man” to a hapless groom in “Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father.”
His songs have been a lightning rod for controversy, from “Short People” -- “It’s not a bad song,” he says, 30-plus years later, “it’s just a bad song to have a hit with” -- to the new “Korean Parents,” which has ignited heated debate for its pointed take on why Korean students excel academically.
“It’s never quite what you think it is,” said Lenny Waronker, who produced or co-produced most of Newman’s albums, including “Harps and Angels,” of the meaning of the songwriter’s lyrics. “He always takes a broader view. For a man who writes so few words, for them to have so many layers in a song, it’s amazing.”
A bit farther down the pier, Newman stopped in front of a street musician tapping out a steel-drum rendition of Grover Washington Jr.'s 1981 hit “Just the Two of Us.” He pulled a bill from his pocket, dropped it in the tip jar. “A superstition,” Newman explained before being asked. “It ain’t that great a distance,” he added with a chuckle. “It turns out to be a tough thing to make a living out of music.”
In addition to a distinctive musical vocabulary that’s part Stephen Foster, part Gershwin, part Professor Longhair, Newman’s signature is songs in which the narrator’s objectivity and honesty are suspect. “I love that in literature,” he said. “What people choose to lie about tells you a great deal about them.”
But since 1988’s “Land of Dreams,” a set of autobiographical songs about his childhood in Los Angeles and the years when his family moved to be with his mother’s relatives in New Orleans, he has ventured into more directly personal territory. He considers “Harps and Angels” the best record he’s made. Admittedly, every musician tends to make that observation about a new recording, but given Newman’s penchant for self-critique, the statement carries weight.
“There’s a school that says, ‘It doesn’t matter if people love it or hate it, as long as they have a strong reaction,’ ” Newman said over a dish of cold salmon at an Italian restaurant across from the pier. “That’s not me. I want people to like my stuff.”
Another shock: Newman confessed that he was on the verge of tears when he won his Oscar after 15 previous nominations.
“As a measure of worth, it means nothing,” Newman said. “But when I went out on stage to get it, and I saw the members of the orchestra standing and applauding, I really started to lose it. I was choking up, and I thought, ‘You’re not going to cry! Not now!’ Somehow I managed to keep it together. But all my life I’ve wanted the respect of people like that, and when I saw those musicians standing up, I found it meant far more to me than I ever thought it would.”
The YEARNING runs deep for Newman, who often visited Hollywood soundstages as a young boy to watch his composer uncles at work: Alfred Newman won nine Academy Awards for his film music, Lionel Newman won one and Emil Newman received a nomination for his score for 1941’s “Sun Valley Serenade.”
“There weren’t any [isolation] booths then,” Newman recalled, “they were all there on the stage. It was an amazing thing to hear.”
The sound stuck so close to him that when he put out his first album in 1968, rather than relying on the rock-band configuration that was de rigueur at that time, he wrapped his songs in lush orchestrations penned by the young singer-songwriter himself.
“Van Dyke Parks and I belong to another branch of rock ‘n’ roll, a different path rock ‘n’ roll might have taken, but, of course, didn’t,” he said. As he trenchantly noted, a nebbishy-looking guy in horn-rimmed glasses seated at a piano is never going to replace a Mick Jagger prowling the stage.
To this day, musical arrangements mean as much to Newman as his songs themselves.
“I was pretty good when I did the first album, but I’m better now,” he said. “I’ve been telling people this is the best record I’ve ever made, so I listened to everything very closely to make sure I believe that.”
There are the swelling woodwinds of “Harps and Angels” that illuminate the dire physical straits he describes at the outset of the song: “First my knees begin to tremble/And my heart begins to pound.”
Tootling piccolos and chirping birdcalls flesh out “Laugh and Be Happy,” a quintessential Newman take on immigration in which the apparent object of his cheerful advice turns on a dime midway through the song, from beleaguered American workers to the immigrants so many of those workers now view with suspicion or derision.
And there’s the hyper-American violins and aching country steel guitar at work behind “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” a singspiel gem that strikes at the shortcomings he finds at the apex of the American political landscape: “Now the leaders we have, while they’re the worst that we’ve had, are hardly the worst this poor world has ever seen.”
He takes a moment to slice and dice the nation’s highest court:
You know it pisses me off a little
That this Supreme Court is gonna outlive me
A couple of young Italian fellas and a brother on the Court now too
But I defy you, anywhere in the world
To find me two Italians as tight-ass as the two Italians we got
And as for the brother
Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore either
At the song’s conclusion, he signals the end of an empire, closing with a single word sung three times: “Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.”
“There are things going on in our country that are far too important [to be left] for someone in show business to talk about,” Newman said.
Not that he’s likely to start getting heady about his place in that world. In fact, his own daughter -- one of two children with his second wife, Gretchen -- made that clear a few years ago when they left the family residence in Pacific Palisades for a night out.
“I don’t embarrass easily,” he said, “but we went to a restaurant, and I like to sit with my back to [the other people in] the restaurant. We got there, and she sat in that chair, so my wife told her, ‘Daddy likes to sit in that chair.’ She gave this look and said, ‘Oh, Daddy, you’re not that famous.’”
So he returns the favor in “Potholes,” one of the many highlights of “Harps and Angels,” a portrait of a man in what used to be called “the golden years.”
I love women, have all my life
Love my dear mother,
I love my wife -- God bless her
Even love my teenage daughter
No accounting for it
Apparently I don’t care how I’m treated
My love is unconditional or something
He voices his skepticism at the notion of “the fairer sex -- fair about what?” then recounts an earlier humiliation when he brought Gretchen to meet the family. It leads into the song’s refrain “God bless the potholes, down on Memory Lane” -- to which he adds “I hope some real big ones open up/And take some of the memories that do remain.”
“It’s the first song I’ve ever done,” said Newman, “that’s absolutely true.”