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Randy Newman on quarantine: ‘If I want to take 20 minutes to tie my shoes, I can’

Randy Newman
Randy Newman at his home in Pacific Palisades in 2017: “I got a television in the bathroom years ago. Maybe it was a mistake.”
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

At some point during the COVID-19 lockdown, those of us with kids have likely spent time with the music of native Angeleno Randy Newman. Known to a recent generation of parents as the gruff voice behind the warm, fuzzy song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Pixar’s “Toy Story,” along with compositions from dozens of other movies, Newman, 76, has spent his songwriting life pondering the human condition.

Across five decades, 11 studio albums and two dozen film scores, he’s famously sung about exploring Los Angeles in “I Love L.A.” and the relative uselessness of the less-statured (“Short People”). He’s written about urban poverty (“Baltimore”), great floods (“Louisiana 1927”) and grace under pressure. “Human kindness is overflowing,” he sings on “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.”

He’s spoken truth to power during national crises: His 1974 song “Mr. President, Have Pity on the Working Man” is a direct shot at then-President Nixon, but it could have been written about the pandemic: “Too late to run / Too late to cry now / The time has come for us to say goodbye now / Mr. President, have pity on the working man.”

Newman spoke with The Times last week, one day after President Trump said in a news conference that the United States should prepare for 100,000 to 240,000 deaths from COVID-19. Answering the landline of the home he shares with his wife, Gretchen, Newman was thanked for taking the time to chat.

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“Are you kidding? I’ve got plenty of it,” he said amiably.

Where are you right now?
I’m in the kitchen of my house in Pacific Palisades.

How’s your time going in quarantine?
When everybody comes out [of the safer-at-home order], it’ll be divorce court. I can hear it in people’s voices. They go, “Oh, it’s all right,” and it’s often relationship trouble. It’s really, really hard. I mean, you have to treat it like a long-distance race rather than a sprint. You gotta let stuff go, and some people can’t do it.

What’s been a typical day for you since this started? Have you developed any new rituals?
In sort of a slothful way. I collapse into each day. One thing about it is there’s no rush for anything. If I want to take 20 minutes to tie my shoes, I can do it. At some point after getting up and having breakfast, I’ll go in a room where there’s a piano, a television and a CD player, and do one or the other. Or read. I hit a massive groove with these books I’m reading.

What books?
Circe” is really good. It’s about the gods, in a casual kind of way. There’s a book about the correspondent with the eye patch who got killed [“In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin” by Lindsey Hilsum]. The other is a book called “The Club” about [James] Boswell, [Samuel] Johnson, [Richard] Sheridan and all those people in London in that period.

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Randy Newman
Randy Newman in the early 1980s.
(Los Angeles Times)

How’s your creativity flowing? Working on any long-simmering projects?
Well, I did a public service announcement for NPR to say don’t touch your face and stay 6 feet away, but I wrote a little song instead. I think I’ll record that today and send it to them.

Are you well-stocked on paper towels and toilet paper?
Yeah, we didn’t have to import it from England, God help us. My wife is doing everything and I’m doing nothing. I asked her — I said, “Let me do something. Tell me something to do.” But apparently she thinks, and with good reason, that I’m incompetent. She’s really working hard. It’s too bad. I lie there and watch her. It’s inspiring.

What’s your biggest fear right now?
That my kids — I’ve got five children — or my wife will get sick. That’s an easy one. [Pauses.] You know, there’s a lot of funny stuff that people have done. Did you see that guy who did a parody of the Adele song “Hello”? It’s funny.

What’s the first thing you’ll do when the isolation order is relaxed?
I was just thinking about that. Have a family party. I haven’t told my wife about that. She’ll have to do everything, because nobody in my family is competent.

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Have you been binge-watched anything?
Yeah, embarrassingly enough. I watched some Harry Potter movies, partly because of the score and the music. I’ve been watching the greatest baseball games of all time. People have told me about “Tiger King” and “Schitt’s Creek.” I saw three episodes of “Schitt’s Creek.” Very funny.

You mentioned the CD player. Do you regularly listen to music?
I’m a regular listener of classical stuff. And I’ve been listening every day. Usually I don’t. It’s amazing how many musicians aren’t regular listeners.

Any recommendations?
Yeah, I’d recommend the Haydn “Sturm und Drang” symphonies. They’re kind of silly, but they are the work of a genius. Beethoven’s string quartets are phenomenal. Toscanini, sometimes the quality is bad, but they’re great versions of the Beethoven symphonies. But it’s hard for me sometimes to turn the television off. I mean, I got a television in the bathroom years ago and maybe it was a mistake. I’m just standing there watching.

We’ve been watching the cable news channels, and the reports are really hard to take.
Us too. Well, we watch the news that agrees with us: MSNBC. [Pauses] This is really, really strange. I never imagined anything like this was going to happen. And yesterday with the hard numbers, even from that idiot [Trump], was scariest of all. I thought maybe we’d get away with it because we’re doing social distancing — that it wouldn’t be so terrible. But it is gonna be terrible, and it’s gonna start right now.

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This is a long story for a very small point, but I was in Mississippi like five years ago and I was talking to a guy who worked at the hall where I was playing. He seemed like a straight-ahead liberal sort of fellow from Mississippi, and I was talking about Obamacare — why Mississippi wasn’t jumping all over it. If you don’t have insurance, you had a chance to get it. Why wouldn’t you take it?

I asked him, and he said, “Well, we don’t like being told what to do.” And that’s the whole frontier bull— in this country. It’s hard for me to do what [this president] says, but this is fairly clear: Wash your hands, don’t touch your face and stay inside.


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