Land of Native Dreams

Randy Newman's life is good

The latest lesson in the education of RANDY NEWMAN is that quality doesn't necessarily count for a lot in the contemporary music scene anymore. Newman, one of America's truly great singer/songwriters, had high hopes when his album Bad Love was released last summer. Both musically and lyrically, it was the equal of-and perhaps better than-anything he had produced in his long career, and Newman was keenly aware of that fact. Upon its release, he expressed to me a hopelessly naive optimism that he might have a hit on his hands, apparently blissfully ignorant of the prefab, youth-obsessed nature of the modern pop landscape. It had been 10 long years since Newman's last album, Land of Dreams, had surfaced, as he had busied himself scoring films (notably Disney's Toy Story movies) and undertaking other outside projects. And so, mustering every ounce of smug, cruel cynicism within me, I told Newman that Bad Love had about as much chance of becoming a hit as there was of Bob Dornan switching allegiances to the Green Party.

"Well, you were right," he admits a year later. This was one of the few times in my life when I didn't relish the opportunity to emit an "I told you so!" or three and throw in a couple of nyah-nyahs for good measure. Randy Newman, you see, is one of my heroes; I admit this freely and proudly. "I hadn't listened to the radio, and I had no idea what were hits anymore," Newman says. "We sold about 60,000 copies here, which is nothing, and maybe 130,000 or 140,000 overseas. It was a disappointment to me. And I always have wanted it to be and believed it was possible, even in a deluded way, for me to sell lots of records. It doesn't seem that hard to me. But I sort of understand that I don't have hooks and I don't always rock steady. I write more conventionally. The most likely place I am to have a hit is with a Disney thing. You know, you're not gonna say 'shit, piss, fart, fuck' in a Disney song."

Newman's disappointment is America's loss. In all its black wit, keen literacy and sheer musicality, Bad Love was among the very finest pop albums of the '90s-something akin to an alliance between Irving Berlin and Robert Crumb. The reasons for its failure to gain a wider audience have as much to do with the facts that Newman is a physically less-than-attractive 56-year-old and that-unlike many of the all-too-ready-to-compromise veteran artists of his generation-Newman (and producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake) made no concessions whatsoever to hip-hop, alterna-rock or any other contemporary crapola when recording the album. Bad Love was unsoiled by anything trendy or pandering-"classic rock" in the best sense of the term.

The Crumb-Berlin analogy is the best I can offer, as Newman and Crumb may well be the world's two greatest living social satirists. Both base their styles, in large part, on the works of early 20th-century masters-Crumb on such cartoonists as Elzie Segar and George McManus, Newman on composers such as Berlin and Scott Joplin. For their bitter sarcasm and gleeful lack of political correctness, both have been branded racists, misogynists, misanthropes and perverts at one time or another by morality watchdogs on both the Left and the Right. In Newman's case, much of the controversy has come from the fact that he frequently uses a first-person vantage point as a songwriting vehicle for the characters he creates. The more feeble-minded among us then simply assume that the outrageous bigotry espoused in "Short People," "Rednecks" and "Christmas in Capetown"; the hedonistic vainglory of "My Life Is Good"; and, more recently, the embarrassing pedo-perversion of "Shame" are Newman singing in character, rather than of character.

"I find it interesting to lay a guy out there-defects and all-and let him make the best case for himself that he can make," laughs Newman. "Maybe I'm incapable of making a direct statement using myself as a romantic figure and writing a 'Mandy' or an 'Every Breath You Take.' I don't see myself that way. It's somehow an exalted thing to be talking about your love to the American people. I'm more interested in people who aren't heroes."

Bad Love is a somewhat thematic album, full of what Newman calls "froggish old men" leering and obsessing over nubile young women. "There's just something really amusing to me in seeing a 50-year-old on the hook to some 22-year-old," he says. "She's blowing smoke in his face and he's glistening with interest about whether she should buy these new shoes. 'Oh yes, that's very interesting!' No one is immune. You can't have so much money and you can't be so intelligent that you're immune to it. There's just something very funny about it to me."

Where the obsessions of Crumb and Newman differ most is that Newman is in no way a hostile old coot harboring resentment for youth culture, which Crumb is widely noted for. In fact, Newman keeps his ears wide open and is a fan of the "artist" who perhaps today personifies Youth Culture Gone Wrong more than any other in the eyes of boomers.

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