If I had Randy Newman's dough, juice and talent, I would spend my days in my secluded mansion, counting money, polishing my Oscar and trying to figure out how to suck my own dick. But Newman is different and is in town this week; we should all count ourselves fortunate.
Perhaps the finest figure to emerge from the singer-songwriter genre, Newman has mostly given up on pop music to concentrate on the more financially rewarding, less ego-deflating world of film composition (60-year-old men who resemble barking tree frogs and write songs about having to sit down to piss tend to sell units in far less impressive numbers than a guy like, say, 50 Cent). Hey, he even snagged an Academy Award for the song "If I Didn't Have You" from Monsters, Inc. last year. That's to go along with the 15 nominations he's earned for Best Original Song and/or Best Score in the past, so one can hardly fault Newman for slacking off on making Randy Newman albums.
But, see, the beauty of Randy Newman is that when he does get off his ass and record a proper album once every decade or so, bet the mortgage that it'll be a goddamned masterpiece. In fact, Newman is much more than a pop music artist; along with Robert Crumb, to whom he bears much visionary comparison, he's the finest social satirist to come along in the last hundred years or so. It takes tremendous self-loathing to attain a status of this magnitude, but more than that, it requires an excruciating bitterness toward all of humanity. And Newman, bless his black heart, hates us deeply, one and all. That he hates us with such devoted passion, wit and intellect makes this barking tree frog more of a shining prince, even if he didn't get there via the wagging tongue of any virgin princess—a fact that seems to bolster his litany of social resentments all the more, and which makes me hope he never gets laid again as long as he lives. The dead-on desperation and vengeful horniness of songs like "Shame" and "My Life Is Good," for example, would be unthinkable if Newman didn't completely understand his character's fears and resentments, even as he's horrified by them.
When Newman plunges his gnarled, hairy fingers into the American psyche and squishes them about in a blind but tactile search for malignancies to examine, he emerges with throbbing tumors possessed of breathtaking ugliness. His best work is written first-person, in character, but one can easily imagine him sweating late into the night, fretting over how much of his own diseased soul has been infused into his creations. Those creations reflect such nasty business as greed, lust, incest, megalomania, gluttony, racism, envy, vainglory, rage, sloth and decrepitude, a physical and spiritual repulsiveness running well beyond the seven deadly sins.
Plunging headlong into this sordid subject matter has caused Newman much grief and comic error over the years, particularly from politically correct media-watchdog types who continue to moronically misinterpret his work, taking his rants at face value rather than understanding them as wicked observation/commentary. It started back in the '70s, when his hit "Short People"—an obvious tale of bigotry—became the most widely misconstrued pop song to hit the charts until Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." was adopted as a Republican anthem. But "Short People" was a gentle spoof by Newman's standards: for example, his use of the dreaded N word in such songs as "Rednecks" and "Christmas in Capetown" had armchair liberals throughout the country calling for his immediate assignment to a re-education camp. "That word is so bad, so hateful, it draws such strong reaction, that there is no other word I could have possibly used to convey where these characters are coming from, what drives them," Newman once explained to me—and, of course, it's true. Did apartheidniks convene around their dinner tables bemoaning the uppity "Native South Africans"? No, no: Newman's songs are effective precisely because he writes dialogue in the vernacular of his protagonists.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
But the brilliance of Newman's lyrical insight wouldn't work nearly so well were it not matched by his equally luminous gifts as a songwriter; this man's best compositions are on a par with the work of immortals such as Berlin and Gershwin. Newman was poised from the time he was a boy to absorb and adopt the greatest elements of America's musical majesty, from his New Orleans upbringing and early exposure to that city's grand traditions to the influence of his uncles, Lionel and Alfred Newman, both noted film composers. In Newman's music, one readily detects the sweeping sway of ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, R&B, jazz, swing, country and pop; that he seems to have a natural instinct for exactly how to employ these styles to best convey the drives of his characters is another talent in and of itself. The grandiose synth washes of "My Life Is Good" perfectly match the narrator's overblown sense of self-importance; the sexual tension of "You Can Leave Your Hat On" is grandly abetted by Newman's relentlessly droning piano figures; the dark impulses of the lecherous old pig in "Shame" are exquisitely suggested by the descending minor-chord progression.
Newman's voice is an ugly, croaking instrument but oddly soulful all the same, as if Ray Charles one day woke up to find himself a portly white guy with gastric reflux and a sore throat. Those eccentric pipes are consummately suited to impart Newman's psychological profiles of the disenfranchised. Then there's his piano playing; equally informed by Scott Joplin, Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael and Gershwin himself. If you can't get past Newman's voice or are offended by his subjects, simply tune into his wonderfully stylish and melodic work on the 88s and regale yourself with his woefully underrated musicianship. Froggy boasts the complete package.
It has been four interminable years since Newman's last album, the classic Bad Love, was released. Enduring the wait for his next non-movie effort is more frustrating than marking time until the next season of The Sopranos hits the airwaves; meanwhile, satisfy your jones when Newman plays the Cerritos Center on Friday night.
Randy Newman performs at Cerritos Center, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos, Fri., 8 p.m. (800) 300-4345. $25-$60.