Randy Newman and the Great Debate

Randy_bio_s-550x360“The ‘Toy Story’ guy wrote a song about Putin.”

That popped up on social media recently about Randy Newman.

If your career in the spotlight lasts long enough, you become different things to different generations. Joe DiMaggio becomes “Mr. Coffee” not “The Yankee Clipper.” LL Cool J becomes Sam Hanna, that guy on NCIS, not a trailblazing rapper. Journey becomes a schlock rock arena act not a psychedelic jazz fusion San Francisco band of former Santana members.

It’s been nearly 50 years since Newman released his first album so it’s natural he’s different things to listeners. He’s the guy who first wrote hits for Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, The O’Jays and eventually Three Dog Night (“Mama Told Me Not to Come”) and Joe Cocker (“You Can Leave Your Hat On”).

He’s been the guy who angered everyone with songs like “Political Science” about dropping the big one, “Rednecks” that tackles both southern and northern racism and “Short People” about a disturbed guy with an extreme prejudice against the vertically-challenged with the line that “short people got no reason to live.” With songs that evoke Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin, he’s earned a chapter in the Great American Songbook, albeit the one featuring satire and the wittiest wordplay.

His first new album in nine years, “Dark Matter,” was released in early August. It was an occasion because it’s only his tenth since his debut in 1968.

The opening track, “The Great Debate,” is an eight-minute suite about science and religious faith told from different points of view. There’s “Putin,” a goof on the Russian leader he began before the campaign controversies.

“When he takes his shirt off, he drives the ladies crazy,” Newman sings. “When he takes his shirt off, makes me wanna be a lady.”

He also confesses he’s written a song about Donald Trump that focuses on a part of his anatomy, but says he doesn’t want to release it and add to the vulgarity of the national debate.


“Randy Newman is a national treasure,” Don Henley of The Eagles told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s also probably the most misunderstood and underappreciated recording artist alive.

“He’s one of the only living songwriters who can get ridicule and empathy into the same song. Sometimes, he works in the realm of irony; other times, he’s a heart-on-his-sleeve romantic,” he said. “The combination of his lyrical genius and his deep ability as an orchestrator and composer is powerful stuff. There’s nobody quite like him.

“I said when I inducted Randy into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame [in 2013], that what you hear in his music is America, in all its shame and all its glory…. He mines so many rich veins of American musical culture and synthesizes them in a way that nobody else has done.”

Newman has always written from the point of view of characters, not much about himself. But he knows his way around an interview. Here is Newman in his own words over the years. He was not available for an interview before his show on Sept. 13 at The Sandler Center for Performing Arts in Virginia Beach.

About his Putin song:

“I don’t think I set out to write a song about Putin but I’ll tell you, another thing that inspired it, there’s an old song in the ‘40s, by the Golden Gate Quartet, a gospel song called “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’ when he fought the beast of Berlin.” About Hitler and Stalin. And I love it, that song. So I think “Stalin Stallin’” is what really pointed the direction to me. “Putin putting his pants on. Stalin wasn’t stallin’.”

About the difficulty of writing:

“It’s been murderous for me in some ways. I never liked writing. If you read back in interviews there’s whining and complaining. You’d think I was threading pipe for a living, rather than working in a nice room, you know? Songwriting time when you’re not thinking of anything is really slow time. I mean it’s like school, you know, where I was going “Oh, I know it’s 10:00 but I’ll guess it’s 9:30,” and it’ll be like 9:15 (laughs). And it’s because I come to the table with nothing. I sit at the piano and I’ve got nothing in my head, not a goddamn thing.”

About writing in character:

“I’ve said a number of times that songwriters ought to have the same latitude as short-story writers, where it doesn’t have to be some kind of personal or confessional thing. I was always more interested in the less-than-heroic mode. In so many songs, in one way or another, the singer is the hero of the piece … [For instance,] his heart is broken all over the place, and it’s noisy. No matter what it is, it interests me less than writing about people who are a little off in some way. And that’s not the norm.”

You can do it. When I first began writing this way, with characters in it, I always wondered why more people didn’t do it. And I think maybe it’s because it’s not a great idea for the medium [of pop music]. Maybe it’s meant to be a direct I-love-you, you-love-me kind of medium.
But you can do this other stuff and it comes off. And I have such an affection for comedy, that I like to laugh and I like to make people laugh, so I do it.”

About writing dark songs:

I have to be careful. I have to watch that my stuff doesn’t seem like I’m sneering all the time. What helps is that I’m actually not that cynical. I’ve got a song on this record, “It’s a Jungle Out There.” And I don’t think that; I don’t think it’s a jungle out there. I don’t think things are that bad. I think they’re very bad politically, but not otherwise.

About the difference between heartbreaking songs and satirical songs:

The comedy ones are harder, because you have to keep the comedy going. There are jokes in the front of it and a joke in the middle and then you have to have a funny finish. I remember once — God, I’m turning into John Prine, an old storyteller — but I remember going to hear a symphony. It was either Mahler or Shostakovich. It ended [hums quietly] bum, bum, bum-bum. I saw it with an orchestrator, and after that ending he said, “you always have to end with a ta-da!” This is a guy who named his boat Ta-Da. But that’s the thing: You have to find endings for the comedy songs in a way that you don’t for the other ones. It’s hard. I don’t know why I do it. Songwriting is not a medium that’s used much for laughter. Even fans of mine: I think they like it best when I do straight ballads like “Feels Like Home” or “She Chose Me” on the new album. But that’s not what I like best.

About writing on assignment for the movies:

“Well, “You’ve Got a Friend” is not a song that I would have written on my own, unless I were a used-car salesman or something. But I can do that. If you tell me to write a song about a monkey who falls in love with a goat, I could do it. And I’m proud that I could do it. It’s not like I’m selling out or anything. I can write to an assignment, and it’s the thing I’m most confident that I’m able to do well.”

About his long career:

“Yeah, I suppose it’s a significant kind of career I’ve had. What I’m most pleased about is that there’s no particular decline. The songs I wrote 40 years ago are no worse and no better – there’s a consistency. It’s clear they are by the same guy. I’m a little better in some aspects, but basically my style crystallized a long time ago and that’s what I’ve done.”
I was talking one time to Paul McCartney on the phone – he called me to do something for [Welsh folk singer] Mary Hopkin – and I was saying, ‘I’m trying to write… Jesus, it’s a drag.’ I was complaining as I am to you. And he says, ‘Well, you really don’t have that much to live up to anyway, do you?’ I replied, all meek and mild, ‘Oh yeah, I guess not’, but I was thinking, ‘Who’re you, shithead?’ I never forgot it.”

About what makes him optimistic:

“People as individuals. In general, I’ve found that if you sit next to somebody and start talking they’ll be pretty good. I’ve had no reason to feel differently.”

About whether he thinks about his legacy:

“No. I only know that if my obituary doesn’t start with something like “Newman broke a hip in January” it’ll start with “the composer of ‘Short People.’” That’s the way it goes.”




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