Randy Newman recounts how, after a triumphant concert at the Universal Amphitheater in LA, when he received a long standing ovation, his father came backstage to see him. “Did you have a cold tonight?” Newman senior asked.
It’s a revealing anecdote, revealing Randy’s self-defeating irony and ruthless candor, often self-derision. It also hints at her difficult bond with her father, which seems to have fueled her fascination with family dynamics.
The ironic humor, mockery, and pains of love and family life have been an integral part of the work of Newman, America’s Watcher, political satirist, psychic explorer, and bittersweet walker whom some consider to be the America’s best songwriter.
At 77, suffering from a hip disorder and loss of sensitivity in the fingers of his left hand – a serious handicap for a keyboardist – he is nearing the end of a long and often controversial career.
He has the highly unusual distinction of two Oscars for film scores and an inductee into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Film music was almost family business: three of his uncles composed for Hollywood – one, Alfred Newman, conducted the 20th Century Fox Orchestra for 20 years and won nine Oscars.
Musician musician, he studied harmony and counterpoint, knows how to compose and conduct an orchestra, and counts among his influences Wagner and Stravinsky.
But we feel he’s much happier to be immortalized alongside Ray Charles and Jerry Lee Lewis than as a Hollywood melodist who wrote Disney-Pixar’s âWe Belong Togetherâ (Toy story 3) and “If I didn’t have you” (Monsters Inc).
Newman never had a mass audience, and it is suspected that this is because he does not watch or play the artist. In his youth, he looked too smart, a bit odd and off-putting behind his thick-lensed glasses. His stage presence and his records were too difficult for anyone except a small group of determined enthusiasts.
Now gray haired, about 1.75 m (5 feet 9 inches) a little overweight, slightly crumpled in open collared shirts and suit jackets with unrivaled pants, he looks like someone’s retired uncle. ‘a.
But appearances should not deceive. His most recent album, Black matter, his first in nine years, is as experimental and wickedly in-depth, and in deeply touching places, as anything he’s done.
It covers the same range, from brutal satire to poignant ballads of love and loss, delivered in the same semi-conversational, southerly inflection vocal style and with the same instantly recognizable keyboard harmonies – Dave Brubeck meets Stephen Foster.
His music offers a guided tour of the Great American Songbook, by a singer who spent his summers in New Orleans until the age of 11.
Ray Charles was his star, but there are pinches in the mix of New Orleans jazz, ragtime, country, George Gershwin, soundtracks from the big screen, Broadway musical theater and songs from salon and Foster’s minstrel.
From rock ‘n roll keyboardists like Fats Domino, he has adapted the âshuffleâ piano style, where the melody plays over a repeated pattern in the left hand.
Newman is a militant atheist who says he was brought up in a family devoid of religion – he remembers his father showing sick children in a hospital ward, each in turn, with the words: “It is the will of God ; It is God’s willâ¦ “.
In the song of god, on his brilliant album Sail away, the Supreme Being is portrayed as a heavenly Donald Trump, a psychopath with a narcissistic personality disorder who loves his creatures because they worship him despite the misery he inflicts on them.
“I burn your cities, like you must be blind
I take your children away, you say how blessed we are
You all have to be crazy to trust me
That’s why I love humanity … “
Newman says he first realized he was Jewish when his girlfriend’s father told him he was not welcome at the local country club. His Jewishness is not an explicit concern, but the strong impression is that his songs are colored by the age-old melancholy of the shtetl and the feeling of being a foreigner.
We mock, but also pity, his gallery of misfits and losers – the “famous naked man” in the snatch, the groom whose bride mocks his “mighty sword” …
Black matter picks up the thread of the song On the beach, about a school friend who drops out to become a beach bum. Its playful major key and walking rhythm evoke the sunny languor of LA, and Willie, we hear, never gets old.
But the clouds are gathering. The rescue towers crumble and the 20-foot sets (of waves) they were lying on finally roll. The implicit question is: what happens to beach bums after the age of 50?
A master of ambiguity, Newman rarely confronts his audience head-on and makes extensive use of a Brechtian distancing device he calls the “unreliable narrator.”
It even tints some of his finest words of love. real emotional girl, told by her male friend, at first seems a tender vignette of a woman who wears her heart on her sleeve.
But we learn that she is unhappy – the narrator says he often hears her cry in her sleep. He also spreads the unsavory revelation that “it lights up easily / it’s like a hurricaneâ. It is suggested that due to her need, she is sexually abused.
The inability to read Newman’s irony has undoubtedly been a stumbling block to wider acceptance – or garnered praise for the wrong reasons.
Little People was a rare hit single that also earned her death threats (They stand so low/ You gotta pick them up just to say hello). But all parties were wrong: the vertically challenged senders of hate messages and the liberals who defended it as a plea for tolerance. In fact, it’s a joke on the mad narrator.
Newman leans quite far to the left and in fact presents himself as a Communist in Dark matter eight-minute opening track, The great debate.
But he is more interested in the political sins of appeasement, hypocrisy and greed than in ideology. And he doesn’t hesitate to shoot other musicians who transgress – the song My life, for example, contains a sly nudge to Bruce Springsteen, a proletarian posturist worth an estimated $ 500 million.
Nowhere is Newman’s ironic use of the Third Eye as a distorting lens clearer than in his Grammy-winning parody, on Black matter, by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is intrigued by Putin’s dress-changing rituals – one of the richest and most powerful men in the world has yet to strip for the camera “like Tom Cruise”. (Putin puts on his pants / one leg at a time.. the song begins.)
Presented with four perspectives – the singer himself, Putin, a Putin praise singer, and the âPutin Girlsâ cheerleader – the listener isn’t quite sure where Newman stands.
He admits that during the drafting he feared being too gentle with the Russian leader. Is there a hint of sympathy for Putin as an eccentric, geopolitical foreigner?
His complicated attitude towards the American South, half of the disunited United States and the cradle of his music, but the seat of his racial oppression, is confirmed by his most controversial album, Rednecks.
In the song Louisiana 1927, the Great Mississippi Flood that left 640,000 Southerners of all races homeless becomes a metaphor for the hypocrisy of the North and indifference to the suffering of the South that followed the Civil War.
Louisiana, Louisiana, they try to wash us, conduct the chorus, followed by the bitter irony of the second line:
President Coolidge got off a railroad train
With a little fat man with a notepad in his hand,
The president says little fat, ain’t that a shame
What the river did in the land of that poor cracker.
Newman does not shy away from the legacy of slavery and institutional racism in the South, but approaches it, generally, through a third-person lens. In the song Sail Away, a cartoonish slave recruiter tells Africans: In America you will have food / You will not have to run in the jungle and scratch your feet.
It is with similar brutal honesty that Newman reflects on his father. He hinted Mojo magazine that when George Newman was lying dying in 1990 he thought, “This is how you raised me (not to be sentimental about death) so that’s what you got.”
East Stray boy, the last track on Black matter, is that the saddest and most beautiful thing about her relationship with George? On a sad old-fashioned melody, he tells of a father’s expectation for his long-lost son:
He started off that high plank over there
When he was five
Laugh like crazy
Shining in the sun like gold
He wasn’t afraid of anything then
He was loved by everyone
I see it as clear as I see you
That day in the sun.
Newman said the song âcame hard. I was suffocating when I wrote the thing. I was playing it for someone and I was like “Where’s my stray boy” …“
He added, “Whatever makes you cry has to be something to do with yourself.” DM / MC / ML
Black matter by Randy Newman, Nonesuch Records, was released in August 2017.