Hats off to Randy Newman for both his Oscar win and his Oscar speech. He was a card as usual, telling reporters who asked about “breaking into the music biz” that career-wise, that might be a misstep. “Who would want to break into it? It’s like a bank that’s already been robbed.” The songwriter is playing at New York’s Town Hall on Saturday, March 5. The same kind of wit that he demonstrated during his Oscar thank-you’s is on display during his shows. His canon is teaming with jewels of course, many making to the new Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2 (Nonesuch). I’m particularly loving “Suzannne” and “My Life Is Good.”
Elsewhere, Newman tells Vanity Fair that he’s thinking of writing a musical, and the source material will be either A Face in the Crowd or Tootsie – two distinctly different narratives, yes?
Here’s a classique (2000) interview Q&A I did with Newman when the terrific Bad Love was released.
Can you mock prejudice out of action? Can digs and smirks stop peevish behavior in its tracks? Is a wry phrase accompanied by a catchy tune considered an effective weapon against malevolence? For the last 30 years, Randy Newman has been trying to answer these questions. Along the way, he’s turned sarcasm into high art, and earned a rep as one of pop’s brainiest and amusing singer-songwriters. A social cynic who doesn’t really want to abandon hopes of everyone having a fair shake, he’s a writer who shows how low we have sunk by letting nasty-asses and know-nothings have their say. From the carnival barker who pimps his obese pal in 1968’s “Davy the Fat Boy” to the arrogant fuck who begs his girl toy to come back home in last year’s “Shame,” he’s been pretty damn reliable in his depiction of clods and fiends.
What would make such negativity scan? A caustic wit and a grand musical eloquence. The latter has put Newman on the Hollywood film score scene for the last decade or so. Avalon, Awakenings, and his commercial pinnacle Toy Story have earned this pop also-ran a second shot at whatever limelight they’re shining in La-La Land. Currently at work on the music for a forthcoming Ben Stiller-Robert DeNiro vehicle, the 56-year-old writer takes that limelight in stride. The occasion for the chat below is a gig in Newport, where he’s sure to play a bunch of tunes from Bad Love, his first “Randy Newman” disc in about a dozen years. Age hasn’t mellowed him much. On Bad Love , rock stars are chided for pressing on well after inspiration has dried up. The process of imperialism is roasted for the pestilence it brings. We’re all indicted for letting television rob us of not only our intrafamilial rapport, but global accord. And at the record’s peak, Newman chases down Karl Marx to remind us that the proto-socialist was right all the long: life ain’t fair. I shot the breeze with the singer last Sunday, the day of dads everywhere.
Q: Am I interrupting a Father’s Day love fest?
A: Nah, I was just lying on the floor, going back to sleep. I got up to work too early.
Q: I pull that, too. If you’re in bed at 4 or 5 in the morning and can’t sleep, the hell with it — get up and get something accomplished.
A: But sometimes the intentions aren’t enough. Sometimes you’re too tired to do any good. You just sort of sit there and drool on the paper. I go to work early anyway. I have my whole life. I really need a discipline. Never did it out of sheer joy: “Oh, what great thing will I think up today?”
Q: What if the perfect phrase comes while your lying in bed?
A: Occasionally with a lyric, yeah, I’ll get up. But then I’ll say it out loud, sound it out, and it’s usually not happening. I don’t think I’ve written three things in my life that didn’t start with me sitting there trying to have an idea. Very rare.
Q: There were a couple Father’s Days a long time ago where I’d invariably play your “Old Man.”
A: Oooh. Tough one. I don’t play it live, because I can’t get the audience back so quick after I sing it. Not necessarily because it’s deeply moving or anything. It’s just rough going. I can’t get a laugh for eight to 10 minutes after that. So I don’t do it anymore. I’m ruthless up there — gotta get the laughs. I don’t want to hurt myself with something too heavy.
Q: Your website has a wild take of you doing “The Star Spangled Banner.” You’re about one step from Roseanne in the delivery department. What was the game?
A: Was it bad? I never even heard it. But y’know, I remember the sound bouncing on me in a funny way in the stadium. It was the Dodgers. You sing, “Oh-ho say . . . ” and it would bounce three times. But I can it sing dead accurate. If I didn’t that time, well . . . [He begins to sing the national anthem through about “gleaming” and does a fine job.] See? Not pretty, but accurate.
Q: Do you have childhood songs you get sentimental about? A ritual song like “The Star Spangled Banner,” for instance?
A: Ahhh . . . no, at least none of those government kind of songs. There are things I like, but none of those. Let’s see, “It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old”– I’ve always liked that song. Maybe a WWI song like “It’s a long, long trail a-winding to the land of my dreams . . . ”
Q: Remember Ry Cooder’s “Rally ‘Round the Flag”?
A: Yeah, those work fine for me. I love those kind of harmony exercise songs . . . and write ’em all the time. Or try to.
Q: Do young rockers, people you don’t know, come up and give you props when they meet you?
A: Someone will tell me that younger people admire me. The actual people don’t come up to me. I might hear that, oh, Prince is a big fan, or so and so, or Dylan — all my life that’s happened. “Oh, the Beatles heard your demos and really liked ’em.” But I know hardly anyone. Like I’m about to get this Billboard Century Award, whatever that may be. And they asked who I wanted to announce me. And thought it would be my kids or something, but they need a big showbiz person. And couldn’t think of anyone. Peter Gabriel I met — very nice guy. As is Elton John. But those guys are a tenuous connection. I know Ronstadt, Raitt, some others. That’s it. Maybe a movie composer could introduce me. I don’t have enough star power to go to.
Q: Is it daunting to get the Century Award?
A: It’s very nice. But the reality of those things is that as you get older, you go more and more of them, and really they’re just a bunch of show people patting each other on the back. Everyone applauds. We just pat each other’s back ’til we roll into the grave. I don’t like any of the ceremonies I’ve been to, really. And when I’ve had to make a speech of some kind, I’ve been absolutely out of control. I forget to control my language and stuff. People laugh, but there’s bound to be those who don’t want to hear the word “shit.” Know what I mean?
Q: But you’ve been a bit of an outsider in your career. It must feel nice to be included these days.
A: Yeah, sure. And I’ve gotten Henry Mancini film music awards and such. It is nice. But I’m not comfortable. They should wait ’til your dead.
Q: Have you gotten reaction from guys your age about “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)”?
A: Not really. I don’t know what Henley had to say. He’s a pal. It’s an old joke, you know: I’m dead but no one told me.
Q: Last summer I interviewed Mick Jagger and between the lines of bravado, he kind of copped to such a thing. He basically wondered why people would be interested in the Stones’ music any more.
A: Yeah, well, he’s a smart guy. You just can’t think about it too much. I don’t know how well or badly he’s writing. I wasn’t talking about them in the song; it’s just in general, no one’s quitting. No one says, “I’m really kind of shitty now, guess it’s time to hang it up.”
Q: I often wonder why people can’t digest the fact that there’s nothing wrong with artistic invention not being a forever thing. If you have five, seven great years, you can relax.
A: To me, it’s almost life and death. It certainly isn’t, “Oh, my talent’s gone now, that fine.” It ain’t going to be fine. We haven’t really gotten the full report about pop yet, but it’s very rare in pop for someone to maintain consistency or get better. I know more about how the classical guys ended up. Verdi wrote stuff late. Strauss was doing it at 83, 84. But pop, well, Neil Young hung in there pretty well. James Taylor, too. But there aren’t many.
Q: After such a stretch with film scoring, was it hard to get back into the pop mindset for Bad Love?
A: It was. I wrote a lot of stuff I didn’t like much . . . and then came some stuff that was a bit better. I didn’t know whether or not I could still do it. I hadn’t written a song for myself for a long time. Movie stuff is a different matter. But actually I was satisfied that there was no appreciable decline. In fact I think it’s one of the best records I’ve made. And it was sort of age-sensitive. I wasn’t saying I was going to ball all night, ’cause, you know, I’m not.
Q: Just for emotional veracity you need to stick to the context of what your life tells you . . . or not?
A: No . . . well, yeah, if you’re writing about yourself you do. I just haven’t written much about myself — except in the last two albums. Because that’s where the stuff is when I go looking for it. On Land of Dreams I did it on purpose. It was supposed to be about me. I just got tired of all the character stuff. But for me, character stuff really is the natural inclination. My songs are shuffles about other people.
Q: On Bad Love the most vile guy is that nimrod in “Shame.”
A: It’s really worked out — one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Q: There’s a lusciousness to the way you play the fact the guy’s a prick.
A: Yeah, that sort of repressed anger. Staying calm while seething. It’s a pompitude of sorts, being very grand, and it’s an amazing thing, the power of youth and beauty. A friend of mine once said he saw William Paley run up six flights at a New York party. There was a 22-year-old woman with him. My pal cut to the heart of the matter in an instant: “Ahh, that’s the only thing that would have gotten him up those stairs.”
Q: Between songs at a recent show you copped to the fact that there are two Randys: the hard-assed op-ed writer, and the sentimentalist.
A: My musical aesthetic is sort of romantic. I mean, I like Brahms and Mahler and all that, and I’m not embarrassed by strings throbbing away. But literary sensibility is different. I don’t have that many lyrics that I consider soppy. If I had more of a heart I’d probably have sold more records over the years. I think about the writer and his work. And I’ve always thought that the people I write about are worse than the people in the audience. And worse than myself. Now, I might be wrong. When I wrote “Old Man,” I didn’t think it had anything to do with me. I was inspired by the astronaut in 2001 when they sing “Happy Birthday” to him. I like the idea of a father raising his son with no emotion. No god, no nothing. And then that’s what he gets back when he’s dying. But then my father died and, boy, it was too close for comfort. I mean, it was like, “Whoa, this is tough.” It surprised me.
Q: Does the fact that you tweak our social and political inequities make you a “public spirited man,” as you say in Bad Love‘s Karl Marx song?
A: I’m interested in it. I feel that the country is never going to be excused for the great sin of slavery. The hope that there was in the ’60s . . . well, people have sort of given up trying any more. Benign neglect. California schools used to be the best schools in the country and now they’re the worst. People just don’t want to pay. It’s because people my age are in the majority and they don’t have children.
Q: Just the mechanics fitting the phrase “great nations of Europe” is tough. But you did it.
A: There’s something that bothers me about that song. I thought it was going to be one of the best I’ve written. But it’s lacking a human element. There’s no person in it. Kinda didactic. Like I’m standing there with a pointer in my hand pointing at history. But theoretically it sums up all the new theories about how important disease was in domestic animals and such. And it’s listenable. But I thought it would be better.
Q: On that song in specific and Bad Love in general, you get to put the film music voicings and complexities into a pop tune.
A: Yeah, you sort of do. I did early on, too. The first record — “Davy the Fat Boy” — I tore it apart to do it that way. But I’m better now at it. I mean, “Davy the Fat Boy” is not necessarily a good arrangement, it’s just nice orchestra writing. I always say that the record that sounds best to me is Trouble in Paradise. The people who write on the Website say it’s Sail Away or 12 Songs, but I believe I like Trouble best.
Q: You’re both composer and lyricist. Who was more important to the team, Weill or Brecht?
A: My heart is always with the musician . . . in every case, except Lorenz Hart. He’s a great lyricist.
Q: Is film music a more elevated art than pop writing.
A: Nah, not at all. A great pop writer is much rarer a commodity. Movie music is just harder for me. But certainly not a more elevated art form.
Q: For enjoyment do you venture more toward classical than jazz?
A: Way more. I haven’t listened to enough jazz in my life. I don’t understand . . . well, when I did “You’ve Got a Friend” with Robert Goulet, I did it to the chart. I could have stumbled into it some sort of jazzbo chart. But I got a guy who did it and I looked at the chord sheet and it was like looking at Bulgarian for me. Flatted seventh, augmented ninth . . . but the band looked at it and played it like it was Dick and Jane. It’s a different discipline. And I don’t like those chords that much, to be honest. I’m not into 20-minute solos. The ensemble stuff, Fletcher Henderson, Ellington, when they had tubas, I like that era. Fancy stuff and really, really good. Whenever I heard Coleman Hawkins I’ve liked it. But it sort of lost me along the way.
Q: What about you as an instrumentalist? Would you ever consider making a disc of just piano pieces? What does it sound like when you just play around?
A: Fats Domino on a bad day. When I practice some Beethoven or do some exercises I can get up to a sonata. But there’s no point — 100,000 people play better.
Q: You reference Beethoven and the classics, but all your phrases are couched in Fats Waller, Earl Hines and guys before that.
A: You can hear it a bit in Ragtime, and I do get offered commissions for trio music. But I’m afraid of it. I don’t know what my natural style would be without . . . I don’t know what kind of music I’d write without a picture or a song — no idea. I’m not even that curious to know. I know too much about music to listen to myself play.