by Ben Greenman
Randy Newman is best known for his satirical character studies. You’ve heard them, of course: “Rednecks,” “My Life is Good,” “Political Science.” They’re portraits of deluded narrators who cling desperately to an outmoded or unpleasant or immoral idea: racism or narcissism or jingoism. Those songs succeed by illustrating how people rationalize their own monstrosity. These are the Randy Newman songs that get the most ink, because they demand the highest level of critical intervention.
And people just love to intervene in those songs. Many years ago, in college, I took a class on vernacular American humor, and I wrote a paper on “Rednecks,” and specifically about how the song shifts in the middle from the redneck perspective (“Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show / With some smart-ass New York Jew”) to a broader social critique that implicates that redneck perspective (Newman lists all the urban ghettos in which African-Americans are “free to be put in a cage”). The teacher was a grad student who had long hair and glasses and cited Lyotard in casual conversation. I don’t remember a tremendous amount about the class, but I do know that it seemed at times labored, if well-intentioned, and that it cured me of thinking too much about Newman’s comic mechanism. As much as I enjoy his most Mephistophelean rhetorical moves (it’s difficult to overestimate the pleasure of a surgical strike like “I Just Want You To Hurt Like I Do,” in which Newman lays bare one of the most basic of human needs), I leave it to others to compare him with Twain and Stephen Foster and Melville’s Confidence Man. I leave it to others to speculate on what it meant for Newman, in 1970, to sing the explicitly racist “Underneath the Harlem Moon” (which posits a sentimental brand of racism, but racism nonetheless) or, for that matter, to release “Yellow Man” during the Vietnam War. I leave it to others to investigate how these songs do or don’t dovetail with Newman’s own (rare) exploration of his own ethnic identity, which is treated most explicitly on the Land of Dreams album. What I’ll do, instead, is list a few reasons I’m thankful for Newman and his talent. I’m thankful that he loves a wide variety of American music, blues and jazz and ragtime and gospel and country. I’m thankful for the way he fuses melodic sophistication and lyrical intelligence, and for the fact that many of his songs are standards in their time thanks to the interpretations of brilliant singers like Dusty Springfield, Harry Nilsson, and Tim O’Brien. I’m thankful that he can be, within the span of a few songs, viciously sarcastic and unapologetically sentimental. And finally, I’m thankful that despite his erudition and eclecticism, he remains a disciple of one of the two or three most beautiful things in rock and roll, the Fats Domino triplet. I picked three songs that span the range of his talent: the epically insecure "Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong," in which he admits that he's not getting the most out of sex (the best line, "sometimes I throw off a good one," also works as a description of songwriting); the driving "Gone Dead Train" (representative in that it's from a soundtrack, unrepresentative in that it'll blow the doors off your car or home); and the lovely "Rollin'" (probably his most beautiful song, though it’s hard to vote against “Louisiana 1927” or “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” or even “Sail Away,” which is like the Hope Diamond of cynicism).
I have interviewed him a few times, and his songwriting style translates perfectly to conversation: bookish, laconic, careful with big thoughts and quick with one-liners. He’s been self-deprecating and also slyly dismissive of Bono, and it’s hard to argue with either of those stances. One of the things he said the first time I spoke with him has stuck with me over the years: he said that no one really gets better as they get older, but that if your work stays at the same level, more or less, that’s a victory. I think he’s right, and right about himself: even though his last album, Harps and Angels, was at times too clangorous for me and at other times too theatrical, there are still instantly canonical songs like “Only a Girl,” a little confection about a May-December romance that ends with a thud as the narrator realizes that his girlfriend might love him for his money. What Newman is in that song, and what he’s always been to me, is a
light. Sometimes it’s a winking light. Sometimes it’s a cold light. Sometimes it’s a sad light at the dying of the day. But everything he makes has candlepower. Not that there's anything wrong with your Loudon Wainwrights and your Lyle Lovetts and your Christine Lavins and your John Prines and your Stephin Merritts and your Eminems. But humor in music—not simply comedy, but humor, the kind that cuts deep and saves the blood that comes out of the wound—has only one shamash.
"Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong" mp3
by Randy Newman, 1972.
available on Sail Away
"Gone Dead Train" mp3
by Randy Newman, 1970.
available on Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman
by Randy Newman, 1974.
available on Good Old Boys
This is the first of eight posts at the Boogie Woogie Flu, in which eight Jewish writers will discuss the works of other Jewish artists for eight consecutive days in celebration of Hanukkah.