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Randy Newman: Multiplying The Characters In His Songs

On Dark Matter, the legendary songwriter returns with even more unreliable narrators

Music Features Randy Newman
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Randy Newman: Multiplying The Characters In His Songs

On his 1968 debut album, Randy Newman began one particularly memorable song by crooning, “I’ve been his friend since we were little babies.” The music was as ingratiatingly sentimental as the vocal, but Newman quickly turned the tables on the listener. The piano shifted to rink-dinky carnival music, and the narrator was heard hawking tickets for a quarter a piece so carnival-goers can step inside a tent and see the barker’s childhood pal, Davy the Fat Boy. Despite all his protestations to the contrary, the singer was clearly no friend of the obese child placed in his care.

It was also clear that the narrator was not Newman but rather an imagined character very different from the songwriter. In fact, the narrator was totally untrustworthy; he was lying about his intentions and twisting the facts to justify beliefs that were the opposite of Newman’s own. This was a way of constructing songs that hardly anyone had ever tried, and Newman did it so well and so often that it forever after became associated with him.

“I didn’t think anyone would be interested in my life,” he told me in 1998. “Or maybe I figured if a short story writer could do this stuff or a TV writer, then I could, too. I’m not sure the medium can handle it; it’s hard to figure out in a three-minute pop song on the radio that this guy isn’t supposed to be sympathetic. But that’s what I do and continue to do. There’s enough about me in there if you really listen.”

That debut album was originally titled Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun, and for once a recording lived up to such a hyperbolic name. In 1968, in the midst of the first wave of confessional singer/songwriters relying on the honesty and authenticity of their creations, here was an entirely different strategy of music-making, an approach that even today songwriters describe as “Randy Newman-like.”

“It’s odd that I chose to go the way I went with this medium,” he now says over the phone from Los Angeles. “More people would do it if it attracted a larger audience. But I think you can tell as much or more about me from the way I write than you can from the more confessional songwriters. I’ve met a lot of them, and believe me, they’re not like their songs.”

At age 71, Newman could easily please his many admirers by sticking with the formula that has made him a hero to legions of songwriters and music critics, if not the broader public. But his new album, Dark Matter, introduces a new wrinkle. Each of the first five of the nine songs feature not just one untrustworthy character but two or three. On “Brothers,” for example, Jack and Bobby Kennedy banter about being young men on the loose in the 1961 White House, while Vladimir Putin, his press secretary and a Russian female choir all get to speak on “Putin.”

On “Sonny Boy,” the legendary bluesman, his impostor and their audience all have their say. On “Lost Without You,” a dying woman, her children and their soon-to-be-widowed father share the stage. Instead of a musical that contains many songs, here each song contains an entire, multi-character musical.

“I moved in that direction once I noticed I was doing it in the first song,” Newman says. “It was a step forward, trying to do more than what I’ve usually done. It’s important to me to write as well as I have in the past, whether the public likes it or not, and to keep trying new things. I’ve always admired Paul Simon because he always pushes himself to do something new—especially rhythmically.”

That first song is “The Great Debate,” which presents three different characters: a preacher leading a religious revival in a Durham, N.C. basketball arena, a nerdy scientist and a religious liberal. After the preacher ridicules the scientist’s vague explanation of “dark matter” (accompanied by cheesy 1950s sci-fi music), he does the same to another scientist’s defense of evolution.

“I don’t know why I don’t write more songs,” he says. “I always think I will. They asked Miles Davis why he didn’t do more ballads, and he said because he loved them too much. Maybe that’s my problem. I see these young kids who have all this wonderful technique and love writing, but I don’t. I dread it. Getting to work is a matter of self-discipline—and the longer I stay away from it the harder it is to get back to it.”

But before the preacher can move on to climate change, the liberal stands up to denounce not only the preacher but also the song’s author. “Mr. Newman, a self-described atheist,” the liberal says, creates characters like the preacher “as objects of ridicule. He doesn’t believe anything he has you say, nor does he want us to…It makes it easy to for him to knock you down.”

It’s an astonishing moment: a character rises up to defy his author like Lucifer rebelling against Yahweh. Like Edward Snowden leaking NSA files, this character exposes Newman’s secret methodology. The songwriter has long satirized the ignorant and selfish not by attacking them directly but by pretending to be them and allowing them to talk until they inadvertently expose all their worst flaws. Newman has always put words in his characters’ mouths, but this character refuses to cooperate.

“I don’t know why I did that,” Newman says. “Maybe I felt the need to show how the trick was done, like a magician or something. It could be career suicide,” he adds, chuckling, “because I’m showing how I set someone up just to knock them down. Or maybe I’m trying to try to be more honest about what I do, though that’s a pretense too, because I knock that guy down as well.”

He felt obliged to acknowledge that some religious believers are intelligent people who also believe in climate change and evolution. In the end, though, he has to let the preacher win the debate, partially because he’s the funnier character but mostly because he has the best music. When the gospel singers (including Take 6’s Alvin Chea) start shaking their tambourines and wailing on Newman’s song-within-a-song, “I’ll Take Jesus Every Time,” all resistance is useless.

“He wins because of the power of gospel music going back from Aretha Franklin to Bach and Palestrina,” Newman concedes. “How can we respond to that? We can’t say, ‘Hey, listen to this great atheist hymn or look at this towering atheist cathedral.’”

At eight minutes long, with three speaking parts, a choir and seven distinct musical parts, “The Great Debate” is perhaps Newman’s most ambitious song. The album is his first collection of new songs in nine years since 2008’s Harps and Angels, but it demonstrates that the man who pioneered the untrustworthy-narrator approach to post-Beatles songwriting still does it better than anyone. If only he did it more often.

“I don’t know why I don’t write more songs,” he says. “I always think I will. They asked Miles Davis why he didn’t do more ballads, and he said because he loved them too much. Maybe that’s my problem. I see these young kids who have all this wonderful technique and love writing, but I don’t. I dread it. Getting to work is a matter of self-discipline—and the longer I stay away from it the harder it is to get back to it.”

It’s not as if he’s been watching cat videos for the past decade. He has composed the soundtracks for five movies: 2008’s Leatherheads, 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, 2010’s Toy Story 3, 2013’s Monsters University and 2017’s Cars 3. But the movie music comes more easily to him. When you have to write one-minute, 49 seconds of chase music for Cars 3, you pretty much know what you have to do. But inventing one of his misleading narrators from scratch is more of a challenge.

“The songs come when they come,” he explains. “They just unspool. I had that line, ‘Welcome to this great arena, Durham, North Carolina, in the heart of the Research Triangle.’ I don’t know where it came from. I just played something on the piano, and it burst out of me. Whenever that happens, I go ahead and see what I can do with it.

“A lot of songs remain uncompleted because I didn’t like where I’m going with the initial idea. There are a lot of ups and downs: you like it; you don’t like it, and then you like it again. But you can’t fall into the trap of being a critic more than a writer—you’ll cut yourself off before you get going. I sure hope it’s not another nine years before the next one, because I might not still be here.”

When he wasn’t writing new songs, he was revisiting old ones. Newman recorded and released Volumes Two and Three of The Randy Newman Songbook in 2011 and 2016. These recordings of his old songs and movie themes, gathered with 2003’s Volume One into a box set last year, featured Newman alone at the piano, stripping the 55 tracks down to their basics.

“When I did the Songbook thing, I had to look at everything again,” he recalls. “I was pretty much satisfied that it was the same guy and the same quality the whole time from ‘Davy the Fat Boy’ and ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain’ to ‘Feels like Home.’ It doesn’t sound like I’m in decline. My last two albums, Bad Love and Harps and Angels, are really good records. It’s important to me that I can still write well. I mean, I think I’m a pretty good guy, but if I were a bad guy and could still write well, that would be OK with me.”

There was a period in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, when Newman made his albums with the L.A. musicians who played with Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and the Eagles. This had the effect of trapping the songs in a certain time and place, but the Songbook versions free the songs from those constraints and reveal their timeless quality.

“In retrospect, the records I’ve made have been mainstream and conservative considering what the lyrics are,” he told me in 1998. “You hear records by Beck, and it’s not like that. I wish I had made a conscious effort to get more interested in the studio and what you can do with it. I was happy if the songs sounded like everyone else’s because the words were so weird. But I think it was a mistake. They should have sounded weird, too.”

One of the bonus tracks from Volume 3 is “Family Album: Homage to Alfred, Emil and Lionel Newman,” an instrumental tribute to his three uncles, who all composed, conducted and/or arranged soundtracks for movies and television. Alfred, the most famous, was nominated for 45 Academy Awards and won nine of them. His soundtracks for The Song of Bernadette, Captain from Castile, The Grapes of Wrath and How the West Was Won are considered classics of the genre.

“My dad Irving was a doctor, an internist,” Newman explains, “but he always wrote songs, old-fashioned but very good tunes with good lyrics. He worshiped his older brother Alfred; my dad thought writing music for the movies was the highest art form. That inevitably had an effect on me. I saw Alfred in action, so the sound in my head is that of the Fox Orchestra, which luckily was a very good orchestra, and Alfred was the best conductor of all time.”

In a sense, Randy Newman took up the family business. He has been nominated for 20 Academy Awards and has won twice. His ability to compose and conduct an orchestra has been given many of his own recordings a cinematic scope. You can hear that on the new album. “Putin” uses the echo of “The Volga Boatman” and those 19th-century Russian composers to put us in the 2017 Kremlin. “Brothers” echoes those Nelson Riddle string charts for Frank Sinatra to put us in the 1961 White House.

“I created that music for ‘Brothers’ to set it in a time and place,” he says. “It’s what the song wanted to have happen. I love the sound of that Nelson Riddle stuff. If you go back to my first record, I’ve always tried to make the music as visual as possible. When you heard ‘Davy the Fat Boy,’ you could see the carnival; when you heard ‘Louisiana 1927,’ you could see the flooded farms.”

The strings set up “Lost Without You,” the new album’s most moving song. After the strings fade out, Newman’s voice and piano introduce the lovely theme, one of those nostalgic Southern melodies that his good friend Linda Ronstadt calls Newman’s “plantation songs.” His mother was from Louisiana, and he spent many a summer there growing up, absorbing both Stephen Foster’s balladry and Fats Domino’s second-line R&B.

On this particular song, a father is crumbling under the pressure of his wife’s impending death, and when the children arrive to visit her, they ask to see her without their father, who has been stumbling around. At this point, your sympathy is with the kids, who seem to be protecting their ailing mother against an alcoholic father. But the mother soon sets them—and us—straight. She chews out these untrustworthy narrators for being so narcissistic and makes them promise to take care of her beloved husband when she’s gone. “If he holds out his hand to you,” she says, “hold it tight. If that makes you uncomfortable or if it embarrasses you, I don’t care.”

“‘Lost Without You’ comes from experience,” Newman confesses. “When my mother was dying, our father was taking some medicine that made him act different. My brother and I thought he was drunk or something. My mother had never expressed her love for him in front of us, but this time she did. It really opened our eyes. A lot of my aunts and uncles have died, and people are not always at their best on those occasions. I started thinking about what it would be like if my wife passed before I did.

“I had that tune, that pretty Scotch-Irish thing that might have been another ‘Feels Like Home,’ but I didn’t make it a love song that other people could sing. With my usual commercial savvy, I instead made it about death. What makes the song interesting is that you take what the kids say at face value, that the father is drinking too much, and you sympathize with them. And then the rug gets pulled out from under you.”

On Dark Matter Newman mixes these string arrangements and old Southern melodies with his primary musical vehicle, the New Orleans shuffle—often in the same song. Both “The Great Debate” and “Putin” switch back and forth between these musical modes. Other songs, such as “Sonny Boy” and “It’s a Jungle Out There,” sound as if they were cut during a Fats Domino session in 1955.

“It’s hard for me not to write a song in that 12/8 shuffle form,” he admits. “I have to consciously write in straight time, because if I just start playing, I immediately start playing shuffles. I love it, but you can’t do it all the time. Enough is enough. For a long time, they had more of an effect on me than even my uncles. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been popular for 60 years.”

One of the new album’s best ballads is “She Chose Me,” the bewildered response of a man to the unexpected love of a woman for such an unlikely prospect as himself. The song originally appeared in the misbegotten 1990 TV series Cop Rock. Flushed with the success of Hill Street Blues, writer-producer Steven Bochco had dreamed of a TV show that combined a police drama with a musical comedy.

“Bochco called me and told me about this thing,” Newman remembers. “I listened and said no. He called me again and said what a stimulating challenge it would be. I told him it wouldn’t work, that there wouldn’t be the touch-me, feel-me connection with the audience. People who like musicals don’t like cop shows and vice versa. And it turned out that I was right. But he wore me down and I did the first episode. I did get some good songs out of it. One of them, ‘Sandman’s Coming,’ I used in Faust. And this one, ‘She Chose Me,’ I had forgotten about completely, till a fan letter came in and reminded me of it.”

Last year Shout Factory released a three-DVD set of Cop Rock: The Complete Series. The shows don’t really work, and Newman contributed only the theme song as well as three numbers for the first episode—the two ballads and a hilarious courtroom number where the judge and jury turn themselves into a preacher and a gospel choir to declare “He’s Guilty.” The end of the episode, though, where a crack-addict mother sits on a public bench and sings “Sandman” as she waits to sell her baby, is heartbreaking.

Cop Rock and Faust, the 1995 stage musical that he adapted from the Goethe fable with help from playwright David Mamet, take the characters that Newman has always created and puts them on the screen or the stage where we can see them. But on his best songs, you don’t need literal actors to play the roles; Newman’s music and language are enough to conjure them up in our minds.

For example, it’s easy to picture Newman’s version of Vladimir Putin sitting at his vacation dacha on the Black Sea, celebrating his triumphant climb to absolute power with one vodka after another. After one too many, the hero becomes self-pitying and morose, feeling cheated that he has to settle for the Black Sea when he really wants a Mediterranean port, that he has to settle for a second-rate economy run by “chicken farmers and file clerks.” You almost feel sorry for him. When you feel that unlikely, unwanted sympathy sneaking into your heart, you know that that god-damned Randy Newman has gotten you once again.

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