Post-war pop has produced a lot of great songwriters, but not even such singular talents as Leiber and Stoller, Bob Dylan, or Tom T. Hall are quite like Randy Newman. Musically, Newman reaches back to an earlier era, the film soundtrack work that is his family business informing his pop songcraft as much as the New Orleans R&B that is his equal love. But, conceptually, it's Newman's reliance on songwriting's most daring, perilous, and increasingly rare construct the untrustworthy narrator that has set him apart. When most listeners hear a song in the first person, they assume that the perspective being shared is that of the singer, but in the world of Randy Newman, it is rarely that simple.
Newman isn't the only major artist to find an audience despite, or even because of, having his songs misunderstood. How many of Chuck Berry's fans (especially the white teens who were probably his primary audience) heard "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" as a black-power anthem or "Promised Land" as a Freedom Rides travelogue? How many of the stadium masses heard the bitter defiance in Bruce Springsteen's "Born In the U.S.A." rather than patriotic pride? And how many of the record buyers and radio programmers who made Little Richard's "Lucille" or Prince's "Little Red Corvette" into hits fully grasped the sexual anarchy on display?
It's easy to see that same kind of misreading as an explanation for Newman's two actual hits. "Short People" was a commentary on the know-nothingism that perpetuates bigotry, but it shot up the charts as a novelty. And the deeply sardonic "I Love L.A." was embraced by city boosters who missed the one lyric that gives the game away: "Look at that bum over there, man!/He's down on his knees!" But the explanation isn't quite that easy. The simple bigotry of "Short People" is supposedly undercut by the liberal platitudes of the refrain "Short People are just the same/As you and I/All men are brothers/Until the day they die," but in practice, it works the other way around, as the familiar pieties are shot down by the narrator's far more entertaining ignorance: "They got little baby legs/And they stand so low/You got to pick 'em up/Just to say hello." The joy so many took in the song may have had less to do with the song's ironic commentary on bigotry than with the opportunity it afforded to express aggression in a manner a bit more suitable than picking on more legitimately aggrieved groups. That Newman doesn't erase the distance between himself and the narrator only serves to confirm this reading and forces the listener to evaluate his or her own enjoyment of the song.
Only with his very cheapest jokes does Newman mock his narrators, even at their meanest, cruelest, or most perverse. And it's this nerviness that's allowed Newman to give voice to so many unlikely, and unlikable, characters: the sexual predator in "Suzanne," the carnival huckster in "Davy the Fat Boy," the pimp in "Same Girl," the governor of Louisiana in "Kingfish."
But Newman's bravery can also be as emotionally devastating as it is intellectually satisfying. On "Old Man," he gives voice to a man at his father's deathbed telling him to give up the ghost ("Won't be no God to comfort/You taught me not to believe that lie/You don't need anybody/Nobody needs you/Don't cry, old man, don't cry/Everybody dies"). On "Louisiana 1927," he recounts the flooding of the Mississippi as God's punishment of the South ("What has happened down here is the winds have changed/Clouds roll in from the north and it starts to rain"), and on "I Want You To Hurt Like I Do" and, later, "I Miss You," he gives disarmingly cold voice to a man leaving his wife and children. "I just want you to hurt like I do," Newman's father says to his young son before walking out the door, then he tweaks an old Sam Cooke refrain: "Honest, I do. Honest, I do. Honest, I do."
But if the untrustworthy narrator is Newman's trademark literary device, American know-nothingism (and the cultural and economic privilege that drives it) is his great subject. In the early part of his career, this subject manifested itself most strongly by investigating racism with a fearlessness perhaps unrivaled among white popular artists in America. Newman's second, and best, album, 12 Songs, paired the old Cotton Club song "Underneath the Harlem Moon" with the original "Yellow Man." But that acknowledgment of racism's historical allure was only a setup for the explosion to come. With "Sail Away," the title song of his next album, Newman crafted his masterpiece, an advertisement for the slave trade in which beauty and horror intermingle.
Newman's consideration of racism in America was broadened with Good Old Boys, his concept album about the South, but in recent years, his social criticism has expanded to include failed patriarchy writ large. The decade-apart paired singles "It's Money That I Love" and "It's the Money That Matters" set the scene; the trickle-down boogie of "Roll With the Punches" raised the stakes. But Newman gave the subject its fullest treatment with his last album, and his best since 12 Songs, 1999's Bad Love.
Presaging the current Bush administration, Bad Love is a concept album about old white men clinging to power, with nine of the album's 12 songs about failed patriarchy. Newman's protagonists can be repulsively familiar, like the despicable lecher of "Shame," or comically clueless, like the aging rocker of "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)." Twice, the singer plays an ugly old bastard preying on women half his age, and twice, he plays the same old bastard giving jaded advice to a younger counterpart. The same guy from "Shame," who implores the "little baby girl" to come over and see his new Lexus, turns around on "Better Off Dead" to complain about women who "just treat you like dirt/They make you feel all fat and fumbly/Make you feel kind of dirty."
But nowhere does Newman nail his subject with as light a touch as on the Broadway lilt of "The World Isn't Fair." Here, he exhumes Karl Marx, brings him to his big house on the hill, and explains that, while Marx's aims were noble, they just didn't work out in an unfair world. He introduces Marx to his wealthy, aging friends who are paired with beautiful second wives half their age. "I'm glad I'm living in the land of the free," Newman adds, singing from the sunny side of the economic divide with far more reluctant sympathy than sarcasm or bitterness, "where the rich just get richer and the poor you don't ever have to see." The liberal cynic in Newman may shrink from his characters' crassness, but he doesn't shrink too much. He acknowledges complicity. After all, their rewards are his for the taking.
Bartlett Performing Arts
and Conference Center
Friday, August 16th
and Conference Center
Friday, August 16th