By Marty Sartini Garner on July 5, 2011
Read the introduction and follow our week-long coverage of "Sixth Street, U.S.A.: Randy Newman's America."
A Conversation with Randy Newman, Part 1
You grew up playing classical music and composing. At what point did you realize that you wanted to be a pop songwriter?
Lenny Waronker, whom I’ve known since I was one year old and whose father started Liberty Records, suggested that I try to write some songs. He was a few years older than I was, which meant more then than it does now. We listened to pop music like everyone else did. It was through his suggestion, really.
You were 16. Do you remember the first pop song you wrote?
I think the first one I wrote was published, and the Fleetwoods did it—no, I wrote something called “Don’t Tell On Me” before that. Then I wrote “They Tell Me It’s Summer” [for the Fleetwoods]. It was on the back of a hit, and there was some money there.
Your uncles were film composers. Was there pressure in your family to stay on the composing side of things?
No, I don’t think they cared. They loved me, but it wasn’t like they were in a hurry to get me into the music business. I got the impression that they didn’t think it was all that great a life—though I don’t know what they were comparing it to. I had another uncle who was an agent, and one of them was complaining about having to do 12 minutes in two days, or some tremendous amount of music, and he said, “Well, it’s better than threading pipe.” And it is. But they were just happy if I was happy. There was implicit pressure to become a musician and even a film composer from my father, though, because his brothers did it and he loved them and thought it was the greatest thing ever.
Your dad was a doctor, right?
He was. But he was the only one of them that went to school or anything. The rest of them were in showbiz for the most part.
Three Dog Night had a hit in 1970 with your song “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” which you released that same year on 12 Songs to less commercial success. Were you hoping for pop stardom at that point or just for the freedom to keep making music?
With everything I ever did, up to a certain point, I couldn’t see any particular reason why it wouldn’t be successful. It would cross my mind. I mean, I always thought I was a lot closer to the middle of the road than I was. When I tried to write follow-ups for people—like Carole King was doing—they’d tell me that what I was doing wasn’t the middle of the road, and I could get that. I didn’t do it as well as Carole King did. And I could hear it; I could hear how good she was. But eventually I got tired of having to write those kind of lyrics, those straight love songs. They didn’t seem particularly special to me.
Then you evolved into more of the mode that you’re better known for.
And that I’m still in, yeah. I remember clearly this situation where I was writing these regular pedestrian lyrics, and it was working sort-of well. It was a song for Frank Sinatra, Jr., called “Susie” or something. I was hacking away at it, and it turned into “Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear” [from 1968’s Randy Newman], and I liked that a lot better.
What was it about that song that struck you?
Well, it was the horribleness of what I was initially trying to do. It was like “Susie, yada yada.” The nature of the tune almost had to be apologized for in the lyric, or you had to notice that it was a vaudevillian scam of some kind; you had to acknowledge that it was a performance. I hadn’t thought of that until just now, that the new lyric justified me doing that old-fashioned music in that case.
“He Gives Us All His Love,” from Sail Away, seems to be a pretty cynical treatment of God, and yet it’s been covered by people like Wanda Jackson as a straightforward gospel song. As a songwriter, is it hard to live in the tension between your interpretation and that of others?
That particular song was for a movie called Cold Turkey. In the film, they were showing a beat-out street, garbage cans, that kind of thing. The song is so close to the line of being absolutely straight—there isn’t much in there that isn’t. It’s alright with me if someone takes that one completely straight. But people have done “Sail Away” as if it were just a happy come-to-America song. As if it were jolly. And that I like less. That’s making a mistake with something of some significance.
Is that a hard place to be writing from, knowing that what you’re trying to say could be wildly misinterpreted? Nobody understood “Short People” when it came out, for instance.
There weren’t a lot of people that were upset by it, but it was a significant amount because I’d reached people I’d never reached before. It was a hit, the worst kind of hit you could possibly have, but a hit all the same. It was a novelty record. It was like having a hit with “The Purple People Eater” or The Chipmunks. At football games they’d have a picture of some little guy throwing darts at the record or something. That was a news show, actually, but things like that made it hard to get away from it for a couple of weeks. I can laugh at almost anything, but I was getting tired of that one. It was so clear to me that the guy was nuts in the song. It really made me laugh, I thought it was funny how nuts he was and how far the guy went in his dislike. No one’s that stupid; no one’s nuts in that way.
You did a concept record about the South, Good Old Boys. What led you to that subject matter?
I wrote “Rednecks” with a direct inspiration from a TV show I saw. Lester Maddox was on The Dick Cavett Show, and the audience there didn’t let him speak. They were yelling at him. And I thought that if I were a citizen of Georgia, irrespective of how awful Maddox was, [I would have been upset]. They should have let him speak. I very seldom do that, but I wrote something entirely based on that moment, and the idea that, in general, there are a lot of things still going on from the colonial days in the U.S. One of them is that when someone with a Southern accent opens their mouth to speak, there are people who somehow feel superior to them. There was a bit of unearned moral superiority about racial matters. The South was terrible; it was codified into law there. But the North was terrible, too. For these people to be yelling at him that way was nice, but I doubt they had Black friends at home, you know?
That song represents a huge step forward for you artistically, and it wasn’t released without a certain amount of courage.
Still makes me nervous, all the time.
So why keep playing it? Is it a song we still need?
Well, it’s still a segregated country. In this city [Los Angeles], Black people live in a neighborhood that’s 15 miles from where I live. I just always thought that it shouldn’t be that way. That specific thing about the North having this superiority is no longer—well, it’s maybe sort of true, but it’s not important. It’s not what it’s about at all. No one thinks they’ve got a handle on the problem. But just dealing with it at all is important to me, and I think that the song is still of some import. F
Stay tuned for Part 2 of FILTER's interview with Randy Newman on Thursday.