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Sixth Street, U.S.A.: Randy Newman’s America (FILTER Exclusive)

By Marty Sartini Garner on July 5, 2011


Sixth Street, U.S.A.: Randy Newman’s America (FILTER Exclusive)

As you get nostalgic for the memories of July 4, FILTER is very proud to present a week-long feature of our tribute to Randy Newman, also appearing on stands in FILTER 44 now. Below, check out our schedule for "Sixth Street, U.S.A.: Randy Newman's America" and stay tuned for coverage all week long.

Tuesday: A Conversation with Randy Newman, Part 1

Wednesday: It's Lonely at the Top: A Selected Randy Newman Discography

Thursday: A Conversation with Randy Newman, Part 2

Friday: Just Remember What Your Old Pal Said with Lenny Waronker and We Belong Together, As Told by Mitchell Froom


What has happened down here is the apocalypse has come.

Everything is ruined.  Interstate on-ramps have collapsed; major financial districts have become clogged piles of glass and twisted metal and concrete. There are no more neighborhoods; there are no more neighbors. The devastation is a great equalizer; for the first time, the slums of Baltimore and the stadiums of Cleveland and the suburbs of Los Angeles all mean the exact same thing: nothing. Conversely, even perversely, any remaining alcove of civilization anywhere has suddenly become the nation’s cultural center. In one such hamlet, under the apple trees of an anonymous farmer, Randy Newman sits at a grand piano, his voice dusted as it strains against its limited range. He sings about what he sees.

Thankfully, things have not yet come to that. If the above situation sounds strikingly familiar, it could be because it was already played out on TV’s Family Guy, which in 1999 parodied Newman’s trademark talk-sing balladry. But it might also be because it’s a situation not entirely beyond the realm of possibility; we might even be tempted to call it true. If the civilized world were to end tomorrow, it stands to reason that Newman would still be here, singing about the one place left worth singing about, whatever that might be.

For nearly 45 years now, Randy Newman has sat down at his piano in Los Angeles to sing about what he sees. What he’s seen, of course, hasn’t always been pretty. Though he’s perhaps best known for “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” his contribution to the Pixar canon, as well as his playful piano scores to such films as Meet the Parents and Seabiscuit, loitering in the halls of Newman’s discography are a collection of low-down hucksters, belligerent bigots and lonely, lonely men. “Sail Away,” from his 1972 album of the same name, is sung by a slave trader attempting to lure Africans to the colonies. “Ain’t no lions and tigers/Ain’t no mamba snakes,” he sings of America. “Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake.”

“Rednecks,” perhaps his finest song, is sung from the point of view of a Southerner who watches in disgust as Georgia governor Lester Maddox is taunted by “some smart-ass New York Jew” and his audience on a TV show. Maddox was a former restaurateur who refused to integrate his dining room after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and was a staunch segregationist years later as governor. “He may be a fool, but he’s our fool/If they think they’re better than him, they’re wrong,” Newman’s narrator sings, before moving into the self-deprecating and highly ironic chorus: “We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks/We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground/We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks/We’re keeping the niggers down.” The implication, of course, is that the TV audience’s view of Maddox, and by extension the North’s view of the South, is no less bigoted in principle than that of Maddox himself—heavy business for a three-minute pop song. Not surprisingly, Newman’s use of irony has served to confuse and alienate his listeners in the past. “Short People,” one of his only certifiable hits, mocks the first principles of prejudice. The song’s narrator, who some falsely believed to be a mouthpiece for Newman himself, declares in a proud voice that he doesn’t “want no short people ’round here.” It was nearly banned in the state of Maryland for what was perceived to be its prejudiced view of the vertically challenged. Six years later, on “I Love L.A.,” from 1983’s Trouble in Paradise, Newman would both mock and celebrate the yuppified affluence of his home. The song became so popular locally that it’s blared from the Staples Center every time the Lakers win a home game. No one seems to recognize the depraved weirdness of the scene: an arena full of millionaires and celebrities celebrating their team’s victory over Cleveland or Oklahoma City by shouting along to a song that celebrates, with equal aplomb, the Beach Boys, “a big nasty redhead” and a homeless man begging for change.

Much of the critical attention given to Newman has focused on his political commentary, most recently on “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” from 2008’s Harps and Angels. In the song, whose lyrics were originally printed as an op-ed in the New York Times, Newman backhandedly compares then-President Bush to Hitler and Stalin (“Men who need no introduction!”); a YouTube clip of Newman playing the song on his home piano went viral. Though the praise lavished on Newman’s treatment of politics is deserved, it heaps up to the detriment of the deeply felt sense of tragedy inherent even in his most comedic work. “Louisiana 1927,” with its lamenting chorus of “They’re trying to wash us away,” became something of an elegy for post-Katrina New Orleans; in the days after the storm, Aaron Neville sang it a capella in a haunting appearance on Larry King Live. Newman himself has a strong relationship with the city; he lived there until he was five and still has family scattered throughout the region. On the phone, Newman is at turns wry and ironic and reflective and self-deprecatory, interested in which bands he might need to become aware of and freely offering his opinions on Jonathan Franzen and the architecture of Louisiana State University, but when confronted with the specter of Katrina, his tone shifts. “My own family down there, when they talk about it—which they don’t—they really look different,” he says, suddenly demure. “It jerked the city back into reality more than it could stand.”

The strain of ordinary people looking straight into a reality too painful or unbelievable to bear is perhaps Newman’s major concern. “Baltimore,” from 1977’s Little Criminals, is a fiction that honors and complicates its hard-luck characters simply by letting them speak. “Never coming back here till the day I die,” he sings from the perspective of a lifelong resident. “Man, it’s hard just to live.” Newman himself hadn’t yet been to the city when he wrote the song, having seen it only in National Geographic and from behind the tempered glass of an Amtrak car, and yet he still seems to capture the angst that David Simon would tap 25 years later with The Wire. The truth doesn’t always have to be seen up-close to be known.

For 2003’s The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1 and the recently released Vol. 2, Newman revisited his back catalogue, recording solo piano versions of his classic tracks with producers Mitchell Froom and Lenny Waronker, the latter Newman’s lifelong cohort. These stripped-down versions expose the complexity of Newman’s piano phrasing and put his lyrics at the forefront. Though notable for its sophisticated use of synthesizers, the heart of the original “Dixie Flyer” (from 1988’s Land of Dreams) gets lost under the track’s shine; the version that appears on the second Songbook reveals twining and nostalgic piano rolls that play out like Fats Domino in a minor key, driving home the song’s ruminations on the summers Newman spent in New Orleans as a child.

Newman shied away from pop music following Land of Dreams, turning his attention to the film scores, composition and soundtrack work that have garnered him 20 Oscar nominations, beginning with 1981’s Ragtime and culminating in his second Best Original Song win for last year’s “We Belong Together,” from Toy Story 3. During his speech, Newman, looking appropriately uncomfortable in his tuxedo, quipped that it was bad television to recite a list of thank-you’s at the podium before proceeding to do exactly that. “I have to thank these people. I don’t want to,” he said to laughter from the audience. “I want to be good television so badly, as you can see.” That it turned out to be the best moment of an otherwise dry ceremony was a light, but not unappreciated, irony.

It’s probably unavoidable that, for many, Randy Newman will always be the guy with the funny voice who sings songs for the movies. For those in on the joke, Family Guy’s imitation of Newman’s signature sound—those lilting piano phrases, his quotidian profundity—is accurate enough to be momentarily amusing; we know the depth against which the shallow image plays. But for the rest of the world, for those only fleetingly and disinterestedly aware of his work, the goofy guy in the cartoon glasses is Randy Newman. Why bother digging any deeper when your opinion has been set for you? And yet this is the same charred ground upon which Newman has built his brilliant career, a hard maple bunker against the demi-apocalypse of indifference and shallow engagement. His country is a far more interesting, much more nuanced place.  

Lester Maddox appointed more African-Americans to positions in the state government of Georgia than any governor before him, and he commanded his state troopers not to use the words “nigger” or “boy” when pulling over Black drivers. In an interview near the end of his life he expressed sadness over Newman’s “Rednecks” narrator’s flippant handling of the Jewish talk-show host. What Randy Newman sees from his piano stool is a country one must listen to in order to truly see. To ignore him is to risk falling in step with the sad superficial meaning of everything—left foot, right foot.     F

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