Randy New­man puts his own twist on Putin and life today

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - BY RANDY LEWIS

As one of pop’s mas­ter satirist-hu­morists, it’s likely no sur­prise that for his first stu­dio al­bum in nine years, song­writer-com­poser Randy New­man has set his artis­tic crosshairs on Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. Af­ter all, this is the artist who in­spired anger and protests with “Short Peo­ple,” his 1977 sendup of racism. Ear­lier, in a take­down of du­plic­i­tous for­eign pol­icy in “Po­lit­i­cal Science,” he sar­cas­ti­cally sug­gested that the United States “drop the ‘big one,’ and see what hap­pens.” Then there’s “I Love L.A.,” his paean to his na­tive town that deftly wove in an al­lu­sion to this city’s home­less prob­lem. And now New­man has gone top­i­cal again with “Putin,” a cen­ter­piece of his new al­bum, “Dark Mat­ter.” Be­cause of their rel­a­tive scarcity, any new work from Randy New­man is an event. Since his 1968 de­but, he’s re­leased just 10 stu­dio col­lec­tions — a rate of about one ev­ery four years. That pace has slowed in the last three decades, dur­ing which he’s put out just four. Of course, there’s also his com­pos­ing work, as New­man has scored more than 20 films, in­clud­ing Dis­ney/Pixar’s lat­est, “Cars 3.” “Randy New­man is a na­tional trea­sure,” said Ea­gles co-founder and long­time friend Don Hen­ley. “He’s also prob­a­bly the most mis­un­der­stood and un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated record­ing artist alive. “He’s one of the only liv­ing song­writ­ers who can get ridicule and em­pa­thy into the same song. Some­times, he works in the realm of irony; other times, he’s a heart-on-his-

[New­man, sleeve ro­man­tic,” he said. “The com­bi­na­tion of his lyri­cal ge­nius and his deep abil­ity as an or­ches­tra­tor and com­poser is pow­er­ful stuff. There’s no­body quite like him.

“I said when I in­ducted Randy into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, that what you hear in his mu­sic is Amer­ica, in all its shame and all its glory…. He mines so many rich veins of Amer­i­can musical cul­ture and syn­the­sizes them in a way that no­body else has done.”

New­man is clearly think­ing big on “Dark Mat­ter.” The open­ing track, “The Great De­bate,” is an 81⁄2-minute suite, a face-off be­tween science and re­li­gious faith that plays out cin­e­mat­i­cally, with a nar­ra­tor in­ter­act­ing with sev­eral dis­tinct other points of view ex­pressed by var­ied char­ac­ters who are fleshed out by a shift­ing musical mise-en-scene.

In the case of “Putin,” New­man proved to be a lit­tle pre­scient. The song was writ­ten long be­fore re­ports of Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion came to light and well ahead of Pres­i­dent Trump reg­u­larly voic­ing ad­mi­ra­tion for the Rus­sian leader.

“It’s re­ally not that crit­i­cal of him — that’s what sur­prises me,” New­man, 73, said re­cently, sit­ting at a shaded pic­nic ta­ble in the back­yard of the Pa­cific Pal­isades home he has shared with his wife, Gretchen, and chil­dren for the last 20 years.

The house, over­look­ing the sky­line of Beverly Hills and Cen­tury City to the east, is in the same neigh­bor­hood where he spent much of his child­hood.

“Putin” be­gan a few years ago, but New­man was less in­ter­ested in the leader’s poli­cies. In­stead, New­man ze­roed in on what he saw as a quest for fame, as in­spi­ra­tion struck when im­ages of the shirt­less ex-KGB of­fi­cer rid­ing a horse around the Rus­sian coun­try­side be­gan to cir­cu­late on the In­ter­net.

“He can drive his gi­ant trac­tor across the Trans-Siberian plain / He can power a nu­clear re­ac­tor with the left side of his brain,” he sings.

“I won­dered at it: What does he need with that — why? He’s the rich­est man there is. He’s the most pow­er­ful. What’s he want?” New­man said, also re­veal­ing the seem­ingly in­sa­tiable cu­rios­ity that com­pels him to keep writ­ing and record­ing nearly 40 years af­ter the re­lease of his strik­ingly idio­syn­cratic de­but al­bum, “Randy New­man” (sub­ti­tled “Some­thing New Un­der the Sun”).

His con­clu­sion about Putin’s pub­lic brag­gado­cio: “I think he also wants to be Tom Cruise. He wants to be like a movie star — a su­per­hero, a strong­man.

“There are videos of him throw­ing big­ger young men around,” New­man said. “It in­ter­ested me, but it also wor­ried me. It’s an oddly baby-ish sort of be­hav­ior…. And this was be­fore I knew there was going to be this gi­ant baby — this gi­ant, evil baby — run­ning our coun­try.”

So yes, as that state­ment would im­ply, New­man has writ­ten a song about Trump. But he has cho­sen to keep the full tune to him­self, at least for now.

As he’s stated in a num­ber of other in­ter­views, he chose fairly vul­gar lan­guage to cap­ture the defin­ing per­sona of some­one he con­sid­ers to be a vul­gar pub­lic fig­ure, as his song draws par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion to the pres­i­dent’s pri­vate parts.

“I just didn’t want to add to the prob­lem of how ugly the con­ver­sa­tion we’re all hav­ing is,” he re­cently told the U.K.’s the Guardian.

“There was an ar­ti­cle in some pa­per that said [Trump] is like a char­ac­ter in a Randy New­man song,” he said. “And he is. I mean, I don’t think of those peo­ple as quite real…. That’s why he’s prov­ing a prob­lem in some ways for co­me­di­ans in that it’s so much. With satire you want to [be able to] ex­ag­ger­ate a lit­tle bit.”

Play­ing him­self

Among the out­landish char­ac­ters on “Dark Mat­ter”? Randy New­man him­self.

In “The Great De­bate,” he calls out for the “un­trust­wor­thy nar­ra­tor” — a de­vice he’s of­ten em­ployed through­out his ca­reer, which has net­ted him two Academy Awards, six Gram­mys and three Em­mys, among other ac­co­lades.

In “The Great De­bate,” a char­ac­ter called True Be­liever out­right cas­ti­gates the song’s nar­ra­tor: “Sir, do you know what you are? You’re an id­iot, you’re a straw man, a fab­ri­ca­tion. You see, the au­thor of this lit­tle vi­gnette, Mr. New­man, a self­de­scribed athe­ist and com­monist, cre­ates char­ac­ters like you as ob­jects of ridicule.”

It adds a layer of rich­ness to the tale, in which sci­en­tists de­bate re­li­gious folks over top­ics such as dark mat­ter, evo­lu­tion and global warm­ing, all hot-but­ton is­sues in today’s world of di­vi­sive po­lit­i­cal dis­course.

“You start to think, ‘Well, this guy’s got an open mind’ and then he just gets mowed down by the power of the stuff con­nected with re­li­gios­ity, with faith, be­cause it’s just mighty,” said New­man, who does in­deed con­sider him­self an ag­nos­tic, if per­haps not a full­blown athe­ist.

New­man’s not-so-se­cret weapon in each of his songs is the mu­sic he sup­plies for the words of his nar­ra­tors, a wealthy amal­gam of pop and clas­si­cal source ma­te­rial. Here, he taps the blues, gospel, folk, rag­time, cham­ber and sym­phonic mu­sic, ref­er­enc­ing at var­i­ous points Aaron Co­p­land, Gus­tav Mahler, Dmitri Shostakovich, Al­ban Berg and film com­posers.

His big­gest in­flu­ence from the last, he said, would be his un­cle, Academy Award-win­ning Al­fred New­man, prob­a­bly the best known of his three com­poser-un­cles, which also in­clude Emil and Lionel New­man.

He be­lieves the can­vas of pop mu­sic doesn’t have to be lim­ited, struc­turally, the­mat­i­cally or son­i­cally — al­though al­bums as cre­atively ex­pan­sive as “Dark Mat­ter” don’t of­ten top sales charts.

“You can do it,” he said. “When I first be­gan writ­ing this way, with char­ac­ters in it, I al­ways won­dered why more peo­ple didn’t do it. And I think maybe it’s be­cause it’s not a great idea for the medium [of pop mu­sic]. Maybe it’s meant to be a di­rect I-love-you, you-love-me kind of medium.

“But you can do this other stuff, and it comes off,” he said. “And I have such an af­fec­tion for com­edy, that I like to laugh and I like to make peo­ple laugh, so I do it.”

Some of his songs about the hu­man race are as sharp-edged as any of Mark Twain’s dark­est writ­ings — case in point, 1972’s “God’s Song,” in which the Lord tells his im­age-shar­ing two-legged cre­ations that, “Man means noth­ing, he means less to me, than the lowli­est cac­tus flower.”

Yet New­man in­sists he’s no mis­an­thrope.

“I’m not cyn­i­cal about the in­di­vid­ual be­hav­ior, but I’m shocked by how bad the mass be­hav­ior has been po­lit­i­cally,” he said. “I don’t think there are 40 mil­lion [jerks] in this coun­try. They’re not [jerks]. There are some nice peo­ple that voted for this re­ally bad ex­am­ple of an Amer­i­can.”

End­ing with a bal­lad

Yet the al­bum con­cludes with the heart-rend­ing bal­lad “Wan­der­ing Boy,” which he said was in­spired by an 1877 song, “Where Is My Wan­der­ing Boy To-Night.” It’s a song he sang at a pri­vate memo­rial last year for Ea­gles co-founder Glenn Frey.

It’s from the per­spec­tive of a par­ent ex­press­ing love and con­cern for a child who has dis­ap­peared, per­haps be­come home­less, and it re­veals the most heart­felt side of New­man’s mu­sic.

“It got me too, and it doesn’t hap­pen very of­ten,” he said. “I had trou­ble play­ing it for peo­ple just af­ter I wrote it. It must be some­thing in my past that it res­onates with.”

Mean­while, his “I Love L.A.” has be­come es­pe­cially cel­e­bra­tory this year. The song, cued up af­ter ev­ery Dodgers win at Dodger Sta­dium, has been blar­ing quite of­ten dur­ing the squad’s run for the Na­tional League West ti­tle.

“To be hon­est with you, for years I haven’t been a Dodger fan, de­spite the song,” he said. “I sort of root for the An­gels be­cause of Mike Trout.”

But even this skep­tic is ready to join the band­wagon.

“What’s not to like? They’ve got a young team, they’ve got a great team. It’s un­be­liev­able. They’re re­ally good.”

‘I think he also wants to be Tom Cruise. He wants to be like a movie star — a su­per­hero, a strong­man.’ — Randy New­man, on Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

SINGER-SONG­WRITER-COM­POSER Randy New­man takes aim at the Rus­sian pres­i­dent on his new al­bum, “Dark Mat­ter.”

Michael Ochs Ar­chives / Getty Im­ages

“I DON’T LIKE writ­ing songs that will just go away,” says Randy New­man, shown on his 1977 al­bum, “Lit­tle Crim­i­nals,” which in­cluded the hit sin­gle “Short Peo­ple.”

Alexsey Drug­inyn AFP / Getty Im­ages

THEN-RUS­SIAN PRIME MIN­IS­TER Vladimir Putin rides a horse dur­ing his va­ca­tion in south­ern Siberia, Rus­sia, in 2009.

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