The voice

For his first al­bum in nine years, com­poser Randy New­man, 73, even kicked in his own money

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY GE­OFF EDGERS

los angeles — So, fi­nally, at 73, Randy New­man has writ­ten a straight­for­ward, au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal love song, right? “She Chose Me,” a bal­lad on “Dark Mat­ter,” his first al­bum in nine years, opens with lush strings, a torch-song pi­ano and the soul­ful, gumbo-ish croon that’s dis­tinc­tively his own.

This had to be for your wife, he’s told. Gretchen is in­side the beau­ti­ful house they built to­gether. New­man is sit­ting out back on a clear Pa­cific Pal­isades morn­ing. He’s joined by an old friend, the leg­endary record pro­ducer Lenny Waronker.

“Prob­a­bly,” he says. “Since I wrote one [1999’s “I Miss You”] to my first wife, this one’s for her.”

That would be a per­fect way to leave it, the mas­ter song­writer with the short-dis­tance ded­i­ca­tion. But New­man chews on his an­swer like a chunk of over­cooked flank steak.

“Even though I didn’t know her when I wrote it, I don’t think,” he con­tin­ues. “I wrote it . . . I hope this doesn’t af­fect me get­ting the Academy Award for this one, but I wrote it for “Cop Rock.”

That would be the mu­si­cal po­lice drama that

lasted for a sin­gle sea­son on ABC in 1990. It’s ac­tu­ally pos­si­ble he wrote “She Chose Me” for both. “Cop Rock” pre­miered in Septem­ber of that year. He and Gretchen were mar­ried a month later.

“I just wrote it,” New­man says fi­nally, and laughs. “I’m a pro­fes­sional song­writer. I don’t need a wife.”

Fair enough. In the al­most 50 years he’s been record­ing, New­man has been able to cre­ate a stunning body of work by stay­ing in char­ac­ter. His first-per­son por­traits of the heart­bro­ken, heart­break­ing and misunderstood, and his po­lit­i­cal satires, have earned him a loyal fan base, the ad­mi­ra­tion of his peers and the oc­ca­sional odd­ball con­tro­versy. His lone top-10 hit, 1977’s “Short Peo­ple,” con­fused enough peo­ple, who didn’t get the mock at­tack, to in­spire protests and an at­tempt in the Mary­land leg­is­la­ture to ban it.

This month, in clas­si­cally New­manesque style, he made head­lines for a song that he de­cided was too vul­gar to record for “Dark Mat­ter,” his new al­bum. The demo is called “What a Dick.”

“Randy New­man writes comic song about Don­ald Trump’s pe­nis,” the Lon­don Guardian pro­claimed. Spin.com reprinted the lyrics. “Dark Mat­ter,” which ar­rives Aug. 4, is only New­man’s fifth al­bum since the Carter ad­min­is­tra­tion. It’s worth the wait. “Mat­ter” in­cludes ar­range­ments that could carry one of Frank Si­na­tra’s Nel­son Riddle records, nar­ra­tives told in the voices of the Kennedys, long-gone blues­man Sonny Boy Wil­liamson and Vladimir Putin, and a closer, “Wan­der­ing Boy,” that’s achingly sad.

There is also the al­bum’s lead-off track, an epic called “The Great De­bate.” It is what it sounds like: Sci­en­tists on one side, true be­liev­ers on the other, ar­gu­ments over global warm­ing, evo­lu­tion and re­li­gion. Men­tion is also made of a ma­nip­u­la­tive writer named “Mr. New­man.”

“It’s a crazy way to start a record, an eight-minute song that goes to all these places,” says Mitchell Froom, the al­bum’s co-pro­ducer. “But it’s stunning.”

Why don’t they write songs like that?

In the old days, the golden era of pop crafts­man­ship, the record com­pany grunts would be hound­ing him, nag­ging New­man for the next record. These days, he’s on his own clock. He works in a bro­ken in­dus­try, in which even an artist’s dream la­bel such as None­such has its lim­its. On “Dark Mat­ter,” New­man kicked in about $20,000 to help pay for the record­ing.

“It is im­por­tant to serve the songs as best I can,” he says. “And if I think I need a few more guys, and they won’t pay for it, I do. If it needs it, it needs it.”

Ask New­man about legacy, about his place in mu­sic, and you’ll hear a mix of mod­esty, frus­tra­tion and pride. He takes pride in his ap­proach, to lis­ten to and watch the be­hav­ior of oth­ers. He’s al­ways found other peo­ple’s sto­ries more in­ter­est­ing.

New­man watched seg­re­ga­tion­ist (and then Ge­or­gia gov­er­nor) Lester Mad­dox on “The Dick Cavett Show” be­fore writ­ing 1974’s “Red­necks,” sung from the point of view of a South­erner with a scathing view of North­ern racism. The n-word is the cho­rus.

Waronker re­mem­bers be­ing struck by New­man’s cu­rios­ity from the start.

“Once,” Waronker says, “we were in New York. I was work­ing there, and Randy came back to see me. Randy was 19. I must have been 22, or even younger. And one night he said, ‘I’m go­ing out.’ And he comes back around mid­night or a lit­tle later. And I said ‘Where did you go?’ And he said, ‘I just took a cab ride.’ And I said, ‘Why did you do that?’ And he said, ‘I just liked talk­ing to the cab­driver.’ It is a small thing and I might have blown it up over the years, but it’s these things — not only does he see the in­ter­est­ing part of dif­fer­ent peo­ple com­ing from dif­fer­ent places, but he is able to un­der­stand them and be­come them. Now that is hard.”

“I re­mem­ber that cab­driver,” New­man cuts in and laughs. “I re­mem­ber what he had to say. It was ter­ri­ble stuff about women, mostly . . . . He kept go­ing and go­ing and go­ing, and, uh, ac­tu­ally I wanted to get out, but I couldn’t ex­actly get out where I was.”

Amos New­man, his old­est son and the prod­uct of his first mar­riage, to Roswitha Boss, thinks that his fa­ther’s songs are of­ten deeply per­sonal, even if they’re in the voice of some­one else.

“There’s a song called ‘Memo to My Son,’ which is, os­ten­si­bly, about me,” he says. “At the time, I might have been the only child. Then there’s ‘The World Isn’t Fair’ and ‘My Life Is Good.’ Which is clearly not him, but it’s his per­spec­tive. There’s a thing on there about tak­ing his kids to pri­vate school. And he sees the moth­ers there. The moth­ers dressed up ready for the night. Di­a­mond pearls, what­ever it was. There clearly are things that are from his own ob­ser­va­tions and his own ex­pe­ri­ences.”

New­man is clearly at peace with his place in mu­sic.

At a re­cent con­cert in Low­ell, Mass., he sat at the pi­ano and du­ti­fully played the song that’s most pop­u­lar with the mil­len­ni­als, “Toy Story’s” “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” But he also de­liv­ered one of his tough­est and best songs, “Sail Away,” a cheer­fully de­liv­ered tale told from the per­spec­tive of a slave trader. With good hu­mor, New­man also poked fun at his des­tiny as a crit­i­cally ac­claimed, com­mer­cially chal­lenged song­writer.

He demon­strated his orig­i­nal ver­sion of “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” It slogs along, a creepy grind from a man you would cer­tainly not want to bring home for Thanks­giv­ing. Then he jokes about the up­beat cov­ers pop­u­lar­ized by Joe Cocker and Tom Jones. Talk­ing af­ter the show, New­man says he once cared enough about this stuff to con­sider call­ing Three Dog Night to ask them not to re­lease their ver­sion of his “Mama Told Me Not to Come” as a sin­gle. Waronker per­suaded him to let it go.

“‘Mama Told Me Not to Come,’ they made that a hook, whereas I didn’t,” New­man says. “I didn’t even say it one of the times we got to a cho­rus. I must be an­ti­thet­i­cal to hit.”

From good to great

The records never come easy. “Dark Mat­ter” may have been the tough­est.

“I had these songs for, in a cou­ple of cases, two years, and I would go in there and move for­ward a lit­tle, and I was hav­ing trou­ble mak­ing up my mind,” New­man says. “I don’t know why, but it hap­pened to me.”

That’s where Mitchell Froom came in. The pro­ducer, whose ré­sumé in­cludes Elvis Costello and Los Lo­bos, has worked with New­man since 1999’s “Bad Love.” This time around, Froom came to the house, set up a mi­cro­phone and spent a month mak­ing demos, some­thing for New­man to judge. “It sur­prised me how am­bi­tious he was,” Froom says. “And how pre­pared he was to work on it as hard as he did. You see some­body work through a se­ries of good ideas to get to great ones. And with the ar­range­ments, it would be the dif­fer­ence be­tween some­thing that worked very well, and it would sound like him, and I’d be sat­is­fied, and I’d say, ‘That’s great.’ But then, a week later, he would come up with some­thing that was greater there. It wasn’t fast or easy or any of those things, but re­ally im­pres­sive.”

New­man wrote “Putin,” a comic take on the Rus­sian leader, more than two years ago, long be­fore the elec­tion-tam­per­ing news cy­cle took hold.

He was in­spired by “the shirt-off stuff, the whole part of his per­son­al­ity that ap­par­ently wants to be not only the rich­est man in the world, and the most pow­er­ful man in the world by de­fault, and wants to be Tom Cruise. He wants to be a star.”

“Brothers” came out of his de­sire to con­sider the re­la­tion­ship be­tween not just the Kennedys, but brothers in gen­eral. The song darts into an aside on Ge­orge Pre­ston Mar­shall, the late Red­skins owner who held out on sign­ing any black play­ers un­til 1962, and throws a mu­si­cal changeup with a sec­tion on Cuban singer Celia Cruz.

There are also a pair of songs about those who are lost. “On the Beach” is about a high school friend who drifts away. “Wan­der­ing Boy” is the story of a child who grows up and dis­ap­pears from his fa­ther’s life. When he’s asked about the song, New­man chokes up, a re­ac­tion that he ad­mits later, sur­prises him.

“I don’t know why, but when some­thing like that hap­pens, rea­son tells me it’s about your­self,” he says. “I think I imag­ine hav­ing lost a kid, one of my chil­dren. I mean I did to write it. I imag­ine that, and I imag­ine a guy I went to school with who ended up on skid row or on the beach, wher­ever he was stay­ing, who fell out. The idea of fall­ing out has al­ways been in­ter­est­ing to me.”

Back in Pa­cific Pal­isades, Waronker and New­man are talk­ing about song­writ­ing again. The pro­ducer men­tions that of­ten, younger bands he works with will be in awe when they learn how close he is with New­man. They’ll ask if they can come to the house to meet the mas­ter.

That would, for many, be a won­der­ful com­pli­ment on which to rest. New­man, nat­u­rally, doesn’t view it way.

“How come they don’t write like that then?” he asks, as though he doesn’t to­tally trust his friend’s anec­dote.

“They can’t,” Waronker says. “Randy, it’s not that easy.”

BRINSON+BANKS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Com­poser and singer Randy New­man at his home in Pa­cific Pal­isades, Calif., on July 18. His new al­bum, “Dark Mat­ter,” ar­rives Aug. 4. New­man’s film scores in­clude “Toy Story,” “Awak­en­ings,” “Par­ent­hood” and “Rag­time.”

MARK J. TER­RILL/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Clock­wise, from top left: New­man, known for such hits as “Short Peo­ple” and the Os­car­win­ning “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” (from “Toy Story”), per­form­ing at the Birch­mere in Alexan­dria in 2002; the singer-song­writer in 1979; and, with pre­sen­ters Jen­nifer Lopez and John Good­man, af­ter win­ning the Os­car for best orig­i­nal score for his work on “Mon­sters, Inc.” at the 2002 Academy Awards in Los Angeles.

MICHAEL TEMCHINE FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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