Mojo (UK)

RANDY NEWMAN

No one channels American voices like RANDY NEWMAN - beguiling, prejudiced, entitled, devious, creepy, funny - but the easy style and wonky charm of his greatest songs have masked struggles with drugs and relationsh­ips and crises of confidence. Forty - fiv

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The last genius of American songwritin­g has a new album out, but the usual insecuriti­es and idiosyncra­sies apply: “I’d do nothing, if I knew it wasn’t bad for me.”

In early 1972, randy newman was at United recording studios, on sunset Boulevard, laying down piano and vocals for what would eventually become his most revered and respected lP, Sail Away. either that, or he was in bed. newman had never been confident of his composing abilities, but by the time of his third studio album the situation had reached crisis point. His songs were getting darker, and with them came more uncertaint­ies. Charts got torn up, sessions cancelled. His co-producer lenny waronker would receive late-night phone calls with news of sudden illnesses, and was reduced to going to newman’s house the next day and dragging him out of bed. “my lack of discipline could have finished me off,” he admits today. “i didn’t like the writing, the arrangemen­ts scared me too bad. i always wanted to be out of the studio. i’d do nothing, if i knew it wasn’t bad for me.” Forty-five years later, with two academy awards, three emmys, and six Grammys under his belt, recognised as one of the great american songwriter­s, the sardonic poet of his country’s dark interior, those doubts remain. we’re sitting in a cool suite in london’s savoy Hotel, before a half-finished fruit medley, on the eve of the release of a new randy newman lP. His first dispatch of original songs in nine years, and only his eleventh non-soundtrack lP overall, Dark Matter is a collection of mordant musical entertainm­ents that moves deftly from the sharply political to the deeply personal, from the Cuban missile Crisis and Vladimir Putin to songs of love and death that glide gracefully and cut deep. it begins with newman’s most ambitious song to date. set in a sports arena in durham, north Carolina, the Great debate is an eight-minute polyphonic conversati­on between reason and religion where science is defeated by the power of music, newman the atheist employing a 10-piece gospel choir (plus bits of Beethoven, Bach, Bruckner) to tear down his own arguments. “you can’t fight gospel music,” he says, in his sly, genial drawl, that still retains something of the new Orleans ‘yat’ of his childhood. “you can’t fight a Beethoven mass, or the height of cathedral ceilings. there’s no song that says, ‘Come on, be an atheist!’ you can’t win.” His longest compositio­n, it’s also one of his finest arrangemen­ts, incorporat­ing many of the skills he honed while working on the elaborate, often tricky scores for such Pixar/disney films as monsters, inc., a Bug’s life and the toy story series. However, pointing this out to randy newman proves problemati­c. “i’ve always wanted people to notice i was a good arranger,” he says, equivocall­y, “yet you don’t want them to notice the arrangemen­ts.” He ponders the conundrum. “i’m wondering now if the song’s too long. maybe i should have taken the two songs in there, done different versions of them instead…”

MUSIC ran in randy newman’s family, but so did anxiety. His father irving was a physician. His uncles worked in the movie business. emil composed soundtrack­s (Fritz lang’s rancho notorious, Howard Hawks’ a song is Born), while lionel and alfred effectivel­y ran 20th Century Fox’s music department from the 1940s to the 1960s. lionel conducted the scores for Cleopatra, alien and the Omen, and was musical supervisor on the star wars trilogy, while alfred was nominated for 45 academy awards, won nine, and composed the fanfare that still introduces every 20th Century Fox film. “i grew up with the Fox orchestra in my ear,” says newman. “alfred was the music director of 20th Century Fox, but he wasn’t happy. He’d play me pieces, ask what i thought of them, thinking they couldn’t be any good. i was eight! He was not confident, and he was the best there was. alfred’s son thinks that made a big impression on me. i don’t think so. i was born kinda depressive.” afflicted with strabismus at an early age, his crossed eyes attracted bullies. after operations to correct his vision failed, the teenage randy retreated indoors. encouraged by his dad to “do what my brothers do”, he’d taken piano lessons from the age of eight. at 15 he started writing, encouraged by his childhood friend, lenny waronker. son of liberty records founder simon waronker, who’d played violin in alfred newman’s Fox orchestra, lenny worked in a&r for his dad and got randy hired as a songwriter for liberty subsidiary metric music, alongside david Gates, Jackie deshannon, and leon russell. “lenny was my enthusiasm. He said, ‘why don’t you start writing songs?’ i said, i don’t think i can. But i did. when i’d write something and he liked it i felt better about it.” lenny shopped around randy’s early demos until he broke big in 1965 with Cilla Black’s cover of i’ve Been wrong Before. dusty springfiel­d chose two newman originals for Dusty In Memphis: i don’t want to Hear it anymore and Just One smile seemed to express a more troubled viewpoint than his earlier works. newman doesn’t see it. “i like them musically. But i think too little of the lyrics. my publisher was happy – ‘there’s a chorus!’ But i chose to write things other than love songs. not the brightest decision. People like love songs.” the first song newman wrote where he “wasn’t trying to be Carole King” was simon smith and the amazing dancing Bear. it first appeared on Harpers Bizarre’s 1967 lP Feelin’ Groovy, was covered by alan Price that same year and finally ended up on Sail Away. to this day, he doesn’t know where the song came from or what’s going on inside it, although, historical­ly, he has imagined smith a hustler, using his bear to get into high society parties. when mOJO suggests he’s more of a rube, a court jester who’ll never be part of the glamour set, newman starts dissecting the lyrics. “really? let’s see… He doesn’t have much… He’s got to borrow a coat. ‘who needs money when you’re funny…’ that can be read differentl­y… yes! He can be a naive guy! you’re right! i never thought about him like that, but you sure as hell could.” this, says newman, is what interested him about these new songs. “i’d begin with a new Orleans piano shuffle, my natural means of expression, and then a voice would start, saying things in a syntax and diction that wasn’t mine. i don’t know where they come from. i’m just careful not to have them say things they wouldn’t say.” mOJO asks whether having poor eyesight meant

he listened more closely to the voices around him. He thinks for a moment: “Yes. Until recently, I didn’t look people in the eye. I don’t know what that’s done to my relationsh­ips, but it’s big. Kids called me cross-eyed, so I’d look down instead. I listened way more than I talked. You don’t learn anything if you’re talking.” When Lenny Waronker was hired as Reprise A&R man in April 1966, he offered a record deal to Newman and another young songwriter called Van Dyke Parks. The trio began work on an album of these “new songs”. Recorded with 75 musicians, including a full orchestra, and Wrecking Crew stalwarts Carol Kaye, James Burton, and Jim Gordon, Randy Newman (Creates Something New Under The Sun) is an extraordin­ary debut, Newman’s sleazy slur recounting tales of race, religion, family, sex and death against reeling, mocking, often queasy arrangemen­ts that ask you to listen a little closer, because something out-of-the-ordinary is going down. “That first record,” says Newman, “and what Van Dyke was doing on Song Cycle, and to some extent what Harry [Nilsson] was doing… we were like a branch of homo that didn’t become homo sapiens. Like we’d never heard The Rolling Stones. We moved things along with the orchestra. We thought it was cheating to use a

drum. But rock’n’roll continued and this other thing didn’t. It couldn’t have. It was too odd.” It also didn’t sell. For his second LP, 12 Songs, he and Lenny stripped everything down to an R&B minimum of Randy on shuffle piano, Ry Cooder, Clarence White and Ron Elliott on guitar, and Gene Parsons and Jim Gordon on drums. Recorded quickly, 12 Songs was informed by the New Orleans of Newman’s childhood; rolling Fats Domino blues set in a swamp-bound suburbia, populated by arsonists, stalkers, creeps and murderers. “I lived there until I was three, and we’d go back every summer until I was about 12,” he says. “It was cloudier than LA, and certainly 12 Songs doesn’t sound like California. The light’s different on it.” Newman’s mother Adele was from the city, and while New Orleans presented an America where Jim Crow laws were still in effect, it also gave Newman a deeper perspectiv­e on the mores of Southern people that would feed into 1974’s Good Old Boys. But

before that came Sail Away, which began as one of those great ’60s crackpot movie ideas. “This guy married to Leslie Caron,” explains Newman, meaning either Michael Laughlin or Peter Hall, “was going to make a movie with pop musicians. Van Morrison, Hendrix, me… Everyone

was going to have 10 minutes to direct whatever they wanted.” Newman had an idea about a guy in a clearing, a huckster, persuading Africans to board a slave ship bound for America: “Everybody is as happy as a man can be/Climb aboard little wog sail away with me.” Working with a 45-piece orchestra, conducted by uncle Emil, Newman combined the orchestral style of his debut with the basic track approach of 12 Songs. He delivered a masterpiec­e, “the best batch of songs I wrote”. Sail Away introduced Newman’s fans to a voice that would recur throughout his career: the Ugly American. In Political Science he’s “a jingoistic type of fellow” who wants to nuke the rest of the world because “no one likes us”. An ignorant, status-obsessed braggart, the character reappears most powerfully as Newman’s own bristling alter ego ‘Rand’ in My Life Is Good on 1982’s Trouble In Paradise. It is, says Newman, a voice he never thought was real, until recently. “Someone wrote recently that Trump is like a character in a Randy Newman song come to life, and he is! He’s like my people. I never thought you’d see anybody worse than the My Life Is Good guy, that ignorant and arrogant at the same time. But… he’s that guy!” Y The Mid-’70s, Newman Was getting better at listening to his interior voices, characters who spoke with a syntax and world-view that was not his own. For 1974’s Good Old Boys he constructe­d a concept album around the white inhabitant­s of America’s deep South. With tracks like Rednecks – based on ABC talk show host dick Cavett’s humiliatio­n of racist Georgia governor Lester Maddox – and Louisiana 1927, which blames the great Mississipp­i flood on the indifferen­ce of the North, Good Old Boys manages to disturb and unsettle without ever once turning its cast into caricature­s. It’s an album, however, that still causes Newman concern. “It got more attention than I would have thought,” he says. “I don’t think that much of it.” He also continues to be troubled by his use of the N-word in Rednecks: “I used to think I needed it for the song,” he says. “But things have changed. I don’t think it’s OK, even in a song, any more. I don’t play it any more.” The song from Good Old Boys he’s most proud of is Back On My Feet Again, which concerns a patient in a mental hospital, whose sister absconds with a white millionair­e who pretends to be black. “It’s from-the-heart weird,” he says. “A white guy pretending to be black because people are after his money? Nuts. Southern nuts.” The from-the-heart weird songs came to define his next two albums. But first came what Newman dubbed “the big freeze”. For the three years following Good Old Boys his ever-present fear of writing became a dread of returning. “That, and my affection for pain pills,” he says. “I always quit and got things together, for work, and for sex. But, otherwise, no. I liked them. But

they’re very bad for me.” Finally, in the spring of 1976, looking down the barrel of a 1977 gig schedule with no new songs,

Newman rented an office and started to write. Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner, Klaus Voormann and various members of the Eagles who’d helped him out on Good Old Boys recorded a collection of melancholy vignettes about small-time grifters, drifters and

murderers that became defined by its unrepresen­tative opening track. Written as a last-minute “up song”, then released as a single, Short People was another extreme example of Newman’s Ugly Americans, a misfit so bigoted he hates anyone of diminished stature. People picketed his shows. He received death threats. The song became a big hit. “C’mon! Nobody has a phobia like that!” he says today. “Well, maybe Trump does.” Written in response to this new-found fame, 1979’s Born Again was a part-concept about “that bullying rock’n’roll voice” that also contains some of his strangest, loneliest songs, including Ghosts and William Brown. “I’d had a hit, and it made me think people knew who I was. So this is how I acted. I went further out on a limb. With William Brown I tried to write a song where nothing happens. This guy moves from one place to another, neither of which has any significan­ce, and he’s fine. There’s definitely something sad about it, but I don’t know what it is. Sometimes, I think I know what I’m doing, but I really don’t.” Newman started to branch out further. In the early ’80s he was commission­ed to work on the soundtrack of Miloš Forman’s Ragtime, a stressful time which perhaps explains the focus he brought to his next album, Trouble In Paradise.

“It’s closer to a concept record than Good Old Boys,” he insists. “It’s about these beautiful towns where bad things happen.” Beyond the salute to urban anonymity of I Love LA (“Sixth Street/We love it!”) – which ironically became the official victory song of the LA Dodgers and LA Lakers – Trouble In Paradise is one of Newman’s most discomfiti­ng LPs, visions of troubled utopias in Christmas In Capetown, Miami (“Best dope in the world/And it’s free”) and My Life Is Good, made weirder by an ’80s production, which suggests that, behind the gloss, ever ything’s far worse. “My best record, up to a point,” says Newman. “It’s conscienti­ous writing, but not difficult to listen to. That’s the goal, isn’t it?” The album also proved prescient. Behind the high-profile hit of I Love LA, and his soundtrack work for Robert Redford’s The Natural, another “big freeze” was coming. Laid low by depression, his crumbling marriage and the Epstein-Barr virus, Newman was out of commission for a further three years. When he returned, it was with the pointedly autobiogra­phical 1988 LP Land Of Dreams. Newman insists that there was no connection. “The divorce, the illness, it didn’t affect my songwritin­g,” he says. “Nothing affects it. I’m always a little sad when I’m writing but it wouldn’t have mattered how I wrote the song…” He falters. “Actually, I don’t know if things were affecting me,” he says. “You might have to ask Lenny. I can’t tell anything. With Land Of Dreams I made a conscious effort to see if I could get something out of my own biography. But so what? I’ll take a song from wherever I can get it.” Between 1988 and 1999 Newman dedicated himself to film scores, racking up Oscar nomination­s for Avalon, Toy Story, Pleasantvi­lle, A Bug’s Life and numerous others. “It opened things up harmonical­ly,” he says. “I got really good.” He singles out the dissonant arrangemen­ts on A Piece Of The Pie from 2008’s Harps And Angels that couldn’t have been achieved without the angular work he did on Monsters, Inc. (“You couldn’t play regular major chords. You had to write 20th century music”), and My Country, from 1999’s Bad Love, a proud sweeping hymn to an American family, united and divided by the TV set. “It’s the secret we share,” he says, “that you spend six hours a day watching television, with your family, for 12 years. It’s not nothing. It’s not horrible. I grew up like that. Millions did.” He’s less keen on songs he wrote for other voices around this time, fan favourites such as Feels Like Home, Every Time It Rains and When She Loved Me. The first was written for Bonnie Raitt to sing in Newman’s 1995 musical adaptation of Faust, the second he originally composed for Michael Jackson, and the third is sung by Sarah McLachlan, as Jessie The Yodelling Cowgirl in Toy Story 2. “Do you see the difference between my usual songs and those?” he asks MOJO. “There’s nothing in them! There’s no shit, piss, fart, fuck and damn. There’s nothing that disqualifi­es them from another person doing it. I’m glad I can write that stuff, but I’m less interested in Feels Like Home than I am in Back On My Feet Again because there’s a person in that. And there he is, in the nuthouse, I can see him! And I can’t see anybody in Feels Like Home.” One thing that helped him reevaluate his work was Nonesuch’s Songbook series, where Newman reworked his back-catalogue in stripped-down piano-and-voice versions. “Before that, I never looked back,” he admits. “But I went back to things I thought were wrong and they sounded… better. I listened to the first album and I thought, You wrote well. You hung in there. You tried to do your best. (Pauses) But I didn’t have hits. It’s clear I don’t know how to. If you’ve been around 50 years and you’ve had one novelty hit, you’re doing something wrong. I stayed in the business, because there were people who knew I was pretty fucking good, but when they write me up at the end they’ll still say, ‘Randy Newman, composer of Short People…’” Asked what song he’d like to be remembered for instead, there’s another pause. “My Country,” he finally says, with assurance. “Actually,” he adds, as we’re packing up, “Maybe My Country is a little simple musically. And rhythmical­ly. Maybe I should have done something different with it. Maybe I should have had variable rhythms. Maybe I should have made it more jagged. I don’t know. What do you think?”

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 ??  ?? “I’ll take a song from wherever I can get it”: (from top) turning myopia into a stage move, early ’70s; 1974’s uncompromi­sing Good Old Boys; the look for mammon-themed Born Again (1979); President Trump – “he’s like my people”.
“I’ll take a song from wherever I can get it”: (from top) turning myopia into a stage move, early ’70s; 1974’s uncompromi­sing Good Old Boys; the look for mammon-themed Born Again (1979); President Trump – “he’s like my people”.
 ??  ?? “A branch of homo that didn’t become homo sapiens”: Newman at the piano in March 1972; (left, from left) Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks in 1968; (below left) his 1984 soundtrack to The Natural and 1977’s Short People single. A young Waronker (left)...
“A branch of homo that didn’t become homo sapiens”: Newman at the piano in March 1972; (left, from left) Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks in 1968; (below left) his 1984 soundtrack to The Natural and 1977’s Short People single. A young Waronker (left)...
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