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If you’re Randy Newman you’ll also need a piano, some borrowed dominants and lashings of irony. And that’s just for starters. Joe Jackson hears about the private, public and musical lives of one of American music’s most singular talents.

Joe Jackson, 30 Nov 1994

“Randy Newman is a genius.” From the earliest days of Hot Press, in the late ’70s, right up to a recent comment by Dave Fanning at the launch of a Shane MacGowan biography in Lillie’s Bordello, variations on this theme have been legion in rock culture.

But what does the label “genius” really mean when applied to a singer-songwriter such as Newman? With all due respect to his relatively limited vocal range the description obviously applies more to the “songwriter” half of that equation, which basically means the way in which our Randy marries words to music, right? One thinks immediately of pop classics from ‘Love Story’ in the early 1960s through the wonderfully titled ‘Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America’ in 1977, right up to his latest project, a musical adaptation of Goethe’s Faust.

Certainly central to the consensual view on Randy Newman is the fact that pivotal to his art is the art of irony. Indeed, this particular writer was so young and dumb when I first heard Newman’s ‘Love Story’ in the 1970’s, that I missed the irony, reading it instead as a straight-ahead love song and misapplying it to a rose-tinted relationship which, not surprisingly, soon turned into slime.

“Don’t feel so bad about missing the irony in ‘Love Story’, in fact, the older I get the more I realise the irony the song contains doesn’t look that bad to me!” says the man himself, speaking backstage after his recent concert in Dublin Stadium. Resting beside his arm is a complete collection of Randy Newman albums I’d brought along to help jog his memory, which he’d admitted “wasn’t too great in relation to specific songs” when we’d done the first half of this interview earlier the same day.

“The couple do finally get sent away to an old folks’ home in Florida by their children but the guy in the song has all this planned in advance from his 20s, right down to the boredom!” he continues. “And in a song like ‘I Want You To Hurt Like I Do’ (a form of farewell from a father to a son as he abandons his family, a move Newman himself made a decade ago) the irony is only the irony in wanting to hurt someone like that. But, as irony is supposed to be a twist on human behaviour, I’m not sure just how ironical that claim is, because how many people would really want to cause that kind of pain to a little kid?”

But surely a defining characteristic in the songs of Randy Newman is the attempt to address in songs those aspects of the human condition that few people admit to – whether that be racism in ‘Rednecks’ or the rejection of a junkie family member in ‘Little Criminals’?

“Sure, but the idea of consciously setting out to hurt your children and saying to your son ‘I’m leaving, because I want you to hurt like I do’ is something else again and though I admit to having felt something like the emotion in that song, like many I write, I push that feeling to its furthest extreme, for effect, to show what we are capable of,” he says.

“But, as you probably noticed in the show tonight, the way I introduce the number now is in a comedic sense, sending up the Live Aid concept. And it’s the element of black comedy I think many people miss. Equally, when people say I hone in on racism in, say, ‘Rednecks’ and ‘humanise the beast’ by giving such creatures a layer of humanity – that is conscious on my behalf. But I don’t want the audience not to say ‘Jesus, I’ve been racist myself and I must change that’, rather to realise that, in general, the people they know are better than the people in my songs.

“That’s another thing people misrepresent in relation to my own worldview. I don’t have the kind of cynicism many people assume I have. In fact, one of the great disappointments in my life is that I probably expect too much of people, as in a little more generosity. In that sense I’m not cynical at all. I’m pessimistic, but idealistic at the same time. That’s what I hope comes across in the songs, overall.”

Laughing suddenly, Randy Newman admits that many of the “less generous feelings” he himself harbours relate to commercial success of others compared to himself.

“I must admit that I feel a twinge if Elvis Costello is playing to 4,000 people and I’m playing to 400!” he explains. “But that type of thinking is just ‘Jesus, I wish I was playing to 4,000.’ Yet the other side of that argument is that if I hadn’t remained on the periphery throughout my career maybe I couldn’t have written the kind of songs I write, or delivered them to the audience I’ve sustained over the years. Like tonight, that audience really was great because they seemed to get every joke from the ‘African appendages’ line to knowing ‘Rider In The Rain’ so well they sang it better than I did! And the point about irony is that Irish audiences, in particular, have always tuned into that element of my work, whereas not everyone does – though I once thought everyone could. But now I realise that rock ‘n’ roll is not a great medium for irony.”

Why not?

“Because, say, if you listen to a song in a car radio and interference wipes out the middle section then you may miss the very lines that may have highlighted the irony” he explains. “And, hey, I’d be a little shocked at something of my own, like ‘Christmas In Capetown’ coming over the radio. Radio is (sings a highly impressive pastiche of Abba) ‘Waterloo. Waterloo, Couldn’t escape if I wanted to.’ But then that’s the kind of stuff I like to hear on the radio myself!”

Still, would he agree that most popular music is mere candy floss for the ears?

“People who write songs like to believe they are doing something more than that, something of worth” he reflects. “And some people are. Like that guy in REM and Bono are serious writers. But, sure, pop music is seen mostly as a diversion, to draw people away from confronting social realities such as bigotry, whatever. Yet, having said that, I really do mean it when I also say I’d probably rather listen to Abba’s greatest hits on the radio – but not write them. I can’t write that kind of stuff. I tried, until I was 21, 22, to write like the greatest pop songwriters at the time, such as Carole King. I admired her so much and what she did back in the early ’60s, like ‘It Might As Well Rain Until September’, was what I tried to do.

“Irrespective of her lyrics, which were less interesting, there were some marvellous things going on in her music, some nice progressions, chord changes and so on. People look at songwriting and never think about harmony, the whole musical side of things. But with her, even in the songs she wrote for Bobby Vee, though, again the lyrics often were lightweight, the music would always reach out and grab me. In her compositions I identified the same touch of talent that I could recognise in Irving Berlin, or Shubert.”

Tuning into music at this level, rather than through words was second nature to Randy Newman from the outset. As a child he studied piano and music theory, writing his first song at 16. Two of his uncles, Lionel and Alfred Newman were Hollywood composers, the latter once being described as “the most influential and powerful musician in the history of Hollywood music” having written the soundtracks for movies such as Wuthering Heights and Love Is A Many Splendoured Thing and been Musical Director on the film versions of Broadway shows such as Camelot.

Randy Newman’s own career began when he signed to Liberty records in the mid 1960s, alongside fellow teenage songwriters such as David Gates, Scott Walker and P.J. Proby. Both Walker and Proby covered one of Newman’s earliest hits, ‘I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore’ and Walker in particular has always highly praised Newman and recorded a number of his compositions from ‘Just One Smile’ through to “Have You Seen My Baby’ and ‘Cowboy.’ The neuroticism of ‘I Don’t want To Hear It Anymore’ also heavily influenced Walker’s early, similar songs such as ‘Archangel.’

“I only met him once, back when we worked together at Liberty and, to tell you the truth I haven’t kept up with which songs of mine he did record, though I know the Walker Brothers had a huge hit with ‘Looking For Me’ in Japan, which is probably as dark as some of the other stuff in that it’s about guys chasing each other with guns – gangsta rap of its day, I guess!”says Newman, laughing.

“But Scott and Proby and Gates and I all had publishing deals and were competing with Brill Building writers like Goffin/King, Barry Mann and Neil Sedaka. Unsuccessfully, I must add! Yet if Scott Walker now cites people like myself and Jim Webb as some of his original influences, that’s probably because we had that heavily orchestrated base in many of our songs. In a way I’ve been lucky because I’ve always been in with the critics, but when Jimmy was writing things like ‘Galveston’ and ‘Macarthur Park’ he was roundly condemned because of his orchestral base. I never really was.”

And what about the pop-classical influence of his uncle Al? Would Randy agree that there isn’t a great deal of difference between the way Alfred Newman scores melodies such as the main theme in a move like Wuthering Heights, with its eerie connotations in ‘Cathy’s Theme’, and the way Newman himself scores the backdrop for characters in his mini-movies such as ‘Story of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Band’?.

“Well the point is that from the outset it was assumed I’d go straight into composing film music because of my family history” he recalls. “And I would have gone into that had the singer-songwriter thing not come along in the early ’60s with people like Dylan. But if you listen to my first album now it sounds as if people like myself and Ry Cooder had never heard rock ‘n’roll or even groups like the Rolling Stones, who were happening by the time I got to make that record! But then I was coming from another angle from the beginning because I believed, for example, that maybe we could move things along rhythmically without a drum. It was largely melody driven, which, again, reflects my own musical base.”

Would Randy agree with those who suggest that a hallmark of his own work is the way in which he weds an almost voluptuous melody to a dark, bitter subject matter, as in ‘In Germany Before The War’?

“Yeah, but it seems to me that I have a different aesthetic in each area,” he explains. “In that when the lyrics are corrosive I like, not pretty music as such, but a musical counterpoint to the colour of the lyric. ‘In Germany Before the War’ is dark throughout because its about murder and uses dissonance for that very reason. I do whatever I think a song needs, rather than operate along just one discernible aesthetic line. Every once in a while, though, I make the mistake of warming up a song that should have stayed colder, like ‘Old Man’, where the strings have too much vibrato. I also really fucked up the orchestral charts for ‘Baltimore’ because I wanted a big sound, whereas later Nina Simone did an incredibly good version, which was much different than my own. That’s just one way in which the meaning of a song can be almost defined from the outset by even the arrangement.”

Newman also admits that cover versions of his songs can sometimes be ruined from the outset when singers miss the irony, as happened in Ray Charles’ version of ‘Sail Away’ which was interpreted as a welcome-to-America song when, in fact, its lyric subverts that very notion.

“Other singers have fucked up the same song that way, but I didn’t really mind when Ray did it because I was just happy to have one of my favourite artists covering one of my songs”he says, smiling.

So which cover versions does he think remain most true to his original vision?

“The best I only heard the other day” he enthuses. “And that was from Linda Rondstat’s next album where she does a song called ‘Feels Like Home’ from Faust which Bonnie Raitt sings in the show. That’s definitely the greatest cover I’ve ever had on any of my songs, though Joe Cocker’s done some great stuff too, like ‘Guilty’, and to a lesser extent, ‘Think It’s Going To Rain’. And ‘Leave Your Hat On’ though they take it seriously, whereas that’s not what I intended! But then, when I write specifically for other artists or projects it’s a different thing altogether. For example, I’m currently writing for three animated movies so I’m not being ironical and obviously not using words like piss, shit, fart, fuck, whatever. Equally, when I wrote that song for Bonnie there are things she can’t say because they don’t fit her character. She can’t be a bad guy whereas I myself can say be anything. On the other hand I remember playing ‘Lonely at The Top’ for Streisand and she said ‘I can’t do it, they’ll think I’m being serious.’ So there obviously are different limitations involved in creating mostly character songs.”

Character songs, satirical or otherwise, can also backfire, as happened when some “vertically-challenged” listeners took offence at Newman’s song, ‘Short People.’ Likewise, gay critic Wayne Studer has questioned Newman’s use of the line “He’s gotta be straight/We don’t want a bent one” in relation to the narrator’s desire for a child, in ‘Love Story.’ Conversely, Studer also hopes fellow homosexuals get the satirical elements in Newman’s magnificent attack on homophobia ‘Half A Man’ where a trucker takes out his tire-chain and knife to a “fag” who dared to wave at him – then finds that the closer he comes to the queer the more his wrist begins to grow limp.

“‘Bent’ didn’t mean what it now means when I wrote ‘Love Story’ for fuck’s sake” says Newman. “And I know ‘Half A Man’ is deeply misunderstood by those who think I’m saying that a gay is ‘half a man’ or that homosexuality is contagious. But, in fact, what I’m trying to show how ludicrous such prejudices are, and how prevalent they are in society. And it really pisses me off when people read my song that way. The trucker in my song is obviously an idiot! But people do think I’m making fun of gays in that song, whereas I’m not. That, and ‘Mister Sheep’, where it’s said I’m making fun of the businessman. But it’s not just that. In my songs, it’s never just a case of making fun of anyone.”

The most celebrated feature of Newman’s songs is their lyrical content, though this, he claims is probably because “people who write about such things, like rock critics, really don’t know how to analyse the music itself, as I suggested earlier” he says. But before we do discuss music would Newman like to comment on the relatively stripped down nature of his lyrics, which are normally metaphor free and even contain clichéd rhyme schemes linking words like ‘love’ and ‘above’ and ‘hand’ and ‘understand’?

“Sure they do, and why not” he says, smiling. “As a matter of fact I use a very limited vocabulary in my songs. I don’t use words like ‘predilection’ and so on because they wouldn’t be in tune with the kind of characters I like to create, and explore. What’s more important is to write words that anyone can understand. I can’t count the words I’ve thrown out of my songs, asking myself ‘Why eliminate anyone by using words that will alienate them?’ And in terms of metaphorical language, any English student can get off on literary tricks like that

“I want people to immediately identify that this is what the song is about, though there may be another layer of meaning to it. It’s not the pseudo-literary nonsense we all use as adolescents when we’re writing love poems. I used to write that in the beginning but it’s not the way I see things. And, okay, you could listen to that new song ‘Feels Like Home’ and say it’s not saying anything different but a lot of my songs don’t say anything new, they just say things from a slightly left-of-field perspective.And I really don’t mind rhyming ‘home’ with ‘alone’ or any of that stuff.”

It has been suggested that Newman keeps his lyrics relatively linear and accessible as an antidote to melodies that often seem to be ‘pushing the envelope’ in terms of form. Does he agree?

“Not completely” he muses. “I think I push the envelope in songs by using third-person narrators, by putting somebody out there and letting him make a case and say what they are, even if they are bigots. Like the guy in ‘My Life Is Good’ is obviously horrible and the guy in ‘Redneck’ makes a case that is true, whether you like it or not. But, yeah, I do try to push things musically.”

Tellingly, when given the chance to talk about music Randy Newman calls a temporary halt to the interview, making a pointed comment about music journalists in the process.

“This is hard because people rarely ask me to talk about the music in my songs, so I have to think about the best way to approach this, without getting too technical lest I bore your readers” he says. A few minutes later the interview resumes, with Newman flicking through his own albums to find, he says “examples of actual songs where I put some of the theory into practice.” He clearly relishes the chance to talk music, immediately picking up on Scott Walker’s suggestion that irrespective of the quality of their lyrics, the melodies of both Brel and Bob Dylan were fraudulent.

“I’m not sure it really applies to Dylan” he says. “Maybe some of the early stuff was repetitive and did focus more on the words, but something like (sings) ‘Everybody must get stoned’ and ‘I Shall Be Released’ are pretty memorable. Yeah, Brel did tend to use those descending orchestral figures all the time, like Michel Legrand, but then it’s really only when I write for an orchestra that I’ll try to do things that no one else does.”

Such as?

“The voicings in an orchestra, as in ‘Davey, the Fat Boy’ which I wrote very early in my career and which is very advanced harmonically. Not advanced in terms of classical music in the 20th Century but advanced in terms of pop music. Pop songwriters haven’t gone past Brahms, because the audience hasn’t either. Whereas in classical music you have Shoenberg’s twelve tone system and the dismantling of the rules of harmony that have applied for centuries. Yet the recent success of the Gorechi symphony gives hope for audiences along these lines though, to me, it’s not as advanced as either Paul Simon or Prince, musically speaking. Prince certainly is progressive. His pop stuff is some of the most advanced of the century, in that it’s listenable, dance-y and, at times almost as atonal as Shoenberg. But, apart from that, there are three basic chords that most pop music is based on and not enough pop composers go beyond those parameters. Maybe because I’ve never been asked about this, I really can only think of someone like Prince consistently doing that right now.”

Randy Newman is gleeful on hearing that his old workmate, Scott Walker, has virtually reset Shoenberg’s song cycle Transfigured Night into a rock context, with his 1984 album Climate of Hunter.

“I’ll be damned!” he says, laughing. “In my pop writing the furthest I’ve gone is not very far, because of the limitations of the form. Talking in terms of even my last album, Land of Dreams, ‘Dixie Flyer’ is fairly conventional, ‘New Orleans Wins the War’ less so, and ‘Four Eyes’ is just a riff. Other tracks are maybe more imaginative. But what I’d really love to do is a 20th century thing and am really glad to hear Walker did. Particularly if it was influenced by Transfigured Night which is a great piece of music..”

So, where does Newman feel less limited by the restraints that are imposed within popular music? When he’s composing movie soundtracks, perhaps?

“Definitely,” he says. “And in that area I get better every time, doing some of my most difficult things for the last two movies, Maverick and The Paper. But even in the pop songs I’ve always at least tried to avoid what sounds pedestrian to me, on a musical level. I have done comfortable licks in songs, as in what one of my cousins describes as ‘the Randy Newman riff’ that’s there in ‘Birmingham’ and ‘It’s Money That I Love’ but that’s only because that lick still sounds good to me! The rest is my attempt to avoid boring people musically.”

At this point Newman reaches across for the pile of albums, saying “maybe I can be more specific if I look back over my songs.” He starts with the 1970 Nillson Sings Newman album.

“‘Vine Street’ is a fancy song, with all those Viennese figures and Mahlerian sixths” he says. “And ‘Emotional Girl’ has lots of borrowed dominants. Indeed, in something I wrote when I was 17, I went from a tonic to sharp 4 seventh, which is something I’d never seen before. And something like ‘I’ll Be Home’ has a great arrangement, again, with relatively intricate harmonics. But then when I write for an orchestra I try not to break basic voicing rules. I try not to have parallel fifths, or parallel octaves, except if I’m doubling. And a lot of times that pays off, trying to be innovative while working within the context of not breaking rules. In that sense ‘Emotional Girl’ could almost be a harmony exercise, and so could ‘Plain Girl.’ Linda Rondstadt calls them ‘plantation chords’, as in ‘Feels Like Home’. Pretty pure, not a lot of sevenths and so on.”

It is at this specific level that Newman rarely breaks the ancient harmonic rule of returning to a home chord, unlike Shoenberg, Walker, Prince and so on.

“That’s true” he says. “There’s always a tonic. But something like ‘Davey, the Fat Boy’ moves all over and never comes back to the original key. Yet that’s because, although music always comes first with me, I inevitably end up doing whatever serves the words best.”

Which songs then, among those he has recorded, does Randy Newman regard as his best?

“That’s a difficult question because I may choose another set of songs tomorrow” he says, smiling. “But definitely ‘Cowboy’ because I was proud of the arrangement. ‘Living Without You’ is also good whereas ‘Sail Away’ is only okay. And ‘Old Man’ though good is so cold I can’t play it because the kid in it turns out exactly like the old man, horrible. ‘God Song’ is another of the better ones. Likewise,’In Germany Before The War’ is good but it’s imprecise because you don’t know what it’s about unless I explain. The lyric isn’t clear enough.

“Trouble In Paradise was a real failure in the States, doing maybe only 200,000 copies, though I’m very fond of it. ‘It’s Money That I Love’ is very good, ‘Mister Sheep’ too. But ‘Miami’ is the best record I ever did, no doubt about that. The arrangement is really strong. ‘Christmas in Capetown’ is good but I never got the form right and it should be sung by a South African. And as for the Land of Dreams album, that is obviously the most autobiographical of my works, which was intentional, just to see if I could write that way.

“‘Red Bandanna’ I like, maybe so much that I overrate it! And the philosophy of ‘Roll With the Punches’ is obviously extant in terms of America and the fact that it’s finally sold out on the idea of being a melting pot, which has really become obvious since the last election. But if I had to recommend just one of these albums it would undoubtedly be Trouble In Paradise, which is my best.”

When it comes to the question of the autobiographical dimension in his work Randy Newman agrees with a friend of his who once suggested that his tendency to write third person rather than first person songs may be a “psychological defect.” Apart from a clearly studied exercise in autobiography, such as Land of Dreams, this is just not his style, he explains.

“Apart from a lot of what’s on that album God knows what songs you can name that are me!” he says, laughing. “And maybe adopting characters is a psychological defect. But that doesn’t mean I have any trouble expressing myself, directly, in terms of physical or verbal affection or anything like that. It just doesn’t interest me to write lines like ‘I came home at six/kissed my kids goodnight’. But it might also have been shyness in the beginning because I certainly didn’t see myself as a romantic figure. And even now I don’t think I could write something like ‘Feels Like Home’ for myself because its tone doesn’t interest me in terms of self-expression. And, of the old songs, ‘I Think It’s Gonna Rain’ doesn’t interest me because it’s too much about a young man meandering about pitying himself in a self-aggrandising way. I just don’t like it. It is a young man’s song.”

One telling change in Newman’s lyric for ‘It’s Money That I Love’ when he sang it at the Stadium was where the narrator claims that although money may not buy you love in this world it can get you “a half pound of cocaine and a nineteen year old girl” In the original lyric the female was sixteen. Why the change? Self-consciousness as a consequence of ageing?

“Yeah, my ‘old fool’ button goes off when I see that original lyric!” says Newman. “I really am too old to make it sixteen. And even though, yeah, you could argue that this is a narrator created to present a particular scenario, I still couldn’t sing that. And sixteen is a little dark for the song now. It’s a felony, whereas at nineteen that woman has free will and can decide what she wants to do.”

And what about the fact that ‘I Just Want You To Hurt Like I Do’ is rooted in the experience of Newman leaving his first wife for another woman, and leaving his children? Do similar aspects of autobiography come across in dark, if beautiful, love songs such as ‘Marie’ and ‘Guilty’ in relation to failings in love and even cocaine abuse?

“I did leave home and ran out on my children and that is exactly what I write about in ‘I Just Want You To Hurt Like I Do’” he responds. “And maybe there are elements of me hiding in stuff like ‘Guilty’. Yet that doesn’t mean I’m a bigot hiding behind the character in songs like ‘Rednecks’. That never was part of our family history. And in terms of cocaine I never liked it that much. I liked pain killers. But, in my family, there is a number of substance abusers, such as alcohol, drugs, gambling and women and I absorbed a lot of that to some degree at certain times in my life. I certainly took speed for a while and thought I couldn’t write without it. But when I stopped, the writing didn’t get worse and my singing actually got much better.Yet a lot of it was part of my background, as in film composers like my uncles who all took it. Another thing was that my dad was a doctor and he gave it to me. It was like the way people like Presley used drugs in the beginning, saying it was prescribed as a diet thing. But that was the heaviest downer I ever dealt with.”

And what about the break-up of his marriage?

“Of course that was hard for everyone concerned but I’m still with the woman I left my wife for and they get along now, as opposed to how things were in the beginning, which was very difficult. But although her name is Marie I didn’t originally write ‘Marie’ for her. That was another woman in my past. And, before you ask, I don’t think I will be doing a sequel to ‘The Girls In My Life Part One’ song! I’m very happy with the way things are. In my private life and in terms of my career, especially in relation to this adaptation of Faust. And the movie work. In fact it’s the movie work that pays the bills. All this touring doesn’t, in comparison with the deals I do for movie music. But I tour because I want to see if I still like it. And I still find that I do, fortunately. “

So, despite all those cover versions of his work has Randy Newman not yet made enough money to enable him to coast along financially, to maybe even consider retiring?

“No, though I don’t know exactly why that is” he says. “It may seem ridiculous but I do have to make quite a lot of money just to keep things rolling. There are five kids, two houses, insurance, whatever. So I couldn’t quit. And a major aspect of this is that my first wife gets half the royalties from the old stuff, everything up to the second last album. Though she gets nothing on Land of Dreams or the last few movies. That was the divorce settlement in California, so she’s obviously doing fine! But I couldn’t quit, even if I wanted to – unless I want to live at a hugely reduced level in life. But, apart from all that, I’m not complaining! Especially not when I come to a place like Dublin and get the response from an audience I got tonight.

“Yet, you know what my one complaint about the gig was? And, it is my own fault, I guess. But because I do use irony so much I don’t think the audience tonight believed me when I said they were one of the best audiences I ever had! They were waiting for the punch-line, the put-down. That was the punch line. Dublin was the best ever!”

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