Let Us All Praise Randy Newman

June 21, 2015

in REFLECTIONS AND RANTS

(Originally published on February 28, 2011)

RANDY NEWMAN: CLASSICAL PIANIST

Randy Newman turned 67 on Sunday. Arguably, he is one of the greatest American songwriters since the glory days of Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, Cole Porter,and the Gershwin brothers.  He has a keen eye, a brilliant sense of observation; he breaks most of the songwriting “rules” and he tackles risky subjects. He has a wicked sense of humour.

He can also be terse, grumpy, non-communicative and sarcastic. Interviewers approach him with a considerable degree of trepidation; it is best to be prepared. 

It’s the Edmonton Folk Festival, July 1993. I have been asked to interview him, live on stage in front of 700 fans in the blazing sun. I am nervous, and having met him before and knowing him to be prickly, I have a list of 60 questions, just in case he mutters “Yes,” “No,” or “Uh-huh” as I interview him.

Gingerly, I reintroduce myself to Newman backstage as a previous interview is taking place — my friend Holger Petersen is questioning Charles Brown, the American pianist and smooth blues singer. (Brown passed away in 1999; his estate will shortly receive its annual windfall from a sterling group of seasonal songs he wrote, including “Please Come Home for Christmas.”)

“Shhh,” he says, holding up his hand. “I want to listen to this – that man is one of my musical heroes.”

When we hit stage as Petersen’s interview ends, I’m now doubly nervous. But Newman, to my surprise, is warm, friendly, open, frank and chatty — everything a good interview subject should be. He answers questions about the use of irony in songs, and how he thinks the central part of “Rednecks,” in which he names every major black ghetto in the U.S., is “a bit of a cop-out.” As our time nears its end, I’ve got through six questions, so I hurry through to a personal one.

“I do realize,” I say, “that you lead a busy life as a songwriter, but also as someone who handles a wide variety of film and television work. If you’re at home, what’s your typical day like?”

“Well,” he responded, “we have a new baby, so I’ll probably watch the Teletubbies. I might write some letters, then around noon I go to my piano lesson….” I interrupt: “Piano lessons? But you’ve been playing piano for ever; you made your first record in 1968; other people — Irma Thomas, Cilla Black, Gene Pitney — had hits with your songs long before that…”

“Ah,” he responded. “But I’m studying classical piano.”

So I asked him to play a Beethoven sonata, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, at a folk festival. And he did. And it was brilliant.

NEWMAN’S GENIUS: WHY HE IS ONE OF THE WORLD’S GREAT SONGWRITERS

Randy Newman’s greatest skills are, first, his ability to inhabit the feelings and the souls of the characters he invents. And secondly, the way he provides telling little snippets of information — almost as afterthoughts — that totally nail the characters he’s writing about.

Finally, he gets to the point strait away. Is there a more telling first line in a pop song to match the opening of “Rednecks”, one of his most famous songs?

Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show

With some smart-ass New York Jew

Or

I’d like to say a few words in defense of our country

after which he compares President Bush with the Caesars, Hitler and Stalin, and finds Bush stacks up quite well, before making a definite conclusion:

(Our) time at the top could be coming to an end

We don’t want your love

And respect at this point is pretty well out of the question

But (at) times like this we sure could use a friend

 

Randy Newman is the master of the throwaway aside:

Her papa was a midget

Her mama was a whore

Her granddad was a newsboy ’til he was 84

(What a slimy old bastard he was)

Or (from “Louisiana 1927”)

President Coolidge came down in a railroad train

(with a little fat man with a notebook in his hand)

Newman first played in Canada in the fall of 1972, at a 200-seat coffee house on Jarvis Street in Toronto, owned by Neill Dixon, who now runs Canadian Music Week. Believe it or not, Dixon recalls, the opening artist was Jim Croce, who had major hits, but not the  buzz that Newman was already generating. “I remember we had lineups around the block, but I can’t remember much else. I know the artists liked the place and that they both delivered strong shows.”

 

Newman certainly remembers it. A few years ago, I had to pick him up at the airport, and as the limo passed the site of the club (which closed in January 1973) he exclaimed: “I played there!” “I was with Croce, and he had the hits, and I had a song that was #174 on the chart with an anchor.”

NOTE:  Newman will play Convocation Hall in Toronto on March 19 next year, and on March 28 at the Centrepoint Theatre in Ottawa.

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Videos of the Week:

This is Randy Newman’s most ironic song. And one that dares tackle the sensitive subject of endemic racism head on.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nGw_vAnqPI&feature=fvst

 

Here’s Newman’s hilarious, sardonic view of Los Angeles. For all those who are enviously convinced that LA is, really, the centre of the world.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0b5LzCOc98E

 

“Louisiana 1927” was revived when Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. While by no means the disaster that trashed one of America’s greatest cities, the devastation caused by the Mississippi floods is still remembered in the rural south.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGs2iLoDUYE