By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
On the morning of September 11, I leave a message on the answering machine of Randy Newman‘s manager. “Is that second interview we scheduled still on?” Nobody calls back. A thin veil of clouds yawns open to lovely weather, a sparkling blue-and-white mirror image of New York City, minus the smolder of dead planes and wounded buildings that plays in two- or three-minute intervals on CNN. My younger sister, the lawyer, shows up at the door; she can’t go to work because she works downtown and the courts and everything else are closed, and she‘s already packed her infant son off to daycare. Her nerves are too jangled to sit at home and do nothing. I fix her some grits for breakfast, and together we watch more CNN.
Hearing nothing from the Newman camp, I resolve to keep the appointment for professionalism’s sake. My sister in the front seat, I drive to Newman‘s home in the Palisades on highways and roads made clear and more hospitable by disaster, fear and orders to stay home. Overhead the sky is brilliant and boundlessly, stupidly optimistic. It strikes me that the morning so far, with its easy juxtapositions of tragedy and homily, of everything going to hell on television and everything coming up roses where I live, would be perfect fodder for a Newman song.
Look at those mountains,
Look at those trees,
Look at that bum over there,
Man, he’s down on his knees . . .
Newman shouts “Hello!” in a startled voice from upstairs before appearing in the foyer in rumpled shirt and shorts. His television in the spacious dining room is tuned to CNN. He looks bewildered, partly by the unfolding news of the world and partly because I‘ve showed up. He doesn’t seem to know if I‘m supposed to be here any more than I do -- his manager is apparently too upset to return calls. “Okay. Where should we talk?” he mutters, rubbing his head of graying curls and glancing about his palatial house like he’s never seen it before, as if it doesn‘t quite agree with him. We settle on his studio in the back yard. He takes his seat behind his desk, next to the Steinway grand that’s always within reach during conversation.
“I figured this would happen in my lifetime,” he says, fingering the keyboard idly, talking and playing nearly to himself. “I just didn‘t know when. Myself, I’m fine.” We discuss what we know at this point about the attack‘s cause, the logistics, the body count, the futility and the inevitability of U.S. military strikes, of war. But what unsettles him most are things much smaller. “You know, you see it and it’s almost too big to look at,” he says of the hijackings. “Then somebody told me that a guy in the plane that crashed near Pittsburgh went to the bathroom and called 911 and said the plane was being hijacked.” He shakes his head. “When you hear an individual story -- a guy in the men‘s room, and then the plane crashed -- it makes it rougher somehow. You hear there’s a guy, and it becomes real to you. That he had the bravery to say that. It makes it worse.”
For nearly 35 years, Randy Newman has been making records, and 2001 is like any other year. He has no comeback album or down-and-out-in-the-industry stories, thanks to a second career as a successful film composer, and thanks to a pop career that, admired as it was, never really ascended in the first place -- to be down and out you must at some point have been high and in, and he never was, quite. So the only reason to write about Randy Newman is that he‘s still Randy Newman, unrealized pop star (the film scoring he calls well-paying grunt work, something to essentially support his studio habit). At 57 he is perhaps more amiable than in the past, but no less a malcontent. Artistically, he’s as much an enigma as he was when he officially arrived on the music scene in the early ‘70s with albums like Good Old Boys and Sail Away. At a time when pop music was splitting its sensibilities in two, echoing the raw anger of the ’60s or offering soothing philosophical counterpoints to it -- the Eagles, Carole King, James Taylor -- Newman was doing neither. He was following some weird interior compass that often led him back, back to slave times or Reconstruction or an obscure historical event, or to various observations tied to no history at all, all of which violated pop music‘s ironclad rule about being in the moment.
He violated other rules, too, never directly addressing love and heartache and broken dreams; though he had plenty of discontent, Newman was not a rebel -- he was too glum and unsexy for that. He was a kind of accidental analyst and humorist who happened to be under 30. He was famous, he knew rhythm, even lived it, but he was never what you’d call hot. Even all the attention generated by the only two Top 40 singles of his career, “Short People” and “I Love L.A.,” focused more on the songs themselves and their questionable sentiments than on the man who thought them up.