By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Newman likes to talk, but he likes to play more. His playing is directly him in a way that his lyrics, unvarnished as they are, are not. As he talks, he often turns to the piano to answer a question or give a fuller picture of himself. “Here, this is what I do,” he says at one point, and with his left hand begins vamping a growly bass beat in straight time. He starts humming, and the right hand joins in with a syncopated melody, relaxed but urgent in a bluesy kind of way -- this is the hallmark of so many of his midtempo songs, from “Short People,” “Roll With the Punches” and “It’s Money That I Love” to “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” The ballads -- if one can call them that -- like “Marie,” “I Want You To Hurt Like I Do” and even “Sail Away” are old-fashioned in a different sort of way, lushly orchestrated or sparely orchestrated but precise as a bolero, as carefully designed as the faster material seems offhanded. This is all illusion, of course; Newman casts everything to very specific effect. But he‘s also open to change and different interpretations, which may be why many other artists, from Harry Nilsson to Aaron Neville, have covered Newman songs. Tom Jones’ version of “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” for the movie The Full Monty, became a latter-day anthem of sexual liberation, which Newman wholly appreciates but finds amusing.
“I didn‘t take the guy seriously,” he says, referring to the song’s protagonist. “He‘s weak, he’s asking the woman to stand on a chair . . .” Newman goes to the keyboard again and sings in a register low enough to be a mumble: “‘Baby, take off your coat . . .’ It‘s really nothing, sort of sleazy. But Joe Cocker did it like this --” He sings the same line a NEWMAN continuedagain in a much higher key, and it bursts forth, a revelation. “You put it in a higher register, and it changes the whole song. I could have sung it like that, I can sing it up there.” He considers his own mild professional envy. “But I don’t have the instinct,” he finishes. “I meant it to be . . . that. I picked the wrong key. It‘s not a sexy song.”
Humane as his music is at its core, Newman himself has never been characterized as being even remotely warm and fuzzy. Profiles over the years are filled with adjectives such as acerbic, irreverent, intelligent, pointed, satirical, wry. Newman’s closest friends admit he‘s something of a grouch, but with good reason: He grew up shy and insecure about his looks, especially about his crossed eyes that were never quite corrected after several surgeries and which required thick glasses all his life. The self-doubt and introversion proved good for his musical development, not so good for his public image. Not that Newman’s admirers ever considered that a problem; Lenny Waronker, his closest friend since childhood and longtime producer, essentially coaxed the young Newman out of his shell into a vaunted career. That was public-relations coup enough. “What it really boils down to, I think, is that I had a much clearer picture of his potential than he did,” Waronker said recently. “I think my enthusiasm eventually wore him down, though he fiercely resisted it. Let‘s face it, you can’t shield yourself indefinitely from someone relentlessly reminding you of your greatness. You want to hear it.” On a more personal level -- a phrase that would doubtless make Newman cringe -- Waronker said that his friendship with the singer “helped me to understand so much. I just think that being around [Randy] has made me smarter and better.”
That‘s about as touchy-feely as people get about Newman. Even in Hollywood, a place famous for its gush, Pixar director and frequent co-worker John Lasseter said he chose Newman to score kid-oriented films because “That blend of twisted humor and emotion is really unique.” And, he added significantly, “He never speaks down to an audience in either the songs or the score. It’s always from an adult point of view.” Clearly, Newman‘s music represents him better than he represents himself. That’s his greatest wish, and his greatest fear.
I first heard Randy Newman when a lot of people first heard him, via his radio single “Short People” in 1977, when I was 15. I immediately liked the song for all sorts of reasons -- its sing-along-simple but affecting melody, its driving piano, its droll but entirely serious take on the menace of mindless prejudice (Newman says the song was also a conscious musical inversion, and arguably a spiritual perversion, of the Captain & Tennille‘s “Love Will Keep Us Together”). I also connected Newman immediately to ragtime doyen Scott Joplin, whose work I deeply admired and felt had been grossly misinterpreted by a public that wanted to consume it for its great Negro entertainment value, then discard its complexities and contradictions like bones. Newman was also misunderstood, but he was certainly more in control of his fate and his product than Joplin had been at the turn of last century. “Short People” was at once radical and old-fashioned, flinty social commentary propelled by the cheery bombast of musical theater and American traditions reaching all the way back to Joplin and Stephen Foster. (I remark to Newman that he could have been Joplin’s librettist, given the music the tart words and tension it deserved, and he seems genuinely impressed by the thought.) Newman fit my adolescent sensibility of not fitting, but in a good, almost arrogant way -- his stuff wasn‘t quite rock, but it rocked. He knew it, too, even while he hid behind the adenoidal voice, unruly hair, thick glasses and general loser persona. In another time and place, Randy Newman would have migrated to my clique of oddball friends in high school, and we would all have silently appreciated his smarts and self-deprecation and inability to get dates. He would have been a hero.