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Later, in the early ’80s, a friend introduced me to the Randy Newman I had always sensed was there but had never met -- “Mr. Sheep,” “Jolly Coppers on Parade,” “Rednecks,” “Sail Away,” “Louisiana 1927,” never-more-topical “Political Science.” I was astonished to hear a white singer get away with repeatedly using the word nigger, which since the official death of minstrel shows has been guaranteed to trigger outrage in America of some sort, somewhere. It evidently didn‘t; I ask Newman why, adding, as a kind of disclaimer, that I love the song “Rednecks” and the whole Good Old Boys album. I was especially moved by “Louisiana 1927,” a portrait of the devastation wrought by the infamous flood of that year, though I’ve always known full well that the narrator is a cracker and wouldn‘t hesitate to shoot me on sight if he thought I was trespassing on his sorry, waterlogged property.
Creating such odd, even alarming but resonant emotional tableaux is Newman’s gift. “If I were Neil Young or Dylan or someone else, people might have noticed, but there was this enormous apathy,” says Newman of the N word. “Mostly they didn‘t know. In [early-’70s] Boston they were in the middle of all that school busing, and they took it off the air. Actually, I feel nervous every time I say the word, every time I play the song, just like I do with ‘Christmas in Capetown.’ But it made a point that seemed more in question than it does now. The North doesn‘t have any more moral superiority in the way it treats blacks. Things weren’t great anywhere . . . but this is the really segregated town, L.A. More segregated than Atlanta, or San Francisco.”
Newman knows L.A. in a way celebrities who live here generally don‘t, and he appreciates it -- both the subtleties and the abominations -- in a way most us of here don’t bother to. For Newman it‘s less a company town and more home, as well as a logical landscape for his creative and political idiosyncrasies: He talks fervently about the color-coded inequities of public schools (“It’s really sad”), about the north Long BeachCompton rivalry, about the shifting demographics in South Los Angeles (“Where did all the black people go?” he asks me at one point), about his affinity for the Harbor Freeway (“It‘s one of those obscure roads, but it goes a long way”) and his dislike of Santa Monica Boulevard (“Ugly from start to finish”). Newman was born here but spent the first three years of his life in New Orleans, and vacationed there in the summer until the age of 11 or so. Clearly, the South made an indelible impression; in his critically lauded 1988 album Land of Dreams, also unofficially voted the Album Most Likely To Be Autobiographical, Newman details those impressions in songs like “Dixie Flyer” and “New Orleans Wins the War” (“Momma used to wheel me past an ice cream wagonOne side for white and one side for coloredI remember trash cans floating down Canal StreetIt rained every day one summer”).
In an interview last year, Newman said that, despite its obvious shortcomings, he liked the South, and Southerners, their traditions of civility, the South’s -- particularly New Orleans‘ -- sense of being a world apart from modern America. “There’s just a few things they‘re bad on, Jews and blacks and gun control,” he said. “It’s one of those ancient things, but they do go deeper with people than we do in the rest of the country. They always did. They just had it written down on walls: ‘No Colored.’ ‘No Jews.’ Boston didn‘t have it written down. L.A. didn’t have to write it down.”
Part of the reason I identify so strongly with Newman is that he apparently finds it difficult, or untrustworthy, to be himself in his art. For him it‘s personal; for me it’s that plus something else. Black artists historically have been allowed public identities, never private ones, so that their music is read as a reflection of social or even emotional struggle. The reverse is true for white artists, particularly singer-songwriters: The world proceeds from them. But Newman has always found intimacy and soul-baring confining and against instinct, and so has embraced emotional obliqueness and a storyteller role -- the de facto black musical tradition -- by default. Despite the prevalence of the first person in his songs, he positions himself as the conscientious observer in somebody else‘s shoes. Newman does this with such sincerity and lack of judgment that his songs emerge as unique in the annals of American song: examinations of broad types -- bigots, boozers, imperialists -- narrowed into people, played by Randy Newman. Newman is none of these people, and all of them; he is the medium who channels them, gives them heart, or brains, or motive. None of this guarantees you’ll like the characters any better, but Newman‘s job has always been to make things clearer, not more bearable.