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“The third-person thing has always been my natural mode of expression, but it’s never proved very popular,” he muses. “I‘m not the ’I‘ in my songs a lot of times, and if I were, I wouldn’t be heroic. I think it‘s some kind of character flaw, not necessarily an admirable modesty at work. I think it’s shyness, and it turned into a style.” It‘s a style that allows him to speak passionately where his shyness would ordinarily prohibit it. “In my songs, characters and people always come first,” he says. When they don’t, they‘re not as good. “I don’t want to preach, I want the person to make the best case he can make. Like in ‘Rednecks,’ the guy‘s making a case, a good case, and yet he’s not -- ” He stops abruptly short of judgment. “Would you want to be his neighbor?”
Over the years, people have been tempted to say that Newman champions the underdog or the anti-hero, but like many readings of his music, that‘s often way too simple (the enduring controversy over “Short People,” one of his least thematically complicated songs, makes the point). Newman scoffs at the popular notion of heroes, but admires heroism. He isn’t really a pop singer, but he has no quibble with popularity. He may live in his own head but enthuses over the lowest-common-denominator likes of Lionel Richie and ABBA. “I fucking love that stuff,” he says heatedly. “Of course in ABBA you have the winner taking all, the loser standing small. You have some language difficulties there, but it doesn‘t matter at all. I don’t look for irony.” Pause. “Now, I wouldn‘t want to be listening to it dying in a plane crash.”
What Newman actually likes most about pop music -- ABBA notwithstanding -- is its veneration of male cool, which officially started with Elvis and lives today in hip-hop. “That’s certainly the hippest stuff going,” he says of hip-hop, a bit admiringly. “It‘s all part of that. I remember coming out of Marlon Brando movies feeling like” -- he squares his shoulders, puts out his chest, grins ear to ear -- “You know what I mean? It’s a big deal, that feeling. I don‘t know who’s the Brando or the James Dean anymore, but that‘s the lure of the music. Feeling hip and tough.
”But you can’t believe your own story,“ he adds. ”That rock & roll life. You can‘t pretend you’re tough.“ I ask Newman what he thinks of the whole rap genre, which may be the current incarnation of cool but has always suffered creatively from its own hollow posturings of thugs, gangsters and womanizers. That black artists are generally encouraged into such postures and self-referential stereotypes by the music industry exacerbates the problem. Newman agrees with that, but resists pessimism. ”I assume some of these guys have some a NEWMAN continued
interesting stuff going on,“ he says a bit defensively. ”Dr. Dre is making some very good tracks for Eminem. I mean, kids aren‘t looking to Neil Young anymore, or to me.“
He brightens, like he’s just had a better idea. ”I‘ll tell you a story. I don’t know if it‘s true. I don’t stand by it -- I‘ll deny it. A singer has just been on this awards show, and his manager comes backstage, a Jewish guy. This white guy -- we’ll call him Andy -- is back there doing coke and drinking. He‘s had substance-abuse trouble or something. The manager says, ’Andy, you‘ve worked so hard, why are you doing this?’ The guy says, ‘Leave me alone, you little Jew bastard, I’m just enjoying myself after I‘ve had this big triumph.’ They wander into a room where a bunch of black guys are hanging around. The manager says, ‘Come on, Andy, let’s go, let‘s go home and start over again.’ Then the guy starts yelling real loud, ‘You Jew prick, you bastard!’ And some of the black guys start saying, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ getting into it a little. And the manager says, ‘Okay, Andy, I’m going.‘ There’s a crowd of black guys gathered around. Then when the manager gets by the last guy, Andy turns to him and said, ‘My-y-y niggas.’“
Newman cracks up. ”I don‘t know, that’s such a bad story. But it‘s a phenomenal one. They’re like egging him on, Andy‘s high, feeling a part of it -- ’My niggas.‘“ He shakes his head in disbelief, or disapproval, or something else.
Randy Newman’s wit is formidable and obvious, but after spending time with him, I find myself more impressed with his heart, which is also formidable, though not what he‘s known for. Newman likes to keep even his most loyal public off-balance, guessing at who he is or what he might mean. But he also frets about being misunderstood. He’s come to expect indignation over ”Short People“ and ”Rednecks,“ but what‘s thrown him more recently are fans agreeing with the rednecks, singing the refrain proudly (”We’re rednecks, rednecksWe don‘t know our asses from a hole in the ground“) at concerts, or taking the simple uplift of ”Follow the Flag“ solemnly, at face value. Yet Newman will never blame his audience, to whom he’s always accorded more integrity and insight than the characters in his songs. ”It‘s difficult,“ he says, reiterating ”Follow the Flag“ on the piano and listening closely. ”It’s not meant to be patriotic, but it‘s a close call. It’s obvious to me, but . . . maybe I didn‘t do it well enough.“