Randy Newman's acerbic songs press every emotional button
Randy Newman is thinking out loud, debating with himself how to fill the 2 ½ hours he will be on stage during his new solo tour. Newman's problem, however, is not in coming up with material to fill the time, but in deciding which songs he might have to omit.
"If you leave something out -- `Guilty,' `I Think It's Going To Rain Today,' `Sail Away' -- people won't be happy," reasons the singer-songwriter and Oscar-winning film composer, who since the late 1960s has amassed a body of finely crafted work that qualifies him as one of pop music's most original talents. "But it's hard not to do it."
Newman, whose songs can be acerbic, provocative and even mordant, says this matter-of-factly, almost modestly during a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
And if Newman fans have to forgo one of their favorites -- "Rednecks," "You Can Leave Your Hat On," "I Love L.A.," "It's Money That I Love" -- they will be treated to one, perhaps two, new songs that will be part of the album Newman hopes to release next spring, his first recording since 1999's "Bad Love."
"I've got all of the songs started and some of them almost finished," he says of the as-yet-untitled album. "Usually I have the songs written for an album before I go into the studio, but this is the first time I'm writing songs and working on them in the studio."
Newman, whose music is a swirl of New Orleans-styled R&B, gospel, blues, country, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley and Stephen Foster, will most likely play the new tune "Losing You," which he describes as "a ballad, a straight love song."
The other contender is "A Few Words in Defense of My Country." The song, Newman says, compares Dubya's term in office to "administrations that were worse -- Caligula, Nero, King Leopold in the Congo, Genghis Khan." But Newman may not perform it -- "It's tough when you don't have an ending."
"I've played it in Europe," he notes dryly. "It was sort of made for that -- countries where there's no defense."
Asked the mood in Europe toward Americans, Newman says, "People were very nice."
But, he adds, he was struck at the reaction to "Political Science," his satirical, genial-sounding description of a U.S. foreign policy based on dropping "the big one" to eliminate critics and Americanize the world.
"Everyone has always laughed at that song because it's so ridiculous," Newman says. "This time, they didn't laugh. I don't think they think we're going to drop bombs. But they didn't laugh at that song.
"The big difference from a long time ago is, they don't want to be like us. Years ago, American business was the model. Starbucks, McDonald's -- those were American successes. But we're not a model for them anymore."
Though his Q rating might be low, Newman's music remains an integral part of the American soundtrack. He won an Emmy Award for the theme song he wrote for the USA Network's detective show "Monk" ("It's a jungle out there/Disorder and confusion everywhere/No one seems to care/Well I do/Hey, who's in charge here? ...") "It's a minute long," says Newman. "That's what they wanted and that's what I did. ... It's a good show."
The elegant Newman tune "Louisiana 1927," from 1974's "Good Old Boys," one of his best albums, has resurfaced as an anthem of sorts at post-Katrina fundraisers. Newman, who was born in Los Angeles but taken during World War II to live in the Crescent City (his mother's hometown) while still a baby, is "happy and a little surprised."
"It's about another flood, but it's more accurate in describing this one," he notes. "The water never got there in 1927."
Newman still has family members in New Orleans -- 10 cousins -- and they bore the brunt of Katrina in various ways. "Three lost their houses. None of them came out of it unaffected," he says.
Another of Newman's songs, "My Country," which succinctly strips away the justifications necessary to wage war, was used recently in a TV commercial for a bank in the Carolinas. "The guy did sort of a country version," Newman says. "It showed a family watching TV and bouncing words off the screen to talk to each other. That was the way they communicated.
"I'm happy I wrote that song," he adds, with hardly a trace of irony.
Last month, Slate magazine quoted Newman's fluke 1978 hit, "Short People," to preface an article about a new study by Princeton University researchers showing that tall people earn more, on average, because they are smarter, on average.
"If I knew about that study, I would never had written that song," quips Newman, who was widely denounced for promoting the prejudices his song targets. "I can't believe that anyone has that kind of bias against people because of height. But maybe they do. There's nothing I can do now. My motive was pure when I wrote it. When I die, it'll be in the first two sentences of my obituary. And it's not even my best work."
When the talk turns to songwriters he admires, Newman mentions Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Jimmy Webb and Kanye West. He also says that Maroon 5's songs "would have been hits anytime" in the rock era, and calls OutKast's "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" "a very good record."
Although carrying a 2 ½-hour show single-handedly can be taxing, Newman, who has a reputation for shyness, relishes being on stage. "I like it up there," he says. "I'm more comfortable on stage than in life. Why I don't know. People as an audience appeal to me. When people are laughing or applauding, you gain -- it's a cliche to say it -- an enormous amount of energy."
Asked if he has any thoughts about turning 63 on Nov. 28, Newman replies, "I don't see much good about it, just more aches and pains. I'd rather not."
© 2006, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.