Randy Newman might be the most misunderstood American songwriter of the 20th century. This is no exaggeration. For nearly half a century, Newman has been unfairly pigeonholed as either a novelty singer or a merciless parodist – or just the curly-haired dork who plays the piano. His throwaway takedown of prejudice in 1977, “Short People,” became an unlikely hit, inspiring bans and backlash from those who took it literally. There was even a failed piece of legislation to slap criminal charges and a $500 fine on anyone who’d play “Short People” on the radio in Maryland. Beyond that, most younger music fans are only aware of Newman through a widely shared clip from a 1999 Family Guy episode that dug at him as a silly, piano-playing musical reporter, singing about literally anything that crosses his field of vision. It would be a decent gag, if it was informed by his records at all. Because really, it’s the opposite.
Newman’s artistic voice – laid out across ten albums to date – is economical, atheistic and bone-dry. The Angeleno nephew of three film composers, he introduced himself to the world in 1968 with New Orleans-style piano tunes about unsophisticated romance, overweight children and a God – sorry, the Big Boy – who hides fearfully from mankind. As his profile grew, so did his sardonic point of view, writing through the lens of perverts, racists, stalkers, child murderers and speed freaks. He gained fame mostly through renditions of his songs by major singers of the day, who often didn’t seem to connect with the subject matter. Indeed, one can make a darkly fun activity out of cuing up obliviously melodramatic covers of dry-wit songs like “Old Man” – where a narcissistic father dies alone – or “Sail Away” – a sales pitch for prospective African slaves – by Art Garfunkel, Bette Midler, Joe Cocker and others. Whether we’re talking about well-meaning pop stars or the hand-wringing public, Newman has a miraculous ability to draw the misinformed out of the woodwork.
But even this doesn’t tell the entire story. Sure, Newman’s entire worldview seems to be peevish, full of darkness and sarcasm in spades, but there is also so much sweetness and light. I’ll be damned if “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” (written for Toy Story) and “Dixie Flyer” (an ode to his childhood experiences in New Orleans, released on 1988’s Land of Dreams) aren’t as sunny as songs like “In Germany Before the War” are chilling. I hope to get this across, too, about Newman. He’s not only the soundtrack to Woody and Buzz’s adventures, and he’s also not just a writer of despondent human-condition jams. There are myriad grey areas, detours and trapdoors within. With Newman’s eleventh studio LP Dark Matter due out Friday (8/4), here are ten great tracks from which to enter Randy Newman’s songbook for the uninitiated, curious or suspicious.
(Note: For clarity of the music and lyrics, I have more often than not linked to versions of these songs from Newman’s Songbook collection (2003-2016), rather than from the original albums.)
“Love Story” (Randy Newman, 1968)
The first song on Newman’s debut album is his masterpiece because it’s exactly what it says it is. I’ve long since mentally retitled it “The Love Story” because it feels archetypal, like a divine plan for the ordinary, average couple. This Genesis 1:1 of Janes and Joes begins with the mother of all opening verses, a series of mystical syllables that explains all human motivation past, present and future: “I like your mother / And I like your brother / And I like you / And you like me too.” Then, in three minutes, the lovebirds plan their wedding, have a kid and watch the Late Show by the fire before getting shuttled to a retirement home and dying. And then the best part: “Love Story” is just over, and the chorus doesn’t repeat. If you’d like this loving couple to reunite at the Pearly Gates, you’re listening to the wrong songwriter. With this final musical choice, Newman seems to say “There is no afterlife,” while chuckling and flicking off the lights on this perfect song.
“Mama Told Me Not To Come” (12 Songs, 1970)
“Mama Told Me Not To Come” is mostly known through its hit cover version released the same year by Three Dog Night. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to understand it – you can’t sing this song while trying to sound cool. A dispatch from a straight-laced mama’s boy who’s in over his head at “the wildest party there ever could be” (I’m sure, dude), “Mama” also simply must be accompanied by a flustered piano tumble in 12/8 (or is it 15/8?) or it’s not the song. Quibbling aside, the mental image of this young man flailing around a smoke-filled function is one of the most precious gifts a song has ever given me. “Mama said that ain’t no way to have fun,” he pouts in the chorus, silently regretting the whole thing. But hot damn, this is. What a small, hilarious treasure “Mama” is – one that I never tire of.
“Suzanne” (12 Songs, 1970)
The most cold-blooded song from the already-shadowy 12 Songs, “Suzanne”’s titular character has no idea she’s being tailed. And the hypnotic, disturbing piano figure really sounds like Newman’s narrator is hiding in the bushes outside your apartment. Songs about stalking are usually pretty groan-worthy (see the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,”) and this one could be pretty dark and off-putting, but Newman is a lyrical surgeon who knows when to make his incision. “Now, I don’t want to get too romantic,” he deadpans near the end, providing crucial comic relief at the perfect millisecond. As with Newman’s best songs, the menacing “Suzanne” takes you on a journey, where your jaw might drop in shock before you spit out your beverage laughing.
“Uncle Bob’s Midnight Blues” (12 Songs, 1970)
Seriously, what the hell is going on in “Uncle Bob’s Midnight Blues”? Even when featured on an album where two pyromaniacs screw in a cornfield and a high school girl is run over by a beach cleaning truck, this one sticks out in 12 Songs like the “Mama Told Me” character at the party. The first lines seem to imply alcoholism and drug abuse in tandem – “Going down to the corner, gonna have myself a drink / Cause the shit we’ve been using sure confuse my thinking” – before the character ties up a goat in his front yard “for all my so-called friends to see.” What is he trying to prove – that the weeds need a trim?
Newman’s known for writing tersely, leaving the details up to interpretation, but never like this. We only know Uncle Bob has done these two things. Then the character seems to get sidetracked and stops telling the story mid-sentence – “I had a great idea the other night / Come-a-ti-yi-yippy baby / Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day / We love you.” Maybe it’s best Newman didn’t tell us what led to, or from, this bizarre vignette.
“Lonely at the Top” (Sail Away, 1972)
“Lonely at the Top” follows Sail Away’s title track, a string-swelled, inspirational ode to America that could be its national anthem if it wasn’t actually about slavery. Taken together, they’re sardonic split halves of the American Dream. Newman made the irreverent decision to write “Lonely at the Top” – a glum meditation on fame – for Frank Sinatra, probably picturing him slumped over the craps table at the Sahara. Of course, Frank turned it down – imagine him singing this ditty about hating his own success.
This topic is well-trod for songwriters of the era – a few years later, Neil Young would proclaim that having the “World on a String” was irrelevant to his daily happiness. But “Top” is a funnier, subtler pill to take, a brief Dixieland daydream where the young pianist imagines being an over-the-hill, unfulfilled playboy.
“Dayton, Ohio – 1903” (Sail Away, 1972)
“Shut up for a second and picture yourself a hundred years ago,” “Dayton, Ohio – 1903” seems to say. “Imagine how simple things were.” This is one of Newman’s only irony-free songs – a touching lament for a bygone time. Even placed near the end of Sail Away, Newman’s sweetest and prettiest album (if you ignore what it’s about), “Dayton” seems to interrupt this program with a record scratch sound effect. Listening to it, it’s difficult to not yearn to step into clean air, simplicity and silence, and saunter over to your neighbor’s place for tea.
1903 was a year that seemed to divide American history in two – the same year, the Wright Brothers took flight in Dayton, no less – and electricity was just beginning to be introduced into homes. Of course, things are dramatically different now, but Newman generously freezes this moment “on a lazy Sunday afternoon in 1903” for us, so we can experience it forever. Let’s sing a song of long ago.
“Birmingham” (Good Old Boys, 1974)
Randy Newman’s magnum opus Good Old Boys begins with “Rednecks,” a shocking (and shockingly smart) send-up of smug, hypocritical Northerners and their role in institutional racism. However, Newman felt he had to explain the too-hot-to-touch “Rednecks” with its sister song, “Birmingham,” where the bumbling protagonist makes it abundantly clear where he’s coming from. It’s a boast track that predates hip-hop. He’s “got a wife / got a family.” Alright! He’s got a three-room house with a pepper tree out front and a big black dog named Dan. I mean, do you? To boot, his daddy was a barber – a most unsightly man. An unlikely point of pride.
The most important part of “Birmingham,” however, is that its proud, workaday character exists everywhere, in all of us. Whether you work in a factory or firm, live in a penthouse or with a pepper tree, we could all stand to be proud of where we are and what we have. This guy certainly is. Get ‘im, Dan.
“Rollin’” (Good Old Boys, 1974)
Forget Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down.” Alcoholism more often begins at the end of the workday than from the memory of a woman. The spiritual precursor to Good Old Boys’ “Guilty” – Newman’s most stunningly bleak song – “Rollin’” explores what might subtly lead to a whiskey-fueled downfall. As with “Love Story,” its first lines read like scripture. “I never drink in the afternoon / I never drink alone / But I sure don’t mind a drink or two / When I get home.”
Then it becomes this soft, soothing country shuffle, where its character (probably Newman’s invented character of Johnny Cutler, who inhabits most tracks on Good Old Boys) leans back in his easy chair with two fingers of bourbon after a hard day’s work. Then, he lists off insecurities and worries that the bottle removes from his psychology – namely, betting away his daily bread and loafing on the couch all day. But those troubles all vanish into the air. He’s all right, now. What could possibly go wrong?
“Mr. Sheep” (Born Again, 1979)
Featuring synth-slopped songs and Newman signing a shady deal in KISS makeup on the cover sleeve, Born Again is our hero’s angriest, most critically reviled album. It’s also a devilish thrill to listen to. Most of its songs cast Newman as a terrorizing figure – whether threatening to disrobe in public or castigating a sniveling punk from Jersey “with his cute little chicken shit boots on / How ‘bout it, you little prick?” who’s causing trouble in his neighborhood.
Yet, “Mr. Sheep” is the darkest of them all. Here, Newman badgers the briefcase-toting pencil-pusher below him as he makes his way to work. It’s a tough call who “Mr. Sheep”’s narrator is – I thought it was a punishing, Book-of-Job God but could be Newman himself – but he clearly delights in tormenting this poor little office drone like a boy burning an insect with a magnifying glass. “Maybe you got a little girlfriend / Stashed somewhere in town,” he spits, before taunting “Maybe you ain’t got a little girlfriend! / Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho ho! / Poooooooooor Mr. Sheep!” It only gets more sadistic from there.
“Harps and Angels” (Harps and Angels, 2008)
While Newman’s 1970s characters seem to live simple lives and die without consequence, “Harps” plucks a different chord. Whether autobiographical or not, this latter-day song depicts a 64-year-old Newman having a near-death experience from heart arrhythmia. And true to the saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” he even sends a prayer out to the cosmos just in case. (“You never know,” he adds with a wink.) And nearly shedding your mortal coil would seem to be set to a shuffling, jazzy backdrop.
Who’s there in Heaven? “The angry God of the Old Testament / and the loving God from the New.” What’s the alternative? “Trombones, kettle drums, pitchforks and tambourines!” His advice? “When I lay you on the table, you better keep your business clean.” And what’s the takeaway from all this? “There really is an afterlife, and I hope to see you all there. Now, let’s go get a drink.” I’ll buy.