Slouching Tall

Thirty years after his debut was met with deafening confusion, Randy Newman discusses a persona that's been compared to everyone from George Gershwin to Weird Al Yankovic.

In 1970, Randy Newman wrote a song for Frank Sinatra called "Lonely at the Top," and it went like this: "Listen all you fools out there/Go on and love me--I don't care/Oh, it's lonely at the top." Newman, then a 27-year-old singer-songwriter with two albums of his own out on Sinatra's Reprise label, meant it as an affectionate joke. That was simply how he saw Sinatra--as a solitary man, his hat tilted on his head and his coat draped over his shoulder, leaning against a lamppost, him against the world. Newman thought Sinatra would love the song--how could he not?

So one day, Newman and his lifelong friend Lenny Waronker, then a junior executive at Warner Bros., went in to play the song for Sinatra, who listened patiently, quietly. Frank said nothing as Randy played piano and began singing his little song: "I've been around the world/Had my pick of any girl/You'd think I'm happy, but I'm not." When he got to that line about all those fools out there, Newman noticed Sinatra was still quiet. "He didn't do anything," Newman recalls now, almost ashamed at the memory. Sinatra mumbled something, then passed on the song. Of course he did, though he did say something about maybe covering one of Newman's other songs, maybe that sweet ballad "I Think It's Going to Rain Today." Newman was crushed.

"It would have been a hip move for Sinatra," he insists now. "I could see him on that lamppost, making fun of that thing. But to think that he would make fun of himself was so ignorant of me. Lenny and I went in there and we played it for him, and I don't know what the hell he thought."

Shortly afterward, Newman approached Barbra Streisand about singing "Lonely at the Top." She too declined, though she would later include his song "Let Me Go" on her 1971 Stoney End. Streisand said she liked the song, but told Newman this: "People will think that I mean it."

And so it was left to Newman to record the song on his 1972 album Sail Away. He still performs it now, alone on the piano, when he tours, which is not often at all. Each time he introduces it, he tells of how it was written for Sinatra, and almost no one in the audience believes him. They think it's a joke, like the words themselves as they come from Newman's mouth. He, after all, is not Frank Sinatra. He is not lonely at the top. At the middle, maybe. "Everybody knows my name, but it's just a crazy game," he sings, and the audience roars. "Oh, it's lonely at the top."

And so it goes being Randy Newman, a man misunderstood even by his most hardcore admirers, which is what all of Newman's fans really are. There is, really, no such thing as a casual Randy Newman fan. Maybe there was once, when he sang "I Love L.A.," got on MTV cruising down the highway with that big nasty redhead at his side, and proved you can fool anybody any old time. Or maybe there was even two decades ago, when his song about them short people got banned on the radio and shot a single and a record (Little Criminals) on to the charts for the first and only time in his career. But that was a long time ago. And even then, he was misunderstood. Hell, he liked short people. Didn't anyone understand? Well, maybe he doesn't like 'em so much anymore. "Little pukes," he recently said, only half joking ... as always.

It is one of the great crimes of the twentieth century that a singer, songwriter, composer, and arranger of Newman's worth has been reduced to the performance of novelty songs, which is how he is perceived by a majority of the American public. He does, after all, have songs on Dr. Demento compilations. Did George Gershwin or Cole Porter get treated this badly? Never. Randy Newman has been adored, misunderstood, revered, and reviled. He is known either as the man who wrote about how short people got no reason to live and how much he loves L.A., or for his soundtracks to such films as Avalon, Maverick, Pleasantville, Parenthood, The Natural, and Toy Story, which spawned the minor hit "You've Got a Friend in Me."

And yet the man has dozens of albums, hundreds of songs, that rank among the finest ever written and recorded. They are beautiful, disturbing, haunting, hilarious, and so sharp their edges could draw blood. He is the most literate--and musical--singer-songwriter to emerge from the 1960s; if Dylan was Woody Guthrie and Josh White reincarnate, then Newman was Porter and Gershwin crossed with Fats Domino and J.D. Salinger and William Faulkner (not to burden him with too many antecedents).

From the get-go, there was never doing anything easily, simply with Newman: His debut record, released thirty years ago, was as grand and sumptuous as a Broadway musical--and as intimate and disturbing as any short story. And its successors, from 1972's Sail Away to '74's Good Old Boys to '88's Land of Dreams to '95's Faust, are equally trenchant and timeless.

Making the case is the four-disc boxed set Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman. It is a 105-song testament to his genius, to his ability to capture in a few words the best and worst people have to offer. There are songs about bigotry ("Rednecks," "Spies," "Short People," "Sail Away"), selfishness ("Real Emotional Girl," "So Long Dad"), greed, and callousness ("Political Science," "Davy the Fat Boy"). There are love songs that aren't about love at all ("Marie," "Take Me Back"), and songs that appear beautiful on the surface, but are bleak beneath the opulence ("I Think It's Going to Rain Today," "Louisiana 1927"). And there's a song written by a spiteful God ("I burn down your cities, how blind you must be ... you all must be crazy to put your faith in me") in which the Big Guy explains that He loves mankind because "man means nothing."

The boxed set offers proof that Randy Newman is everything Greil Marcus said of him in his 1975 book Mystery Train: "Laconic, funny, grim, and solitary ... Randy Newman is a typical figure in the American tradition: the man who does not like what he sees but is wildly attracted to it anyway, a man who keeps his sanity by rendering contradictions other people struggle to avoid."

Perhaps there is no greater contradiction than the fact that, as admired as Newman is among his peers (among them Paul Simon, James Taylor, Don Henley--all of whom have appeared on Newman's records), he is at best a cult artist. At worst, he's a man best known for writing soundtracks to Disney films, such as Toy Story, James and the Giant Peach, and, more recently, A Bug's Life.

"I don't know whether I could have written hits," Newman says during a break from recording his first album for DreamWorks Records. Titled Bad Love (for now), it will be his first album in more than a decade that isn't tied to a film or a stage production. "I don't think so, or I would have. I don't think that's where my talent lies. There are people who can do both, like Sting and Billy Joel, people who write very good songs and have them be hits. But I think it's only when I do these Disney things and get pulled back from my natural inclinations that they are more palatable for a wider variety of people."

Newman's natural inclinations are, as Lenny Waronker (the boss at DreamWorks, and the former president of Warner Bros.) says, to write pretty songs with a nasty intent. Newman puts it this way: He could write a love song, but he always feels inclined to say, "I love you ... you fucking bitch." Sting or Billy Joel do not have this problem.

Yet, Waronker says, "When the history books are written about this time period, Randy will be up there. To me, what he has done is successful. I always believe he will have some kind of real commercial success. It's hard for him to understand this, but as long as he's working and as long as he cares, he can't go wrong. Those songs are timeless."

Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles on November 28, 1943, but spent much of his childhood moving from one Southern city to the next: from Jackson, Mississippi, to Mobile, Alabama, to, finally, New Orleans. Though much has been made by his biographers of New Orleans's influence on his music--Newman is indeed the white, non-practicing Jewboy version of Fats Domino, whose rock and roll shuffles appear as often in Newman's music as the notes themselves--he lived there only a few years.

It was long enough for him to experience racism, to be disturbed by the "Whites Only" and "Colored Only" signs draped over the city like white sheets, but not long enough to understand why it bothered him so much. He found out only later, when he moved back to L.A. in the late '40s and found himself denied entrance into an exclusive country club because he was Jewish. Later, the kids would pick on Randy for an eye problem that always made it appear as though he were cross-eyed, something myriad surgeries could never quite correct.

He would spend the rest of his life exacting revenge, even if the world never quite understood just what in the hell he meant when he sang in the voices of impotent farmers, pyromaniacs, rednecks, and bigots who hated short people, immigrants, yellow men and their yellow women, and four-eyed geeks.

Newman was born into music the way most people are born into skin: His father Irving, though a doctor, had played some saxophone and clarinet, and even landed a B-side on a Bing Crosby single. Randy's uncle Lionel composed scores to Doctor Doolittle and Hello, Dolly!; another uncle, Emil, was the musical director on dozens of films during the '40s and '50s. But the big shot in the family was Irving's oldest brother, Alfred, who was the head of music for Twentieth Century Fox, where he composed Oscar-winning soundtracks for such films as How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, All About Eve, and How the West Was Won. (Alfred's son Thomas Newman also went into the soundtrack biz, having done the music for the likes of The Player, Scent of a Woman, and Revenge of the Nerds.)

Randy and Lenny Waronker--whose father Simon was the head of Liberty Records--spent hours watching Alfred work. They lived in the studio, and Randy would often say he knew his uncle's music as well as he knew Brahms or Mozart, whom he studied as a young child and as a music student at UCLA. That he would go into the music business was as inevitable as his last name.

But Randy was "intimidated by the standards" his family had, he says now. "They would hear some music and go, 'Anh, that's shitty,' and I'd think, 'Oh, Jesus, I thought that was good.' It's tough. It's tough having a family in the field."

But that didn't stop him from signing on as a songwriter with Metric Music, Liberty's publishing arm, in 1960. His first songwriting credit came with the Fleetwoods' "They Tell Me It's Summer," about a lonely teenaged boy who didn't get the girl, and if it wasn't a confessional tune, it sure as hell was autobiographical. His first solo single, "Golden Gridiron Boy," released in 1962 and featured on the boxed set (much to Newman's chagrin), told almost the exact same story: Newman was the kid "too small to make the team," so he ended up in the band, losing the girl of his dreams to the football hero.

When it's suggested to him that "Golden Gridiron Boy" (which was produced by Pat Boone) isn't so different from the rest of his catalog--it's touching and bitter all at once, the sound of a broken heart sneering at the rest of the world--Newman pauses. "Really?" he asks. "I was mainly reminded of Bobby Vee, but I guess it does have something a little extra. It's such an odd, anachronistic thing--a football song. The last one was, like, in the '40s. It was such a weird thing to do."

Eventually, his earliest songs would end up being covered by the likes of exotica world-pop instrumentalist Martin Denny, R&B crooners Irma Thomas and Jerry Butler, former Animals pianist Alan Price, jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, and such pop stars as Jackie DeShannon, Dusty Springfield, Cilla Black, Harpers Bizarre, and the Everly Brothers, whose 1968 Roots Newman also produced. His buddy Van Dyke Parks would record the marvelous "Vine Street" for his 1967 debut (the demo appears on the box); meanwhile, Newman also scored episodes of Peyton Place, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Judd for the Defense, which occasionally surfaces on TV Land.

But Newman wasn't much happy writing for others, even if he hated his own voice. As he describes it now, most of the singers who covered his songs simply didn't understand them. On her 1966 In My Life album, Judy Collins turned "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" into a soft, mushy ballad; it was as though she never even listened to the words, the cynicism concealed by the silk. When it came time for her to sing the bridge--the words "lonely, lonely," moaned in a desperate last gasp--she was far more impressed with her voice than the song.

"Those who understood the songs were frightened, and others who didn't give a shit sang right through them," Waronker says.

"What got me to start recording was I was complaining so much, I was just wearing myself out," Newman explains. "I said, 'If someone's gonna mess these things up, I ought to mess them up myself.'" Newman insists these other singers didn't necessarily misunderstand his songs; they just wanted to distance themselves from the sentiments contained within. "I am willing to completely subordinate everything to the song," he says, "and maybe they can't afford to do that."

So Newman signed to Warner Bros. in 1967 and began work on his first album (which carried the title Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun), with Waronker, then a junior A&R exec at Reprise, and Van Dyke Parks co-producing. Parks had just finished recording his own debut, Song Cycle, which featured Newman's "Vine Street" (which appears on the boxed set for the first time) and was so majestic it sounded as though it belonged in another time--say, 1853.

The album they made together was this inexplicable creation, something never before heard and subsequently never copied. (Its only true antecedent is composer-arranger Gordon Jenkins's epic love letter to New York, 1945's Manhattan Tower. Or Parks's own debut.) Newman's 1968 debut was such a bizarre, brilliant piece of work--a soundtrack without a film, a record thick with opulent orchestrations that owed everything to Randy's Uncle Alfred. You could hear the locales: the carnival of "Davy the Fat Boy," the pier where "Linda" stood, the alley of "I Think It's Going to Rain Today."

Parks, Waronker, and Newman were aware of how out-of-step the record sounded, but it turns out each had his own idea of what it meant. Waronker talks about how it was sort of a continuation of the musical adventures found on Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. He speaks of how they were "just trying to break the rules," how they were "making a record not necessarily just for the hits, because it was more about your peers and how they would hear it."

To Newman, the record was a personal sort of triumph, proof he could overcome his fears about making his own record without standing in the shadow of his father and uncles. He was convinced he couldn't sing the slow, orchestrated ballads, and he was scared to death of doing a record even remotely connected to his uncle's own work.

"It was just in the air," he says. "We were like a branch of homo sapiens that didn't become homo sapiens, Van Dyke and me. It was like an odd homo robustus branch that didn't make it. It's like we never heard the Rolling Stones. That's what that first record sounds like to me. It's the first thing I think. It's like, 'What the fuck? Didn't I know that "Satisfaction" had been out already?' It really was an ambitious thing for us to have done, for a 23-year-old." He pauses, as he often does, to get in the self-deprecating compliment. "I don't know if that first album is any good, but it's ... it's close."

But Parks offers perhaps the most interesting perspective: To him, Something New ... was a record made by a "nihilist ... an iconoclast ... and an egoist." As far as he's concerned, it was an "immensely personal" record for Newman--the album that would outdo Parks's own debut and put him on par with his uncles, the album that would make him worthy of the Newman name in Hollywood.

"He had already done Peyton Place," Parks says in his high, warm voice. "He was cashing in on the Newman eclat in town. He was already in the big leagues, and I think he was as mystified and pressed to interpret what I had done as I was."

When it was released in 1968, Newman's debut was greeted with deafening confusion. For a while, Reprise ran ads in music magazines, offering to give away copies of the disc to anyone who wrote in. Another ad promised: "Once you get used to it, his voice is really something." Warners even changed the cover art, replacing the photo of a short-haired, bespectacled geek with one of a long-haired, bespectacled geek. It didn't do much good: Until only a few years ago, the debut was available only as a Japanese-import CD. The album sold by the dozens.

It perhaps didn't help matters that not only was Something New ... an orchestral album, it was also a series of stories that were alternately amusing, creepy, and touching. There were no love songs per se; the opening "Love Story" has all the romance of a dry hump, closing as it does with the husband's promise (threat?) to his wife that once the kids are grown, "They'll send us away to a little home." After so many years of writing on demand for others, and after so many years of trying to sell himself as some sophisticated teen-pop star, Newman had found his voice--and it belonged to someone else.

It belonged to the guy whose idea of complimenting his wife was telling her, "You may be plain--I think you're pretty in the morning." It belonged to the grown-up son who returns home to visit his father and has to ask what the man does for a living. ("Just drop by when it's convenient to," he tells his father. "Be sure and call before you do"). It belonged to the senator from Utah, "The Beehive State," who demanded Congress irrigate his state's deserts and notify the rest of the country that Utah actually exists. It belonged to the out-of-time cowboy (actually, Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are the Brave) who found "cold gray buildings where a hill should be." And it belonged to the kid who promised the parents of "Davy the Fat Boy" that he would take care of their son--only to do so by putting big, fat Davy in a freak show, where patrons paid a quarter to guess Davy's weight and watch "my fat boy's dance."

"What amazed me with that first album was his faculty for distancing himself from the person who is singing the song," Parks says. "That was novel. That was a revelation to me, and I think that became his greatest asset, that he could develop perspective and a character beyond his own field of vision. He could put himself in another's point of view, and he did that to mixed emotional reaction."

The album is not entirely sung in the voice of the "characters" Newman would eventually create: The slave-ship owners of Sail Away, the drunks and rednecks of Good Old Boys, the rock-and-roll miscreants of Born Again. There exists no line yet separating creator from performer; and so the sad poetry of the majestic, tragic "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" sounds as though it's coming out of his very own mouth--and not the side of his mouth, either, but from his heart and past his lips. It's a gorgeous, haunting song, one he long tried to distance himself from--he despised its "pale dead moon in a sky streaked with gray" lyrics, its art-school poetry--only to finally accept that it ranks among his fans' most beloved songs.

"I remember Van Dyke telling me, it musta been close to thirty years ago, he gave me a compliment on something," Newman says. "I said, 'Aw, man. This stuff blows,' or something like that, and he said, 'You gotta learn to accept a compliment.' And it takes a long time, you know what I mean? For a lot of people. That may have been part of it. You tend to go, 'Oh, that's nothing. Jesus Christ. Girl, world.' You write something off for some odd reason, then you realize, 'Ease up.' When someone used to come up and tell me they loved 'I Think It's Going to Rain,' I used to say, 'It's not really one of my favorites. It's a little abstract for me, kinda sophomoric kind of mooing around about the moon.' And it's such an insult! It's like you're calling them an idiot: 'How did you like that piece of shit?' So I stopped ... and I don't feel that way."

Yet for his second record, 1970's 12 Songs, Newman ditched the orchestra completely, instead hiring a real rock and roll band that included Ry Cooder on guitar and Byrds Gene Parsons and Clarence White. But if the music was, in a way, regressing, the characters were evolving: Now, he was the guy burning down the cornfield who wanted to make love to the warmth of the flames. He was the guy who lost his gal Lucinda to the gears of the beach-cleaning machine. He was the na•f whose mama told him not to come to the party with all the drugs and wimmins. He was the asshole talking about the yellow man "eatin' rice all day." And he was the white-man-in-black-face gettin' drunk on turpentine and dandelion wine while he sits on the front porch of his old Kentucky home. It's a bizarre record, not so pretty as its predecessor--perhaps because Newman's characters were becoming so ugly.

"I often think of Randy as a visitor to a dark place from a very bright place," Parks says. "I have always thought he was toying in theory with desperation. If you study the reality of his life, you will see the work has driven the man to atone for a life of great privilege and self-constructed obstacles. From a place of privilege, an exercise in irony is a very natural entertainment. And he's a brilliant songwriter. He knew about songs. As a lad he lived that world. He is more tutored in what a song can and should be than anyone I have met before or since."

If Sail Away would become Newman's pop masterpiece, blending his string fetish with his rock-and-roll inclinations (at least he thought his nasal, dry voice sounded better on the rock stuff), then Good Old Boy was his triumphant manifesto. It was the history of the South told in less than an hour, from the "Rednecks" who opened the disc (singing about them New York Jews and how they're "keeping the niggers down"--a line that would break the heart and outrage more than one African-American fan, much to Newman's dismay and confusion) to the guy who loves his hometown of "Birmingham" to those poor crackers flooded out in "Louisiana 1927" to the impotent farmer of "A Wedding in Cherokee County" to the version of Huey Long's campaign song "Every Man a King." Featuring Cooder and members of the Eagles, the disc was a country-rock monument, songs of the South so recognizable they elicited a chuckle and a grimace.

Good Old Boys would also spawn the song that ranks as the favorite among Newman's fans, at least according to a Newman website ( "Marie," a gorgeous song in which a man can only proclaim his love for his wife by getting drunk. But when he does, he becomes a poet: "You're the song that the trees sing when the wind blows/You're a flower, you're a river, you're a rainbow." Newman still maintains it's not a love song, but he is completely full of shit. No matter how hard he tries to deny his sentimental side, it still comes out in a song like "Marie." So what if the guy's drunk; most men never offer such love songs to their wives.

"It's a really atypical song," Newman says, feigning shock at the results of the poll. "It's like, they really like me, but they don't like what I do." He laughs until he almost snorts. "You can't win. But 90 percent of the pop repertoire is romantic songs. I mean, 90 percent of the stuff Irving Berlin wrote, 90 percent of the stuff Paul Simon wrote, 90 percent of the stuff Sting writes are romantic songs. That's what the thing is about, and it's not what I've done. Me and Weird Al Yankovic. I don't know who else. Maybe Lyle Lovett."

But Waronker doesn't believe Newman when his old friend tries to distance himself from the beauty of songs such as "Marie" or "Same Girl" and "Real Emotional Girl" off 1983's Trouble in Paradise. "Sure, if you dig deep enough, you find the opposite of the sentimentality," Waronker says. "But it's there, no matter how much he hates it."

And it's there especially on 1988's Trouble in Paradise, a record that begins with a trilogy, of sorts: "Dixie Flyer," "New Orleans Wins the War," and "Four Eyes," thinly veiled songs about Newman's childhood in New Orleans. They were the first autobiographical songs he ever wrote--and, till Bad Love, the last. He explains he only did it in 1988 to see if he could. Now, on the new record, he does so because he must.

He talks about a song called "My Country," which deals with how he and his mother and father and younger brother used to communicate only when the television was on. They would bounce words "off the screen," as Newman says, singing the entire lyric over the phone. And that was how he raised his three boys. Indeed, the boxed set includes a picture of Newman sitting outside--actually in front of a television--with his son Amos. It's a rather sad song, about how nobody listens to anybody anymore, how people don't look at one another ("We know what we look like, if you know what I mean," goes one lyric).

But it is no more sad than another piece from the forthcoming album, something called "I Miss Ya, I Miss Ya," a love song to his first wife--which, he admits, "is a truly malicious thing to do." He doesn't recite the whole song, only one small piece of it: "I'd sell your soul and my soul for a song."

He then spends the next long while explaining that it's a completely true sentence. He is not singing it out of the side of his or anyone else's mouth. It's as honest as he gets, which is so honest it hurts. He knows this. And he does not care.

"I can't help it," he says, almost pleadingly. "I think I don't care. I used to think I cared. I wouldn't want to hurt my family or anything, but I think they give me that latitude. They don't count it as real. They don't... Things I write don't hurt them. I hope so, because I can't do otherwise."

"I still say, 'Yeah, and then the guy says this, and then the guy says that.' Maybe I'm evading the responsibility, but to me it's a work of, well, I don't want to use the word 'art,' but it's a work. I wouldn't hesitate to play any song for anyone in my family who's involved, like my brother in that TV song or my kids in the other one or either wife. And if they cause me trouble, well, I don't care." After all these years, Randy Newman doesn't need any more characters. It's hard enough sometimes just being Randy Newman.