Are we the luckiest people in the world to live in Los Angeles, leading the lives others only dream about? Or is this the most unfair city in the nation, where the few are insulated from the harsh realities of the many? And what, you may wonder, does any of this have to do with Randy Newman?
Those are among the many questions that came to mind while attending "Shock and Awe: The Songs of Randy Newman," a recent UCLA Live event at Royce Hall. Organized by Hal Willner and Janine Nichols, an eclectic mix of mostly local artists (many of whom I did not recognize onstage) performed 46 works from Newman's canon. The featured artists included Victoria Williams, Vic Chesnutt, Ellen Greene, David Hidalgo, Howard Tate, Bob Neuwirth, Van Dyke Parks, Jon Brion and Gavin Friday. A nifty night in Los Angeles, for sure.
The next day, I went to Second Spin in Santa Monica and cleaned out their Randy Newman section.
I still remember the first time I heard "Sail Away" -- a friend's older brother insisted we listen. We sat there stunned, and the album remains today just as exhilarating, clever, funny, subversive and hypnotic. Some of the lines from "Political Science" remain imprinted on my brain.
Repeated listenings this past week of the "Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1," "Sail Away," "Trouble in Paradise" and "Faust" produced great pleasure but also great confusion. It is hard to get a fix on Newman. His songs are detached, cynical, ambiguous, perverse, yet they seem confessional, intimate and revealing. But of what?
In "Sail Away," the narrator is a slave trader beckoning Africans to board his ship and come to America. In other tunes, Newman gives voice to rednecks, militarists and racists, and, of course, there is that song about short people. Are we supposed to see these noxious characters as alarming or ironic put-downs? In several songs, Newman takes on the persona of God, and in his play, "Faust," he sang the part of the devil (this, from an atheist). Other songs conjure up specific places or times, Louisiana, Baltimore, Capetown, Miami and L.A. (we love it!). The music itself conjures up distinct pictures as well, from a New Orleans second-line shuffle to a Kurt Weill/Lotte Lenye cabaret, from traditional music of the Deep South to modern pop anthems. What's it all about, Randy?
Here's what I think: Randy Newman is the songsmith of human frailty. He doesn't want to let us or himself off the hook.
Newman, in many ways, need not complain. He spent part of his youth in his mother's native New Orleans, before moving to Los Angeles. His father was a doctor, and his uncle, Alfred Newman, was music director for 20th Century Fox and the most famous film composer of all time with nine Oscars. As a teenager, Newman often visited the scoring stage at Fox to see his uncle conduct. After high school, he worked for several years writing songs in the legendary Brill Building in New York. His first album came out when he was in his mid-20s and for more than 30 years, he's led a privileged life in Los Angeles. He's had his periods of inactivity but eventually he joined the family business -- writing movie scores, contributing to "Toy Story," "Ragtime," "Parenthood" and "James and the Giant Peach," among many others. He won an Oscar in 2002 for "If I Didn't Have You" from "Monsters, Inc." Currently on any Friday night you can hear him singing "It's a Jungle Out There" over the opening credits of "Monk." So what's there to complain about?
I think that's the point. Privilege does not give you a pass. Newman recalls seeing ice cream trucks in the South as a child that had one side for whites and the other for "colored." Newman's father told the late Timothy White, that as a kid in Los Angeles, Newman was asked by a girl to a cotillion at the Riviera Country Club. Her father called to uninvite Newman because the club didn't allow Jews. This prompted Newman to research all religions and become an atheist. As a young man, he saw that his uncle was no saint, and that great job at Fox, sometimes was just work. Newman married at an early age, raised a family. Then he found himself to be just a man -- a man who, as he told one interviewer, left his wife and family for a younger woman. At an age when his own children were getting married and having children, Newman found himself starting a new family.
One recent song, "Life Isn't Fair," says it all. It opens with Newman singing about Karl Marx and Marx's dream of a better society. However, if Marx were alive today, Newman sings, he'd bring him over to his "mansion on the hill" and tell him a story that would "give his heart a chill." What's the story? It's about going to orientation at his kids' school and seeing all the beautiful moms with their husbands, like him "froggish men, unpleasant to see." (Been there, seen that!) Marx would be glad he was dead, Newman sings, because his plan just brought misery and in the land of the free "the rich get richer and the poor you don't ever have to see." Newman concludes: "It would depress us Karl, because we care / that the world still isn't fair."
To me, that's Newman's point. The lives we lead can insulate us from some of the injustice. But don't pretend it doesn't exist. We don't get a pass and we can't ignore it. That is life. That is man. Maybe you can't change it, but if you don't sing or talk about it, the things that humans think and do -- perverse, evil or ironic as they may be -- well then, the joke's on you.
Newman cares. Maybe that's why we care about him.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.