Randy Newman: You've Got to Let This Fat Boy In Your Life

Randy Newman is one of the most brilliant composers and songwriters of his generation. So why is he so unpopular?

August 31, 1972
Randy Newman
Randy Newman
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Who needs money
When you're funny?
—from "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear," by Randy Newman

"I don't like it when they're always blasting him just because he's an idiot in things other than music. I mean those shows he did on television were amazing. They were almost enough to make people like classical music. And everyone blasts him 'cause of the Tom Wolfe book, you know, in which he comes off as a moron. It shouldn't matter. I don't give a shit what anyone's like."

That's Randy Newman defending Leonard Bernstein and an artist's hallowed right to a private life.

"I don't care about Yoko; it has no effect on what I think of Lennon's songs. Boy, I've seen her when I couldn't, I couldn't watch it. She's tough, boy. And dumb, really dumb. A dumb woman: 'We became famous' – shit like that. 'Before We became famous.' But Lennon can write."

His feelings are so clear on the matter that it would be entirely appropriate and respectful, in this discussion of songwriter Randy Newman, to ignore his personal life and history completely. For one thing it's not all that exciting. He lives with his wife Roswitha and two young sons in the middle of a block in the Mandeville Canyon area above West Los Angeles not far from where he grew up and went to college, likes to read, watch news and cartoons on TV, buy groceries, listen to some of the world's great music on a broken-down Zenith portable stereo, and occasionally wander outside if the weather's nice and the mail's there. Randy himself once told a writer for New Musical Express:

"In a word, I'm boring."

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Nevertheless, there is a growing body of thought, growing at least for the duration of this article, that somewhere among the tedious back pages of Randy's life may lie the answer to one of the more infuriating riddles of modern rock: Why does a brilliant, 28-year-old composer and performer whose songs have been recorded by scores of famous people – Ray Charles, Judy Collins, Three Dog Night, Fats Domino, Harry Nilsson, etc. – whose own bashful performances have earned the first-hand praise of Dylan, McCartney and nearly every practicing rock critic – why does Randy Newman remain so hopelessly unpopular?

His four Warner Bros. albums are considered masterpieces of humor, innovation, economy and good humming tunes; yet, according to Randy, their total sales fall far short of what Jethro Tull's latest album has sold just in Atlanta. Newman is the man some predict will influence American music as much as George Gershwin or Cole Porter, the man Dave Van Ronk called "the Hoagy Carmichael of the Sixties." Critic Robert Hilburn wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "Randy Newman is one of the most important singer-songwriters of this generation, a fact that has not, unfortunately, helped him sell records in the past two years."

But why not? It would be easy to finger the rock buying audience, to dismiss it as a band of lowbrow red freaks who respond to little below the threshold of pain. Yet Newman's songs are not that highbrow or reserved. His lyrics include none of the fuzzy bullshit symbolism that so often passes for rock poetry these days. And many of his songs have approached hit status – when sung by someone else, particularly Judy Collins with "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" and Three Dog Night with "Mama Told Me Not to Come."

No, we must learn from history, I feel, from Randy's history of mishaps, screwups, unfortunate remarks and other cruel fates that have helped abort, at least temporarily, his rocket to stardom. Indeed, Randy's rise from an obscure son of a Beverly Hills physician to an obscure composer of black-humored rock is one of the great Cinderella stories of our time – the first half; no doubt it also explains why he has become more and more difficult to work with – occasionally forcing Warner Bros. executives to physically drag him out of bed – and why his song/stories have become increasingly cynical and their characters increasingly creepy.

The evidence is somewhat spotty, gathered primarily during a long afternoon interview at Randy's comfortable, no-flash, two-story home, and some may seize upon the circumstantial nature of it to attack the theory itself as unfounded or even unimportant. I can only invite such opportunists to listen to his music, check the sales figures, and see if they can come up with a more plausible explanation.

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