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

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The nose on Randy Newman's face is straight and narrow, usually supporting metal-rimmed glasses of some sort and stabilizing his curly, anarchic dark hair like the dart end of a magician's exploding flower.

It's been busted twice. The first time Randy was standing in the candy line at junior high school and this "crazy guy" ran up and butted in front. When Randy protested, the guy smashed him in the face.

"It was a brief fight," he recalled. "He hit me and I just bled on him."

Brief, perhaps, but who can gauge the effect of such an incident on the junior high mind? Or of the lesson in loyalty, honor and justice that followed?

"My friends said they were gonna get the guy," said Randy, his bitterness blunted but still traceable after 15 years. "He got thrown out of school for a few days, and they said they would get him when he got back. I'm still waiting."

Soon Randy's attitude toward school and, some would venture, toward life in general grew noticeably cavalier. He turned to liquor – usually Ripple – joy-riding, and carousing with purposeless friends.

"See, I have no control, I can't do anything in moderation," he later admitted. "When I used to drink, even in high school and stuff, I always headed for oblivion, you know? I remember once, I drank six bottles of Ripple, and the next thing I remember – I wasn't driving – I got in this big wreck."

That time they had to operate on him just to get him to breathe. In another traffic accident he suffered a slipped disk, and in another he broke his nose for the second time. Since high school, Randy has participated in more than a dozen car wrecks.

"The first time I ever drove a car, you know, my father was so proud: 'Pull the car out of the garage,' he said. And I backed the car out and ripped the spring off the garage door – first five feet I moved. I should have known then, you know?

"I mean I was like a professional driver this one month; I made $600 in two wrecks. I was going to the hospital to get checked on the slipped disk, and a guy hit me from behind."

Though he generally made good marks in school, Randy began dabbling in truancy while majoring in composition at UCLA. "I never went to 50 percent of my classes in the week," he said. "If I couldn't find a place to park, I'd just keep going." He stuck it out for four years, then at the last minute refused to take a required performance course and dropped out. "They wouldn't let me use my Fats Domino style singing," he explained.

Years later this sense of suburban resignation, now almost visionary, sufaced on Newman's second album, 12 Songs, in the bizarre tale of a hapless prom queen named "Lucinda":

We met one summer evening
As the sun was going down
She was lying on the beach
In her graduation gown
She was wrapped up in a blanket
(I could tell she knew her way around)
And as I lay down beside her
You know she never made a sound

On down the beach came the
beach-cleaning man
Scoopin' up the papers and flattening down the sand
"Lucinda, Lucinda, Lucinda – we've got to run away
That big white truck is closin' in
And we'll get wounded if we stay"

Now Lucinda lies buried 'neath
the California sand
Put under by the beach-cleaning man
Lucinda, Lucinda, Lucinda – why'd you have to go?
They sent her to high school
They sent her to low school
She just wouldn't go no further

Yet despite these occasional outbursts of California surfer recklessness, Randy's career seemed destined for early greatness. The nephew of three celebrated film score composers – Alfred, Lionel and Emil Newman – Randy spent many youthful afternoons hanging around Hollywood sound stages, listening to the most accomplished musicians in the industry. His lifelong best friend Lenny Waronker, today his producer, was the son of the board chairman of Liberty Records; and even before Randy finished school, he was churning out pop songs for the Liberty-owned Metric Music Company at $50 a month.

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Randy Newman, 12 Songs

People started recording his stuff. Gene McDaniels sang "Somebody's Waiting," and the Fleetwoods did "They Tell Me It's Summer." Jerry Butler got some attention with "I Don't Want to Hear It Anymore."

"And I wrote a gangfight song," said Randy, "called 'Looking for Me' – she was Eddie's girl and all these guys are after him, you know? It was a big hit in Japan."

"By who?"

"I have no idea. Just a big check came in."

His early songs were more traditional lyrically, mostly love stuff, but they were good enough to capture the interest of many music industry heavies. They say Brian Epstein, whenever he visited America, always asked to see Newman's latest works.

And one summer Randy and Lenny Waronker put on their best suits, flew to New York and visited the great song writer Jerry Leiber in his plush skyscraper office. Lenny remembers it was like a Judy Garland movie.

"Whatcha got, kid?" asked Leiber. Randy nervously played two numbers he'd just written, then Leiber suddenly leaned forward and bellowed, "Jesus, this kid's good!"

"At that time Randy was really writing tunes more than lyrics," recalled Waronker, "he was much more tune conscious. Then out of the blue he wrote a batch of songs that were completely different, titles like 'Mama Told Me Not to Come,' 'Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad,' and 'I Think It's Going to Rain Today.' It was great, like a beautiful fusion of words and music."

In the world of rock it was a time of experimentation and eclecticism and musical supermen who often composed, arranged, produced and performed their own material. In Hollywood, for decades the center of film and television fantasy, some rock composers turned nostalgically to the lush, programmatic, show-biz devices that had influenced pop music in the past. Writers like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Van Dyke Parks, Jim Webb and, perhaps, Beach Boy Brian Wilson were the most prominent exponents of this soft new music; all of them were brilliantly original composers, arrangers and studio technicians – men who rarely performed in public, who thought primarily in terms of electronically recorded sound.

With the exception of Brian Wilson, they were also outstanding lyricists, Newman and Nilsson specializing in homey stories with specific plot lines, Parks in almost academic conceits and puns and Jim Webb in vivid and occasionally pretentious symbolism and polemics.

But Randy Newman stood out among the five for his use of ironic humor – both musically and lyrically – and his ability to see common human truth through the eyes of creeps and losers. Unfortunately, his lust for subtle perversity and dispassion and his distaste for traditional love songs may have been too great a departure for the commercial market. ("It doesn't interest me much, writing love songs," Randy said recently. "They may make the most money for me, but there's so much more. There's no reason for 89 percent of the songs to be like that.") One wonders if the public could really have been ready for a song like "Davy the Fat Boy" when it appeared on Randy's first album, Randy Newman.

Still one of his favorite works, "Davy the Fat Boy" opens with a series of grim minor chords by the full orchestra and these words:

I been his friend since we were little babies
I was a comfort to his mother and a pal to his dad
Before they passed away they say "Take care of our Davy
You may be the only friend he ever will have"

Having set us up with the proper sense of tragedy and foreboding, Randy then breaks into a rinky-tink piano thing reminiscent of a carnival stage, the perfect accompaniment to these lighthearted barker lines:

Davy the Fat Boy, Davy the Fat Boy
Isn't he round? Isn't he round?
What do he weigh, folks?
Can you guess what he weigh?
You know, it's only a quarter
Win a teddy bear for the girl friend
Or something for the wife
You've got to let this fat boy in your life

The piano stops and the orchestra starts a slower, more discordant theme.

I think we can persuade him to do
The famous Fat Boy Dance for you
Give me half a chance
I just know you'll like my fat boy's dance

An interlude follows as the strings play a crippled, bittersweet waltz, suggesting the grotesque spectacle of a 300-pound freak limping and twirling about the stage. Then the final words followed by a brief return and fadeout of the rinky-tink piano:

Davy the Fat Boy, Davy the Fat Boy
Isn't he
Isn't he round?

The album, produced by Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks, won high praise from most critics. A Chicago reviewer called it "one of the best albums ever to come out of the West." Paul McCartney called him up at home in Los Angeles to congratulate him on the album – in short, it seemed that Randy's time was at hand.

But the public apparently was not in the mood for fat boy dances, and Warner Bros., which then was seeking an image as the benevolent Medicis of the new rock, finally gave the album away as a promotional gimmick.

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