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

Page 6 of 6

Inside the album 12 Songs, on the back of the lyric sheet, is a picture that Randy's cousin, Tony Newman, took of Randy, his wife Roswitha and their first son Amos Michael in front of what looks like an allnight market. The photograph's really grainy so you can hardly tell who it is – just an ordinary couple with a small child and a large bag of groceries. It's one of Randy's favorites.

"I'm interested in that stuff – how people live," he said during the interview at home. "And that market, with the flourescent light, has such a sick, lonely feeling to it, you know?"

How people live – that's probably as good a description of Newman's songs as any I've heard. "Love Story," the very first song on the very first album, is about just that. In six verses it covers a couple's courtship, marriage, first child, home life and old age:

When our kids are grown
With kids of their own
They'll send us away

To a little home in Florida
We'll play checkers all day
Until we pass away

Like "Love Story," most of Randy's songs have such an innocent, almost cartoon quality they can make even death appear enjoyable, or at least perfectly acceptable. (He once remarked that the trouble with anti-smoking commercials on television is they presume people want to live.)

But are they changing? His most recent songs do seem less innocent, less cartoonish, and therefore, perhaps, more cynical. Here's how he handles death on "Old Man," his favorite song on the last album:

Everyone has gone away
Can you hear me? Can you hear me?
No one cared enough to stay
Can you hear me? Can you hear me?
You must remember me old man
I know that you can if you try
So just open up your eyes old man
Look who's come to say goodbye

The sun has left the sky old man
The birds have flown away
And no one came to cry old man
Goodbye old man, goodbye

You want to stay I know you do
But it ain't no use to try
'Cause I'll be here – and I'm just like you
Goodbye, old man, goodbye

Won't be no God to comfort you
You taught me not to believe that lie
You don't need anybody
And, nobody needs you
Don't cry old man, don't cry
Everybody dies.

In short, Randy's songs are atheistic; they've always been atheistic, but he now seems more outspoken about it. On the first album, in a song called "I Think He's Hiding," he warns us that "the Big Boy," like Santa Claus, is coming to town. And he concludes:

Come on, Big Boy
Come and save us
Come and look at what we've done
With what you gave us
Now I've heard it said
That our Big Boy's dead
But I Think He's Hiding
I Think He's Hiding
I Think He's Hiding

It's sort of a cute song, makes ya laugh. But on the last album God fully reveals himself in "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)," a jarring, darkly comic vision of heaven that rivals any of Mark Twain's:

Cain slew Abel, Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel were to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord And the Lord said:

Man means nothing, he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower
Or the humblest Yucca tree
He chases, round this desert
Cause he thinks that's where I'll be
That's why I love mankind

I recoil in horror from the foulness of thee
From the squalor, and the filth, and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayer you offer me
That's why I love mankind

The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said, "Lord, a plague is on the world,
Lord, no man is free,
The temples that we built to you
Have tumbled into the sea,
Lord, if you won't take care of us
Won't you please please let us be?"
And the Lord said
And the Lord said:

I burn down your cities – how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say, "How blessed are we."
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That's why I love mankind
You really need me
That's why I love mankind

Randy played the song, complete with searing minor chords, on his piano at home, then commented, "That's a nice, religious song. I did it at Notre Dame."

"Didn't they take it pretty seriously?"I asked.

"I don't care whether people take it seriously; I think God's kind funny in it, you know? I like the part about the Yucca tree because you know it's the California Desert."

Randy knocked out a quick, halfassed riff from the song's introduction.

"It would be nice to be able to have something you could believe in," he said, "like the Bible or God or some real verity you could base your life around: 'Today this is the way it is.' It would be helpful. Religion is a big help, I think, if you can buy it.

"This girl I used to know in Philadelphia called me when I was performing there, before I went on. She was with God's Children or something – I didn't know it. All of a sudden she starts talking, you know, 'Jesus will save you' and shit like that, no sense of humor about anything.

"I said, "Well, uh, I'm glad you're happy now, Libby.' She said, 'Yes, I'm happy now I've found Jesus.' And I said I didn't know he was lost.

"And she just kept going, you know, like I hadn't said anything. She was a different person. But she was happy."

Still, Randy Newman must believe in something, at least some moral specifics.

"Yeah, I believe in not hurting anybody," he said, "and not, uh, talking to 'em too long on the fucking phone. That kills me, it wears me out – long phone calls. I don't know what I believe in."

I asked him if he was happy; I'd heard he wasn't.

"I don't think so," he said after a pause.

"But are you less happy than you were?"

"I don't know. I'm not unhappy, you know, I love the family, the kids and all." Randy lowered his busy head for a moment. "But I mean I've always wished I were happier in music, that I would look forward to writing, or look forward to going into the studio, rather than having to be dragged in there, you know?"

Was it the music or just working that bothered him?

"I can't figure it out," he said, frowning. "If I say I don't like music, they say why don't you do something else? Is it just talk that I say I hate it, I hate it, I hate it? I don't think it is. I don't think I could do without it . . . but, you know, a lot of people – most people – I think really like it, the writing and the life, and they read Rolling Stone and are part of the whole world of it.

"It's like I feel kinda outside. I mean I'm not really interested."

Something was bothering Randy, that goddamn popularity thing. Now as he spoke, he punctuated his monologue with random, unresolved piano chords.

"Maybe a pop song is supposed to be popular mainly [clink clink clink]. What I wanted, I think, was the critical acclaim that I got; people were really into it. But it isn't enough [clink].

"I mean, I think I'd like to sell a whole lot of records and stuff. But I don't think the stuff I end up doing is the type of stuff that a lot of people are going to like – not because they're dumb or anything, but because they're just not maybe that serious about it [clink clink]. You know, I get a little tired of 'critically acclaimed' and 'pop star of the year,' and always the apology about the amount of records sold and how people haven't appreciated it enough. Shit, it isn't their fault [clink clink].

"I mean, it isn't the type of stuff you can put on and there'll be an hour of Carole King while you're getting loaded or talking, or an hour of Blood, Sweat and Tears. 'Cause it doesn't move along like that. It requires that it be the thing that you're listening to [clink]."

The routine was getting pretty good, now, inspiring Randy to draw upon undiscovered acting talents, taxing his woodden face with a wide repertoire of subtle emotions.

First, self-doubt: "I don't know whether I want that – to be a big, famous-type guy."

Then, affirmative self-doubt: "I must want that."

Exasperated self-doubt: "I don't know what the fuck I want."

Finally, martyred self-doubt: "I just wannna be left alone."

Randy Newman smirked, then smiled impishly. Then he was frowning again, this time really concerned, jerking his owlish eyes about the room until they spotted the clock he was looking for.

"Shit," he lamented gravely, "right now I'm missing a Rocky and Bullwinkle."

This story appeared in the August 31st, 1972 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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