The Ambrose Bierce of rock & roll has released another selection of his bitter and desperately sardonic fantasies. Good Old Boys has a conceptually “Southern” atmosphere; it also has drunkenness and depression, fun celebrations of political figures, lunacy, congenital birth defects and obsessional portraits of stereotypes that can leave the listener confused as to whether Newman means what he sings or not. The music is fresh — especially Newman’s piano. But between flashes of genius and transcendence comes morbidity. After repeated listenings, one impression lingers — Newman is a troubled man.
He has made a career out of confusing his audience using dazzling irony and dreadfully warped images as setups for laughs — a new version of the old shadow play of the poor spastic hitting himself in the forehead with an ice-cream cone. In earlier songs Newman presented the Apocalypse (burning rivers and atomic bomb jokes) and somehow you had to laugh. He showed us his adipose little freaks and the commonplace nightmares we all have in which “everybody scared me, but you scared me the most.” Even slavery became absurdly, poignantly comic in his great “Sail Away.”
Good Old Boys is a bit more crazed than Newman’s earlier work. “Rednecks” starts with Lester Maddox and “some smart-ass New York Jew” on a TV talk show, talks about the rednecks keeping the niggers down and about who these rednecks are:
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We got no-necked oilmen from Texas
And good ol’ boys from Tennessee
And college men from L.S.U.
Went in dumb. Come out dumb too.
Then the song moves up North in a savage litany of the names of the black ghettos; they’re doing a fair job of keeping the niggers down up there too. “Rednecks” is a staggering song that is also topical: The week the record was released there were brutal racial incidents in Boston over school desegregation. Like all effective satire the lyrics are rooted in bare hostility and aggression, but the sprightly reeds and horn fills give this angry screed a sardonic ragtime air.
“Birmingham” is similar to the earlier “Dayton, Ohio 1903” and Newman’s writing again sounds like Stephen Foster after a prefrontal lobotomy. But within the context of Newman’s broiling psyche this innocuous tune becomes portentious and malevolent. The same is true for “Marie,” a whimpering dirge about being drunk. A weeping, slinking arrangement and an unhealthy dose of maudlin self-pity also mark “Guilty.” Along with his pearls Newman gives us his swine.
“Mr. President” is a funny personal plea to the disgraced Nixon to have pity on the working man while enumerating Nixon’s crimes and recounting his mental unbalance. “Louisiana 1927” revives the southern motif in a melodic reprise of “Sail Away” updated 200 years. Now the South is wrecked and shamed in this song as if, Newman implies by reusing the “Sail” theme, in retribution for the sins of its fathers.
Newman leads a deadpan male chorus in a short rendition of “Every Man a King,” Huey P. Long’s ruthless, populist campaign song of the Thirties. This segues into Newman’s symphonette to Long: “Kingfish.” Newman has his latest hero (who was assassinated in 1935) asking his cracker constituents,
Who took on the Standard Oil men and whipped their ass
Just like he promised he’d do?
Ain’t no Standard Oil men gonna run this state
Gonna be run by little folks like me and you.
With its shifting tempi, rocking lines and hilarious vocal accents the portrait is brilliant, the high point of the record.
It’s followed by a trio of totally schizoid songs. “Naked Man” boasts outrageous lyrics and a superb, delirious arrangement. “Wedding in Cherokee County” is a monody describing a cracker’s impending marriage to a desultory, slatternly madwoman way off in the bogs. The hero of “Back on My Feet Again” is trying to convince his shrink to let him out of the mental hospital. Over Ry Cooder’s understated slide guitar Newman tells a story about how his sister married “a Negro from the Eastern Shore” who later turns out to be a white millionaire incognito because he was looking for a woman who didn’t love him only for his money. The side ends with “Rollin’,” the third lament of heavy boozing on the album.
Good Old Boys is another dark, dark record. Though it contains nothing as monumentally grim as “God’s Song” on Sail Away (in which a deranged and vengeful deity rubs the faces of his children in humiliating shit) it is a continuation of Newman’s deceptive, mercurial work. It mystifies, it confuses, it entertains, it swings. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry, and that is Randy Newman’s rare and bizarre skill.