In its latest attempt to halt Randy Newman’s kamikaze flight into oblivion, Reprise has mailed out this collector’s item, a live recording of Randy’s appearance at the Bitter End last fall, to people in the trade without releasing it to the public, nor with any plans to do so anytime in the future. As befits a composer of songs about anti-heroes, Randy has stubbornly remained an anti-pop-star; he has performed in public exactly three times and his two albums have withered on the racks for lack of brouhaha. Meanwhile Randy has kept himself in whatever it is he keeps himself in by arranging and conducting movie soundtracks. “I’m wealthy,” he muttered dryly after one of his Bitter End performances, “so nothing matters.”
What matters terribly is that Randy has the deepest, most consistent, most original comic vision to be found in pop music today. This live recording captures his personal, utterly unique style far better than either of his two highly arranged albums, and the insights of the songs are so devastating that I can’t think of a single American who wouldn’t be better off for having heard it. Now that Dan Ellsberg is done with the Pentagon papers, he might think about getting Randy Newman/Live into mass circulation.
The world at large knows Randy’s songs in dozens of cover versions, most notably Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and Judy Collins’ “Think It’s Gonna Rain Today.” Fine as those versions were, they failed to convey the range of feeling that only Randy’s voice can properly express. If you heard nothing but Joan Baez’s rendition of “Don’t Think Twice,” you might think the song was a heartbreaking, darkling ballad; Dylan’s snarl tells you that it is a scathing put-down. In the same way, Three Dog Night perform “Mama” as a driving, slightly offbeat rock number; when Randy sings it, the drama in the song suddenly comes into focus: he is clearly parroting the words of a helplessly frightened girl, making merciless fun of her and inviting us to hate him for it.
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Randy is not so much a singer as a monologuist. In each of his songs, he becomes a new character, and his characters are all so frankly heartless and low-minded that they are funny. In recent years, most popular-song satire has beaten whatever dead horses happened to be lying conveniently around – witness the Beatles’ descriptions of the shallowness of suburban life or Ray Davies’ hamfisted lampoons of jet set frivolity. Randy walks past these barn-side targets and goes in for the kill.
His songs deal with the fact that love, charity, and human kindness are appallingly low on the list of motives for human behavior. With unthinkable candor, Randy’s characters blandly flaunt their callousness. Like the guy in “Tickle Me,” who asks the question “What can you do to amuse me, now that there’s nothing to do?” and answers, “Why don’t you tickle me?/Gee whiz won’t that be fine/What a great idea, what a perfect way to kill some time.” As usual, the singer sounds as if he is so drugged on Placidils that he can’t even summon up the energy to come up with a decent line. The barren truth will have to do: I couldn’t care less about you but let’s do it anyway.
Randy’s funniest songs are shockingly amoral, but they rest on the profoundly generous assumption that we will recognize ourselves in them and be shocked. As if to testify to the serious intent of Randy’s black comedy, some of his songs show a flat-out tragic sensibility. “Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” is about somebody who is on the receiving end of human callousness, and Randy sounds like the soul of despair when he whispers the chorus: “Lonely. Lonely. Tin can at my feet/Think I’ll kick it down the street/That’s the way to treat a friend.” For all its irony the song is too sad and too beautiful to be funny. And “Living Without You” is simply one of the starkest, most compelling expressions of loneliness I’ve heard.
Although Randy draws his musical inspiration from blues, country, rock and musical comedy, most of his numbers have the baleful quality of Depression era songs like “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.” They also have a certain Thirties slickness, especially in the lyrics. The images are spare, striking, and spaced so that they are easily digestible on a first hearing (the mark of a good showtune).
Despite the dazzling talent for orchestration that Randy displayed on his two albums, his compact, economical songs work best with just his sensitive piano accompaniment, and his self-effacing manner works best in a nightspot like the Bitter End. Singing to a handful of people, he ignores their laughter and drawls on as if there were nothing kinky about the lines he is singing. The flat desolation of his voice bespeaks a detachment beyond cynicism, a true case of tristitia mundi. “The world has long ago put me to sleep,” the voice seems to say. “Now I’m just a mirror in which you can see some of life’s ugliest, stupidest, most absurd situations in life.” Watching Randy’s trancelike performance at the Bitter End, one got the feeling that he was a medium, allowing a bunch of Charles Addams characters to communicate through him. That feeling made his songs seem all the more real and disturbing, and it comes through on Randy Newman/Live.
Besides this unique performance, the record contains four new songs, including “Lonely at the Top,” an unforgettable bluesy shuffle that Fats Waller would have been proud to have written. Although it was written for Frank Sinatra, “Lonely” is really a parody of every self-congratulatory end-of-the-road song Sinatra has ever sung. It is also an expression of the bewildering apathy Randy feels for his own career. “Listen, all you fools out there, go on and love me, I don’t care.” In fact, when he sings the song, he seems to revel in his own lack of success; as he gets to the words, “All the applause and all the parades and all of the money I have made,” he cracks himself up.
But then, anonymity is almost essential to Randy’s style. On the subject of writing for Sinatra, he once said: “I can do personal stuff because no-one gives a shit–no-one knows who the hell I am. But Sinatra can’t sing ‘Suzanne’ [a Newman song about a rapist’s fantasies]; because he’s somebody that they’ve made him.” With a resolve that too few performers share, Randy refuses to let the public make him something he is not, to let his career overtake his artistic life, or to let popular taste interfere with his pessimistic but brilliant vision. For just those reasons, he deserves to be heard and hopefully Reprise will release just enough Randy Newman/Live albums to satisfy his devoted cult.