Find a clown and grind him down.
He may just be laughing at you.
An unprincipled and uncommitted
Clown can hardly be permitted to
Sit around and laugh at what
The decent people try to do.
“Laughing Boy,” Randy Newman, 1968
What’s the point of being famous if you’re still lame? Seems like I can never get free of that kind of crap,” Randy Newman moans and shifts fitfully in his chair opposite me. Newman, 35, is a flamboyantly angry man; angry, in this case, because after all these years he is still a “nerd.” uncomfortable around most people — especially women — and, as a result, is repeatedly awkward and clumsy in social situations. And just as Newman often dislikes himself, he elicits a similar response from the people who are targeted in his caustic songs.
Warbling along in his dense, nasal wheeze, Newman has for over a decade been creating a catalog of highly acclaimed — and highly controversial — material with a knack for icy description and a distinctively astringent keyboard style. His playing mixes classical idioms with sultry stride piano, Gershwin with the gurgling of a gutter bum, and his medium is an intensely American sort of social commentary — Stephen Foster with a sick mind, some say. Newman makes his points through an ever-expanding cast of tragic figures, among them fat boys, haughty cops, lonesome old men, two-bit junkies, white trash, God, atomic bombardiers, transvestites and Albert Einstein.
Newman created a furor when he made repeated use of the word nigger in a composition called “Rednecks” on Good Old Boys (1974). The record was a scathing attack on racism and bigotry of all kinds, but for some reason, a huge chunk of the public did not catch Newman’s drift. Just last year, he was beset with a similar wave of heated misunderstanding following the release of “Short People,” a single from Little Criminals in which he parodies bigotry on — or so he thought — an obviously ridiculous level.
Popular on Rolling Stone
Frustrated that the nation’s short people saw him as an adversary instead of an ally, he looks back on that period with a thoroughly disheartened “Ohhh, fuck. Why don’t they leave me alone!” And then adds with a sly grin: “Maybe I was right about the little pukes all along.”
Determined to get to the source of Randy Newman’s rage, I have been talking with him for the last half-hour in his manager’s comfortable private office in Beverly Hills on the very morning that a huge billboard depicting him in quasi-Kiss makeup has been unveiled on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip to promote his new album, Born Again. Dressed in a dull blue tennis shirt, worn-looking jeans and scuffed brown loafers, Newman has been massaging the flickering slits behind his thick, red-tinted sunglasses as he explores a subject he says he has “never talked about before” — his great personal difficulties while growing up.
“I don’t remember anything about ’em much,” he had begun somberly. “That’s probably because of some psychological block; maybe there was some horrible trauma.”
“Yeah,” he mumbles, explaining that he experienced a particularly humiliating eye malady during his youth that reinforced his already withdrawn disposition. When I ask him to be more specific, he claims that he has “trouble remembering stuff” and then clams up on the subject, instead going on to say that one of his earlier memories is of him as a baby, biting his father on the arm shortly after the senior Newman had returned from World War II.
Why, even then, was Randy so incensed?
“I don’t remember my motivation,” he demurs. “It seemed like a good idea. I was probably pissed off that there was another person in the house.”
As for his antisocial behavior in later years, Warner Bros. Vice President of A&R Lenny Waronker, Randy’s longtime producer and closest friend since childhood, sheds a little light on the mystery:
“Oh, he always had these eye problems — crossed eyes — which I think really affected him, his appearance and the way he looked and did certain things. He was always, kind of sloppy and didn’t really have a good fix on himself. But I think he found ways of overcoming that… . . .”
“Awww, I didn’t have a lot of pals as a kid.” Newman confesses, “but I was in a club called the Vikings in University High School. I was not into it, really; I just hoped it would help me with …girls,” he concludes with a squirm.
And did it?
“No. I was so damned shy around girls,” he whines bitterly. “I really didn’t have many dates. I was strange looking — and I was a bad driver. I’d be trying to get my arm around a girl who didn’t want to know about it while I drove the family car up on some sidewalk. We went to the movies, there was some parking at night, but I always did bad. They were mostly girls I liked who didn’t like me; it was tough.”
When did he finally get the hang of it?
“Never. As I proved the other day. I was at a beach where I haven’t been since I was fifteen years old; the same one I used to go to every day. I had my two sons with me [Amos, 11, and Eric, 8; he also has a one-year-old son, John]. And these beautiful little girls recognized me. Randy Newman, famous songwriter. So I talked to them.
“Later, one of my boys said that I really embarrassed him when I talked to those girls. My heart sank. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Cause I thought that, twenty years later, I’d handled this beach situation fairly well. And he did this vicious imitation of me just fumbling around.”
Surprised at how downcast he’s become, I suggest we postpone further reminiscences and get some lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant. He shrugs sullenly and ambles out into the hallway. We step into a packed elevator and Newman, unrecognized by the crowd, wonders aloud, “Hey, how the hell can you tell what floor this thing’s stopping on?!”
A stunning brunette in snug designer jeans turns to him with a smile that would dissolve a diamond and sweetly points out the lighted indicators hidden in the door panel.
“Uhh-oh! Hey, thanks!” he sputters graciously. “That’s neat of you. Thanks for telling me.” Charmed, her dark eyes twinkle and she breathes a mesmerizing, “You’re very welcome.”
As we step out into the lobby, an openly exhilarated Newman races his quivering fingers through his matted hair and buttonholes me with glee.
“Wellllll, how did I handle that? Not so bad, huh?”
I grin widely, disarmed by his guileless excitement.
“God!” he laughs as we burst out into the sunshine. “Maybe I’ve conquered something here. Maybe I’m cured! Hey! Maybe I’ll try it again!”
“Hello ladies!” he barks politely at two alluring blond women drifting by. Startled, they turn and then giggle as Randy waves to them with a jerky bow.
“Pretty good, eh?” he asks out of the corner of his mouth, nudging me discreetly.
“Yes,” I concede as we cross the street. “You sounded offhandedly pleasant, almost genuine.”
“Hmmm,” he says. “Is that the secret?” His smile fades and his face takes on a grave, determined look.
“Shit, I’ll lick this thing yet,” he mutters to himself as we walk on. “It can’t be any harder than writing songs….”
Without question, Randy Newman’s chosen profession has proved to be consistently pain-ridden, sometimes excruciatingly so. The author of such sardonic, cutting classics as “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” “Love Story,” “Davy the Fat Boy,” “Old Man,” “Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad,” “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” “Sail Away” and “Golden Gridiron Boy” (Pat Boone coproduced it for Dot), Newman has remained a tortured figure despite critical and commercial success.
“From the start it’s been agony for him,” says his brother Alan, 32, a respected oncologist who resides in San Francisco. “He started writing at about fifteen; we were living in a big house in Pacific Palisades, and Randy had this brown upright piano in his bedroom that we later replaced with a baby grand Steinway. One of the first things I can recall him writing was a thing called ‘Puppy Love.’ He was a lonely guy, no girlfriends, was hard to get through to, and he’d work so hard on those songs. But then he’d get terrible writing blocks and couldn’t ever satisfy himself.
“When he was about seventeen, he got a job writing songs at Metric Music, through his buddy Lenny Waronker [whose father was the board chairman of Liberty Records, Metric’s parent company]. He got paid, oh, fifty bucks a month to write these songs, and he’d do it, but it was awful and painful to watch.”
Alan explains that a demo was usually made of each song that Randy published, but since he felt he sang “like shit,” he sometimes asked his somewhat squeaky-voiced brother to do the honors. As time went on, various other local talents were enlisted for the chore, among them P.J. Proby and Glen Campbell, while two transplanted Oklahomans named Leon Russell and David Gates provided accompaniment on piano and bass, respectively. The demos were largely uninspired, as were the various singles that Randy and Lenny would sneak into the studio at night to make.
“Early on, he just didn’t much care about getting along with people,” says Waronker. “He was more interested in his little world than anybody else’s.”
For Randy that world consisted of his friendship with Lenny (the two had played together almost exclusively since before kindergarten), his immediate family (his father, Irving, a prominent L.A. physician; his mother, Adele; and younger brother. Alan) and, on the fringes, the thrilling Hollywood cinema circles in which his illustrious uncles moved. The late Alfred Newman, the clan patriarch, was a highly acclaimed composer of film scores. The winner of nine Academy Awards for the soundtracks to such films as All about Eve and Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Alfred was the first in a long line of largely Hollywood-oriented Newmans (seven brothers and three sisters) that includes composers Lionel and Emil; Robert, who is an executive at Paramount; and Mark, a noted agent. Even Randy’s father did a little songwriting on the side. One composition, a sentimental waltz entitled “Who Gave You the Roses,” found its way onto one of Bing Crosby’s B sides in 1959.
When Randy and Lenny weren’t playing sports in the backyard, sitting at the piano in Randy’s room or hiding out in the little house they built in the great Brazilian walnut tree on the Newmans’ front lawn, they were frequently sitting in hushed awe on some Twentieth Century-Fox soundstage while Alfred put a sixty-five-piece orchestra through its film-synchronization paces.
“Randy’s uncle Alfred was a major influence on the Newman family,” says Waronker. “He was the oldest brother and the most famous one. A very powerful man. People who worked for him really respected him, and I guess, quite frankly, they also feared him.” It was Alfred, a prodigy who performed in Carnegie Hall with Paderewski at the age of eight, who supported Randy’s grandmother and her offspring after she separated from her husband, who ran a produce business. The Newmans then moved from New Haven, Connecticut, to New York City and eventually to Los Angeles in 1928, when Alfred was hired to work with Irving Berlin on some film projects.
“I know my uncle Al’s music the way I know Brahms,” says Newman. “It’s a part of me. I’d bring things to Al occasionally when I started writing. He probably had an effect on me. I remember he hated working, writing; wished he’d been a conductor, he’d say. And it might have bent me out of shape seeing this great guy doing this great stuff and hating it. Made me hate it, maybe… . . .”
Newman’s voice trails off wistfully as we take a table in a secluded and otherwise empty room of the restaurant. Randy is a voracious reader, and we discuss his current passion, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris. Close up, Randy’s tanned face is lined and slightly craggy. His broad, sharply angled features are accented by extremely thin lips sandwiched between a beak nose and a curiously scarred chin that disappears into his neck at some indistinct juncture. Although his mouth is naturally formed into a permanent half scowl, he has a gawky yet enticing smile and a wonderful gravedigger’s giggle — low and evil — that rises up from some secret chamber where I’m sure the sun rarely shines. His reedy, Southern-inflected speech (he lived in New Orleans during World War II and spent subsequent summers there) is clearer than his singing, which often sounds as if his sinuses are stopped up with cement.
“A fascinating, confusing guy, this Roosevelt,” he frets, gulping water and squinting nervously as he peers at my rapidly emptying plate. “I’m almost done with the book, and I still can’t figure him out. I guess I don’t like heroes, don’t have any. I don’t believe in them or trust people who do. There’s no one I ever liked that much, although I admire my father, some baseball players, my uncle Al. He helped me on some of the lyrics in my early songs. I never gave him any credit; I don’t know why. My father wanted me to take piano lessons, to be a showbiz guy, although he would deny that he pushed me into it.”
Overall, how would he describe his dad?
“Angry. He was just mad all the time when I was a kid. He wasn’t what you would call easygoing in any kind of way.”
“Did he ever sit down with you when you were a teenager and ask, ‘Son, do you want to know why I’m so pissed off all the time?”‘
Newman stares at me, seemingly incredulous, and then bursts into mighty, booting laughter.
“You mean like Robert Young in Father Knows Best?! Naw, he’d say, ‘This fuckin’ asshole did this…’ and that kinda thing. It didn’t take much. I remember him fighting it out once on the Pacific Coast Highway. He came out to a parking lot there, and the kid, the attendant, gave him his keys. He said, Thanks, son,’ and the kid said. ‘I’m not your son.’ Whoa, he just totally blew up. He had a fight on the highway with the young guy, and he was kinda old then — he’s sixty-five now — but they broke it up quick.
“The family got used to it. It wasn’t mostly us that he got angry at. He’d be mad at his patients for doing some idiotic thing; it was part of his bedside manner. He’s taken care of Rod Stewart, Eddie Money, Billy Joel — I can’t believe all the people he knows. He told me some funny shit about the Rolling Stones,” says Newman with a wicked chortle. “He said they all had some real nice tans when they showed up in his offices — said they looked like they’d all been dead six years.
“My father used to take care of Oscar Levant’s wife. He hated Levant, chased him around his piano one day. He threw Jerry Lewis out of his office once ’cause he was doing all his routines and I guess my father wasn’t a fan. [“His father was just hilarious, a terrible temper,” says Lenny Waronker. “If you’ve ever watched Jackie Gleason get mad on The Honeymooners, you can get the idea — just totally losing it.”]
“The maddest he ever got at me, he kicked me a few times when I was lying at home watching the television turned up too loud. My mother was sick for long periods of time with migraine headaches, and he’d get real crazy at noisemaking. But when I got older and would get drunk or in trouble, he’d get kind of mad and disappointed but not violent.”
Newman quickly runs down through a few of his sordid high-school exploits, like breaking his nose twice — once in a fight and once in a traffic accident. He got a slipped disc in another car crash, and then, en route to the hospital for a checkup, he was hit again from behind. His bad luck with cars and his penchant for heavy drinking — mostly Ripple wine — overlapped one grim night when he found himself drunk in the back seat of a school chum’s car as they ran into another, parked, vehicle. The driver lost all his teeth, and Randy woke up in a bloody stupor.
“I climbed out of the wreck saying, ‘Am I hurt? Am I hurt?’ People were looking at me, going, ‘No, you’re all right; just lie down, Randy.’ I knew something was really wrong with me, ’cause I could stick my tongue right through, my whole chin. Ooooh, they took me to the hospital and then to jail. My father came down and spent a few very exalting moments with me.
“But I haven’t been easy to get along with lately,” Newman suddenly volunteers. “I’ve been really irritable, rotten to the kids.”
“Maybe because they attacked me at the beach that day; I don’t know, maybe this record [Born Again, his seventh LP] coming out is making me nervous [very pensive] or something, something… . . . It’s my second record in a coupla years. I’ve got better work habits now. I work in a rented room an industrial district — but I was just evicted. I always dreaded making records so much that I avoided it before or I was too lazy. I owe the company [Warner Bros.] four more records over seven years; I just signed a new contract. They’ve been pretty easy on me, for a corporate giant. I can’t even work up a good hatred for them, you know, but just out of principle, I’d like to.”
How did the cover concept for Born Again come about?
“I just thought it was funny to be born again, not as a Christian but as a money-grubbing Kiss kind of guy. It just came to me like a bad dream. My kids were fans of Kiss, but they’re fading on ’em now. I was going to record a song of theirs that I love called ‘Great Expectations.’ It’s great, it’s hilarious, but I wrote ‘Pants’ instead. I was talking to [Don] Henley and [Glenn] Frey about it, telling them the Eagles should record ‘Great Expectations,’ and they looked at me like I was nuts, like when you tell someone you like Andy Gibb’s stuff.”
Stylistically, there is an easily discernible gap, shall we say, between the life view expressed in Gibb’s “Our Love (Don’t Throw It All Away)” — a song that Newman insists he adores — and such selections on Born Again as “It’s Money that I Love,” the sinister “Pretty Boy,” “Half a Man” (which wryly purports that homosexuality may be contagious) and the anticompassionate anthem, “Mr. Sheep.”
Golly, Mister, where you going?
You’ll be late for work
Careful or you’ll drop your briefcase
Jesus, what a jerk….
“My music has a high irritation factor. You can’t put it on and eat potato chips to it and invite the neighbors over for a barbecue. It’s got ‘prick’ in it, and ‘wop’ in it, and ‘I’m gonna take off my pants.’ I entertain,” Newman brags with a smirk, “but I’ve also got something to say.”
“Randy hates it when people don’t realize he has created an insensitive persona on record to serve as a dramatic device,” says brother Alan. “The guy in ‘Rednecks’ on Good Old Boys is not somebody he likes. Randy’s always considered civil rights and racism our most important domestic issues, but he’s also asking for compassion for bigots in the song.”
Such observations aside, what of Randy Newman himself? How has he been dealing for the last thirty-five years with the people in his own life? And what effect has it had on his work? Talking with him, a few tales trickle out about the circumstances surrounding many of his songs: the unclad purse snatcher in Good Old Boys‘ “Naked Man,” for instance, was taken from an actual court case in which a lawyer friend of Newman’s defended just such a felon-in-the-buff. And as our lunch conversation rambles on, the talk finally touches on the underlying rage in much of his work.
“I could just hear a record by somebody and think he’s an asshole, a prick,” he says a bit apologetically. “And I’m wrong lots of times, but I still think it, and it doesn’t take anything to make me do it; it can be any kind of thing. I have a capacity to hate and I’ve never lost it; no matter what drugs I took I still maintained it. And I’m glad I’ve got it.”
But when I assert that there may be a direct connection between his father’s elaborate ire and his own, he swiftly discounts all comparisons.
“No, I don’t get that mad,” he demurs. “There’s no comparison between my getting mad and his. When I lose it, I do lose it and get very mad — but it rarely happens.”
Perplexed by this defense, I am mulling over the apparent differences and possible similarities between the family man before me and the hardened corporate clown depicted on the cover of Born Again, when Newman mentions that the family portrait photo on the greasepainted exec’s desk is not his own.
“My family is even squarer looking than that one,” he assures with a laugh. “I wish that family wasn’t smiling.”
How about his own brood’s disposition?
“It’s very, very difficult to be a good father,” he says softly. “I’m just not up to it, I believe. Giving the kids a lot of love is not enough; that’s baloney. Dealing with the fact that they’re people and you can’t tease them — I mean, you’ve got to think about it all.
“Jeeze, I don’t even like to think about it,” he confesses, half to himself. “I’m not a bad father, but I’m not a first-rate one. I try to not let them see me as a hero; I may have gone too far. I don’t bring work home in any way. My wife is not interested in my work and neither are the kids, not really. I never play songs for them or anything — I just play them for Lenny. They’re totally out of that and I like it that way. It isn’t something I can share. I spend the front of the day writing and the rest of the day coming down to where I can be okay. It sounds so crazy, but it is crazy writing sometimes.
“I don’t want to be a bad guy,” he adds, “but if I am a bad guy, I don’t want it to show up in my work, because my work means too much to me. I finally know that I’m going to be a writer all my life in some kind of way. It’s more important to me than my family or anything else. It’s bullshit if I say that anything means more to me, ’cause none of it does.”
At this point I break open my fortune cookie, extract the fateful slip of paper and place it where we can both scrutinize the message:
You should have two aims: to make a little money first — and to make it last.
“Hey!” says Newman, with a sharp rap on the tabletop. “Now, that’s damn good advice — …for a start.”
You’ve got to be tough to be around him, I’ll tell you,” says Lenny Waronker of his dearest friend. “He gets a lot of fuel from his hatred. I think he likes people on one hand and distrusts them on the other. I don’t think he’d admit this, but he probably enjoys liking people. I know that once he gets over his first impression he has a big kick saying, ‘I like that person.’
“It’s hard to explain,” Waronker confides, “but there’s two different views that I think he has — wanting to like, and wanting to dislike. I’ve seen him go out of his way to dislike people just for ridiculous reasons.”
Waronker, 37, a bright, boyish man who has the intense demeanor and baby-faced good looks of an eternal college student (he studied business and music at USC; Randy was a UCLA dropout), pauses and chuckles with the affectionate exasperation of a man who has been producing Randy Newman records for a decade. Not to mention putting up with him as a pal for over thirty years.
“Our parents were very close friends,” he explains. “My father once worked for Randy’s uncle in the Fox orchestra; Randy’s father is our doctor — so the Newman family is very much a part of our lives. That’s how I met Randy. From the time I was able to have a friend we were friends. I don’t know why we didn’t play with other kids as much; we were basically lazy about going out and being social; always have been.
“See, our families were a bunch of strange characters. Real critical. Everything that was done was criticized when I was growing up because of what our families were all about. ‘This wasn’t any good, and that movie was rotten, and that was great.’ I think you start doing it about people, too.
“So we were mostly together, just the two of us. We were both into sports. And we would play games, a lot of fantasy stuff. Randy was always kinda quiet when he was younger, which is one of the reasons he didn’t have a tremendous amount of friends. He read a lot, retreated to his room, was always drifting away. Early on, he started taking piano lessons, at seven or eight. I started at around the same time. He was encouraged, got a lot of encouragement when it came to that. When my father started Liberty Records, I used to go there in my teens and worked for producer Snuff Garrett as a gofer. I heard about Carole King and Gerry Goffin; I used to hang out with Bobby Vee; Johnny Burnette I knew, Gene McDaniels, too. I was the boss’ kid, what do you expect? And Randy got to know those people.
“I would come home and say. ‘I know you could do better than these guys.’ And I believed it. But it was very hard for him, because people like Snuff thought he was too weird. They kept saying, ‘How’s your weird friend?’ and that’s a painful thing to go through. Finally, Gene McDaniels recorded one of his songs and that was his breakthrough, and he got signed to Metric Music. I think he was excited.”
It was at this point that the introverted Randy began to undergo a subtle transformation.
“He was maturing in a funny way, I guess,” Waronker reflects. “He had a certain offbeat sense of humor that was becoming more obvious to people. His personality developed in a queer way. He was becoming a character — not a jokester or a jester, but almost Holden Caulfield-esque in humor.”
Alan Newman concurs: “Something long trapped inside him started to emerge during those high-school years — a funny, perverse side of him. No one knew what to make of it at first. Like, one Christmas he took all his presents into the bathroom. He locked the door and drove us crazy oooohing and ahhhing inside there while we had to guess what present he was opening.”
Once under way, the evolution of Randy’s eccentric levity quickly accelerated.
“He once brought an ashcan into a classroom and dumped the stuff out,” says Waronker. “And did he tell you about the time he was in jail for mooning? Randy always tickled me and made me laugh.”
By the time Waronker got Newman into a recording studio, his mordant perspective of humanity was honed to a fine edge. (Waronker produced the first album with Van Dyke Parks; most of the subsequent LPs were produced with Russ Titelman.) Lenny’s accounts of the creation of the first four albums — Randy Newman, 1968; 12 Songs, 1970; Randy Newman Live, 1971; Sail Away, 1972 — are liberally sprinkled with phrases like “murder, murder,” “tough going” and “pulling teeth,” but he sums it all up with the proud assessment: “A real pretty sound with a nasty intent.”
When I ask about the underpinnings of that nastiness, Waronker says that Newman “writes less from personal experience than anybody I know, not to say it doesn’t creep into his work . . .” Waronker erupts in hysterics at the memory of what he calls “the great fag story” that eventually resulted in “Half a Man” on Born Again.
“Randy’s dad is a great storyteller,” Waronker begins, choking on his own laughter. “He used to tell us great doctor stories. The one that had the biggest impression on us was so frightening, it took us seventeen years to talk about it after we initially heard it.
“Dr. Newman came home one day and said that he had just treated an older, well-to-do businessman — he never told us his name — who had just been beaten up in the shower. Irving asked him what made the other guy punch him out, and he said, ‘Well, here I was standing in the shower and I saw this guy and, what the hell, I started to go down on him. I don’t know what the hell came over me, but he beat the shit out of me.’
“Randy’s father was saying, ‘It could happen to you boys. Better watch it,’ so you could imagine how terrified and mortified we were. We both carried this thing around for years and never talked about it. One night back when we were doing Little Criminals , we were driving home, acting real dopey and laughing and Randy brought the story up. I said, ‘Jesus Christ! Do you still think about that?!’ He said, ‘Remember it! How could I forget it!’
“It killed us. Every time I was in the shower I’d literally try to get the hell out as soon as possible. That Dr. Newman, he really got us there.”
Randy was a good, fine kid, and is a very intellectual guy — much more than you can tell from his strange, bitter lyrics,” Dr. Irving Newman tells me one morning while taking a break at home from his duties as an internist at a nearby hospital. “I don’t know where the hell those lyrics come from, by the way.”
What’s the story, I ask, about Randy’s eye problems?
“It was terrible,” he states flatly. “He had to have a lot of operations for his crossed eyes. I think it influenced his thinking a whole lot, his sadness. When he says he doesn’t know where it came from, I think it has a lot to do with his vision. He couldn’t stand, as a kid, exploitation of that; being called ‘four eyes’ or ‘cockeyed.’ He cannot stand that kind of humor, you know, when guys cross their eyes like Jerry Lewis or drag their legs like Milton Berle. He thinks it’s disgraceful, and so do I.
“One time he was playing basketball in front of the house and some guy called him ‘cockeyed.’ I had to drag him off that guy. I’m sure he’d have killed him. Randy fought back — he never took it.”
It seems, I tell Dr. Newman, that he also was a scrapper in his day. “I was,” Newman declares. “As a matter of fact, I still stupidly am. I’m never nasty until I’m bothered, and then I can’t resort to the good language I know. I just begin fighting and that’s it.”
Has he ever become angry at a musician?
“No. I have them all as patients, everybody you could think of. I never get mad at them, even on the dope scene, because I understand them. The people I get mad at are drunks at bars. And I don’t stop to say, ‘Well, they’re drunk, they don’t know what they’re doing.’ I take it up to a point and then I’m off and in a brawl. That hasn’t happened in ages, of course.
“I would never take any pushing around,” Newman emphasizes. “I couldn’t stand people who were pushy or who pushed me around or took a swing at me. Of course, my work put me on edge anyway. But Randy kind of likes it in me, I think. I even think some of the stuff he writes is biographical — about me. He denies it vehemently. The ‘old man’ songs he’s written, the dying old man, ‘you taught me not to believe,’ remember that one? Well, you see I’m atheistic, too.”
Was Randy raised in any religion?
“No, none of us were. We’re all Jewish by birth, but none of us had any training. We were all out making a living. My mother was too busy feeding us to make us go to any kind of church.”
Newman mentions that he never knew his own father; Alfred, his eldest brother, was “the father figure” in his life. As a result, when Alfred and his mother came to him and requested that he become a doctor, he readily agreed to do so.
“I’d played clarinet and sax in pit orchestras and with Benny Goodman and Red Nichols; music came very easy to me. Then when it came time to go to college [Louisiana State University], my brother asked me if I would become a doctor rather than stay in music, because we were all in music. So I said, ‘Sure.’ Didn’t matter to me. I gave up the horn and took out my microscope.”
How does Newman feel when treating patients who are deeply religious?
“As a doctor, I love them to be religious,” he says quietly. “It lessens my responsibility a great deal. When someone is dying, for instance — God forbid — he takes it much better than a nonreligious person. And he or she attributes it to the will of God, which makes my job a lot easier.
“I have my own reasons for being atheistic. One of them is a lack of belief. I understand that faith has to be learned. I never had a chance to learn anything like that. I may laugh at religious people, but I admire them. They have an inner peace I’ll never have.”
Is he regretful?
“Not a bit,” he insists, and then tells me a little story in an effort to illustrate why: “When Randy was a kid he was invited to the Riviera Country Club by some girl for a cotillion. The night of the ball the girl’s father called and said, ‘I’m sorry, Randy, my daughter had no right to invite you because no Jews are allowed.’ He said, ‘That’s all right, sir,’ and he hung up the phone and he said, ‘Hey dad, what’s a Jew?’ I decided he needed to know something and I told him he better start reading. So he read every book you can think of, including the Bible, and he decided he wouldn’t believe in anything. He was about eight or nine then. Alan, three years later, experienced the same thing at the same ball at the same country club. He read the same books as Randy, but he didn’t have Randy’s decisiveness about that.
“Me, I went to Israel a few weeks ago and I came back a born-again atheist.”
Did Randy discuss his latest album with his father?
“No,” Newman replies excitedly, “but I said to him, ‘Randy, how can I say to my friends, with that billboard on Sunset, “That’s my son!”? ‘He said, ‘Don’t you understand, dad? It’s not me in that makeup, I’m just making fun of Kiss rock.’ I said, ‘I just think it’s lousy looking.’
“I could never believe some of the stuff Randy was writing,” says his father ruefully. “I asked him about it and he said, ‘Well, dad, I’m an unhappy man.’ I said, ‘What are you unhappy about?’ He said, ‘I wish I knew. I’m not unhappy enough to have a shrink, but I know I’m a down sort of guy, and I don’t ever know what’s gonna come out when I sit down and play.'”
How old was Randy when he had his first eye operation?
“He was about . . .… seven,” Irving Newman says in a brooding tone. “He’s had four or five operations. The last was by the most gifted man in that field, who said, ‘Randy, I promise you 100 percent that, at least cosmetically, your eyes will be centered and you’ll look beautiful.’ “Randy, who was in his teens, didn’t say a word. He never spoke much back then. He underwent the operation in San Francisco and then was put in the blind ward because his eyes were bandaged. He was there for a while and he rang one day for the nurse ’cause he had to urinate. She didn’t come. So he got up and felt his way around the room. He found the sink and he pissed in the sink. Later he found his shoe and pissed in his shoe. That’s the way he was — he gave everybody his chance, and then if help wasn’t forthcoming he did it his own way.
“When his vision returned,” Newman pauses and sighs heavily, “his eyes were still not centered. When I brought him back to see the doctor, he used terrible language to the man. Randy was shattered, crushed. The guy had promised him 100 percent. Randy said, ‘If you had said zero percent I’d have bought that; five percent, I’d have bought that, but you said 100 percent and it hasn’t helped a bit!!’
“The guy should never have promised,” Randy’s father says mournfully.” That doctor, he’s a very wonderful man in his field, but he didn’t understand how deeply Randy gave consideration to these things. It just broke my son’s heart.”
I am still shy with my eyes,” Randy Newman tells me later when we are back in his office. “Now, am I looking straight at you?” he asks anxiously, removing his tinted glasses so I’ll be able to tell. I am unnerved to see that both eyes are slightly askew, and I do not answer him.
“When I was a kid, people would act as if I looked like I was talking over their shoulders to someone else,” he says glumly. “It hurt. I see out of one eye mostly; they don’t really fuse. I see double. I don’t really notice it. Except now, when I’m talking about it, I see two of you.”
He shrugs, replaces his glasses and looks out the window for a few moments, saying nothing.
We get to talking about his dating troubles, and he maintains that he could never have written a song like Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”
“Partly it’s voice,” he explains, “and partly I can’t see myself in the heroic vein that love songs require.” He goes on to tell me about his German wife, Roswitha; how he met her sixteen years ago when she was working in a Bank of America; that he took her to a Peter Sellers movie on their first date; and how she takes care of him and their world to the point where he doesn’t have to do the most mundane kinds of things (“like getting gas, buying shoes”), or handle major tasks like buying a new house (“she did it all and showed me some pictures one time”).
“I’m lucky,” he says softly. “I’m not gonna write songs to her like Mac Davis would do, but I know that I’m lucky. One time before we got married [in 1967], my back went out, and the first time I was out of bed in three months I was leaving her apartment and I knocked over a milk bottle. This guy at this window was cursing and he came down. He’s six feet six, about 280, and he comes out and pushes me and I can’t get away. She hits the guy in the stomach and he stops! She saved me from getting clobbered!
“I’m glad I married who I married,” he continues. “Especially when I think how I could have ended up, with the lack of self-control I’ve had in terms of drugs and everything else. Speed, mainly, was the one I could control least. I just have never had any moderation about whatever I was doing. It used to piss me off when people said I was out of whack, ’cause I thought I was acting fine. My wife was very sane always and wasn’t too horrified. I used to tell her to make sure I was alive before she went to sleep because I used to take so many downers to get to bed. She would say, ‘Oh, okay. Sweet dreams’ — exactly that.
“It’s good to have her, I’m telling you. Ask Lenny — I could have married somebody like me.
“I have all kinds of nightmares,” he confides. “Nightmares that I will forget everything I know, or that I’ll laugh on television and snot will come out of my nose. I’ve had a nightmare that I was playing with a band and I didn’t know the chord changes and couldn’t do it, and ended up running down the street away from it.”
Newman says he hasn’t had that last trauma in a while, but just to be on the safe side he has no intention of touring to support Born Again (“I’m not in the mood to go on a stage”), preferring to stay home and lose himself in his books.
“I like to read,” he murmurs soberly, rubbing his eyes again. “If I lose that I don’t have much.”
Does he have any vices at this point?
“Nope. I quit smoking, never did drink except when I was young. The speed thing is behind me. I’m boring, that’s my only vice.” “
But you don’t seem boring to me,” I protest.
“Lemme tell you something,” he says with a sad smile. “When you bore yourself, as I do, you can’t really tell otherwise.”