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Randy Newman Isn’t Kidding

He really does love L.A. He also loves his wife and kids. He even loves himself. Well, almost.

Randy Newman

Randy Newman at home in Los Angeles, circa 1982

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns/Getty

We Love it! That’s what they’re screaming at the guy in the big Buick convertible, the guy who’s barreling down the streets of Los Angeles with one hand on the steering wheel and the other wrapped around a pouty-lipped peer of the local nubility. The surfers are screaming at him. The old ladies are screaming at him. The black people. The valley girls. The hippies. “We love it!” they shriek, and the guy in the Hawaiian shirt and shades whips that Buick around another corner and flashes a wide – but classy – grin. He’s cool. He’s got it sussed. He’s eat-my-dust confident. He’s… Randy Newman?

Oh, mama, yes sir. That nerd of yore is cruising his hometown, happy as a four-eyed clam. “I love L.A.,” he sings. “We love it!” they holler back. And they aren’t just assessing the scenery; they’re digging the dude at the wheel! They love Newman, they love this video of his, they love his attitude, they love the whole thing! They love it!

And not just Californians – sure, it’s only a video, Randy, but can’t you see the whole picture? They love you in New York (“He’s just kidding,” they’re saying about “I Love L.A.” “Those West Coast idiots don’t even get the irony!”). They love you in Italy (“They’re an awfully nice bunch of people,” you have said. “All 80 million of ’em.”). They love you at Warner Bros., especially because you say you’d put on a chicken suit to sell your latest album, Trouble in Paradise. And your musician pals, people like Don Henley and Linda Ronstadt, love you. They wanted to play on your LP very much. Remember when you said, “I resent Paul Simon’s belief in himself as a poet”? Now he’s singing a duet with you!

Are you getting the picture now? Your best friend and producer, Lenny Waronker – who was just made president of Warner Bros., you lucky duck – says you’ve never been a more dedicated worker, or a better family man. Your brother, Alan, says you’ve conquered that nasty writer’s block and those troublesome bouts of excess. Hey, fella, you even got a standing ovation at a radio programmers’ convention. Like you were Styx or something!

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Randy Newman, the man with the cleaned-up act! Who takes care of his family! Who doesn’t bitch about his childhood anymore! Who’s just released one terrific album…commercial as hell, too! Let’s hear it: We love it! We love it! We Love….

Whazzat? What did you say? “People say that love will make up for everything. But it’s not everything.” Randy, what are you saying? “I know I’m hard on myself. Other people think I’m all right. Everything’s just fine with them…but it’s not fine with me.”

Now that’s trouble in paradise.

***

The offices of Renaissance Management, the firm that handles the careers of Newman, Ry Cooder and the Kinks, are located at the foot of Beverly Hills, in an area so cluttered with banks that I half expect to run into a scruffy Buddy Ebsen looking for Mr. Drysdale. The picture window in the room where Newman and I meet looks out on a wholly undistinguished area of Los Angeles – no eye-popping sights, no wistful vistas, just a sprawling metrocenter without a focal point. As we gaze out on a sunny, blustery day, I ask Newman just how straight-faced his song about L.A. is intended to be.

“I’m pretty serious,” he says in his pleasant, nasal drawl. “You know, I say, ‘Look at that bum,’ but I like it. It’s not pretty here. The city isn’t pretty. But I like the weather and I like the people, and I like being able to move around.”

Until a few years ago, Newman’s career hadn’t done much moving around at all; it was a classic example of artistic excellence and commercial mediocrity. Such early efforts as 12 Songs (1969) and Sail Away (1972) were carefully crafted, intelligent works that attracted immediate critical acclaim. They also sold like straw hats in Saskatoon. For although Newman could be penciled into the singer/songwriter category that flourished in the early Seventies, his songs weren’t weepy, pure-voiced romans à clef. Newman spun his sardonic tales from a character’s point of view, and what little notoriety he did acquire came only when people identified him with a song’s narrator. One such tune, “Rednecks” (“We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground/…And we’re keeping the niggers down”), was mordant enough to be banned – with Newman’s tacit approval – in the then racially strife-ridden city of Boston.

Maybe it was only fitting, then, that Randy Newman should become a household name on the basis of his most blatantly satiric song, “Short People.” Millions reviled it. His supporters countered that he himself was a shrimp. (He isn’t.) The song hit Number One, the album (Little Criminals) went Top Ten, and Newman’s career got a bit warped in the process. Filled with confidence, Newman put out his next release, a seething, nihilistic critique of the record industry titled Born Again, without doing interviews or a tour. It died a shockingly speedy death.

Now, after earning plaudits for his eloquent score to the film Ragtime, Newman is hoping to revive his momentum with Trouble in Paradise. He would seem to have a pretty good shot at it. The album’s songs range from spirited rockers to heartfelt ballads, and Newman’s lyrical examinations of the dualities of life in utopian settings – Miami and South Africa among them – have rekindled critical interest. Some have surmised that the LP is a comment on the hard times brought on by Reaganomics, an atypically timely opus. Randy says bushwa.

Born Again is more an album of its time than this one,” he says, “and ‘Sail Away’ came out right before Roots. This has nothing to do with the times.”

Not even a little?

“Well, people are getting harder, tighter. People I see, like in PTA groups and stuff, are having trouble. Jobs, money” – he pauses puckishly – “and the trouble in the record business. I was talking to Don Henley; I rode on a plane with him. He can’t charter Lear jets anymore.” Newman cackles infectiously. “I said, ‘Ah, Jesus, that’s tough.’ He was laughing, too. Time for belt-tightening. You can’t live on a million a year anymore.”

Hard times in the business – and anguish over the shelf life of Born Again – have sent Newman into a tizzy of promotion: TV shows, European swings, interviews, videos, even his first U.S. tour in three years this spring.

“I stayed away too long,” he admits glumly, the corners of his thin mouth pulling down even more than usual. “Freshman classes have graduated since I’ve been on the road in this country. I can’t play the University of Nebraska anymore; they don’t know who I am.” He starts almost mumbling to himself. “It’s bad planning on my part, which I’ve always done…. But I have to do some stuff to rectify….” His voice trails off.

***

There are, it would seem, a couple of things that Randy Newman would like to rectify. Perhaps foremost among them is the story – fueled by interviews he’s done in the past – that his childhood was an ungodly nightmare, one so bad that he can’t even recollect it.

“No way was it a terrible childhood,” he states adamantly, asserting that earlier stories have exaggerated his difficulties. “When you talk to people, you realize that they shouldn’t complain about their childhoods unless they’ve really been blighted. I don’t remember well what happened to me when I was five and six; my brother remembers stuff that I don’t. But I had a happy one, what I recall.”

Newman was born in Los Angeles thirty-nine and a half years ago. His father, Irving, was an appealingly irascible internist who’d met Randy’s mother, Adele, when they were students at Louisiana State University. Newman grew up in Southern California, but spent summers with his mother’s family down South. That’s where Randy recalls first hearing the music that would have the greatest influence on him: Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Frogman Henry. His musical ability asserted itself at an early age; not too surprising, since his uncles Emil, Alfred and Lionel were busy writing scores for half of the films made in Hollywood. But Newman doesn’t describe his childhood home as a hotbed of music, and doesn’t remember doing much playing for his uncles.

“A lot of them would play at parties – dirty songs and stuff. But it wasn’t like we’d get together and make music. Ronstadt told me how her family was very musical, always singing all the time. I like it, believe me. But composers are wary of having kids play for them – you know, music was work.”

Alan Newman, who’s four years younger than Randy, remembers his brother as an almost charismatic figure. “He was very athletic, very involved in sports and Little League. He was a little more rebellious than I was. A lot of these articles portray him as some kind of weirdo, like one of those kids who was always playing with his chemistry set, but it wasn’t true. He was a normal kid, more independent than I was.

“We took some college classes at UCLA together, and he wouldn’t go to class at all. He’d read the textbook and read over my lecture notes the night before the exam, and do better than I would.” Alan, now a cancer specialist in San Francisco, laughs in remembrance. “He always does well when he puts his mind to it, and that was the way he always lived his life – on the brink, on the edge. And he has a sense of humor that all of us appreciated.”

But there was a problem, a problem that messed with the sports and the dating and the good humor. Randy’s eyes were crossed, and despite promises from a surgeon that an operation would repair them “one hundred percent,” it didn’t work out that way. Newman still can’t look you squarely in the eye.

Lenny Waronker, who’s been Randy’s best friend since they were children, recalls the problem but soft-pedals its significance. “It was a drag, but he didn’t mope about it. His biggest problem came when he was a little older; his appearance was hindered somewhat, just the way he was unable to look people in the eye. That bothered him – you know how kids are.

“But in terms of the pain and the operation, he was terrific. He didn’t talk about it much, maybe kept it inside. He would just go off and have these operations and these patches on his eye.”

“It was sort of a trauma,” posits Alan. “But I don’t know how much of a difference it made. It caused physical problems, you know, like learning to drive. Maybe that’s the reason he likes to read so much.” “I don’t know what kind of anguish it was,” says Randy himself. “It was something I wished I wouldn’t have had, but it didn’t make an immense impact on my life, I don’t think.”

Could it have fostered Newman’s affinity for the outsiders who populate his songs?

“Might have. I was always for the underdog. I was always for the Dodgers, but never for the Philadelphia As.” He smiles at his baseball metaphor. “I was never one for hopeless quests.”

Newman’s career in music began while he was still at UCLA, when Waronker wangled a job for his buddy at Metric Music, his father’s record company. “I went over there and played him some songs, and they signed me up. A hundred dollars a month sounded great to me. Jackie DeShannon was there, and David Gates and Glen Campbell. When I heard their stuff, I thought, ‘Geez, I’ll never be able to do stuff like that, big and elaborate.'”

Newman’s songs did get recorded by a number of artists, but he emphasizes that he wasn’t really learning the trade there. “You’d get the idea that when, by mistake, I had a hook in something, they’d be happy. But they never told me anything. And I never listened to anyone about that stuff. I’ve been really straight about my writing.”

Throughout his career – or his life, for that matter – Newman has always been a little isolated. He has never been a member of a band. He has done only one tour with backup musicians. He doesn’t go out to see shows, and never has. “This is L.A.” he jokes. “We don’t have to go out.” His solitude is a choice, but there are times when he regrets that choice.

“It’s been a strange sort of isolation,” he notes. “At this party for Lenny, they played old stuff of mine from 1968. And it sounded like I never knew the Rolling Stones were in existence, like I was living on Krypton or something. Lenny, too, actually. And we were.

“I was talking to Henley about this yesterday. I envy him the fact that he’s in an artistic community. Those people hang out and kick ideas around. I don’t think I could do it; I’ve been doing it by myself for so long. But I like the idea that Henley could play this thing for Bob Seger, and he would go, ‘What do you think?’ Maybe you don’t get honest answers, but it’s nice.” He smiles for a moment. “I have a romantic view of those kind of things, you know.”

Waronker sees it differently, though. “Randy’s fortunate that people like him so much and respect him, that when they’re in the studio, they focus completely on what they’re doing. I think if he hung out a lot, it might get predictable for him. At this point, it’s always a revelation. He gets to the studio, he gets jazzed up by some great musician, and it’s not a common occurrence, so he gets inspired by it.”

Newman’s tastes in music are not all that typical. He is particularly fond of the members of Toto, “the best players of rock & roll ever.” And he gets all chuckly when he talks about laying down the vocal parts with Linda Ronstadt, Jennifer Warnes and Wendy Waldman on the hysterically funny “I’m Different.”

“It was fun, yeah. Usually work isn’t fun for me, but that was. Because they were, you know, talking about knitting and all nice little girl stuff, and we were in the booth doing stuff like….”He stands up, all six feet of him, pretending that he’s just snorted an entire box of Dash up his nose, and leers, “Okay, girls.” He sits down, giggling. “Awful kind of evil talk.”

But while Newman expresses genuine enthusiasm for such songwriters as Donald Fagen and, oddly enough. Rod Stewart (“I watch him like I watch Simon or Dylan”), he holds himself somewhat in check on Bruce Springsteen and almost entirely on Elvis Costello.

“He’s never immediately impressed me as being the great record maker and songwriter that critics say he is,” Newman says of Costello.

I mention that Costello cites Newman as an early influence, when, in his words, he was writing songs that had “really sophisticated chord changes.”

“Oh, he got away from that,” Newman sniffs. “Got more basic and human.”

Undaunted, I note that where Newman has never been the world’s most prolific songwriter – “I sit at the piano and hope” – the tunes just seem to tumble out of Elv….

“Yeah,” he snaps. “I heard Get Happy. That’s the one he had twenty on, right?” Uh, right, “I can do that. I can write forty of those.”

Finally, his tone moderates a bit. “You know,” he says more amiably, “I like Americans, what the fuck can I tell you?”

***

There was one exception.

Randy Newman first saw Roswitha Schmale about fifteen years ago. She was from Germany, and had come to Los Angeles to work for the Bank of America. She was staying at an apartment house where a friend of Newman’s from college also lived. She was sunning herself next to a swimming pool when Randy walked by. “She was real pretty,” he recalls. “It kind of threw me when I saw her. I jumped into the pool with my glasses on.” He asked her out. They hit it off. They got married. They’ve had three kids: Amos, 14; Eric, 12; and John, 5.

Despite his considerable wit and verbal gifts, Newman is not by nature the most voluble of men. And even the ease he normally possesses seems to lessen somewhat when the topic of his wife comes up.

“She’s real good to me,” he says. “Nice. I need someone to take care of me. I could have been to a place fifty times and still get lost.” Then later: “When she goes away to visit her family in Germany, the ship begins to sink. We don’t get along, the boys and I. We mess things up in our own particular way. We need her.”

Talk to Newman’s friends and relatives, and it’s Roswitha’s name that comes up as the person most responsible for Newman’s new sense of confidence and well-being, and for his ability to shuck the various demons – liquor, speed, gambling, other indiscretions – that have haunted him in years past.

“She really takes good care of him and the kids,” says Alan Newman. “He’s more comfortable at work, much happier in general. He had a rough time when he had this sort of writer’s block. It was a very tough time for him, I think. But he’s happier now.”

“He finally realizes that inspiration doesn’t come from waiting, it comes from working,” says Waronker. “He’s much more professional, he’s more realistic about his responsibility. He had a tendency to mope around, but now he realizes that what he does is also his job, and he takes a healthier attitude about that. So, those stories about him sitting around the house watching television for two or three years at a time aren’t applicable anymore.”

“I just outgrew them,” says Newman of his vices. “I couldn’t do them anymore. I couldn’t stay up all night all the time. You feel it.”

So Randy Newman’s big problems are under control, it would seem. His professional life is undergoing a revival. His childhood no longer bothers him. His personal life, by almost all accounts, seems to be a settled and happy one. So what’s eating him? Why is there a vague sense of trouble that still hangs – lightly, perhaps – around him?

Maybe it’s just some little things. Like this dream he has, this fantasy. “I’d like to play in a string quartet,” he says, in the midst of a reverie about his days at UCLA. “Play a little chamber music, if I could hack it. I’d really have to sort of practice, but that’s one of the things I’d like to do. I could probably go to UCLA and see if I could do it – find a couple of guys….”

“Perhaps some strings,” I offer helpfully.

“Four girls with big tits,” he says and stops, practically panic-stricken. “See,” he shouts, “that’s the matter with me. There’s a very, very bad streak of vulgarity running through my work. I mean, I worry about that stuff more than most, believe me. And I don’t think I’ve ever done anything that is vulgar. But something in me says something ridiculous like that. Like a conscious attempt not to be sensitive about anything. It’s living in America that does it,” he moans. “Manly, at all times. Can’t read poetry or play in a string quartet.”

You wanna talk manly? Let’s talk Amos Newman, Randy’s six-foot-tail, fourteen-year-old son, who’s shaved the hair off his head and is fronting a punk band with the genial moniker Armed Response. Their signature tune is dedicated to – or, more accurately, at – TV actor Ted Knight.

“It says, ‘We’re gonna beat you up, you old-has-been, we wish you were dead,'” groans a mortified Randy. “I said, ‘Hey, why get so exercised about Ted Knight? Give him a break, he may be a great guy.’ But no, they sang it at this party. I hope he sues them.”

Did you try to talk them out of it? “I did,” he says, “until I realized my position did not permit me to.”

And what is that position exactly? A year ago, Newman declared that “the sensitive Randy Newman is dead, gone forever.” But is it?

“What people are curious about him is, ‘How could he ever write those songs, he must be a weird guy,'” says Alan Newman. “But he’s not weird; he has a special way of looking at things. He’s extremely bright and extremely sensitive to injustice – and he’d kill me for saying this because it sounds so….”

Wimpy? “Yeah. But it shows in his songs. I mean, insensitivity is something he can laugh at, both in others and in himself. But he hates it.”

I thought “Real Emotional Girl,” a ballad from Trouble in Paradise, was the most sensitive song Newman had ever written, a delicate, heartfelt paean to a woman who “cried in her sleep” all night long. But Newman doesn’t see it as a tender statement.

“I saw the guy as sort of a bad guy. I don’t think you should be relating all those confidences – telling anyone that she cries in her sleep. I think it’s like the girl’s made another mistake.”

Just because Newman abjures “confessional” songwriting, or the easy sentiment that so often accompanies it, doesn’t mean that he’s not acutely aware – both in his art and in his life – of the small but telling pains of life.

“What interests me,” says Randy, “is character study. Fiction. It’s what I choose to do, it’s what I do best. But I’m a good deal more open than most singer/songwriters. When you meet some of these people you think are being confessional in their work, they’re not being confessional.” His voice is full of conviction. “That’s not what they’re like. There’s not an honest representation of people’s personalities in their work. Not often.

“I think you can tell more about what I’m like by what I do than you can about a lot of people.”

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