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Randy Newman: You’ve Got to Let This Fat Boy in Your Life

He’s one of the most brilliant composers and songwriters of his generation. So why is he so unpopular?

Randy NewmanRandy Newman

Randy Newman plays at Grumbles coffeehouse in Canada on August 29th, 1972.

Keith Beaty/Toronto Star via Getty

Who needs money
When you’re funny?
—from “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear,” by Randy Newman

“I don’t like it when they’re always blasting him just because he’s an idiot in things other than music. I mean those shows he did on television were amazing. They were almost enough to make people like classical music. And everyone blasts him ’cause of the Tom Wolfe book, you know, in which he comes off as a moron. It shouldn’t matter. I don’t give a shit what anyone’s like.”

That’s Randy Newman defending Leonard Bernstein and an artist’s hallowed right to a private life.

“I don’t care about Yoko; it has no effect on what I think of Lennon‘s songs. Boy, I’ve seen her when I couldn’t, I couldn’t watch it. She’s tough, boy. And dumb, really dumb. A dumb woman: ‘We became famous’ – shit like that. ‘Before We became famous.’ But Lennon can write.”

His feelings are so clear on the matter that it would be entirely appropriate and respectful, in this discussion of songwriter Randy Newman, to ignore his personal life and history completely. For one thing it’s not all that exciting. He lives with his wife Roswitha and two young sons in the middle of a block in the Mandeville Canyon area above West Los Angeles not far from where he grew up and went to college, likes to read, watch news and cartoons on TV, buy groceries, listen to some of the world’s great music on a broken-down Zenith portable stereo, and occasionally wander outside if the weather’s nice and the mail’s there. Randy himself once told a writer for New Musical Express:

“In a word, I’m boring.”

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Nevertheless, there is a growing body of thought, growing at least for the duration of this article, that somewhere among the tedious back pages of Randy’s life may lie the answer to one of the more infuriating riddles of modern rock: Why does a brilliant, 28-year-old composer and performer whose songs have been recorded by scores of famous people – Ray Charles, Judy Collins, Three Dog Night, Fats Domino, Harry Nilsson, etc. – whose own bashful performances have earned the first-hand praise of Dylan, McCartney and nearly every practicing rock critic – why does Randy Newman remain so hopelessly unpopular?

His four Warner Bros. albums are considered masterpieces of humor, innovation, economy and good humming tunes; yet, according to Randy, their total sales fall far short of what Jethro Tull‘s latest album has sold just in Atlanta. Newman is the man some predict will influence American music as much as George Gershwin or Cole Porter, the man Dave Van Ronk called “the Hoagy Carmichael of the Sixties.” Critic Robert Hilburn wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “Randy Newman is one of the most important singer-songwriters of this generation, a fact that has not, unfortunately, helped him sell records in the past two years.”

But why not? It would be easy to finger the rock buying audience, to dismiss it as a band of lowbrow red freaks who respond to little below the threshold of pain. Yet Newman’s songs are not that highbrow or reserved. His lyrics include none of the fuzzy bullshit symbolism that so often passes for rock poetry these days. And many of his songs have approached hit status – when sung by someone else, particularly Judy Collins with “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and Three Dog Night with “Mama Told Me Not to Come.”

No, we must learn from history, I feel, from Randy’s history of mishaps, screwups, unfortunate remarks and other cruel fates that have helped abort, at least temporarily, his rocket to stardom. Indeed, Randy’s rise from an obscure son of a Beverly Hills physician to an obscure composer of black-humored rock is one of the great Cinderella stories of our time – the first half; no doubt it also explains why he has become more and more difficult to work with – occasionally forcing Warner Bros. executives to physically drag him out of bed – and why his song/stories have become increasingly cynical and their characters increasingly creepy.

The evidence is somewhat spotty, gathered primarily during a long afternoon interview at Randy’s comfortable, no-flash, two-story home, and some may seize upon the circumstantial nature of it to attack the theory itself as unfounded or even unimportant. I can only invite such opportunists to listen to his music, check the sales figures, and see if they can come up with a more plausible explanation.

The nose on Randy Newman’s face is straight and narrow, usually supporting metal-rimmed glasses of some sort and stabilizing his curly, anarchic dark hair like the dart end of a magician’s exploding flower.

It’s been busted twice. The first time Randy was standing in the candy line at junior high school and this “crazy guy” ran up and butted in front. When Randy protested, the guy smashed him in the face.

“It was a brief fight,” he recalled. “He hit me and I just bled on him.”

Brief, perhaps, but who can gauge the effect of such an incident on the junior high mind? Or of the lesson in loyalty, honor and justice that followed?

“My friends said they were gonna get the guy,” said Randy, his bitterness blunted but still traceable after 15 years. “He got thrown out of school for a few days, and they said they would get him when he got back. I’m still waiting.”

Soon Randy’s attitude toward school and, some would venture, toward life in general grew noticeably cavalier. He turned to liquor – usually Ripple – joy-riding, and carousing with purposeless friends.

“See, I have no control, I can’t do anything in moderation,” he later admitted. “When I used to drink, even in high school and stuff, I always headed for oblivion, you know? I remember once, I drank six bottles of Ripple, and the next thing I remember – I wasn’t driving – I got in this big wreck.”

That time they had to operate on him just to get him to breathe. In another traffic accident he suffered a slipped disk, and in another he broke his nose for the second time. Since high school, Randy has participated in more than a dozen car wrecks.

“The first time I ever drove a car, you know, my father was so proud: ‘Pull the car out of the garage,’ he said. And I backed the car out and ripped the spring off the garage door – first five feet I moved. I should have known then, you know?

“I mean I was like a professional driver this one month; I made $600 in two wrecks. I was going to the hospital to get checked on the slipped disk, and a guy hit me from behind.”

Though he generally made good marks in school, Randy began dabbling in truancy while majoring in composition at UCLA. “I never went to 50 percent of my classes in the week,” he said. “If I couldn’t find a place to park, I’d just keep going.” He stuck it out for four years, then at the last minute refused to take a required performance course and dropped out. “They wouldn’t let me use my Fats Domino style singing,” he explained.

Years later this sense of suburban resignation, now almost visionary, sufaced on Newman’s second album, 12 Songs, in the bizarre tale of a hapless prom queen named “Lucinda”:

We met one summer evening
As the sun was going down
She was lying on the beach
In her graduation gown
She was wrapped up in a blanket
(I could tell she knew her way around)
And as I lay down beside her
You know she never made a sound

On down the beach came the
beach-cleaning man
Scoopin’ up the papers and flattening down the sand
“Lucinda, Lucinda, Lucinda – we’ve got to run away
That big white truck is closin’ in
And we’ll get wounded if we stay”

Now Lucinda lies buried ‘neath
the California sand
Put under by the beach-cleaning man
Lucinda, Lucinda, Lucinda – why’d you have to go?
They sent her to high school
They sent her to low school
She just wouldn’t go no further

Yet despite these occasional outbursts of California surfer recklessness, Randy’s career seemed destined for early greatness. The nephew of three celebrated film score composers – Alfred, Lionel and Emil Newman – Randy spent many youthful afternoons hanging around Hollywood sound stages, listening to the most accomplished musicians in the industry. His lifelong best friend Lenny Waronker, today his producer, was the son of the board chairman of Liberty Records; and even before Randy finished school, he was churning out pop songs for the Liberty-owned Metric Music Company at $50 a month.

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People started recording his stuff. Gene McDaniels sang “Somebody’s Waiting,” and the Fleetwoods did “They Tell Me It’s Summer.” Jerry Butler got some attention with “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore.”

“And I wrote a gangfight song,” said Randy, “called ‘Looking for Me’ – she was Eddie’s girl and all these guys are after him, you know? It was a big hit in Japan.”

“By who?”

“I have no idea. Just a big check came in.”

His early songs were more traditional lyrically, mostly love stuff, but they were good enough to capture the interest of many music industry heavies. They say Brian Epstein, whenever he visited America, always asked to see Newman’s latest works.

And one summer Randy and Lenny Waronker put on their best suits, flew to New York and visited the great song writer Jerry Leiber in his plush skyscraper office. Lenny remembers it was like a Judy Garland movie.

“Whatcha got, kid?” asked Leiber. Randy nervously played two numbers he’d just written, then Leiber suddenly leaned forward and bellowed, “Jesus, this kid’s good!”

“At that time Randy was really writing tunes more than lyrics,” recalled Waronker, “he was much more tune conscious. Then out of the blue he wrote a batch of songs that were completely different, titles like ‘Mama Told Me Not to Come,’ ‘Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad,’ and ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.’ It was great, like a beautiful fusion of words and music.”

In the world of rock it was a time of experimentation and eclecticism and musical supermen who often composed, arranged, produced and performed their own material. In Hollywood, for decades the center of film and television fantasy, some rock composers turned nostalgically to the lush, programmatic, show-biz devices that had influenced pop music in the past. Writers like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Van Dyke Parks, Jim Webb and, perhaps, Beach Boy Brian Wilson were the most prominent exponents of this soft new music; all of them were brilliantly original composers, arrangers and studio technicians – men who rarely performed in public, who thought primarily in terms of electronically recorded sound.

With the exception of Brian Wilson, they were also outstanding lyricists, Newman and Nilsson specializing in homey stories with specific plot lines, Parks in almost academic conceits and puns and Jim Webb in vivid and occasionally pretentious symbolism and polemics.

But Randy Newman stood out among the five for his use of ironic humor – both musically and lyrically – and his ability to see common human truth through the eyes of creeps and losers. Unfortunately, his lust for subtle perversity and dispassion and his distaste for traditional love songs may have been too great a departure for the commercial market. (“It doesn’t interest me much, writing love songs,” Randy said recently. “They may make the most money for me, but there’s so much more. There’s no reason for 89 percent of the songs to be like that.”) One wonders if the public could really have been ready for a song like “Davy the Fat Boy” when it appeared on Randy’s first album, Randy Newman.

Still one of his favorite works, “Davy the Fat Boy” opens with a series of grim minor chords by the full orchestra and these words:

I been his friend since we were little babies
I was a comfort to his mother and a pal to his dad
Before they passed away they say “Take care of our Davy
You may be the only friend he ever will have”

Having set us up with the proper sense of tragedy and foreboding, Randy then breaks into a rinky-tink piano thing reminiscent of a carnival stage, the perfect accompaniment to these lighthearted barker lines:

Davy the Fat Boy, Davy the Fat Boy
Isn’t he round? Isn’t he round?
What do he weigh, folks?
Can you guess what he weigh?
You know, it’s only a quarter
Win a teddy bear for the girl friend
Or something for the wife
You’ve got to let this fat boy in your life

The piano stops and the orchestra starts a slower, more discordant theme.

I think we can persuade him to do
The famous Fat Boy Dance for you
Give me half a chance
I just know you’ll like my fat boy’s dance

An interlude follows as the strings play a crippled, bittersweet waltz, suggesting the grotesque spectacle of a 300-pound freak limping and twirling about the stage. Then the final words followed by a brief return and fadeout of the rinky-tink piano:

Davy the Fat Boy, Davy the Fat Boy
Isn’t he
Isn’t he round?

The album, produced by Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks, won high praise from most critics. A Chicago reviewer called it “one of the best albums ever to come out of the West.” Paul McCartney called him up at home in Los Angeles to congratulate him on the album – in short, it seemed that Randy’s time was at hand.

But the public apparently was not in the mood for fat boy dances, and Warner Bros., which then was seeking an image as the benevolent Medicis of the new rock, finally gave the album away as a promotional gimmick.

The mouth on Randy Newman’s face is one of the coolest and cleverest in the business. When he’s singing and his formerly pudgy but now OK body slumps and sways spinelessly over the piano under the weight of all those blues, his mouth pouts slightly, like Lennon’s, surly and soulful and so tight-lipped the words barely get out. But when he’s not singing, the mouth straightens a bit to something an owl might regard as a smile; the lips loosen up just enough to let understated, double-edged one-liners slip out sheepishly in the manner of Dan Hicks or Country Joe MacDonald.

It’s the non-singing mouth that seems to have caused Randy the most difficulty. He claims people keep misunderstanding him, somehow reading bad things into perfectly innocent remarks. Once he went to see Liza Minelli rehearse a TV dance number, and after it was over she asked him how he liked it.

“You were a real Mitzi Gaynor out there,” he replied, an assessment that apparently did not impress Liza. “But I always liked Mitzi Gaynor,” Randy explained later with a shrug.

Another time Randy was approached by a Hollywood promoter who wanted to introduce a client named Neil Diamond. Neil was certainly selling more records than Randy at the time, and the promoter may have thought Randy could benefit from the relationship.

“Randy,” solicited the promoter, “I think you and Neil here have something in common.”

“Yeah, we’re both Jewish,” said Randy, more or less ending the discussion. (Actually, Randy says he’s not really that Jewish. “I played at some bar mitzvah once. Wait a minute, no I didn’t – just a regular wedding. Normal people.”)

During his last visit to London, where his songs had garnered a sizable following, Randy was asked to go on television for an interview. It looked like a good opportunity to start a promotional ground swell; ex-Animal Alan Price was one of the first to record many of Randy’s songs and had had a pretty strong hit in England with “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.”

But on the visit Randy became miffed at what he considered all the mindless, exaggerated criticism of American violence. And when he was asked in the interview how he was enjoying England, he replied pleasantly, “I think you have a cute little country.”

No ground swell has been reported.

“It is a cute little country,” Randy said later, shrugging again.

Randy Newman’s songs, with their programmatic scores and sensitive characterizations and plot lines, are really little musical comedies, perhaps the only truly legitimate forms of rock musical comedy. Some people feel his career must naturally progress to the Broadway stage or film scoring. He has, in fact, already scored one film, Cold Turkey, and conducted the music to another, Performance.

But a few years ago he blew his first chance at a soundtrack when the film’s producer, who had heard about this amazing Newman kid, called and asked Randy to play something. Randy had just finished writing “Davy the Fat Boy” and decided to try it out on him, forgetting for the moment that the producer himself weighed more than 300 pounds.

“About halfway through,” recalled Randy, “the absurdity of my singing this song about a fat kid for this overweight producer suddenly hit me. When I finished, he said, ‘That’s wonderful; do you have any songs about blind people or bald men?'”

It’s hard to imagine such faux pas, however embarrassing, stifling Randy’s career, but then it’s hard to imagine anything stifling it, particularly after the release of his second album. Of the four records, 12 Songs includes the greatest number of hard rockers and the greatest number of hard-core love songs. Actually it may have been the love songs, hard-core in the most pornographic sense, which created the problems. The very fact that their protagonists spring from the horny forgotten masses makes the songs simultaneously highly erotic and apparently uncommercial.

In “If You Need Oil,” probably the first love song written about a gas station attendant, Randy’s words sizzle with dirty double entendre:

Baby, please come to the station
And I’ll wipe your windshield clean
If you need oil, I’ll give you oil
And I’ll fill your tank with gasoline
Baby, please come to the station
You know I get so lonely there
Bring some wine for inspiration
And wear a ribbon in your hair

But it’s in “Suzanne,” Randy’s smutty answer to Leonard Cohen‘s spiritual love ballad by the same name, that his zeal for the perverse really shines. When Randy performs the song in public, he often introduces it by saying, “Nothin’ religious about this one”; and it’s true, Randy’s weird lover hardly wants his perfect body to be touched by anything as abstract as some chick’s mind:

I saw your name, baby
In a telephone booth
And it told all about you, mama
Boy I hope it was the truth
I took down your number
Looked up your address, Sue
And I was hopin’ that maybe
You could love me, too

I’m gonna wait in the shadows
For you to come by
I’m gonna wait in the shadows, baby
For you to come by
And then I’ll jump from the shadows
And try and catch your eye
Gonna run my fingers through your hair
And love you everywhere

Now I don’t want to get too romantic
That’s just not my way
But when I get my arms around you
I’m gonna rock you all the night
Gonna rock you all the day

Suzanne, you won’t know it, but I’ll be behind you
Don’t try and run away from me, little girl
Wherever you go I’ll find you
And when you go to the pictures
And I know you do
Don’t take no one with you
‘Cause I’ll be there, too

“Suzanne,” of course, is not really a love song as much as a kind of impersonal spoof; but Randy can employ kinkiness equally well in more serious personal overtures and make it sound almost beautiful. Here’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” which is included on his last album, Sail Away:

Baby take off your coat . . . (real slow)
Baby take off your shoes . . . (here I’ll take your shoes)
Baby take off your dress
Yes. Yes. Yes.
You can leave your hat on
You can leave your hat on
You can leave your hat on

Go on over there and turn on the light . . . no, all the lights
Now come back here stand on this chair . . . that’s right
Raise your arms up into the air shake ’em
You give me reason to live
You give me reason to live
You give me reason to live

Suspicious minds are talking
Trying to tear us apart
They say that my love is wrong
They don’t know what love is
They don’t know what love is
They don’t know what love is
They don’t know what love is
I know what love is

When he was recently in Sweden, Randy was asked during a press conference what “You Can Leave Your Hat On” was all about. “Fucking,” he explained. See, he does know what love is. “A lot of tunes in the guise of romanticism,” he said later, “have mainly fucking behind them.”

Anyway, when 12 Songs was released in early 1970, it seemed the entire rock industry, as if on cue, automatically bestowed stardom on Randy without, of course, checking with the buying public. The album was hailed even more wildly than the first; Robert Hilburn called it “the best I’ve heard since The Band.” Another critic called it “the full emergence of a leading innovator in rock and roll; hopefully, with the release of this album, Randy Newman will no longer have to worry about being misunderstood.” Wrote another critic “It, hopefully, will make him a major star.” Warner Bros. went beyond hope and announced quite simply in a crisp new press release, “Randy Newman is about to become truly famous.”

About the same time, Harry Nilsson released a whole album of Newman’s stuff, Nilsson Sings Newman, an unprecedented tribute from one young leading innovator to another that included Randy himself on piano. And to everyone’s happy surprise, Randy decided to perform live, just him and his piano on the cozy stages of small, hip nightclubs. He started timidly, limiting himself the first year to places like the Lion’s Share in San Anselmo, California, the Troubadour in Los Angeles and the Bitter End in New York. But by the end of 1971 he had toured much of the country.

Randy found he enjoyed performing – it was easier and more profitable than writing or recording – and he usually left his audiences raving and almost dangerously committed. People dug his piano virtuosity, his loose, deadpan style and his voice – a rough but extremely agile croon that breaks just enough to add credibility to his downtrodden characters. It’s an unusual voice, combining the best elements of Fats Domino, Melanie, and Sam Yorty.

But again the expert predictions proved premature; 12 Songs more or less bombed, and the tour audiences, while fanatic and often sold out, failed to expand beyond cult proportions.

“I mean, I wouldn’t be able to fill something like Boston Garden,” Randy admitted a little resentfully. “Santana was playing Boston Garden when I was there at Harvard – which I didn’t fill, which was like a thousand people. And Santana drew 15,000 people, and Carlos wasn’t even at the concert, he didn’t play.

“And later I asked them what happened, and they said, ‘Oh, a few people yelled out, “Where’s Santana?” ‘ but it didn’t matter, you know?”

“Well,” I told Randy, “at least you can take heart in the fact that if you hadn’t shown up it probably would have caused a lot of trouble.”

“Well, it might have filled the place,” he said, smirking.

His continued commercial impotence must have been discouraging for Randy, and when he wasn’t touring, he tended to retreat even further into the indolent privacy of his home. He developed an almost pathological fear of studios and a perfectionist’s obsession with self doubt. Never a prolific composer, he started devoting whole days to television – Rocky and Bullwinkle, The New Zoo Review, Courageous Cat, three hours of news, Japanese variety shows on educational TV – and reading, newspapers cover to cover and books like Winesburg Ohio, John Toland’s Rising Sun: the Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, and lighter stuff by Agatha Christie and Herman Wouk.

When he failed to deliver a third album in 1971, Warner Bros. packaged one of his Bitter End performances and released it as Randy Newman/Live, still many critics’ favorite album and ironically his best seller up to then – a boffo 50-60,000.

“He’s not your normal, everyday artist who likes to groove around in the studio,” explained producer Lenny Waronker, an intense, baby-faced man of Randy’s age who wears V-necked sweaters and plain brown shirts. “It took him a year to do the last album. Half of the time was spent in cancellations and crap-outs, you know, a lot of midnight calls: ‘Jesus, this is shit. Can we cancel?’

“And I have to assure him his stuff’s great and everything’s OK, and he’ll say, ‘Ah, you really think so? and finally hang up.”

For a while it seemed Randy was using most of his creative energy composing excuses.

“He used to get the flu every two weeks,” said Lenny.

“You mean he’s a goldbricker?”

“No, just a liar. You know, it’s not easy; we have to coax him.”


“Different types of tactics – going over to his house and dragging him out of bed, telling him things like “Think of your kid, think of me, think of the company, but do something.”

Waronker, who also produces Gordon Lightfoot, Arlo Guthrie, Van Dyke Parks and Ry Cooder for Warner Bros., has spent much of his life coaxing and reassuring Randy. He’s been the first to hear most of Randy’s songs hot off the piano, usually on the phone about seven in the morning. So he speaks not with anxiety but sympathy, almost reverence, about his troublesome friend.

“Of course, it was tougher for someone like Randy than for the average puke,” he said. “When he’s arranging a song for a studio orchestra, he has to take it apart and start all over again. Like on the song ‘Sail Away,’ it took us six months to get that thing. He wrote six different arrangements of it, each kind of valid in its own way. On the first album he did three different versions of ‘Davy the Fat Boy’ and five introductions for ‘So Long Dad.’

“Eventually we have to kind of trap him. We know he’ll always show up once the musicians are booked, so I’ll casually ask him something like, ‘Well, if we went with this version, what musicians would you use?’ And as soon as he tells me I’ll run out and book them, and that’s that.”

Then there’s the problem of dealing with Newman, the brooding perfectionist, once he’s in the studio. Waronker remembered the time Randy walked in after they’d just finished mixing 12 Songs.

“We were all really happy about the album, and he starts listening to it and saying things like, ‘I can’t stand me; it’s awful,’ and we had to pick ourselves up off the floor. Some people were thinking, well, maybe he’s right, and we’d have to say, ‘Naw, don’t listen to him, he’s not right, he’s crazy.’ Finally, after five minutes he’d brought the whole building down. We had to throw him out.

“Two weeks later he calls up and says, ‘Hey, you know? It’s not bad.'”

But so what if the morale of a whole team of engineers and musicians is jeopardized? Lenny figures the price is worth it.

“I don’t think there’s a composer who comes close to him; there’s not anybody who has the ability he has. Most guys don’t know what an orchestra is, but he does, he grew up with orchestras. Even on the live album, those piano parts are like orchestrations; they affect the meaning of what he’s singing.”

Waronker was reluctant to compare Newman with American composers of the past.

“I always hate to do that, you know, it’s so misleading. But, yes, his music does have some of the great things Cole Porter’s has, although, of course, it’s totally different. But the same wit and humor. And, like Gershwin, he has the ability to eventually reach a large group of people. Someday he will have as strong an influence as Gershwin; I’ve always believed that, I’ve always believed that.”

Weren’t Randy’s songs getting a lot more cynical, I asked.

“They are becoming darker, a little more grim, perhaps,” said Lenny with a faint sigh. “But, you know, that’s just where he is at the time.”

Something approaching an historic event was building this afternoon at Western Recorders on Sunset Blvd. A 45-piece orchestra, the largest collection of musicians since Randy’s first album, had been assembled for this, his fourth. In the control room, a host of Warner Bros. executives, technicians and gophers, including co-producers Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, sat fidgeting around a 16-track console, a machine that looks scarier than the brains of a 747. Van Dyke Parks had just walked in.

Through the huge, soundproof glass you could see Randy at the piano, listening pensively in a blue work shirt, jeans and tan corduroy jacket. The conductor, gray-bearded Uncle Emil Newman, stood on the podium, comparing the score with the tape they’d just recorded. He was dressed soberly in a blue suit, light blue neckerchief and black shirt, possibly because his wife had just died that morning.

“It sounded like you slowed down at 17,” said Emil to Randy when the tape was over.

“Seventeen?” Randy seemed surprised. “It must be my Jewish schmaltz, but I didn’t mean to.”

They tried another take. They were dubbing just the orchestra and piano tracks, no vocals, so it was impossible to know what the song was about. So far it sounded serious, like a Navy hymn or Morman Tabernacle spiritual, with kettle drums and broad strokes by the full orchestra. But knowing Randy’s predilection for musical leg pulling, one could assume there’d be nothing religious about this one.

Which was correct. The song turned out to be “Sail Away,” the album’s title number and a ludicrous “singing commercial” for America that slave traders might have sung a century ago in Africa.

“See, there was going to be a movie with a few people in it,” Randy explained later at home, “me and Elton John and Kristofferson and some other people. They were going to give us each ten minutes to do whatever we wanted.

“And my part opened up on this ship with these sailors running around yelling sailor stuff, you know, ‘lubber the mainmast’ and that type of shit. I was a recruiter for the slave trade – you know, white suit, dark glasses, sort of a Warren Beatty, brooding-type of part.”

Randy couldn’t remember all the lines, and the movie was never made anyway, but “eventually it cuts to the jungle and there’s thousands of natives. And the band plays, you know, ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game,’ just to get the natives interested. And then I come out and have the band play ‘Camptown Races,’ and the natives go ‘doo-dah, doo-dah’ and get all excited.

“And then I’d have a tenor sing ‘Did your Mother Come from Ireland,’ and the natives would keep goin’ ‘DOO-DAH, DOO-DAH,’ getting out of control until the band plays some real scary shit to shut ’em up. And then I’d sing a song about America.

“Finally in the last scene, as the natives are getting in the ship, I was going to hand one of ’em a basketball or something – I hadn’t really figured it all out.”

Well, it doesn’t matter; we at least have the song, recorded for posterity, and it’s a masterpiece. Like most of Newman’s stuff, it says more about America than the Star-Spangled Banner:

In America you’ll get food to eat
Won’t have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet
You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
It’s great to be an American

Ain’t no lions or tigers – Ain’t no mamba snake
Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake
Ev’rybody is as happy as a man can be
Climb aboard little wog – Sail away with me

Sail Away – Sail Away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay
Sail Away – Sail Away

We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay

In America every man is free
To take care of his home and his family
You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree
You’re all gonna be an American

Sail Away – Sail Away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay
Sail Away – Sail Away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay

Back at Western Recorders it was time for another take, and as usual, Randy was squirming and stalling. “I don’t know, it’s thin, awful thin,” he complained, shaking his head.

“Listen, it’s good,” pleaded Waronker, “it really is.”

Randy just stared at the control room floor, his hands wedged into his rear pockets.

“Let’s do it, it’s gonna be great,” said Lenny.

“Maybe,” said Randy, slouching from the control room to his piano.

The day was nearly over, and the musicians must have been growing tired of “Sail Away” after wrestling with it all afternoon. But whatever subtle problems marred the other takes apparently were ironed out in this one; for as soon as the orchestra finished, Titelman clapped his hands and shouted, “I knew it, I knew it,” and Waronker, with a rare smile, said, “Wow, well I guess that’s it.”

The celebration stopped abruptly, however, as the control room door opened and the Final Authority slouched back in.

“Real nice, Randy,” said Van Dyke, but Newman hardly acknowledged the remark, gazing blankly at the big Ampex as it started playing back the take. When it was over, he said nothing. Neither did anyone else, waiting instead for Randy’s reaction.

Finally Waronker walked up to him and asked, almost meekly, “Well? . . . “

Randy Newman paused for a second, then beamed crazily, threw up his hands in mock enthusiasm and said, “I think it’s the greatest thing I ever heard.”

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.


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