Singer/songwriter/composer Randy Newman has always been one of New Orleans’ favorite adopted sons, thanks to rich Louisiana-informed songs like “Dixie Flyer,” “New Orleans Wins the War,” “Louisiana 1927” and “Kingfish.” Newman is a native of the other LA—Los Angeles—but spent his childhood summers in New Orleans, and developed a fascination with the Crescent City’s music, culture and politics.
Songwriting and composing is in his blood; his uncles Alfred, Lionel and Emil were esteemed motion picture composers, and Newman followed in their footsteps by studying composition at UCLA. He recorded his first single in 1962, and soon had his first break in the business, signing as a staff writer for Metric Music. His songs were covered by artists such as Jerry Butler, Manfred Mann and Three Dog Night early on, and Newman recorded his debut album as a solo artist in 1968 for Reprise Records. In the last three decades, Newman has established himself as one of pop music’s indisputable geniuses—and managed to delight, confound, and occasionally enrage listeners with brilliant albums like 12 Songs, Sail Away, Good Old Boys, Little Criminals (which spawned the controversial hit “Short People”), and Land of Dreams. When Newman sits down at the piano to sing a song, he can sound like he’s channeling Gershwin, Champion Jack Dupree and Bob Dylan, with a healthy dose of devastating cynicism and sarcasm thrown into the musical mix. No subject is taboo to Newman, and while his dark humor is frequently his calling card, he’s equally capable of writing whimsical and tender songs like “You’ve Got a Friend In Me,” heard by millions of listeners in the film Toy Story.
On November 3, Newman is celebrated with the release of the four-CD box set Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman (Warner Archives/Rhino Records). Combining studio recordings, demos, live performances and Newman’s scores for movies such as Awakenings and The Natural, the collection is the first comprehensive overview of the many sides of Randy Newman. OffBeat caught up with Newman by phone just as he’d finished one film score, and was preparing to head into the studio to record a new CD for Dreamworks Records. As an added bonus, the following interview also contains previously unpublished material from a June 1996 interview with Newman.
Your box set is terrific, and covers a lot of ground. How does it feel to have your life in music laid out before your eyes and ears?
I dreaded looking back. I remembered horrors that weren’t really so bad when I looked back. I’m glad that it’s there. Basically, that’s what I did, for good or evil. You know, maybe I’d have changed some stuff in the movie music, more Awakenings or less of Ragtime or something, and there’s certainly songs I would have had on that I didn’t have on, but obviously it has to be a representation of what I did. I wish I did more work.
You may have taken long stretches between your own albums, but when you look at the overall picture on the box set, you’ve done a ton of work.
It’s a ton of time. One thing I was glad when I looked through it, I don’t see any particular decline. There’s stuff at the front that’s okay, stuff at the front that isn’t so good, and stuff at the end of the 30 years that’s very good. So it isn’t like I did good work and then I didn’t. Like people will come up to me—and they do often—and say, ‘Jeez, I just love…’ some fucking thing I did in 1962. It’s just what you want to hear: ‘I loved Sail Away. What have you been doing?’ Uh, nothing. There’s always that. I believe the ones that sold the most were Sail Away and Good Old Boys.
I imagine there’s a large segment of the public doesn’t realize that’s you singing in the Disney movies.
No. But some do. I’ve got sort of kid fans that show up here and there. I don’t know how much of the show they can stand (laughs) I just played some benefit and there were a bunch of kids running around wanting me to play this and that.
It’s nice to hear the third disc on the box set, the “odds and ends” disc, with all your demos and live performances.
I didn’t even remember some of those at all. Not a thing. I didn’t know where the next chord was going to go in some of them.
Columbia just put out Dylan’s famed 1966 Royal Albert Hall performance, and he’s basically said, “If I thought this was any good, I would have released it 30 years ago.” Did you experience any of those feelings, wondering if some of these demos were better left sitting in a vault somewhere?
Oh, I don’t care. This is more of a historical kind of thing. I can tell on most of them that I was right not to record them. I probably should have recorded “Going Home” and I probably should have recorded “Laugh and Be Happy,” that song I wrote for Cats Don’t Dance. But other than that I’m fairly satisfied.
One song I really liked, and maybe it’s a side of you people don’t get to see of you a lot, is “Something to Sing About.” It’s a sweet song.
Yeah, I liked that. I wanted to record that. Lenny (Waronker) just couldn’t stand it. I liked it for evil reasons. I liked how full of himself the guy was. It’s like he liked the sound of his own voice a lot. But Lenny couldn’t get past it.
Another more extreme example of that kind of evil undercurrent is the song “Pretty Boy.” The music, especially in the beginning, is beautiful, and it gets a little more sinister sounding towards the end, but the lyrical content is truly scary.
I had to work to get that one on there. It wound up on the demos disc, but it was actually on Born Again. I wanted them to get rid of “Gridiron Golden Boy” [Newman’s first recorded song, from 1962], which I really shouldn’t have wanted to get rid of, because there it is, like an old mistake. I sort of traded that for “Pretty Boy” to get it on.
Do you enjoy doing that at times, putting a very pretty piece of music with some left-of-center lyrics, or is it a function of how you write and compose?
Not consciously, it just works out that way. I think it’s because my literary sense is so different from my musical sense. In some of the scores I’ve done, there are sort of old-fashioned kind of romantic scores, like Awakenings or Avalon. That’s what they’re supposed to be—in a picture like A Bug’s Life where it isn’t there and it’s a big action picture I can do it. But I like pretty music, and I still do, old-fashioned as that may seem. Yet lyrically, I don’t say much of that. That’s part of that. I don’t do it where I think it doesn’t work. There’s a song like “Old Man,” it’s one of my best songs, but I never play it because it’s so depressing. But I got a little carried away and made it too pretty for what the song is about, in that case. It should have been a little colder.
Besides “Old Man,” do you have any personal favorites, either songs or albums that you look back on fondly?
Songs—”Old Man”—I’m just jumping all over: “Davy the Fat Boy,” “Bleeding All Over the Place” from Faust. “Same Girl,” “Little Criminals,” “Political Science,” I like “Red Bandana” for some strange reason, I don’t think it got on there. “Rednecks” is a very good song. “Sail Away.” “Louisiana ” as a record I like, “Happy Endings” is one of the best records I’ve made, and “Miami” as a record I like best.
“Davy the Fat Boy” is one of your frequently misunderstood songs. People hear it and say, he’s just being so cruel.
Well, yes, I’m being excessively cruel. I often do callousness to the point where you’re just aghast it. It becomes funny, it’s so blatant, and I do it often.
One song on the box set that stuck out for me is the version of “Gone Dead Train” with Ry Cooder on lead…
Yeah! With Ry, and we were pretending like we were the Rolling Stones.
Did you have the urge then, or sometimes now, to just crank the amps up to 11 and play rock and roll?
If I thought I could do that, and weren’t so self-critical and thought I could play well enough, I’d love to do it. I’m just not the player Ry is, or [Jim] Keltner, or some of these guys. I mean, they put up with me all right because I play unconventionally and I can think of notes for everybody. But I’m a writer really. I’d love to be able to just ram around to ram around in a band, yeah, if I could feel comfortable that they wouldn’t look at me funny because I was out of time, you know? I just don’t have the rudiments of it. I have skills that are advanced in high areas of music, and yet, basic things are really hard for me sometimes, like keeping in time or playing piano. On the thing [producer] Jeff Lynne cut of mine, “Falling In Love,” we did it all in Mike Campbell’s garage, Tom Petty’s guitar player. Petty was there, and we were going to do background voices. I said, ‘I can’t really do that.’ I look at [Don] Henley or these guys doing it, and I can’t sing in tune like that. And Petty says to me, ‘No, you can do it. With Jeff, I didn’t think I could do it either, but when I did it with Jeff, we could do it.’ So I got in there, and there was Petty, and Campbell, and we were all going to make our ‘oohs.’ So I put my hand over my ears like I’d seen people do (laughs), and the thing came up, and I went, ‘Uungh,” and this went on for a while, and I saw Jeff Lynne shaking his head like he smelled something bad. And he looked over at me, and it was a look of, ‘Are you putting us on? Are you kidding?’ It had a little pity in it, but it was mainly like, ‘You’re joking, aren’t you?’ So we did it again, and I went ‘Aaah,’ and apparently he had never heard anyone that bad. So he just said, ‘Maybe you better sit this one out.’ So you can’t help but getting smacked no matter how far you go.
It’s interesting to hear the juxtaposition on the box set of the lush, orchestral film scores, and then the live solo piano performances. Do you enjoy, or do you find it difficult, to make that jump back and forth between your film work and solo material?
With the movie-writing for orchestra, most often with the pictures I’ve done, that’s slightly different because you have to think in terms of an orchestra rather than just little lyrics and then the song. But you have something, some framework to work on in each scene. With a song, you pull that out of the air. There’s nothing harder than that. Yeah, they’re just completely different. I’m in the process of making a switch from today to Monday. I just did two pictures in a row, and now I’m doing an album on Monday.
You’ve always taken your time making your own albums. Do you find the deadlines you have to meet for your film scoring helpful or harmful?
I’m afraid to say helpful, I think. That’s if you have enough time; because they’re giving less and less time, because everything’s dictated by the release date. I still have trouble with self-discipline. I had it at 24 and 25, and I’ve had it all my life since I was a kid. It wasn’t that I was just grooving around and not doing my homework and enjoying myself, I was lying there feeling bad about not doing it and wondering why I wasn’t doing it. The same is true with songwriting, and movies, but you don’t have time for it. All your neuroses or psychoses or whatever they are, are blown away by the fact that you get up and work from six in the morning ‘til six at night. It’s much easier to write a song on assignment. And also, it allows me to sort of drift into the mainstream a bit. My own aesthetic I guess over the years has seemed to have developed and it’s not within any sort of mainstream—in any American river (laughs). I mean, the public has rendered its verdict: my thoughts are sort of odd. But when I have to do “I Love to See You Smile” from Parenthood, or songs for Disney, I can’t do “Davy the Fat Boy” or “Rednecks.” It still sounds like me, but it has to serve the purposes of the movie. It keeps me closer to the Hootie and the Blowfish line and further away from Captain Beefheart.
You struggled with Epstein-Barr Virus for a while, which affected your ability to work. How are you feeling these days?
It went away. Every once in a while, once in a few months, I’ll have a day where I have that feeling again. My heart rate goes up when I stand up, things like that, and it’s hard to get around. But it came just like it went. [It lasted] two years, it came one weekend and was gone two years later. It was such a sort of nebulous kind of thing. The worst part about it was that people said, ‘Oh, yeah, you’ve got that yuppie disease.’ It was real. I mean, jeez, I had the symptoms, and I was wiped out.
What inspired you to do a musical version of Goethe’s Faust?
Really what inspired me was that I’ve always been interested in depictions of heaven. In Goethe’s version he’s only there one time, and I go there more often. But I read it, part one of it at least, and it’s great. It’s an easy read, and you know you’ve bumped into some sort of giant mind. There are tremendously smart things on every page of it, and I felt it had to be destroyed (laughs). It just suggested itself to me—if the Lord and the Devil tried to play this game now, the people…it wouldn’t go as well. What the show is about, is immortals who are just a little past it, a little out of date. You know the Devil asks the kid, ‘How’d you like to be a famous recording artist like Frank Sinatra or Perry Como?’ and the kid says, ‘Well…’ They just have trouble getting the people to do what they did in 1700 or 1500. And I love, even in bad movies, like Jack Benny’s The Horn Blows at Midnight, I love Jack Benny being the 1,234th violinist in the orchestra, you know?
Does it bother you that some people may judge Faust as some kind of platform for your personal religious beliefs, rather than a piece of music?
Yeah, I would rather be judged by the work, as it stands alone. That’s what people are interested in, what the person is like, but it often doesn’t have much to do with it. I think maybe my lack of belief…maybe I wouldn’t have done Faust, maybe I would have taken some things more seriously than others, and yet I don’t have the Lord doing anything that isn’t decent. He doesn’t do a bad thing in the show, just that little mistake about the Buddhists. But other than that, that’s another error for a laugh, a slight vulgarity on my part. I may have been more sensitive in depicting the Lord, you know you can do it in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but like the Muslim tradition you can’t do it.
The last time we spoke, you wondered how Faust was going to do commercially. In the liner notes to the box set, you comment that Faust didn’t make enough money to buy your kids’ toothpaste.
It didn’t. It really surprised me sort of, because I liked it.
With you now getting ready to make your next record, and after dealing with commercial indifference at various points in your career, do you even think twice about that kind of stuff anymore?
Yeah, I’ve always thought about it. I’ve always thought, “Oh, this could be a hit,’ I was just always wrong. I’ve never predicated what I was going to do on having a hit necessarily, but I think about it. I think, ‘What the hell am I making this record for?’ Especially If I don’t have a good time making it. The other thing is, there are people who really like everything I do, so it’s sort of for them, too. Now that the internet is there, and I look at these sites devoted to me, and these people are really into it. Jesus Christ, I mean, there’s stuff I don’t know. And that’s enough reason to do it. I mean, what the hell. But I do wonder about it. I mean, what’s the point of working for six months on something, and in a weekend, you know it’s only going to sell 100,000 records.
Is your new album going to be a straight-ahead record, or something like the Randy Newman version of Dante’s Inferno?
(Laughter) No, it’s going to be a straight-ahead record, with a band mostly. That will be different. I haven’t played for a while. I need to get these songs under my hands, so I can go in.
Since you’re not playing live as much these days, do you miss singing your songs in front of an audience?
I don’t know until I get out there, then I always miss it. A lot of the best times I’ve ever had have been while I’m on stage playing live. Obviously, when I played that festival in the rain (New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 1995), it was a moving, memorable thing for me that people stood out there and got rained on, in a town where I really wanted people to like me. It was like an ambition fulfilled, and it doesn’t happen often in life.
For what it’s worth, OffBeat just began publishing a special project, The 100 Essential Louisiana CDs…
…and Good Old Boys made the list.
Oh, I’m glad to hear it. Fats Domino, Louis Armstrong…God almighty, there’s so many great ones.
Good Old Boys is such a strong commentary on the good and bad aspects of the South. How did the idea for that album come about?
I wrote “Rednecks,” after seeing [Lester] Maddox on the [Dick] Cavett show, and seeing him be treated rudely. He wasn’t even given a chance to prove what an idiot he was. It was like, they sat Jim Brown next to him, and the crowd was razzin’ him; he didn’t get a chance to talk. He didn’t get a chance to do anything, and they had just elected him Governor, in a state of six million or whatever, and if I were a Georgian, I would have been offended, irrespective of the fact that he was a bigot and a fool. So I wrote it from that standpoint, and then I felt I had to explain it, so I kept going, with “Marie” and “Birmingham.”
Obviously you’ve got a lot of fans down here for all your Louisiana-related songs. “Louisiana 1927” took on added resonance a few weeks ago when it looked like Hurricane Georges was going to hit us directly.
Yeah, I wondered about that, and amazingly, I knew I had [the lyrics] wrong, that most of the storms come on from the South there. But these winds were sweeping around from the North, and so it was like, well, at least I was right one time (laughs).
You did such a good job capturing Governor Long, you should come back down for some new songs because it looks like the Feds might actually indict Edwin Edwards.
Yeah, on that [Edward] DeBartolo thing. I can’t believe it. If they didn’t get him on the Las Vegas stuff a long time ago…he’ll get off.
Do you have some favorite versions of some of your songs that other artists have covered?
Nilsson did nice versions of stuff. Alan Price always did. Ronstadt did a good version of “Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad.” [Joe] Cocker did a few good ones. Mostly I like the way I do ‘em. There’s songs on Faust, like I loved the way the Bonnie [Raitt] sung “Life’s Been Good To Me.” And James [Taylor] was great too. See, I couldn’t have done those. It’s like writing for different instruments.
Do you occasionally write with someone else in mind, or do you pretty much write for yourself?
Mainly for myself, though I just wrote a song for Peter Gabriel for Babe in the City, that pig movie that’s coming out this Christmas.
Do you find that your singing and phrasing change when you’re singing from the viewpoint of different characters, like the ship captain in “Sail Away” or the big shot in “It’s Money That Matters?
It doesn’t change enough. I can’t do “Christmas in Capetown.” I can’t do a South African accent. But it does change, the diction changes. How much that people know changes. In “Rednecks” for instance, like it’s a mistake—a conscious mistake, but I wanted to do it. That guy wouldn’t have known the names of all those ghettos. He’d have been right at his anger, but he wouldn’t have had all that information, Hoffa, Cleveland, all that stuff. Unless he were a fanatic. And occasionally I’ll take artistic liberties with it. I don’t know whether my voice reflects it, because I’m probably not the actor enough to do it, but yeah, each character is different. The guy in “I Love L.A.” is an L.A. guy, and the guy in “Birmingham” is a Birmingham guy. It’s mainly in diction and in the words they use. I often think, ‘Would this guy say this?’ or ‘Would he know this?’
In this era of political correctness, do you hesitate more to perform a song like “Rednecks” live?
No hesitation. You know, the word in “Rednecks,” the ‘n’ word, it’s tremendously ugly, and it makes me nervous. Like I’m doing orchestra dates, one in Jacksonville, one in Dayton, where I may do it… I’m a little more conservative about performing, but my writing hasn’t changed at all.
Do you relish pushing the envelope as far as subject matter goes, and testing your audience?
No, not a bit. I regret if I offend anyone with it, but if I feel I need it, I don’t hesitate to do it. I think I don’t notice that stuff, language and things, like some people do. I mean I try to be sensitive to it, but I sort of grew up with people swearing all around. I try and watch it, needless to say, but if I need it I use it. But I’m not happy about it. I don’t like being on stage and doing “Rednecks.” It makes me uncomfortable, and “Christmas in Capetown.” The devil thing [in Faust] doesn’t make me uncomfortable, the [line with] “bullshit.” I mean I did it in Jacksonville. If I can do it, I’ll do it everywhere I go.
Looking back on your career, are there any songs you’ve written that, after the fact, you said to yourself, maybe I went a little too far with that one?
Surprisingly enough, the only song that I sort of think I went too far with—just too rough—-was a song called “The Blues” that I did with Paul Simon, where I kind of make fun of people who are hurt or sensitive and they go and find solace in music, because I never found any solace, for me it was always like certain work. It felt just like a family business, and I felt like I got pushed into it some kind of way. I regret that [song]. It seems like a small thing, but it isn’t. If someone finds solace in it, I mean, that’s fine.
What are some of your earliest memories of New Orleans?
Summer rain, which I never saw at home, sno-cones, and how wide Canal St. was. My mother always told me it was the widest street in the world. Then I went to Jackson, Mississippi, and they had one too. I remember getting in a food fight with some kids… I remember little patches because I was really young. I left there when I was 3, then I’d go back in the summers, and it was just different. Little did I know then that it wasn’t an earth city. It was like being on Jupiter. The old American Puritan ethic doesn’t go there.
Did some of the great New Orleans piano players like Professor Longhair or Huey Smith influence your piano playing?
I had never heard Professor Longhair until people said, ‘You play a little like him there’—not as well, of course—or ‘You sound like him there.’ I heard Fats Domino, because he was on the radio. And a lot of the stuff that I liked happened to be like Frogman Henry, people who were from New Orleans. But I didn’t know it. I don’t know what it was. It must have sunk in just by osmosis or coincidence. That shuffle is my natural mode of expression. When I’m writing a song, I always start there and have to get away from it. I’ve written way too many shuffles. Drummers hate ‘em, the public doesn’t like ‘em. But in general, even the stuff for Disney that I did, Toy Story and Parenthood, they’re sort of shuffles too.
Besides your core audience, if any new listeners buy your box set, I wonder if you’ll get any of the same reactions you’ve gotten throughout your career, comments like “How could you write a song like ‘Rednecks,’” even though the song is 20 years old.
If someone has invested that amount, they’ve got to know something that it’s about. But listen, if any of those songs had been hits like “Short People” was, you can imagine what kind of noise there would have been about it. What was on TV, like All in the Family and that stuff, everything up until rap music, and punk, I was rougher than any of that, always. And if “Rednecks” had been a hit, it would have been real trouble.