Surviving with a sense of humour
RANDY NEWMAN is a kind of synonym for off-kilter musicianship and creativity. While he has won many awards for his songwriting (including two Academy Awards), he rose to particular prominence in 1977 with his album Little Criminals(the song Short Peoplewas a top 10 Billboard hit), which painted memorable vignettes of strange characters.
Over the years, his work has proven to have a particularly long reach; it has been the subject of numerous covers, the theme of a documentary by Jon Ronson, and the focus of a parody in Family Guy. It seemed particularly fitting that when he eventually received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010, it was Monty Python’s Eric Idle who presented it to him.
But if Newman has always been something of an idiosyncratic songwriter, his most recent solo record, Harps and Angels(2008), contains some of his strongest work, standing with Born Again(1978) or Trouble in Paradise(1983). It is something his film work, including Toy Storyand Monsters Inc, has aided.
“It has kept me sharper. With film songs, there is a conventionality, everything is in service to the movie, which is humbling, coming from a rock’n’roll background. Whereas a song for myself . . . I don’t know how it happens. A lot of people do their best work young in rock’n’roll. Though I think Harps and Angelsis close to maybe the best album I have made.”
There are many musicians who haven’t sustained that quality; for example, Bob Dylan’s earlier work resonates far more than his more recent output. “He knows that too. He’s not the same guy he was when he was 25,” says Newman. “He is not going to necessarily think that what he is doing now hasn’t as much value, but that earlier stuff was as good lyrically as he’s ever gotten. Though Beethoven got better and better, Haydn stayed good top to bottom, and Irving Berlin too, he had 70 years of being the same great guy, so it’s an odd thing. It’s the singer-songwriter types that have a bit of a problem maintaining.”
Could Harry Nilsson, who did a whole album of Newman covers in 1970, have sustained his brilliance, had he lived? “There are a lot of things other than talent that have impact. Harry had a fairly low opinion of himself, as we all did to some extent about ourselves. He accused me of writing ‘novelty songs’, and I would make fun of him, but he had a tough life. It made me realise that if you could wish anything for your children early on, it is stamina, even more than talent. Harry’s life beat on him real hard and he didn’t live half his life. It’s one of those things that you see from World War I, ‘born 1898 . . . died 1918’ – it’s awful, he was so smart.”
One of the reasons Newman “survived” is his sense of humour, which runs through his work like a babbling brook. I tell him I get as much enjoyment out of hearing him talk between songs as I do hearing him sing. “I do too, and sometimes more,” he says, without missing a beat.
He shares this sphere with alumni such as Van Dyke Parks, who equally burns through musical gauze to get to somewhere more interesting. “Van Dyke once told me that I have lived my life joking around. When someone tells me something serious I will listen and respond, but basically, and maybe a psychiatrist would call it diversionary, I like comedy, maybe too much for the medium I chose.”
It is this mixture of the serious and the playful that marks him out as one of the most creative of songwriters, moving between the satirical, poignant and political with ease and care, something that stems from an acute sensitivity, and a surprising insecurity.
“Where I live is in the song for myself, where I see who the hell or what I am. There may come a point where I can’t do it, and there have been many times where I thought I had reached it. I have always lacked confidence.”
This strange equation is something Jon Ronson mapped out in his 2003 documentary for Channel 4, I Am Unfortunately Randy Newman, where Newman tries to explain his lack of popularity; yet we talk about all the well-known people that have covered his songs, from Nina Simone to Gene Pitney.
“Gene wrote some good stuff too, He’s a Rebelis great. He and Alan Price did well by me, and those Alan Price records were the best covers I ever had. The one I still like best is Cilla Black’s I’ve Been Wrong Before– not that it is a distinguished song, but they did it right. There was this period of a few months where I wrote some songs that had hooks, and my publisher was so happy, he thought that we were on our way, but I didn’t do it again.”
We talk about his love of New Orleans and the music inherent in the place – “it’s like the whole populace has a casual talent for it” – and it is clear that he remains in thrall to the mystery of music. Yet not every interpretation of his work pleases him, even when it is done by a hero.
“I heard [Ray Charles covering Sail Away] and thought, as great as he is, I wish he had done this or that, but then I thought, Jesus, this is Ray Charles, what am I doing?
“Expectations are frustrated so often in life, it’s surprising. I win awards for things that are the least of what I do. The song for Monsters Incwas right for the picture, but I have done it before. One of my best songs is Davy the Fat Boyon my first record, I hardly do it, and it’s earned maybe four cents, but it sometimes worries me that I have never done much better, and I was 22 years old.”
Randy Newman plays Vicar Street tonight and Friday. Live in Londonis out now