Randy Newman’s career spans decades of sharp social observations wrapped in songs drawing on the modern American songbook. His latest album suggests comparisons from Elmore Leonard to Rashomon.By Dave Faulkner.
Randy Newman’s ‘Dark Matter’
Randy Newman doesn’t usually shy away from controversy. In fact, he often courts it. His song “Rednecks”, from his classic 1974 album Good Old Boys, used the n-word frequently, while his biggest solo hit, 1977’s “Short People”, attracted death threats and caused one United States legislator to try to ban it in their state. So it was a surprise to hear the famed songsmith had written a song lampooning Donald Trump but had decided against including it on his latest album, Dark Matter, which was released yesterday. When I interviewed Newman recently, I asked him about it. “Yeah, it was called ‘What a Dick’,” he said, before quoting some of its lyrics: “ ‘My dick’s bigger than your dick, it ain’t bragging if it’s true. My dick’s bigger than your dick, I can prove it, too.’ I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t vulgarise even further, no.”
Dark Matter chooses far more interesting topics, such as its epic opening track, “The Great Debate”. This eight-minute song describes a summit meeting between the opposing forces of Reason and Faith in an attempt to settle once and for all some contentious scientific debates. Newman demonstrates a bravura display of composition and orchestration, with frequent changes of tempo, texture and mood to match the shifting tone of the lyrics. This single song has more melodic invention than most albums contain in their entirety, and its remarkable lyrics remind me of the absurdity of Swift and Kafka. Witness this exchange between the song’s sceptical, demagogic narrator and a scientist who loftily posits the existence of dark matter:
(SCIENTIST:) We don’t know what it is
But we think it’s everywhere
(NARRATOR:) I’d like to take a look at it
Can we get some down here?
(SCIENTIST:) Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
Of course not!
Let me get this straight
You don’t know what it is
You don’t know where it is
And we can’t get any
Put that to the one side
Let’s put the Lord, faith, eternity, whatever on the other side
A show of hands?
“The Great Debate” devolves into a revival meeting with True Believers chanting, “I’ll take Jesus, I’ll take Jesus, I’ll take Jesus every time”. Frankly, the outcome of this one-sided battle was never in any doubt. When I spoke to Newman he agreed it was more of a kangaroo court than a debate: “Yeah, the guy, the narrator, he’s not honest. I mean, he’s not the narrator, he’s the MC of the thing. He’s on the side of Faith, he’s not on the side of Reason … But, yeah, it’s not really a debate, no. I didn’t know what else to call it.” Debate or not, Newman pulls off an audacious stunt later when he pulls back the curtain to expose the use of his preferred literary device, the unreliable narrator. He has one of the True Believers stand up and challenge the MC, calling him “a straw man, a fabrication”:
You see, the author of this little vignette, Mr Newman
A self-described atheist and commonist
Creates characters like you
As objects of ridicule
He doesn’t believe anything he has you say
Nor does he want us to believe
Anything that you say
It makes it easy for him to knock you down
Hence, a straw man
Even here Newman can’t help himself from poking fun at this figure who represents the voice of truth, having him mispronounce “communist” as if to remind us that this is also an invention of the author and, ergo, cannot be trusted. This only adds to the song’s Rashomon-like overtones, with objective truth seemingly impossible to pin down. When we spoke, Newman described this portion of the song as being “like a career death wish ... like a magician telling his one trick”. He laughed, and went on: “You know, it’s what I do. I think I can still do it but I felt the need in that one to not have it end there, you know, as a simple proposition.”
The next track, “Brothers”, merrily mixes fiction with fact in its portrayal of the legendary Kennedy brothers, JFK and RFK, relaxing in the Oval Office in 1961. Over a whiskey, the two josh each other about their football team and its racist owner before discussing plans for the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion. Newman underscores the bantering between the two famous brothers as if he were composing one of his film soundtracks. The song finally resolves into a jaunty mambo at its climax, which adds to the darkly comic tone, where matters of great political import, even life and death, are spur-of-the-moment decisions prompted by sibling rivalry.
Newman hardly ever writes autobiographically, preferring to let his characters express his view of the world, as much by what they don’t say as by what they do. As he told music critic Bruce Pollock, “I don’t interest me. I couldn’t name you any song where I was writing about me. I mean, there’s a whole world of people and there’s no reason why a songwriter should be limited any more than a short story writer or a novelist.”
When I interviewed Newman, he ruminated quietly for a while at one point, almost as if he were interrogating the character in his mind before answering my question. It reminded me of Charles Dickens, who felt his characters were looking over his shoulder as he wrote, directing their own stories through him. As far as novelists go, however, I think the one Newman most resembles is Elmore Leonard, who sketches complex characters simply through their conversations.
Another notable political figure making an appearance on Dark Matter is Russia’s president. “Putin” is a comical homage that ends up sounding like a vaudeville song-and-dance routine, complete with “Putin Girls” cheering him on. When Newman sings, “Putin puttin’ his pants on one leg at a time” he’s tipping his hat to “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’ ”, a patriotic gospel song from 1943 by the Golden Gate Quartet. It gives him an excuse to bring his early-20th century jazz and blues influences to the fore, one of his strongest suits as a composer. “It’s a Jungle Out There” and “Sonny Boy” also draw upon this rich musical heritage. Newman’s mother was from New Orleans and a lot of the music he grew up with comes from there, as evidenced by the piano shuffles that predominate in his songwriting. Influenced heavily by Fats Domino, and Ray Charles later on, Newman’s sly, rolling piano style is idiosyncratic and his playing ranks up there with some of New Orleans’ best.
“Sonny Boy” is the just slightly fictionalised tale of the short-lived bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson, who had his identity stolen while he was still alive. To add insult to injury, Sonny Boy Williamson II, as the usurper came to be called, ended up becoming the more famous of the two. Newman even covered one of Sonny Boy II’s songs for his second album, although he is clearly on the side of Sonny Boy I here. “That’s amazing to me,” Newman marvelled. “That a guy would steal your name in the middle of your career.” The subject proved irresistible for the songwriter, just as the song will prove irresistible for listeners.
The highlight of Dark Matter, though, is “Lost without You”, a portrait of a family in crisis as a less-than-perfect husband contemplates the imminent loss of his wife. This is Randy Newman at his finest, unflinching in its honesty yet unbelievably tender at the same time. The husband overhears the conversation between his dying wife and his estranged children as, for the last time, she corrects her kids about how they should feel about their father, and gives them her final instructions:
Make sure he sleeps in his bed at night
Don’t let him sleep in that chair
If he holds out his hand to you, hold it tight
If that makes you uncomfortable
Or if it embarrasses you
I don’t care
The simple melody and delicate orchestration are classic Newman, a romantic streak that has always been a hallmark of his work. Some of his melodic instincts may derive from his uncle, the legendary screen composer Alfred Newman, who wrote his own gorgeous melodies for such films as How Green Was My Valley. I would trace this melodic gift back even further still, to the Scottish-Irish lilt of Stephen Foster who, along with W. C. Handy, invented modern American music.
Newman described to me the first time he played to Mitchell Froom and Lenny Waronker, his long-time producers, the melody that ended up becoming “Lost without You”. “I could see their eyes light up that it was gonna be something that was sort of a standard, you know?” he said. “A standard kind of thing that could pass the Board of Health – but then I made the goddamn thing about death. You know, it’s like I couldn’t take the thing and be Carole King or, you know, somebody who would write just a nice tune like that. I had to complicate it.”
The final song on Dark Matter is also complicated emotionally, although it is paired with an elegantly restrained melody, accompanied simply on solo piano. “Wandering Boy” is the story of a parent grieving for a child, now grown, but lost to them:
I hope he’s warm and I hope he’s dry
And that a stranger’s eye is a friendly eye
And I hope he has someone
Close by his side
And I hope that he’ll come home
Dark Matter is a classic album made by a musician at the height of his powers. In terms of living musicians, there are very few people who could hold a candle to Randy Newman, and the number of musicians who have made such vital, engaged work in their 70s is vanishingly small. The only example that springs to my mind is Giuseppe Verdi, who wrote two of his greatest masterpieces at a similar age, the glorious Requiem and the opera Otello. Verdi finished one more great opera, Falstaff, when he turned 80. Newman turns 74 in November and has no plans to put away his pen. “I always thought I would but I don’t guess I will,” he says. “I’m not gonna be Verdi but I’d like to be able to do something good in my 80s. Johnny Williams is still pretty good.”
Here’s to Verdi, John Williams – and Randy Newman.
FASHION Melbourne Fashion Week
Venues throughout Melbourne, September 1-8
MUSIC Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
Venues throughout Bendigo, September 1-4
FASHION The House of Dior
NGV International, Melbourne, August 27-November 7
VISUAL ART Emu Island: Modernism in Place
Penrith Regional Gallery, NSW, until November 19
CULTURE Hurstbridge Wattle Festival
Venues throughout Hurstbridge, Victoria, August 27
INSTALLATION Mikala Dwyer: A Shape of Thought
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until February 4
DANCE Swan Lake / Loch na hEala
Sydney Opera House, August 30-September 2
VISUAL ART Minyma Mayatja - Boss Women
Vivien Anderson Gallery, Melbourne, until September 23
LITERATURE Canberra Writers Festival
Venues throughout Canberra, until August 27
THEATRE The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, until August 27
MUSIC Classic Album Sundays: Off the Wall
The World Bar, Sydney, August 27
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 26, 2017 as "Newman resources". Subscribe here.