“See, if I were to write Billy Joel’s ‘Just The Way You Are,’ I’d wreck it,” he said, explaining why his instincts run contrary to pop music. “I’d have written ‘I love you just the way you are, you stupid little bitch.’ Which really isn’t as good.”
Of course, he’s joking. But he’s also serious. And it’s that’s precise blend of humor and gravity that has distinguished the songs of Randy Newman from the start. He’s both one of the most hilarious and most serious of all songwriters. A compositional genius, he’s the only great American songwriter to become an accomplished film composer (with some 26 films to date, each with a fully orchestral score he wrote and conducted himself). But he’s also a lyrical genius who has done more than created a style; he’s created his own school of songwriting.
Newman’s songs use the novelistic technique of the untrustworthy narrator, a sometimes funny, often dark, always effective way of shaping a song.
Asked why he chose this indirect method of songwriting, he said: “Maybe it’s a psychological defect. I don’t want to stand up there and say ‘I love you.’ It doesn’t interest me. Or maybe I’m afraid of it.”
Yet it’s that trait, becoming that which he’s writing about, that primarily distinguishes a “Randy Newman song.” The other component is, of course, his unique musical signature. He’s existed in a musical territory from the start that is quintessentially American, painted in colors of ragtime, standards, swing, blues and New Orleans Dixieland, wed with sonorous big piano chords that are part-Stravinsky and part-Carole King. “I always idolized Carole King,” he admitted several times.
His influence on other songwriters is vast, and evident every time you hear Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Mark Knopfler or even Bob Dylan write a song in character. When I asked Dylan whom he considered a great songwriter, he said: “Randy Newman. There aren’t many in Randy’s league. He knows music.”
He’s released 11 albums of original material since his first, including his 1995 musical version of Faust. His 1968 debut introduced the world to a singular songwriter of remarkable range, from the beautifully sad and beloved “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” to the beautifully cruel and beloved “Davy The Fat Boy.”
“Political Science” (from Sail Away, 1972) is just as funny – though really more tragic than ever – as when he wrote it. Sadly, the idea that someone could seriously suggest we “drop the big one now” just doesn’t seem as ludicrous as it used to.
Since the start, Newman swam against the current of abstract epics created by Dylan and Joni Mitchell and their acolytes. Instead, he created lyrical gems, succinct songs with a graceful economy of language in which every line matters. And though he mocks his own lack of melodicism and often quotes Linda Ronstadt’s suggestion that he gives the best tunes to the strings, in truth, he’s one of our greatest and most poignant melodists. It’s why Pixar wanted him to score all those movies that had no actual humans on the screen. His melodies could always be counted on to pull on the heartstrings and project some much needed humanity.
He’s written songs with content his peers have rarely, if ever, touched: slavery (“Sail Away”), child murder (“In Germany Before The War”), American fascism (“Jolly Coppers on Parade”), prejudice (“Short People,”), racism (“Rednecks”), American history (“Louisiana,” “Kingfish”), the decline of great American cities (“Baltimore,” “Burn On Big River”) rock stars who peaked long ago (“I’m Dead [And I Don’t Know It”]) and so much more.
Years ago I asked him if he ever had an idea that he failed to turn into a song. He spoke of one about the downfall of great countries of Europe, which seemed like a ludicrous and impossible subject for a song. That was until I heard “The Great Countries of Europe” from Bad Love (1999), which not only takes on this subject, but also is brilliant and hilarious. And unlike any other song ever written.
As much as he redefines what songs can do, he never loses sight of their essential appeal, their singability. As provocative as “Short People” was in its time, the fact remains that it has a great groove and a compelling tune that propelled it beyond satire into greatness. Same with “I Love L.A.,” which has become an unintentional anthem, played at every Dodgers game.
And when the man wants to write a love song, such as the stunning “Marie,” or “I Miss You,” he writes the most beautifully poignant love songs imaginable. (pictured: Randy Newman's Emmy Award for Monk, on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum)
All of which is to say that Newman is a genuine American treasure, a songwriter who has profoundly impacted the evolution of the American popular song with his work, and shown songwriters new possibilities. Reticent to ever sing his own praises, he might disagree with all of this. I asked him once, in a discussion of why so many songwriters peak young and never reach the level of their best work, if he still had something to prove. “Something to prove?” he asked. “No. Not that I think it’s so good. I just don’t want to get worse.”
Paul Zollo is a songwriter, author and music journalist. He’s written several books, including Conversations with Tom Petty, Hollywood Remembered, and Songwriters On Songwriting. The Senior Editor of American Songwriter magazine and the editor of Bluerailroad.com, he’s also an award-winning songwriter who has collaborated with many greats, including Art Garfunkel, Darryl Purpose, Severin Browne and the late Steve Allen.