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Randy Newman: Gainesville

Among pop singer-songwriters Randy Newman stands out in many ways, but most especially in his ability to write for characters nothing like himself. The protagonists of his songs are a rogues’ gallery worthy of Charles Dickens or Ring Lardner. They don’t know who they are, but through Newman’s penetrating portraiture, we get to hear them reveal themselves without being aware of it – and they are by and large a frightening lot. Bigots, boobs, self-indulgent whiners, stoners, petty thieves, politically and ethically benighted – there is not a lot to admire in most of them, save their humanity, which also, in a strange and almost indefinable way always seems to come through somehow. It makes it difficult to judge them as harshly as we want to, because some part of them always manages to seem like us. There’s a kind of genius in that.

Newman has never really succeeded as a theatrical writer in part because his songs are so complete in themselves that they don’t suggest movement through a larger story universe. Each one is the entire story, soup to nuts. His one large-scale work Faust, which moved the Faust legend to the Notre Dame campus, was an ambitious undertaking, but never really a theatrical success. Yet it contains more than a handful of great songs, including “Gainesville,” which I’ve selected for today’s Song of the Day. Newman doesn’t often write for women, but Faust required it, and whether through an innate sense of chivalry or simply a plot requirement, the young woman singing it (in today’s recording it’s Linda Ronstadt) is actually a good person. A sad person, but one who is touched with the very quality that eludes almost all of Newman’s men: self-knowledge. As a result, the song, which seems at first to be no more than an auto-biographical sketch, evolves into a heartbreaking revelation about her romantic fate. In fact, the character has so much of what’s missing from most of Newman’s men – strength of character, clear-eyed intelligence and an awareness of how the world actually works – that it sets itself apart from the bulk of his other work. Which is why I selected it.

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