This week I’ve been looking at some pretty famous songwriters who achieved fame for their populist style of singing and their unusual songs, Leonard Cohen and Joan Baez for example. Today my choice is Randy Newman. He’s one of our great American songwriters, but what I most admire about him is his choice of subject matter. It tends to be something specific. Something quirky, or a part of the human heart that usually doesn’t get discussed. He also has a killer sense of humor. I find his songs narrative, with telling harmonies and and simple melodies. Here he is in “Losing You.” It’s a conventional thing to sing about. But it isn’t about a lost love. It’s about the possibility of losing your love. Randy gets the human condition and sings about it with love.
Steve first introduced me to the music of Randy Newman with the song “Dayton Ohio, 1903” in the NYFOS ‘Roadtrip’ program and I have been a huge fan ever since. This song, written in the early 70s, is one of my favorites. It pulls no punches. At a 2011 concert in London, Randy said about this song: “Funny how people don’t laugh at [it] anymore. We’re not actually that crazy. Not quite.”
Check out this Spotify link for my preferred version from a concert in New York in 1971; the YouTube link is from a live television performance in 1972.
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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