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[whitespace] Randy Newman
Photograph by Pamela Springsteen

Paid in Full: Randy Newman knows how to score.

Hello, Newman

Randy Newman has something more valuable than an Oscar. Respect.

By Richard von Busack

FOR A DEAD MAN, Randy Newman's career is thriving. He announced his demise in the song "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)" on his last album of new songs, 1999's Bad Love. But Newman is very much alive following his Best Song Oscar, which he won after 16 almost-ran nominations. His performance of Monsters Inc.'s "If I Didn't Have You," a rousing duet with John Goodman, was as memorable as his acceptance speech: "I don't need your pity."

Newman is in the middle of a three-generation musical enterprise begun by film-score-composing uncles Lionel and Alfred, and carried on by Randy's nephews David and Thomas Newman.

Newman, always a wiseacre, satirizes the family's business in his rumba "When You're a Fool in Love," his title song for Meet the Parents. In the intro, he orchestrates a Ray Conniff Singers-style chorale to serenade the logos of the Universal/DreamWorks production: "Look at the light coming out of the Earth! / Look at that boy, sitting on a log! / Oh how exciting!" By contrast, note that Alfred Newman composed the vainglorious 20th Century-Fox fanfare.

If Oscars 2002 really proved that Hollywood was ready to deal African Americans in, maybe Newman's Oscar is an appendix clause to the deal. If there's one theme that knits his work together, it's Newman's use of his music as a saber against racism. For this, he's received the attendant lack of commercial success any performer can expect if he goes political.

Newman's movie work keeps him comfortable. The novelty hits "Short People" and "I Love L.A." are dumb fun, popular favorites. But Newman's real claim to fame is the string of discomfiting ballads he's been writing for decades--as heard on the recently rereleased Sail Away (1972) and Good Old Boys (1974).

Alone with piano, Newman continues the great old literary tradition of the untrustworthy narrator. Good Old Boys is a suite of songs about the South, but the opening number, "Rednecks," lets us know it's not just the South in the dock here, but the whole Negro-hating U.S.A. from sea to shining sea. Similarly, Sail Away's title song depicts a slaver recruiting Africans with honeyed promises of the soft life in the cotton fields. Both tunes are deathless protest songs; the only difference is that Newman takes the path of Ambrose Bierce instead of Pete Seeger.

Sail Away's early-'70s malaise has never gone out of style, but it seems especially pertinent today. "Burn On" celebrates a true-life ecological horror story that was also the source for R.E.M.'s "Cuyahoga." On the other hand, "Burn On" is pretty much exactly what George W. Bush has told the nation regarding global warming.

On Bad Love, Newman's voice is froggier and more truculent than it once was--a chocolatey R&B baritone at the smoothest moments. The avant-garde House of Keyboards production by Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom refreshes a seasoned performer. The tender lover heard in "Guilty" on Good Old Boys has morphed into the wealthy old bastard on the hilarious "Shame" on Bad Love, kvetching about aching bones and a faulty bladder, admitting that the only way he'll get love is by buying it outright.

Newman is still on target as the ancient rock singer in need of retirement on "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)," backed up with guitar solos swiped from the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night" and Van Halen's "Ain't Talking 'Bout Love." "When will I end this cruel charade?" he sings, verses newly piquant in a year when "Sir Mick Jagger" became the funniest three-word sentence in the English language.

Newman's local appearance is a chance to give it up for a man who may not need our pity but certainly deserves our applause.


Randy Newman appears Wednesday (July 17) at 7:30pm at the Mountain Winery, 14831 Pierce Rd., Saratoga. Tickets are $25-$45. (Ticketmaster, 408.998.TIXS)


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From the July 11-17, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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