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Giving the Devil His Due

Care to hear Newman's own views on Faust?

Reprise Records, Faust : An interview with Newman, plus bibliographic information.

    A similar tension exists between Newman's love of gospel music and his uneasiness about faith and praise. The dichotomy is brought to a climax in Faust (the long-awaited answer record to Jesus Christ Superstar). The story of the man who gained the world only to lose his soul is a perennial. The poet Schiller wrote that what made the folk tale of Faust a classic is "the unsuccessful endeavor to unite in man the godlike and the physical." Newman's intent is a little simpler; Faust is all confrontation with the biblical God, and the devil gets all the best lines.

    Newman's Faust loosely follows Goethe's version. The title character is Henry Faust (sung by Don Henley), a schizophrenic Notre Dame student whose soul is contended for by God (James Taylor) and the devil. The soul of this lumpen, football-playing boy, "as thick as a tree, as dull as a butter knife," is, according to Newman's liner notes, "so tiny as to be almost invisible, but it is important to the Lord as are we all." Newman's work here is majestic, in all branches of the popular music he touches: blues, gospel, New Orleans piano, dramatic show tunes. His own voice, never sweet, has aged to a point somewhere between the syrup of Hoagy Carmichael and the poison of Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter.

    Newman saves the emotional high point of Faust for himself in "Relax, Enjoy Yourself." An angel child in heaven, trying to be nice to the visiting devil, is reminded, "You were a good girl, cut down in your prime." The devil tells the story of what will happen to the man who shot her in a Burger King in Tucson: He goes unpunished, he repents, he ascends to heaven, "he won't pass go, he'll just march right through the goddamn gate. And why, you may ask yourself why, for thousands and thousands of years, I have asked myself why." It's predestination, that's why--Taylor explains it all for you as the Lord. The affable smugness of Taylor's voice is used like the affable smugness of Keith Carradine's handsome face in a movie, to convey folksy malice.

    Faust expands ideas that have been gnawing Newman since "God's Song," in which the deity "recoils in horror from the foulness of thee" (and me). God does kind of like us for our unfailing willingness to worship him no matter what sort of troubles he sends us: "Ya really need me--that's why I love mankind." Newman may have the embittering fate of being better known for tossed-off gags like "I Love L.A." and "Short People" than for the most witty and acrid lyrics in modern pop. Maybe that will change with Faust, which puts Satan's motto, "non servatum" (I will not serve), to grand orchestrations composed by a true rebel angel.

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From the Oct. 26-Nov. 2, 1995 issue of Metro

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