Randy Newman will never be a million-seller, and he’s fine with that

Handout photo of Randy Newman, performing at the Capitol Theatre on 11/19/17. Credit: Pamela Springsteen.
Handout photo of Randy Newman, performing at the Capitol Theatre on 11/19/17. Credit: Pamela Springsteen.
Published November 15 2017
Updated November 15 2017

Maybe it’s fitting that the Los Angeles Dodgers didn’t win the World Series. Maybe it’s better that all of Southern California didn’t pop Champagne and celebrate as Randy Newman’s I Love L.A. blared through the Dodger Stadium speakers.

Instead, Dodgers fans can spend the off-season flipping through the rest of Newman’s iconic catalog, soothing their frustrations with any number of his much more sardonic and melancholy works.

"On my own, the type of song that I’m interested in writing is not going to appeal to millions of people," Newman said recently. "That’s just the way it is, and I’m perfectly happy with that."

Less than two weeks shy of his 74th birthday, the multiple Oscar, Grammy and Emmy winner sounds like he means it. When he hits Clearwater’s Capitol Theatre Sunday night, he may play I Love L.A., or his quirky hit Short People, or the Toy Story soundtrack smash You’ve Got a Friend In Me. Most of the set will feature older, beloved cuts like Political Science, Baltimore or It’s Money That I Love, plus compositions made famous by others (Mama Told Me Not to Come, You Can Leave Your Hat On, I Think It’s Going to Rain Today). And he’ll definitely play songs from Dark Matter, his brainy and resonant first studio album in nine years.

But on the day we spoke, shortly after the Dodgers’ season-ending loss to the Houston Astros, Newman was simply hanging in L.A., with no plans to play much of anything.

"Just home today," he chuckled. "Any music will be an accident."

Sorry about the Dodgers and the World Series. They’ll be back, I’m sure.

They’ll be back, but Houston will be back there with them.

What’s the best perk of having an unofficial sports anthem in your catalog?

I went to a few ball games this year, and they won, and they’d play it at the end, and people are smiling and saying hello to me. It’s pretty nice. And surprising. Same thing is true with Disneyland — I took my granddaughter, and I’m all over the place there. It’s so odd, because the bulk of my stuff is not in the middle of the road. For me to be at Disneyland is a little odd.

They’re opening a Toy Story Land at Disney World next year. Have they brought you in to work on that project?

No, they use somebody who’s less expensive to replicate it. They used my orchestrator to do that Cars Land ride, to do some simulacrum of the music. They may invite me to the preview. I’ll go.

Ten or 12 years ago, I had one of the most unexpectedly moving musical experiences I’ve ever had. I’m on the subway in Boston, and there’s this busker in an empty station with a tiny amp and electric guitar, playing this emotional version of Baltimore.

Really!

I can still hear it. I’ve never had that experience with a street musician before.

I’ll be damned!

Have you ever had a version of one of your songs really take you by surprise?

Etta James’ version of God’s Song. Took me by surprise that she did it, and that she did it so phenomenally movingly. I’m glad that people do my songs, but I tend to like them less well than I like my own, irrespective of the fact that they may have better voices and may sing better. I recorded years ago with Barbra Streisand, and she did I Think It’s Going to Rain Today. I didn’t think anything of it, really. I didn’t necessarily like it. It didn’t come out at the time. She released it in the last couple of years, and it’s really good. I mean, of course, it’s that voice, which is so remarkable, but it’s also a good version. One of the best, if not the best.

Didn’t Glenn Frey sing on Baltimore, and a lot of Little Criminals?

Glenn Frey and Don Henley.

How were they as collaborators? Because they didn’t seem to be much into compromise when it came to working with each other.

Uncompromising in their search for quality. They’d be there for hours getting it right, because they’re world-class experts. You listen to it and you think, Well, that’s in tune, and it sounds all right. But you realize after a while that they’re right. They really were meticulous about that kind of thing, on my behalf and their own. They were more careful than I was.

Were they part of your social circle in the 1970s? Were you tighter with Frey and Henley and the whole Laurel Canyon scene, or more with Harry Nilsson and Alice Cooper and the Hollywood Vampires and that lot?

I had no social scene. I had a family, and that was it. I’d see Harry pretty often. Then around the time he met Lennon, I didn’t see him anymore. Henley, I’d see occasionally. I didn’t hang out at the Troubadour that much. But I’d see Ronstadt occasionally, and Henley, and Harry in the beginning. But really, I wasn’t part of any of it.

Back then, did you find yourself measuring your success, or lack thereof, against your peers? Whether it was Harry or Billy Joel or John Lennon or whoever?

You know, probably. I remember hearing Just the Way You Are in a hotel. I was trying to go to sleep, listening to the radio, and I heard it: "Here’s the new Billy Joel!" And I thought, Oh, he’s going past me on the ladder with this one. (laughs) It wasn’t like I was happy: "Oh, it’s just fine with me not to sell more!" I was always trying to have more people like what I did. Eventually I reconciled myself to the fact that I’m not going to be a million-seller. Except when I’m writing for a movie and I fall into it.

What’s your metric for success, then? If it’s not sales, is it good reviews? Cultural relevance? Because you certainly hit the relevance nail on the head with Dark Matter, especially the song Putin.

Getting reviews like that is very nice. I’ve always had good reviews, but these are really, very good. I like the fact that people who do what I do respect what I do. People like Don Henley and Jackson Browne and other songwriters seem to like what I do. It’s always meant a lot to me, maybe more than it should. I grew up around musicians, and getting the respect of an orchestra like my uncle (composer Alfred Newman) had, and like I have now, has always meant a tremendous amount to me.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

 

 

If you go

Randy Newman

8 p.m. Sunday, Capitol Theatre, 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater. $39.25 and up. (727) 791-7400. atthecap.com.

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