1. Music

Interview: Randy Newman — Woody or Buzz? And other insights

DON MORRIS | Times illustration
DON MORRIS | Times illustration
Published Nov. 7, 2014

No one in the history of popular music has made us feel as good about ourselves, and as ashamed of ourselves, as Randy Newman. It's why he's in the Disney Legends club and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's also why, as he approaches his 71st birthday, the singer-songwriter-composer is still an acquired taste.

There are times when Newman, who will play the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater on Tuesday, absolutely adores his fellow man. You can hear it in his movie scores, especially that melange of ragtime, Wild West gallop and 1920s Old Hollywood glitz that drives Toy Story and six other Disney-Pixar blockbusters.

As a composer, Newman's contributions to the Mouse House canon now burst forth from theme park speakers in Florida and California, Paris and Tokyo, soundtracking our vacations, our good times, our snapshot lives.

"I'm fortunate to have the Pixar stuff as an outlet," the L.A.-born, New Orleans-seasoned Newman says during a phone interview. "I never would have written You've Got a Friend in Me for myself — unless I were doing the character of a used-car salesman. Those scores are as close as I get to being in the middle of the road. But ultimately the movie stuff is not going to be the first line of my obituary." His voice rises with cartoonish contempt: "Short People will!"

Ah yes, Short People, the 1977 No. 2 Billboard hit that skewered bigotry — and yet was accused of being hateful by people (and, ahem, the state of Maryland) who missed the point. That's the life of the other Randy Newman, the piano-pounding satirist and smart aleck who doesn't think too highly of the human race at all. In his rumpled-bed voice, he croak-croons not about toy cowboys but foibles and fallibility. It can get ugly, a "jaundiced worldview . . . out of control," as critic Robert Christgau once wrote.

The man who penned Woody's Roundup can also be cutthroat, a modern-day Mark Twain. Set to an orchestral swoon not unlike his music for A Bug's Life, 1972 song Sail Away trumpets the joys of America — as told by a silver-tongued slave trader: "In America you'll get food to eat / Won't have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet." Rednecks (1974) rips the hypocrisy of racism in the South and the North — and drops more n-words than a Jay-Z track.

Sing along if you dare.

• • •

First let's talk about Good Randy. His movie music is played at the happiest places on Earth, and that goes for baseball stadiums, too. He wrote Roy Hobbs' homer-swatting bombast for 1986 Robert Redford classic The Natural, rousing strains of Americana that Budweiser co-opted for this year's "Here's to Baseball" World Series TV spots.

Ask Newman for the "ingredients" to that Oscar-nominated Natural score, and his list of influences and attributes sounds a lot like the makings of the jazz-loving composer himself: "The source music was Duke Ellington. I love that stuff; [director] Barry Levinson did, too. There was heroic stuff, romantic stuff with a blues influence. Mysticism, there was magic with that bat. But mostly it was American, Midwestern. I was really playing America, you know? Baseball was the American game — well, before football became the American game."

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Newman's movie music allows him to celebrate national pride and ingenuity without his biting cynicism digging in. He holds back, all sunshine, no rain. "Music is so subordinate to the rest of the picture," he says. "You're working for someone else."

And yet, it is always unfailingly Newman. The Natural theme is such an unabashed gesture of joy and bravado that Billy Joel has been using it as his concert entrance music for years. It's boastful, but if you're going to go big, that glorious racket is as big as it gets.

"I don't give Billy s--- for using The Natural," Newman laughs. "I give Billy s--- for visiting me in a dressing room a few years ago, talking about himself for an hour, and then leaving!"

Newman comes from a family of Hollywood composers: uncles Alfred Newman, Lionel Newman and Emil Newman; cousin Thomas Newman scored Pixar's Finding Nemo and Wall-E. Randy is tops in the clan, though, and he ranks high elsewhere, too, a modern composer who belongs in the conversation with John Williams and Hans Zimmer.

Other memorable scores of Newman's include Ragtime, Parenthood, Maverick and Seabiscuit. One of my favorite pieces is the delicate Sunday-drive romance of McQueen & Sally from Cars. Newman leans toward Toy Story 2 as his favorite work, including the trilogy's weepiest moment — a heartbreaking piece he originally thought wasn't going to work.

"With When She Loved Me, I thought they were making a mistake," Newman says about the sob-worthy flashback involving cowgirl Jessie's abandonment by owner Emily, music that captures the beauty of growing up and, for parents, the beauty of letting go. "I didn't think kids would sit still in a theater for that long. But they did sit still. I watched it with a bunch of [children]. It was a nice thing to see."

Newman will often perform snippets of his movie scores in concert; this one usually leaves them reaching for the Kleenex.

"When She Loved Me isn't the first time [Pixar] knew better than I did," he says. "You'd have to say I'm working with the best studio that ever was."

At the movies, Good Randy makes us cry in a nice way.

Bad Randy, however, has other intentions.

• • •

Just for kicks, and my kids, I ask Newman whom he relates to more: Woody or Buzz. He ponders that one.

"Buzz really. I don't know if I 'relate' to him, but I like him for his optimism. He doesn't have a mean bone in his body. But Woody's capable, you know? Woody was mean when they first started out. I can't forget that. I tend to hold a grudge."

Indeed, Bad Randy does.

From his advent as a singer-songwriter in the '60s, Newman's pen has been withering, merciless. Set to music shifting from cabaret to calliope, one of his first notable tracks, Davy the Fat Boy, is about a man who promises the parents of an obese child that he'll protect him — and then makes money off the poor kid at a freak show. It's a template that Newman still mines today: gorgeous complex orchestration merged with lyrics that illuminate our avarice, our ability to choose ourselves over others.

"No one has written better about greed and shame and the family dynamic," said the Eagles' Don Henley when inducting Newman into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April 2013. Henley added that Newman chronicles "America in all its sham and all its glory." Newman responded to the honor thus: "It's hard for me to express a genuine emotion — as you can tell by my writing — but this means a lot to me."

Newman's songs are rarely what they first seem. Losing You, a must-listen weeper from 2008 LP Harps & Angels, sounds like a breakup tune; it's really about a couple mourning the loss of a child. Other lush lethal numbers include Louisiana 1927 (given new life after Hurricane Katrina), Christmas in Cape Town (antiholiday apartheid ugliness), In Germany Before the War (a serial child killer in love), I Miss You (a late-night self-lacerating love note to his ex-wife . . . written while he was with his current wife). One of the bestselling tracks of his latter career was iTunes fave A Few Words in Defense of Our Country, which boosted America . . . by saying we weren't as bad as Hitler's Germany. Haha?

Two of his best-known creations, Short People and I Love L.A. — about foolish prejudice and foolish pride, respectively — are widely enjoyed but widely misunderstood. Short People ("They got little hands, little eyes / They walk around tellin' great big lies") proved his point about our collective cluelessness: In 1978, the state of Maryland tried to pass legislation to have Short People banned from the radio.

Such is his distinctive (read: not widely marketable) delivery, many of his songs have been covered with greater commercial success: Mama Told Me Not to Come (Three Dog Night), You Can Leave Your Hat On (Joe Cocker), Guilty (Bonnie Raitt), Feels Like Home (Raul Malo), I Think It's Going to Rain Today (dozens of people, including Leonard "Spock" Nimoy). Bobby Darin paid homage to Sail Away as a patriotic number; Mack the Knife didn't get it.

And then there are the songs that no one except Randy Newman will touch. In fact, even he has trouble playing them sometimes.

You know, like Rednecks.

"Rednecks is harder to play now than it was 30 years ago," he says. "Not just because kids are in my audience for the Toy Story stuff. That word (the n-word) is a rough one. Seems like a funnier feeling out there, you know? I have to explain the song for a minute before I play it. It's an awfully rough word. But I don't know. I might sneak the song in there."

Good Randy and Bad Randy will be on display at his Clearwater show, a career-spanning retrospective that the famously self-deprecating artist is now, finally, rather proud of.

"I'm not that hard on my songbook," he says. "For the longest time, I would do something and I didn't look back — not once, for years. Now it's so easy to listen to stuff these days. But I'm not dissatisfied. All in all, I'm fairly satisfied."

What does frustrate him is his equally famous gift for procrastination; he has burned some time in the past 70 years.

"What would my life look like if I didn't procrastinate? I'd be president! I don't know. I wish I'd made more albums. That's the thing about movie work. You can't procrastinate if the job is scary enough. But albums are different."

A new album should be out next year, he says, adding with a laugh: "But I'm procrastinating about that!"

Contact Sean Daly at Follow @seandalypoplife.


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