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Randy Newman: More Than a Friend

March 21, 2009

Much of my generation knows Randy Newman as the smily-voiced singer responsible for “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” that warm ballad with the happy ache that became the emotional centerpiece of Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story. If the generation after mine doesn’t recognize Newman’s work in Toy Story, or other Pixar hits like Monster’s Inc., Cars, or A Bug’s Life, they might recall his parodied appearance in Family Guy a few seasons back.

randy-newman-2In that show, the singer turns up under an apple tree rambling away at his piano about nothing in particular. He is discovered by the Griffin family when their trip to a Twinky factory takes an unexpected detour into a strange countryside. As Brian (the family dog) judges the surrounding environs to be “paradise,” a local counters with a snide punchline, “Sure is, except for Randy Newman…just sits there all night and day singing about what he sees.” Newman’s character plays the pitiable part, and starts in with, “Fat man with his kids and dog/ drove in through the morning fog/ Hey there, Rover/ Come on over…” You get the point.

In a recent interview with Kurt Anderson on Studio 360, Newman seems amused by this appearance, and how it brought him something of an accidental audience. Even my kids’ friends “know me from that,” he jokes.

Newman is all the more likable for taking the Family Guy lampoon with good humor. “You know it isn’t a bad song,” he tells Anderson. “It’s got things rhyming that are pretty good. It’s got the same three chords that I use.”

The Family Guy parody gets Newman’s knack for rhyme and simple song structures right, though it misses his real appeal entirely. As the caricature presumes, many consider Newman a burned-out, bumbling songwriter with a perma-smile and a knack for turning out uninspired songs that appeal mainly to kids and half-wits (The local yocal doesn’t like Newman, but Mrs’ Griffin does). The joking nudge goes even further for those who remember the heights Newman’s songwriting reached in his early career.

Between 1968 and 1983 Newman released half-a-dozen fine albums and a couple classics. His songs were covered by Dusty Springfield, the Everley Brothers, Nina Simone, Harry Nilsson and Ray Charles.  Newman’s bestselling song, “Short People,” remains one the most popular (and most commonly misunderstood) recordings aimed at bigotry (Maryland legislators tried to outlaw the song in 1978 when a virtically-challenged elected official famously mistook the title’s intended pun).  Popular, critically-lauded, and controversial, Newman’s catalog stands alongside the best popular American music has produced.

Few would refute that the best of Newman’s film score songs barely approach the worst work of his heyday. Fewer would argue that these later recordings don’t at least blunt the edge of Newman’s early achievements. While I don’t see a case for how Newman’s late work diminishes his legacy, I nod in agreement with anyone who says his class and craft have slumped since his early recording days. A hard case to make, however, is for Newman as a songwriter who relies for material on stream of consciousness inspiration, and who fills his lyrics with inconsequential details.

Newman’s songs are executed with some of the finest lyrical economy I’ve witnessed in any American songwriter. You almost never find more details in them than those necessary to make his point. Whether talking about U.S. foreign relations (“Political Science”), complicated family ties (“Memo to My Son”), or the isolation of stardom (“Lonely at the Top”), Newman rarely needs more than ten verses, a refrain, and a deft twist of phrase to nail his subject.

randy-newman-1Compare him with a descriptive-obsessive like Dylan (a songwriter whose style is a much better fit for The Family Guy critique) and you’ve got a songwriter of exceptional restraint and brevity who goes further than most with far fewer words. And then there’s Newman’s secret weapon: a cuddly tone and style of phrasing whose unassuming charm acts as an ironic counterpoint when he’s delivering his most dubious material. The combination casts a spell few can match. I don’t know another singer who makes me want to smile and sing along with a line like “let’s drop the big one, pulverize ’em”: lyrical references to nuclear war have never been sung so adorably.

Of all Newman’s records, Sail Away witnesses these trademarks most abundantly. Released in 1972, its simple piano chords and low-sung vocals quietly blew against the dizzying bigness and swagger of the era’s top rock acts (e.g. The Who, Led Zep, the Stones), while delivering witty couplets would-be piano crooners like Elton John couldn’t touch. While there’s nothing wrong with his work for Disney, Sail Away is the Newman more of my generation ought to know.

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