Monday, September 15, 2008

9/15/08 - Randy Newman Would Prefer You Get Off His Lawn

Of all the '70s rock dinosaurs, singer-songwriters, disco divas, and punk agitators, only Randy Newman now seems, in retrospect, that he had a plan all along on how to stay incisive, relevant, and consistently excellent: he decided that he was going to be old starting in his 20s, with his very first album, with his very first song.

Interviews with Newman, from his own website.

"Love Story (You And Me)", the song in question, traces the arc of a relationship, from the first verse detailing the courtship, the second verse describing adult life, and then the black-veined final verse:

"When our kids are grown/With kids of their own/They'll send us away/To a little home in Florida/We'll play checkers all day/Until we pass away"

Sure, Newman suggests in the song, there are songs to mine out of the experience of falling in love, but unlike so much of popular music's treatment the subject, from early Beach Boys to Usher, Newman follows it all the way to the (possibly bitter) end. Not just interested in the fireworks of infatuation, the push and pull of attraction, repulsion, and coming together, Newman drives ahead to the end, equally engaged with what happens at the end of a relationship, at the end of the life, and how the knowledge of that greater endpoint makes the initial feeling so much more special and poignant.

Newman's one-eye-on-the-endgame attitude has long made him an odd fit among whoever happens to be his contemporaries at the moment. My favorite photo of Randy is the recent one in Rolling Stone, showing him in the 70s with Lou Reed, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen. The other three all wear the cloak of easy cool that comes from being rock royalty - the slouch and sneer of early Presley all shimmering around them. All three are smoking, all three wear T-shirts or V-necks untucked; loose rock star glamour.

Newman stands apart, his button-down shirt tucked in, his hands in the pockets of his khakis, his glasses and haircut making him look more like an offbeat teacher than a rock star. Who knows how much of this image is deliberately cultivated on his part, but still it's a bright bold line that he has drawn in his music over most of his career.

A lot of rock lyrics are written in the first person by the author's rock persona at the very least - presumably we are to assume that the Bruce of "Thunder Road" bears more than a passing resemblence to Bruce Springsteen himself. After all, rock 'n' roll is primal, and often gives a lot of play to expressions of the id. Randy Newman, by contrast, in interested in using songs as a medium to explore the psychology of character, often a kind of "Randy Newman" that is materialistic, shallow, and boorish, but often also characters that have very little to do with Newman himself. Thus, the huckster slave ship owner of "Sail Away", an angry God in "God's Song", a rich decaying New Orleans playboy in "Shame", and many others.

What is often shared in Newman's characters is a blithe ignorance of the kind of endgame awareness in something like "Love Story". The fallible fictional creations of Newman are often so concerned with their own localized pleasures and challenges that they have no sight of the length and arc of a life, and of how many of the shallow trappings they care so much about matter so little in the end, when having your kids put you in nursing home and you play checkers until you die actually counts as one of the happiest endings of all.

The fact that Newman is very aware of this, I think, is what accounts for the consistently high quality of his original albums. 1999's Bad Love has just as many great songs as Sail Away from the '70s. Many artists have recorded "return to form" albums, especially Newman's contemporaries in that photo, but if critics are honest there's no way the most of the rock stars of today can live up to their work when they first burst onto the scene. Newman is an exception, the man with the plan. If his vision strikes some as overly dark, it's possibly just because he's able to see a little farther into the tunnel at the end than most.

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