Friday, 1 February 2013

Randy Newman and his audience

In April this year Randy Newman will enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the company of Rush, Heart, and Public Enemy. (Custom has it that acts who are still alive perform at their induction: ‘I sure wouldn't want to follow any of them’, Newman told Rolling Stone, no doubt sincerely.) Newman has earned his place in that pantheon, for sure, and he knows it, and has always been clear-eyed about why the recognition has taken so long. ‘Rock critics are very Bolshevik’, he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999. ‘If you use the wrong chords, like any that aren’t in Led Zeppelin tunes, then forget it.’

It’s relatively recently, thus rather belatedly, that I began listening to Newman’s music – that is, buying the records of his well-regarded songs, as opposed to overhearing him on the musical scores of Pixar films that my children watch. And I say 'belatedly' because Randy Newman is meant to appeal to people like me. Y’know the type, (if you’ll forgive a slip into cod-Newman vernacular) – kind of liberal people, who got they’sel some culture, and a college education, so they think they smart.

Yes, a big part of Newman’s appeal is his sly, searching address to questions of history and politics, often with a grand reach, if always in an American accent. He tends to deal in mordancy and irony, his apparent concern with the sheer badness of the world, the human animal's compulsively appalling behaviour. The tone tends to be lamenting; and wherever he seems to exult, you sense he intends you to shudder in discomfort. With an artist as brilliant and productive as Newman it's well-nigh fruitless to pass some political-propriety meter over the work and ask ‘Which side is he really on? What does he really feel?’ The songs thrive on ambiguity and contradiction like art is meant to, and even when Newman is going all-out to be cold and unfeeling – and he usually is – still, you’re meant to feel it.

It does take a sort of genius to attempt, with affection, a refutation of Marx – as Newman does in 'The World Isn’t Fair' – by twinning a music-hall jaunt through young Karl’s intellectual formation with Newman’s own well-heeled, late-life, ageing-dad experience of taking his kids to a new school and marvelling at the yummy mummies (‘just like countesses, empresses, movie stars and queens’) who are squired by ‘men much like me / Froggish men, unpleasant to see / Were you to kiss one, Karl / Nary a prince would there be.’) This clip isn't the best for sound quality, but you get a lot about Newman's gift for being the seemingly reluctant raconteur from his longish spoken intro.

Newman’s pride in his own achievement with that song is clear in this quite brilliant interview with Paul Zollo, which should be read by anyone with an interest in the craft of songwriting and scoring. If Newman considers The World Isn't Fair to be 'about the best song I ever wrote', still he's instantly self-critical about its construction ('It’s like one long verse. It doesn’t get to a tonic, or something. It never stops...). But he also comes around to telling Zollo pretty clearly what he really feels about it, such that maybe not a great deal more needs saying:

"It’s a giant subject in as few words as could be done... The guy in “The World Isn’t Fair” is interesting as a character. He’s glad. It’s me. I’m glad the world isn’t fair. I’m glad that Marx was wrong. In a way, you know. I’ve been very lucky. And yet, I’m not that happy about it. [Laughs]" 

Here's what I would add. One bonus of coming late to the Newman oeuvre is that I can pick and choose from recorded versions of the songs just as if I was some Wagner buff deciding whether Solti's Ring is more worthy of my £24 than Karajan's. A couple weeks ago (sorry, Newman cadences again...) I downloaded a range of his tunes from across the pair of sets he released in 2011: Live in London, recorded in 2008 at the LSO St. Luke’s, where Newman was backed by the BBC Concert Orchestra; and Volume II of The Randy Newman Songbook, in which he revisits his old tunes in the studio on solo piano.

Why Live in London, not, say, Paris, New York, Amsterdam? As ‘Rand’ told Rolling Stone, ‘I'm always surprised when I go to England and they think so highly of me in terms as a writer.’ They certainly do. There’s a fair bit of delighted crowd noise on the record, rightly so, though I find one could wish people didn’t feel the urge to emit a showy kind of laugh at Newman’s mordant zinger-lines, much like the way the National Theatre crowd still pretend to crack up at Shakespeare’s comedies.

When, for instance, Newman plays 'A Few Words in Defense of Our Country' from 2008 – in which he laments the waning American imperium, and makes a carefully derisory defence of the outgoing Bush presidency against its worldwide detractors by dint of some arch references to a few more atrocious leaders from the annals – well, you would expect a London audience to lap that up, and they sure do. But I suppose it's part of the pleasure of the night out - the ticket price and the babysitter and all that - and Newman plays up to it. As he told Zollo: 

'If you’re offensive and it isn’t clear that you’re joking or it isn’t clear that you know what you’re doing, you lose the audience. People in my audiences at shows know I’m joking. But a lot of people don’t get the joke.' 

So it's important to Newman's audience as to him that they stay on the right side of 'the joke'. Updating his very astute appreciation of Newman in Mystery Train back in 1975, Greil Marcus agonised somewhat over the success Newman achieved with his Good Old Boys record and the subsequent concert tour in which he delighted a growing audience. Performance and acclaim, Marcus thought, coarsened one’s feeling for the fineness of what Newman had achieved on record. ‘A Wedding in Cherokee County’, about the impotence of a backwoods farmer, evoked not winces but laughter from a crowd who’d paid their money and wanted their wicked fun. And Marcus saw Newman complicit in this, not just by how he put the song across but in his droll spoken preambles: 'He promised that the song was a joke, that its characters were jokes, and that their predicament was something those smart enough to buy tickets to a Randy Newman concert could take as a freakshow staged for their personal amusement.' 

Would Marcus be so tough on Newman and his audience today? Maybe so, maybe not, since we are, let's face it, all a little bit older. Anyhow, don’t get me wrong, I still relish Newman's brilliant tunes, whoever's chortling all over them, and I’m glad I bought these new downloads, and Live in London is really swell, the orchestra are terrific. But if I had to take one disc to the desert island I would spend the £11 on the Songbook Volume II. The one off that I keep playing is 'My Life is Good', which typifies one Newman style, as defined by Robert Christgau, of 'targeting a privileged class that explicitly includes the artiste.' This clipped version below is from younger days, but he plays it much the same as on Songbook Vol. II. And of the barroom whoops that greet his mordant zingers? All I'd say is that they sound a little more agreeable coming from a smaller audience...

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