Dealing with life’s ironies

Wry, sly side of Randy Newman both his gift and Damocles sword

Long before Alanis Morissette delivered her treatise about what life is like when it is “Ironic,” Randy Newman was pop music’s ironist par excellence.

Who but Newman would find a metaphor for human nature’s tendency toward prejudice with a mock-harangue on “Short People”?

Who but Newman would deliver a “message song” about slavery by adopting the voice of a slave ship captain in “Sail Away”?

And who but Newman would create a love song to his native city and then puncture it with the sly, mocking tone of “I Love L.A.”?

No one more than Newman, then, could appreciate the irony of his own career. On one hand, it’s the very picture of stability — universally respected songwriter and composer, retaining a solid, if cult, following — compared to the meteoric flash-and-burn lives of two song artists he was most linked with in the early ’70s, Laura Nyro and Harry Nilsson (whose regard for Newman was so high that he made an album of Newman’s songs, “Nilsson Sings Newman”).

Rather than rest on his songster legend laurels, Newman has virtually reinvented himself as one of Hollywood’s premier film composers, with Oscar-nominated scores ranging from the symphonic home runs of “The Natural” to the jaunty song and underscore of the brilliant “Toy Story.” Nominated four times for the best song Oscar, Newman has long trumped any skepticism of the film scoring establishment, typified by composer Hans Zimmer’s declaration that his music for Barry Levinson’s “Avalon” is “the most beautiful American score ever written.”

But a puzzled Newman says, “I haven’t handled my career in any sensible way, never doing the standard, tried-and-true pattern of making a record, going on tour, hitting the TV circuit. The last record of songs was ‘Land of Dreams,’ and that was 1988, and the last hit album I had — about the only one, really — was ‘Little Criminals’ in 1977. I’ve never really cranked ’em out, not like Elton (John), who dwarfs me in terms of quantity.”

Even stranger for Newman, the past 12-18 months has been a period of what he terms “making more money than I ever have, and it’s been mostly failures.” His first foray into musicals, the (naturally) irony-drenched “Faust,” stumbled and fell on its way to Broadway with negative reviews in its La Jolla Playhouse and Chicago productions. His two post-“Toy Story” scores for animated features graced movies that barely made a sound at the box office — “James and the Giant Peach” and “Cats Don’t Dance.” Even the McDonald’s discount burger ad campaign using his “Toy Story” anthem, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” was pulled from the air, re-tooled and reinstated.

Sounding like one of his own lyrics, Newman reflects, “I’ve been busy, but it’s been weird.”

Conscious that his ironic sensibility is simultaneously what made him a distinctive, signature song artist while ensuring a limited pop appeal, Newman says that his easily misread viewpoint “came from my family, especially from my dad, Irving. He was a doctor, a good pianist, though not like my relatives Lionel, Emil and Alfred. But you get my family together, and there would be a lot of joking around, rough joking. It partly came from being one big family, living in small houses, getting to know each other very well in only the way close families can.

“My uncles were kinda different in the way they dealt with how I didn’t go in for their kind of Hollywood movie composing careers. Emil was always supportive. Alfred mysteriously kept telling me, ‘Whatever you do, keep writing songs.’ Lionel was nice but he could also be rough. At a family party in the ’80s, he was playing some 1930s songs, and called out to me, ‘Rand? Is this song yours?’ I told him it wasn’t, and he answered, ‘I was wondering, because it doesn’t have a melody.’ ”

Newman figures that he was spurred into songwriting partly because of how he saw his relatives sweat out a movie score deadline: “Boy, I didn’t think I wanted that, like Alfred up all night, pacing around, playing stuff for us to see if it worked, and they had no time to get it done. These were the pros, you know, but they were still really insecure. And I gained that insecurity they bequeathed. I don’t know a film composer who doesn’t have great insecurities about the job. It gets a little better the more you do it, but there’s always some different problem. I never approach that old piano really confidently.

“And I think that produces the need to hear an audience respond to your work, like they’re saying that we hear you, we know you’re there. If they’re laughing at something of mine that’s funny, I hear that. Some of the younger singer-songwriters, like Beck, understand that.”

Newman’s boyhood pal and longtime producer Lenny Waronker recalls that as they grew up, not knowing that they were to hit the pop scene just as their Tin Pan Alley songwriting idols like Leiber & Stoller or King & Goffin were to be faced with the invasion of bands like the Beatles and the Stones, “we were both young enough to have fun with music, yet take it seriously. Randy was studying piano at 4, but we’d also do our versions of hit tunes, Randy would do it in a different style, and he was brilliant at it. So I guess it wasn’t surprising later, when I had already immersed myself in the business side of music, I’d hear Randy’s songs, and they were way beyond what anyone else was doing.”

Newman soon found the voice he’s known for — the slightly arch, Mark Twain- like attitude with songs told in the third person, often by an unreliable narrator. Waronker reflects that he and Newman were amazed that this style was never imitated in the way everything in pop music eventually is: “Randy was always astounded that, one, people didn’t seem to get his ironic satire, and, two, that others didn’t jump on the third-person style.”

The epic reach of a an early score like “The Natural” thus shocked some Newman fans; it was hard to square the voice-and-piano intimacy of his song style with this score’s sheer grandness, and it made one wonder about the shadow cast by the Newman predecessors.

“I like the kind of big theme like Alfred’s work on ‘How the West Was Won,’ ” says Newman, “but there’s no call to write that kind of music for my kind of throaty voice. What I learned in the movies was finding the right kind of response to the material.” Newman is characteristically open with his views of his film work, not all of it rosy. ” ‘Toy Story,’ next to ‘Faust,’ may be the best record, and it’s probably the best picture I’ve ever worked on. “The worst scoring experience was on ‘Maverick,’ where I’m being told by the producers to make a scene funnier, and I’m instructing this fine trumpet player to play these hokey ‘funny’ notes. Terrible.

“People tell me, ‘Wow, what a great score ‘Avalon’ is,’ but when I saw it, I couldn’t hear it, because it was mixed too low — which is one of the biggest pains of being a film composer. I responded in ‘Ragtime’ to the era’s unbridled optimism, so I was surprised when Milos put all the emphasis on the darkest edges of the story. I think he was wrong about that.

It’s not surprising, then, that for all of Newman’s accolades in the film world, he’s working on an album of new songs. It’s also not surprising that he’s wondering where it’s headed: “The songwriting comes from I don’t know where, so I don’t know if the next song I come up with will work. Geez, right now, all I can write about is old guys complaining about stuff. Maybe,” he adds with a sigh, “that’s just me.”

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