Randy Newman embraces the spectrum of emotion
Just the other day, as I was driving my 15-year old son to school, his response to what I was playing (The Randy Newman Songbook, Volume 2) on the CD player was, “Hey – isn’t that the Toy Story guy?”
Yet he’ll likely be remembered more for his Grammy-winning scores for countless Disney/Pixar films—perhaps the most human element of what is otherwise a highly automated production process —than as the legendary singer, songwriter and composer behind an infectious catalogue of phenomenal songs.
Most of the people in Convocation Hall, for one thing, give or take the kids who’d been brought along in the hopes they’d be enlightened. Randy Newman carries this weight with him, his shoulders slightly stooped with age and his hair tousled white.
His songs have stolen the hearts and souls of a previous generation, while his soundtracks have had the same effect on the generation that followed. His very name should be every bit as revered as any Dylan, Young, Cohen or Springsteen. And, with many of us, it is.
Yet, just fresh from winning his umpteenth Grammy win, there were, visibly, seats available in this hallowed hall. After a particularly strong audience response to “It’s Lonely at the Top”, he said—obviously touched— “It’s been a real pleasure playing for you this evening…I just wish you’d brought some of your f*&*ing friends”.
Everyone roared but such an injustice is simply part and parcel of what being a Randy Newman fan is all about. He’s an in-joke. And as biting a satirist, as twisted a human historian and as bent an individual as he has proven to be through his rich collection of jaw-dropping, heart-wrenching, side-splitting material, he does it first for himself, and for anyone else who’ll take the time to listen.
We were all along for the ride that night, and it’s these moments of sincere appreciation, I’m sure, that protect his sanity from the Hollywood grind. As Newman tore through a total of some 38 songs, representing samples from each of his (now) 34 albums, you knew each represented part of a personal tapestry of Newman’s life as much as they’ve become part of ours.
His performance embraced the spectrum of human emotion, wrenching tears and laughs alike, together with some audience-involving singalongs which proved every bit as absurd as some of his lyrics.
Accompanying himself only on piano, his deep New Orleans roots are more than audible, rollicking across the keyboard while he rolls and taps his feet as if he was a kid. Stripped of their powerful arrangements, his peculiar style works wonderfully – just his curmudgeonly croak of a voice and a masterful collision of notes rolling out of his piano.
Leading off with Born Again’s “It’s Money That I Love”, Newman followed with a tremendous sampling of songs —ending the first set with the Disney-friendly “You’ve Got A Friend of Me” (so the kids could go home) and a rousing rendition of the sheer genius that is Sail Away’s “Political Science” —as prophetic a comment on U.S. foreign policy in ’72 as it remains today.
Lovingly pummeled with Newman classics new and old, they kept coming: “Baltimore”, “Rollin’”, “Wedding in Cherokee County”, Life Is Good”, “I Love L.A.” Many of the best songs come from his latest, Harps and Angels, proving that he’s far from cruising on past successes. He’s never let up.
From the hilarious title track to the poignant, personal “Losing You” and the tear-inducing “Feels Like Home” (which ended the second set with a wallop) these songs, both public and private, represent the essence of the man.
Some are fall-down funny, like his anthem to aging rock stars, “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)” and “It’s Lonely at the Top”; others are beautiful, heartfelt compositions, like “Marie” and “Living Without You”; some are hits for others, like “Mama Told Me Not To Come” and “You Can Leave Your Hat On”; while others are historically-based, like “Louisiana 1927” or “The Great Nations of Europe” or man-made disasters like “Burn On”—always with a wry twist and usually loaded with more than one meaning.
Newman’s sense of humour is regularly misunderstood as those with less sense misconstrue his liberal doses of irony as being offensive fare. The joke’s on them. “Short People”—a case in point—still gets a huge round of applause, 34 years later. At the same time, you could hear a pin drop for one of Newman’s most beautiful songs, “I Miss You”, revealing a personal side that almost felt too private. Truly one of the evening’s finest offerings.
Closing with “I Think it’s Going to Rain Today” from his first album (’68), Newman left the audience exhausted—having prevailed over such a wide-ranging sea of emotions throughout this stripped-down, pure presentation. Exhausted in the blissful sense of being satisfied, knowing we had witnessed the true talents of one of the world’s greatest singer-songwriters, of a kind they simply don’t make anymore.
Humankind doesn’t deserve him – “that Toy Story guy”.