In which a lifelong dream is fulfilled
A hunched-over Randy Newman slowly walked to the Steinway, sat, and then turned to thank the sell-out crowd for the standing ovation. After his first number, he turned back to the audience.
“When I went to the doctor a few months ago, the tech directed me into a machine…” It turned out the machine measured height. Randy Newman, a towering 6′ for most of his life, found out he was now a much shorter 5’8″.
With that, most of the audience knew what was coming.
“When you write lyrics, be careful. You’ll remember I wrote a certain song. Well, now it’s come back to bite me in the butt.”
He launched into “Short People,” which, on its release, was not only an immediate hit, but also earned death threats from “vertically challenged minorities.” Never mind that the song was intended to show the ridiculousness of stereotypes and prejudices.
“Acerbic. Unpalatable. Ironic. Satirical.”
Randy Newman’s lyrics are hard to take. Why, then, am I so drawn to them?
His lyrics are the equivalent of my honest friend who doesn’t say what the I want to hear, but what I need to hear. Whatever’s said is always delivered with underlying love and acceptance.
Newman is eighty-two now, and I’m seventy. “Sail Away,”released in 1972, must have been the first I knew of his work. The lyrics stopped me in my tracks. The words’ tone, soft and inviting, initially fooled me, but no gentle song this; the slave trade was brutal. The chords, with their unfamiliar structures and sequences, puzzled and fascinated me. “How does he do that?” Enter my interest in music theory; I had to find out how those chords worked.
Newman wrote the score for “Toy Story,” released in 1994. When it came out, “Toy Story” slid by me. Blame living in a rural area with limited media options.
Newman writes what I’d call “slow down and look more closely” lyrics. Like rivers, Newman’s lyrics are full of undercurrents and subsurface structures and a variety of life. Looking under the surfaces of the lyrics opens up their subtleties, and often elicit a “Whoa…”.
Many of Newman’s songs relate to historical events. What was the cause of the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969? (Burn On) Who was Lester Maddox, and why did he walk off the Dick Cavett show? (Rednecks) How did the Louisiana floods of the early twentieth century compare to Katrina? (Louisiana 1927)
Other songs note contrasts in everyday life. Witness the love and tenderness of a real jerk for his “Marie,” in one song, or the quiet pride of of the factory worker and husband in “Birmingham,” which pays homage to “…the meanest dog in Alabam’.” Get ‘em, Dan.
When my friend Pam told me Randy Newman would be in town, it was an immediate “Yes!”, and never mind the price of the tickets. We later found out it was one of only two concerts on this tour, and possibly his last.
His gravelly voice was just as I’d expected, and his odd manner of singing still eludes me. The tunes are there, but the notes are more implied than exact. But never mind that his voice is not concert choir quality; his music raises questions, memorializes events, and, on an emotional level, hits in the gut and heart.
During the concert, Newman’s piano playing faltered, and he sometimes lost track of the lyrics. Coming back on stage after the intermission, he acknowledged this with grace. “I’ll do it right this time around.”
Still, at one point, he asked the audience for the words of the last verse of “God’s Song.” He likely regretted the request, responding to one volunteer, “I asked for the words, not for you to sing it.” Ouch; after all, singing is the easiest way to remember lyrics.
But no one cared about the lapses or gaps. Too many of us were older, and had nothing but empathy for words on the tip of the tongue, or notes just out of reach on the keyboard.
I’d been waiting for decades to hear Newman in person. It was all I’d imagined.