Randy Newman and the Hall of Fame

13 Dec

Ramdy Newman: harps and angels

Randy Newman’s 2008 album harps and angels

Randy Newman was named last week as one of the 2013 inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in a class with Heart, Donna Summer and Rush. Which begets the question: What did he ever do to deserve such musical company?

It’s not enough that one generation knows Newman as the sappy old guy who wrote Toy Story, and another generation of basketball fans knows him through Lakers’ playoff games as the guy who wrote the annoying, endlessly playing paean to perfect Los Angeles, I Love L.A.

Now, yet another will know him through his Hall of Fame class (the induction ceremony in Cleveland should be a perfect time for Newman to perform Burn On: ‘Cause the Cuyahoga River goes smoking through my dreams). I don’t want to say I’m not impressed, but I’m thinking of a word to describe Newman’s aforementioned classmates that rhymes with fame but isn’t; if lame is too strong, try tame (I’m excusing Public Enemy, which made the first and perhaps only rap album I’ve owned, and Albert King, whose music I like but name I don’t only because it’s the same as a Nets forward who helped eliminate a good 76ers team from the 1984 NBA playoffs).

“I’m glad I didn’t have to die to get in,” Newman said. “. . . The (Rock and Roll) Hall of Fame has other resonance, like the Baseball Hall of Fame has a tremendous kind of historical reverence to it.”

Funny he should mention the Baseball Hall of Fame. If Heart was a baseball player, it would be Brady Anderson: Heart had a good song or two — Crazy on You was Anderson’s 50-homer season — but an ordinary career in all; the late Donna Summer would be Rabbit Maranville, a star from another era; Rush would be Kiki Cuyler, who did a little of everything although nothing much better than his contemporaries and was put in by the Veterans Committee.

There’s an irony in there Newman can appreciate more than most. Here’s another: the artist who wore glasses almost as big as goggles for much of his career could see deeper into topics often lightly examined: race, sex and Americana.

Newman’s songs are filled with odd characters — often lustful, insecure or obese — and doused with satire; they often don’t say what listeners think they do.

All those Lakers fans who think I Love L.A. completely celebrates the city? Then why the mention of “that bum over there, man He’s down on his knees?” All the smug Yankees who think Rednecks is an indictment of Southern racists? Listen to the last verse and the litany of Northern ghettos. All the tall people looking down, literally and figuratively, at short people? “Short people are just the same as you and I.”

Often, the objects of Newman’s derision are the last to know. If they ever do. His 2008 album harps and angels included a song Laugh and Be Happy; you’re correct if you assume Newman never morphed into Bobby McFerrin.

The bigger the target, the sharper the verse. Newman slays organized religion more than once (“You all must be crazy to put your faith in me, That’s why I love mankind”), and American exceptionalism (“America, America, God shed his grace on thee, you have whipped the Filipino, now you rule the Western sea”) again and again.

Newman assuredly isn’t for the easily offended. He’s an acquired taste, but he should be a required one.

“A lot of my stuff makes me a little nervous because I don’t like controversy,” Newman said in a 1995 interview at performingsongwriter.com, “but I can’t help the way I write.”

Amen for that. “His songs can be frightening or funny, absurd or heartfelt,” wrote Lydia Hutchinson on performingsongwriter.com. “But his characters always present some flash of surprising, lucid insight.”

Ten of my favorite Newman insights, in no particular order:

  • “They say that money
    can’t buy love in this world
    But it’ll get you a half-pound of cocaine
    And a sixteen-year-old girl
    And a great big long limousine
    On a hot September night
    Now that may not be love
    But it is all right”
    It’s Money That I Love

  • “He said, ‘You Can’t Fool The Fat Man
    No, you can’t fool me
    You’re just a two-bit grifter
    And that’s all you’ll ever be.’ ”
    You Can’t Fool The Fat Man

  • “In America you’ll get food to eat
    Won’t have to run through the jungle
    And scuff up your feet
    You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day
    It’s great to be an American”
    Sail Away

  • “She will laugh at my Mighty Sword
    Why must everybody laugh at my Mighty Sword.”
    A Wedding in Cherokee County

  • “I burn down your cities — how blind you must be
    I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
    You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
    That’s why I love mankind”
    God’s Song

  • “And college men from LSU
    Went in dumb. Come out dumb too.”

  • “Americans dream of gypsy knives and gypsy thighs
    That pound and pound and pound and pound
    And African appendages that almost reach the ground
    And little boys playing baseball in the rain.”
    Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America

  • “Birmingham, Birmingham
    The greatest city in Alabam’
    You can travel ‘cross this entire land
    But there ain’t no place like Birmingham.”

  • “I never drink in the afternoon
    I never drink alone
    But I sure do like a drink or two
    When I get home.”

  • “King Leopold of Belgium, that’s right
    Everyone thinks he’s so quiet
    Well he owned the Congo and he tore it up too
    He took the diamonds
    He took the silver
    He took the gold
    You know what he left them with?
    A Few Words in Defense of Our Country

    sources: performingsongwriter.com

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