Louis Rosen: The Singer/Songwriter Comes of Age- Randy Newman – Sail Away

Randal Stewart (Randy) Newman has three careers. 1. In the 1960s, vocalists such as the Fleetwoods, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, and Gene Pitney recorded his songs.  2. In 1968, Newman additionally began writing and performing his own work with a self titled album produced by childhood friend, Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks. 3. By 1980, he started working in the family business, scoring films. Three uncles, Alfred Newman, Lionel Newman, and Emil Newman were Hollywood film composing, arranging and conducting royalty. “If you mention Newman to anyone under 60, however, they’ll know his work from Toy Story,” host Louis Rosen notes.

Born in New Orleans to a secretary and an internist, Newman spent summers there until he was 11 years old. Rosen thinks the subject’s southern-accented, drawling vocals are those of a persona whose roots were fertilized in Crescent City. The family then moved to Los Angeles. Newman studied music at the University of California, Los Angeles exposing him to the many styles he so fluently uses in his oeuvre. He also hung around sound stages with the uncles.

To say he offers social commentary minimizes Newman’s trenchant, iconoclastic view of contemporary culture. Rosen prefaces this evening’s album with the official video for “Putin” from Dark Matter. (Watch on YouTube.) The singer/songwriter walks a fine line. What appears scathing to most of us might seem a celebration to supporters. The host grins throughout. His particular appreciation of Newman is an infectious pleasure this session.  

In a 2014 Library of Congress interview with Mark Horowitz, the subject described sitting at the piano… about 4 hours “until something I stumble upon musically triggers a lyric response…I very rarely have a lyric first… the character who’s singing comes out of the character of the music.”

We then jump to Sail Away. “Sometime in 1971, an idea for a string of short movies emerged. Elton John, Kris Kristofferson, and Newman were among those asked to come up with a ten minute musical story. Newman’s was a seafaring saga. He’d be an old time huckster who sailed across the Atlantic to the coast of Africa. At landfall, musicians would disembark and play something cheerful to get the natives’ attention.”

“A whole entertainment would follow like a medicine show. When the audience was pumped up, Newman would make his pitch to set off across the mighty ocean to Charleston Bay. He promised them watermelon, wine, and Jesus in the land of the free. They would, in fact, become slaves. “Sail Away” was his pitch. The movie never got made. What a shock. Newman’s music is a compendium style of Stephen Foster, so-called “coon” songs, nineteen teens and twenties New Orleans, vaudeville, and Aaron Copeland-like Americana.” (Rosen)

What’s uniquely different about it is twofold. First, he writes about subjects that were never lyricized, especially in the pop/rock genre. Second, taking his cue from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, there’s what the host calls “a collision of music and lyrics.” A jaunty melody might be paired with horrifying subject matter. String sections and woodwinds are combined with rock in a completely incongruous way shattering expectations of mood associated with instrumentation.

We listen again. Newman starts with a turn of the century sound, horns that might be found on any New Orleans corner, refer back to The Salvation Army, or emanate from a park gazebo: 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. This is the song and the album (his third) that would cement popular consensus of Newman’s artistry and define his musical voice. “Listen to the subtle swelling and expressiveness, the way the music clears for voice and piano.” Rosen suggests.

The next cut, “Lonely At the Top” is a New Orleans/Tin Pan Alley mix. Newman thought it would be a hoot if Frank Sinatra recorded it. He played it for Old Blue Eyes who stood, arms folded throughout, then said “What else do ya have, kid?” The tune is just this side of plodding. A funeral march? Listen to the band, they’re playing just for me/Listen to the people paying just for me…Orchestration is as important as lyrics. “In 1972, if you were a Randy Newman fan, you were among the select. He wanted to be huge but knew what he did was never gonna take him there,” Rosen recalls.

Randy Newman at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards Press Room, Kodak Theater, Hollywood, CA. (Bigstock photo)

Newman was nominated for 22 Academy Awards- winning two for Best Song. He has three Emmys, seven Grammys, and the Governor’s Award from the Recording Academy. He was inducted into both The Songwriters Hall of Fame and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“He Gives Us All His Love” is the first of two songs about God. Born Jewish, Newman has said that religion or any sense of religious identity was completely absent in his childhood. This track paints a benign deity who doesn’t seem to be doing much to help. Rosen observes that here The All Mighty is either passive or ineffectual.

“Last Night I Had a Dream” with twangy guitars and whooshing cymbals, is obscure. Rosen likes it because “dreams are much more interesting to those experiencing them than those who are listening.” Andy Warhol’s eight hour film, Empire, showed a static Empire State Building. The artist said it was meant to “show time passing.” Much the same?

“Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear” arrives English Music Hall style but is not story you’d ever hear on that stage. A naïve, optimistic attitude evokes condescension from the performers’ audience. “It’s an outsider looking for a foothold,” Rosen notes. Newman told Jesse Thorn on Bullseye that this was the first song he wrote in his own style, “with humor and a narrator who wasn’t entirely likeable or trustworthy.”

“Old Man” shows a profound level of insensitivity. “I’m not suggesting it’s autobiographical,” the host says, “but I’ve never heard a song written from this point of view before.” Won’t be no God to comfort you/You taught me not to believe the lie…“None of us would think a relationship with our father or mother would lead to that, but a lot of them do.”

“Political Science” was written in 1968. Newman was concerned it was too on the nose and would have brief shelf life. “We’re never going to have an administration this bad again,” he’d declared. It remains sadly relevant… The writer felt this was the closest he got to Tom Lehrer. In the Bullseye interview quoted above, journalist Jesse Thorn notes that he took a class with Lehrer in college and that his professor said that after Jerome Kern, there were only two songwriters he admired, Stephen Sondheim and Randy Newman.

“Burn On” was inspired by watching the extremely polluted Cuyahoga River literally burn (on the news). Piano, woodwinds, wah-wah horns, and strings suggest movement/current. Nero fiddles while Rome burns.

“Memo To My Son” is put into context by our host. “At this point, he had a toddler and a new baby and the little kid’s driving him nuts.” It’s not a lullaby. “Dayton, Ohio 1903” is nostalgia for something that never was that perfect. The Brazilians have a word for this- Saudade, which means a feeling of longing and melancholy for something that’s absent and often never was.

“The next song has been covered a lot, but they miss the dark humor, ruining it by trying to turn it into something sexy. This guy just wants to get laid.” “You Can Leave Your Hat On” was famously used to underscore a scene from 9 1/2 Weeks as Mickey Roarke feeds Kim Bassinger and eats off her almost naked body. “This is not even a dive bar, it’s a lounge! In the hashtag MeToo era, the humor may not go over well. A lot of his brilliance is willingness to write characters that make us uncomfortable.” (Rosen)

Sail Away ends with the second God song, “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind).” Very different than the other, it’s a New Orleans drag blues: Man means nothing he means less to me/Than the lowliest cactus flower…There’s no benevolent Lord here. The song is bemused, sarcastic.

“The album is cynical, wry, bitter. He’s not out to make you feel better,” Rosen remarks.The host shares an anecdote about being at an awards ceremony with Stephen Sondheim who was asked, “Do you try to make your audience feel bad?” “I’m not trying to make them feel bad, but I’m also not trying to make them feel good. I’m writing about what I find interesting,” he responded.

“Most other artists don’t have a clue how to deliver these songs. This is a really fine album that stands up 48 years later,” Rosen remarks. “Newman was only 28 when he made it.”

Lenny Waronker describes the singer/songwriter’s process as fraught with terror. He had no confidence, arranging and ripping up songs with regularity. The producer had to be cheerleader, psychologist, bully, good mom/bad mom.“I understand that. At a younger age, I would sweat orchestrations intensely. It’s hard to hit a home run every time…The best singer/ songwriters kept writing and what they write reflects getting older. It’s the evolution of the individual as well as the material,” the host says in closing.

Top photo courtesy of Mr. Rosen

Louis Rosen at the 92Y

About Alix Cohen (1793 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.