Readers of this site know, or will come to know, that it lists 500 musical acts not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Buried among them is Randy Newman, who should not be listed anywhere among the 500—because Newman should be in the Hall of Fame already.
However, Newman is listed here—at Number 158. Behind Joy Division. Behind the Sonics. Behind Journey. Behind My Bloody Valentine. Behind Chuck Willis. Behind Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. Behind Poison. Behind Blue Cheer. Behind Siouxsie and the Banshees.
I don't mean to make the case for Newman by comparing him to anyone, which is good for all of those listed above because they wouldn't measure up to Newman. Blue Cheer? Joy Division? My Bloody Valentine? Siouxsie and the Banshees? Their careers were too short, too marginal. Jonathan Richman? The Sonics? They might have a bit more legacy—Joan Jett covered "Roadrunner" (on the other hand, what hasn't Jett covered?) and the Cramps covered "Strychnine," respectively—but again we're talking about the margins. Journey? Poison? Commercially successful but musically derivative, fast-food rock that's disposable and forgettable. That leaves Chuck Willis, who popularized a 1950s dance craze, the Stroll, and recorded a number of pioneering songs before dying young. Hall of Famers the Band ("I Don't Want to Hang up My Rock 'n' Roll Shoes") and Eric Clapton ("It's Too Late," albeit as Derek and the Dominos) were hip to Willis, but while one could make a game case for Willis, a much stronger case can be—and should be—made for Newman.
First off, Randy Newman has endured for nearly a half-century now. While his recent solo recordings have been sporadic—although Newman has never been a prolific performer—it is not as if he is no longer working. Newman's primary medium for the past three decades has been film soundtracks, both scoring the film and providing featured songs. Perhaps that is what has distanced him from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but let's return to that a little later.
From the late 1960s through the 1980s, Newman recorded and performed almost at an oblique angle to what was happening in rock. Newman had already made a name for himself earlier in the 1960s as a songwriter, providing material to artists from Jerry Butler to Judy Collins to the Fleetwoods before he recorded his first album, Randy Newman (Warner Bros.), in 1968, and that is where the case for Newman's induction into the Hall really begins.
One of the best analyses of rock and roll written during its adolescence, meaning within 20 years of rock's mid-1950s birth, is Greil Marcus's Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll, first published in 1975. It is as essential to an understanding of early rock and roll and its antecedents as Charlie Gillett's The Sound of the City. In Mystery Train, Marcus, whose pretension is matched only by his eloquence and erudition, extols four rock and roll acts that not only exemplify those images of America but provide templates for rock and roll's "development and perpetuation": Elvis Presley, Sly and the Family Stone, the Band, and . . . Randy Newman.
Marcus's profiling of Elvis and Sly was spot-on; it wasn't Marcus's fault that the Band never lived up to its tremendous implications; but Newman's inclusion must have raised eyebrows even when Marcus first published his book. At the time, Newman was an improbable singer-songwriter poles apart from the confessional hand-wringing of the typical guitar-strumming sensitive post-folkie—think Joni Mitchell or Jackson Browne. For one thing, Newman delivered his observations from behind his piano. For another, Newman didn't sing about himself, at least not directly. Newman created character-driven observations, rendered subtly and with a brilliant economy of description, that made their points—biting ("Political Science"), sarcastic ("Old Kentucky Home"), creepy ("Suzanne"), poignant ("Memo to My Son"), droll ("He Gives Us All His Love")—with quiet, often ironic understatement.
But guess what? In hindsight, it's easy to recognize that Marcus was onto something by including Newman in his profiling. Although Newman himself might not have triggered immediate recognition with pop audiences, his songs were gaining recognition with those audiences through successful cover versions by his contemporaries. Three Dog Night had a huge hit with "Mama Told Me Not to Come." Joe Cocker struck with "You Can Leave Your Hat On" (although you may be excused from recalling its underpinning Kim Basinger's clunky striptease in the dreadful Yuppie-porn fantasy 9½ Weeks). Ray Charles and Linda Ronstadt both covered "Sail Away." Pop dilettante and John Lennon drinking buddy Harry Nilsson recorded an entire album of Newman's songs, Nilsson Sings Newman (RCA, 1970).
None of this is surprising because Newman's songwriting had proved adaptable by other singers for a decade before performers began plucking songs from Newman's own solo albums, the best of which were—and remain—12 Songs (Warner Bros., 1970) and Sail Away (Warner Bros., 1972). In this respect, Newman was on a par with Mitchell, Browne, and Bob Dylan as artists whose material furthered the careers of other artists as they themselves worked to establish their own—and need I remind you that Mitchell, Browne, and Dylan are all in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Newman himself did attain chart notoriety with the hit singles "Short People"—often misunderstood because of Newman's propensity for sly satire—and "I Love L.A.," which, admittedly, does require some linguistic contortions in order to present it as a gem. Then Newman turned to film composing, which has been his vocation for three decades (his first brush with film work actually dates to 1971), and seems to be the most contentious issue with his acceptance as a rock and roll performer.
Let's start by noting that Newman comes by film work honestly enough—it's in the blood: His uncles Alfred, Emil, and Lionel were all celebrated film composers, conductors, or music supervisors from the 1930s through the 1970s. (Watch Turner Classic Movies sometime and see how many times a Newman appears in the film credits.) Furthermore, Newman's narrative approach to song lyrics is cinematic, not necessarily by providing evocative images but through its emphasis on key details—often low-key, offhand, casual details, like a camera catching a fleeting expression or capturing a background clue while the focus is on the foreground action. Complementing that is Newman's melodic style and arrangement strategies, which do explicitly reveal his family's business: rich music that underscores the tragicomedy of his laconic lyrics.
Is it fair to dismiss Newman for having gone Hollywood? In one respect, as noted above, he never left Hollywood and is merely carrying on the family tradition. But in another, more crucial respect, Newman is hardly alone in the transfer from rock and roll to movies. Films such as Rock around the Clock and The Girl Can't Help It first appeared at the birth of rock and roll, extolling the pleasures of rock and roll by wedding kinetic images to the equally kinetic music. Rock stars from Elvis to Madonna to Prince graduated from music to film, seeking to expand their stardom; even the Beatles understood early on the power of cinema to enhance their message. More recently, hip-hop artists Eminem, Ice Cube, Ice-T, LL Cool J, Mos Def, and, most auspiciously, Queen Latifah have migrated to acting to enhance their credibility as entertainers.
Perhaps the knock against Newman is that he graduated to film from the other side of the camera. (Never mind that it has made him a perennial Oscar contender, with a couple of wins under his belt.) Just as with his recording and performing, you don't see Newman but you hear him. Newman is not an actor; he writes the scripts, his songs, for actors to perform, while his scoring underpins their actions. Elvis, Madonna, Prince—they strut and preen and pout and brood while performing in the movie. Newman looks like he could sell you insurance during the commercial. As the write-up on Newman on this site puts it, as to why he won't get into the Hall, "Randy Newman does not exactly scream 'Rock and Roll.'"
True, Newman does not fit the (stereo)typical profile of a rock and roller, whether physically—he looks like the recording executive and not the recording artist—or musically. But if one of the aspects to "screaming rock and roll" is to be subversive, even outrageous—or at least to strike the selfsame pose—then Randy Newman has done so in spades. Newman's is a quiet subversion, a stealth outrageousness, belied by his anachronistic musical arrangements and his calmly measured singing voice. It is when you stop to listen to what Newman is singing about that you realize Newman's composure conceals audacious, even shocking opinions.
Granted, Newman's approach can sometimes be obvious and heavy-handed. Even once you suss out that "Short People" isn't an attack on the vertically challenged but rather a denunciation of bigotry, the song still seems trite—which might be why it became a hit single: popularity by definition requires appeal to the lowest common denominator. "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)" is a broadside against God that was as subtle as Jethro Tull's attacks on its Aqualung album. Equally lacking in subtlety is "Political Science," whose solution to all those America haters is to nuke them out of existence—what's frightening today is that neoconservatives and Tea Baggers do not recognize the irony and would consider the song to be a sound foreign policy strategy. And "Rednecks," whose derision toward elements of the American South is unequivocal, displays an offensiveness that Newman's offhand delivery only intensifies.
Nevertheless, "Rednecks" also displays an unblinking, direct attitude that rivals later rabble-rousers such as the Clash and Public Enemy, with an appealing musical approach that only heightens the lyrical barbs. That bold, brazen attitude informs one of Newman's greatest songs, "Sail Away," which epitomizes his ironical, understated approach. The tale of a slave trader who coaxes Africans onto his ship, bound for the Americas, with promises of watermelon to eat and wine to drink as they sing about Jesus, "Sail Away" lays out its sales pitch with unflinching candor; in their cover versions, both Linda Ronstadt and Bobby Darin chose to alter the term "little wog" used to describe the Africans that Newman shrugs off as part of the story. It is part of the story, and Newman isn't going to sugar-coat it beyond the gorgeous string arrangements (by his uncle Emil, no less) that, once again, belie the sting of his lyrics.
Elsewhere, "Louisiana 1927," about an infamous flooding by the Mississippi River, evinces Newman's empathy toward the victims of the flood and contempt toward governmental attempts to help them—a situation replayed cruelly in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which stressed the song's relevance once again. Speaking of disasters, "Burn On" takes on the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, whose well-publicized conflagration helped to ignite the environmental movement, and spurred REM to write a song about the fire on that Ohio river years later; Newman, with his droll understatement, sings of how God can make the river tumble, turn, and overflow—but he cannot make it burn. Newman takes on God directly once more in "He Gives Us All His Love," whose gentle beauty masks its blunt realization: Despite his best intentions, God cannot or will not intervene to alleviate earthly suffering and misery.
Newman also focused his perceptive eye on more personal matters with equally telling results. Some of them are lugubrious ("Lucinda") or uncomfortable ("Suzanne"). The former song concerns a young woman, still in her graduation dress, who gets swept up by beach-cleaning machine, which would be just another example of Newman's black humor until you begin to wonder why Lucinda allowed herself to be killed. The latter song profiles a stalker who has set his sights on Suzanne, and as with "Lucinda," it is when you get past the black humor that you realize how chilling "Suzanne" really is. "Memo to My Son" outlines the struggle of a Type A father to connect with his infant son, a topic Harry Chapin assailed with far more mawkishness—although with greater commercial success—in his "Cat's in the Cradle."
And on the topic of familial relationships, one of Newman's most powerful songs is "Old Man." The tale of a man bidding goodbye to his dying father, "Old Man" is almost unbearably heartbreaking in its plainspoken lack of sentimentality, for instance, pointing out bluntly that there is no one else at the father's side except the song's narrator—and he is going to leave soon, leaving the father to expire alone, and he even urges the father to stop hanging on. "Old Man" documents, with stark simplicity that cuts to the core, a milestone in life (and death) that rock music, which clings to adolescence, does not typically acknowledge.
Certainly it strikes a chord with me because it instantly reminds me of my own father's death in 2005, of how I made the decision to end his life support, and of how I sat at his bedside, over the course of several days, as he slipped slowly toward death. It was a difficult time made harder because I was never close to my father—my actions were driven not by love but by familial obligation—yet I was the only one to be with him at the end of his life. Newman's "Old Man," told with his trademarked economy, nevertheless speaks volumes in a handful of words about my own unspoken feelings concerning my father's death.
This, then, might be why Randy Newman is not already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rock and roll makes grand gestures, outsized statements, about life, love, sex, relationships, politics, religion, and any other topic that catches its fancy, like a teenager who first realizes that there is injustice in the world and then howls to inform others. Newman's gestures are smaller, slyer, but his observations are keener, like a man who knows there is injustice but is puzzled as to why others haven't noticed already. Rock preens and pounds its chest—it "screams rock and roll"; Newman mumbles with his tongue firmly in cheek—yet what he says rings louder and with greater impact once the screams have faded away.
Randy Newman is the rock and roller for those who have grown out of their adolescence. He is the troubadour for those who have already had that first heartbreak, who have effected that separation from parents and family in the quest for self-identity, who have already started to check off those milestones in life. Bear in mind that this growth is intellectual and emotional and not just physical—there are middle-aged children as well as youngsters wise beyond their years. Newman himself exemplifies this—some of his insights, such as "Old Man," were written in his twenties.
All that remains is for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to grow up and induct the incomparable Randy Newman. It's time.
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