Maybe he's doing it wrong

But a new boxed set proves you can't keep Randy Newman down

In 1970, Randy Newman wrote a song for Frank Sinatra called "Lonely at the Top," and it went like this: "Listen all you fools out there / Go on and love me--I don't care / Oh, it's lonely at the top." Newman, then a 27-year-old singer-songwriter with two albums of his own out on Sinatra's Reprise Records label, meant it as an affectionate joke. That was simply how he saw Sinatra--as a solitary man, his hat tilted on his head and his coat draped over his shoulder, leaning against a lamppost, him against the world. Newman thought Sinatra would love the song--how could he not?

So one day, Newman and his lifelong friend Lenny Waronker, then a junior executive at Warner Bros. Records, went in to play the song for Sinatra, who listened patiently. Frank said nothing as Randy played piano and began singing his little song: "I've been around the world / Had my pick of any girl / You'd think I'm happy, but I'm not." When he got to that line about all those fools out there, Newman noticed that Sinatra was still quiet. "He didn't do anything," Newman recalls, almost ashamed at the memory--and the rejection.

"It would have been a hip move for Sinatra," he insists now. "I could see him on that lamppost, making fun of that thing. But to think that he would make fun of himself was so ignorant of me. I don't know what the hell he thought."

Shortly afterward, Newman approached Barbra Streisand about singing "Lonely at the Top." She, too, declined, though she would later include his song "Let Me Go" on her 1971 Stoney End. Streisand said she liked the song, but told Newman this: "People will think that I mean it."

And so it was left to Newman to record the song on his 1972 album Sail Away, perhaps the most accessible of all of Newman's records. He still performs "Lonely at the Top Now," alone on the piano, when he tours, which is not often at all. Each time he introduces it, he tells of how it was written for Sinatra, and almost no one in the audience believes him. They think it's a joke; same goes for the lyrics. He, after all, is not Frank Sinatra. He is not lonely at the top. At the middle, maybe. "Everybody knows my name, but it's just a crazy game," he sings, and the audience roars. "Oh, it's lonely at the top."

And so it goes being Randy Newman, a man misunderstood even by his most hardcore admirers, which is what all of Newman's fans really are. There is, really, no such thing as a casual Randy Newman fan. Maybe there was once, when he sang "I Love L.A.," got on MTV cruising down the highway with that big nasty redhead at his side, and proved you can fool anybody any old time. Or maybe there was even two decades ago, when his song about them short people got banned on the radio and shot a single and a record (Little Criminals) onto the charts for the first (and, really, only) time in his career. But that was a long time ago. And even then, he was misunderstood. Hell, he liked short people. Didn't anyone understand? Well, maybe he doesn't like 'em so much anymore. "Little pukes," he recently said, only half always.

It is one of the great crimes of the 20th century that a singer, songwriter, composer, and arranger of Newman's worth has been reduced to the performer of novelty songs, which is how he is perceived by a majority of the American public. He does, after all, have songs on Dr. Demento compilations. Did George Gershwin or Cole Porter get treated this badly? Never. Randy Newman has been adored, misunderstood, revered, and reviled. He is known either as the man who wrote about how short people got no reason to live and how much he loves L.A., or for his soundtracks to such films as Avalon, A Bug's Life, Maverick, Pleasantville, Parenthood, The Natural (whose main title resounds in The Ballpark in Arlington every time a Texas Ranger hits a home run), and Toy Story, which spawned the minor hit "You've Got a Friend in Me."

Yet the man has dozens of albums, hundreds of songs, that rank among the finest ever written and recorded. They are beautiful, disturbing, haunting, hilarious, and so sharp their edges could draw blood. He is the most literate--and musical--singer-songwriter to emerge from the 1960s. If Dylan was Woody Guthrie and Josh White reincarnate, then Newman was Porter and Gershwin crossed with Fats Domino and J.D. Salinger and William Faulkner (not to burden him with too many antecedents). From the get-go, there was never doing anything easily, simply with Newman. His debut record, released 30 years ago, was as grand and sumptuous as a Broadway musical--and as intimate and disturbing as any short story. And its successors, from 1972's Sail Away to '74's Good Old Boys to '88's Land of Dreams to '95's Faust, are equally trenchant and timeless.

Making the case is the brand-new four-disc boxed set Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman, out in stores this week. It is a 105-song testament to his genius, to his ability to capture in a few words the best and worst people have to offer. There are songs about bigotry ("Rednecks," "Short People," "Sail Away"), selfishness ("Real Emotional Girl," "Memo to My Son"), greed and callousness ("Political Science," "Davy the Fat Boy"). There are love songs that aren't about love at all ("Marie," "I'll Be Home") and songs that appear beautiful on the surface but are bleak beneath the opulence ("I Think It's Going to Rain Today," "Louisiana 1927"). And there's a song written by a spiteful God ("I burn down your cities, how blind you must all must be crazy to put your faith in me") in which the Big Guy explains that He loves mankind because "man means nothing."

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