Maybe he's doing it wrong

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

The boxed set is divided into three sections: Two discs contain a best-and-rest-of from his nine studio albums; another odds-and-ends disc features previously unreleased outtakes and demos and a few cuts from his 1971 live album, including the amusing "Maybe I'm Doing it Wrong"; while the fourth disc highlights his exquisite soundtrack work, dating from 1970's Cold Turkey and 1981's Ragtime through 1996's James and the Giant Peach for Disney. The box offers its share of revelations even for the hardcore cultist, especially the third disc, which contains its share of oddities (cf. "Jesus in the Summertime") and forgotten masterpieces ("Pretty Boy" off 1979's Born Again) and throwaways (most every song written for the film Three Amigos!). Guilty proves that Newman wrote more than punch lines, but that he could touch and outrage in equal measure. He is a man whose anger pours forth in a snorted laugh.

Guilty attests that Randy Newman is everything Greil Marcus said of him in his epochal 1975 rock-crit history Mystery Train: "Laconic, funny, grim, and solitary...Randy Newman is a typical figure in the American tradition: The man who does not like what he sees but is wildly attracted to it anyway, a man who keeps his sanity by rendering contradictions other people struggle to avoid." Perhaps there is no greater contradiction than the fact that as admired as Newman is among his peers (among them Paul Simon, James Taylor, Don Henley--all of whom have appeared on Newman's records), he is at best a cult artist. At worst, he's a man best known for writing soundtracks for Disney.

"I don't know whether I could have written hits," Newman says during a break from recording his first album for DreamWorks Records. Titled Bad Love (for now), it will be his first album in more than a decade that isn't tied to a film or a stage production. "I don't think so, or I would have. I don't think that's where my talent lies. There are people who can do both, like Sting and Billy Joel, people who write very good songs and have them be hits. But I think it's only when I do these Disney things and get pulled back from my natural inclinations that they are more palatable for a wider variety of people."

Newman's natural inclinations are, as Lenny Waronker (the boss at DreamWorks, and the former president of Warner Bros. Records) says, to write pretty songs with a nasty intent. Newman puts it this way: He could write a love song, but he always feels inclined to say "I love fucking bitch." Sting or Billy Joel do not have this problem.

Yet, Waronker says, "When the history books are written about this time period, Randy will be up there. To me, what he has done is successful. I always believe he will have some kind of real commercial success. It's hard for him to understand this, but as long as he's working and as long as he cares, he can't go wrong. Those songs are timeless."

Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles on November 28, 1943, but spent much of his childhood moving from one Southern city to the next: from Jackson, Mississippi, to Mobile, Alabama, to, finally, New Orleans, Louisiana. Though much has been made by his biographers of New Orleans' influence on his music--Newman is indeed the white, non-practicing Jewboy version of Fats Domino, whose rock and roll shuffles appear as often in Newman's music as the notes themselves--he lived there only a few years.

It was long enough for him to experience racism, to be disturbed by the "Whites Only" and "Colored Only" signs draped over the city like white sheets, but not long enough to understand why it bothered him so much. He found out only later, when he moved back to L.A. in the late '40s and found himself invited to a party at an exclusive country club only to be denied entrance because he was Jewish. Later, the kids would pick on Randy for an eye problem that always made it appear as though he were cross-eyed, something myriad surgeries could never quite correct. He would spend the rest of his life exacting revenge, even if the world never quite understood just what in the hell he meant when he sang in the voices of impotent farmers, pyromaniacs, rednecks, and bigots who hated short people, immigrants, yellow men and their yellow women, and four-eyed geeks.

Newman was born into music the way most people are born into skin: His father, Irving, though a doctor, had played some saxophone and clarinet and even landed a B-side on a Bing Crosby single. Randy's uncle Lionel composed the scores for Doctor Doolittle and Hello, Dolly!; and another uncle, Emil, was the musical director on dozens of films during the '40s and '50s. But the big shot in the family was Irving's oldest brother, Alfred, who was the head of music for 20th Century Fox, where he composed Oscar-winning soundtracks for such films as How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, All About Eve, and How the West Was Won. (Alfred's son Thomas Newman also went into the soundtrack biz, having done the music for the likes of The Player, Scent of a Woman, and Revenge of the Nerds.)

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