Maybe he's doing it wrong

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

To Newman, the record was a personal triumph, proof he could overcome his fears about making his own record without standing in the shadow of his father and uncles. He was convinced he couldn't sing the slow, orchestrated ballads, and he was scared to death of doing a record even remotely connected to his uncle's work.

"It was just in the air," he says. "We were like a branch of homo sapiens that didn't become homo sapiens, Van Dyke and me. It was like an odd homo robustus branch that didn't make it. It's like we never heard the Rolling Stones. That's what that first record sounds like to me. It's the first thing I think. It's like, 'What the fuck?' Didn't I know that 'Satisfaction' had been out already?" It really was an ambitious thing for us to have done, for a 23-year-old." He pauses, as he often does, to get in the self-deprecating compliment. "I don't know if that first album is any good, but it's...it's close."

But Parks offers perhaps the most interesting perspective: To him, Something New... was a record made by a "nihilist...an iconoclast...and an egoist." As far as he's concerned, it was an "immensely personal" record for Newman--the album that would outdo Parks' own debut and put Randy on par with his uncles, the album that would make him worthy of the Newman name in Hollywood. "He had already done Peyton Place," Parks says in his soft, warm voice. "He was cashing in on the Newman eclat in town. He was already in the big leagues, and I think he was as mystified and pressed to interpret what I had done as I was."

When it was released in 1968, Newman's debut was greeted with deafening confusion. For a while, Reprise Records ran ads in music magazines offering to give away copies of the disc to anyone who wrote in. Another ad promised: "Once you get used to it, his voice is really something." Warners even changed the cover art, replacing the photo of a short-haired, bespectacled geek with one of a long-haired, bespectacled geek. It didn't do much good: Until only a few years ago, the debut was available only as a Japanese-import CD. The album sold by the dozens.

It perhaps didn't help matters that not only was Something New... an orchestral album, but it was also a series of stories that were alternately amusing, creepy, and touching. There were no love songs per se; the opening "Love Story" has all the romance of a dry hump, closing as it does with the husband's promise (threat?) to his wife that once the kids are grown, "They'll send us away to a little home." After so many years of writing on demand for others, and after so many years of trying to sell himself as some sophisticated teen-pop star, Newman had found his voice--and it belonged to someone else.

It belonged to the guy whose idea of complimenting his wife was telling her, "You may be plain--I think you're pretty in the morning." It belonged to the grown-up son who returns home to visit his father and has to ask what the man does for a living. ("Just drop by when it's convenient to," he tells his father. "Be sure and call before you do.") It belonged to the senator from Utah, "The Beehive State," who demands Congress irrigate his state's deserts and notify the rest of the country that Utah actually exists. It belonged to the out-of-time cowboy (actually, Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are the Brave) who found "cold gray buildings where a hill should be." And it belonged to the kid who promised the parents of "Davy the Fat Boy" that he would take care of their son--only to do so by putting big, fat Davy in a freakshow, where patrons paid a quarter to guess Davy's weight and watch "my fat boy's dance."

"What amazed me with that first album was his faculty for distancing himself from the person who is singing the song," Parks says. "That was novel. That was a revelation to me, and I think that became his greatest asset, that he could develop perspective and a character beyond his own field of vision. He could put himself in another's point of view, and he did that to mixed emotional reaction."

The album is not entirely sung in the voice of the "characters" Newman would eventually create: The slave-ship owners of Sail Away, the drunks and rednecks of Good Old Boys, the rock-and-roll miscreants of Born Again. There exists no line separating creator from performer, so the sad poetry of the majestic, tragic "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" sounds as though it's coming out of his very own mouth--and not the side of his mouth, either, but from his heart and past his lips. It's a gorgeous, haunting song, one he long tried to distance himself from--he despised its "pale dead moon in a sky streaked with gray" lyrics, its art-school poetry--only to finally accept that it ranks among his fans' most beloved songs.

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