By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"I remember Van Dyke telling me, it musta been close to 30 years ago, he gave me a compliment on something," Newman says. "I said, 'Aw, man. This stuff blows,' or something like that, and he said, 'You gotta learn to accept a compliment.' And it takes a long time, you know what I mean? For a lot of people. That may have been part of it. You tend to go, 'Oh, that's nothing. Jesus Christ. Girl, world.' You write something off for some odd reason, then you realize, 'Ease up.' When someone used to come up and tell me they loved 'I Think It's Going to Rain,' I used to say, 'It's not really one of my favorites. It's a little abstract for me, kinda sophomoric, kind of mooing around about the moon.' And it's such an insult! It's like you're calling them an idiot: 'How did you like that piece of shit?' So I stopped...and I don't feel that way."
Yet for his second record, 1970's 12 Songs, Newman ditched the orchestra completely, instead hiring a real rock and roll band that included Ry Cooder on guitar and Byrds Gene Parsons and Clarence White. But if the music was, in a way, regressing, the characters were evolving: Now, he was the guy burning down the cornfield who wanted to make love to the warmth of the flames. He was the guy who lost his gal Lucinda to the gears of the beach-cleaning machine. He was the naif whose mama told him not to come to the party with all the drugs and wimmins. He was the asshole talking about the yellow man "eatin' rice all day." And he was the white-man-in-black-face gettin' drunk on turpentine and dandelion wine while he sits on the front porch of his old Kentucky home. It's a bizarre record, not so pretty as its predecessor--perhaps because Newman's characters were becoming so ugly.
"I often think of Randy as a visitor to a dark place from a very bright place," Parks says. "I have always thought he was toying in theory with desperation. If you study the reality of his life, you will see the work has driven the man to atone for a life of great privilege and self-constructed obstacles. From a place of privilege, an exercise in irony is a very natural entertainment. And he's a brilliant songwriter. He knew about songs. As a lad he lived that world. He is more tutored in what a song can and should be than anyone I have met before or since."
Sail Away would become Newman's pop masterpiece, blending his string fetish with his rock-and-roll inclinations (at least he thought his nasal, dry voice sounded better on the rock stuff). But it's perhaps his most misunderstood album: When Linda Ronstadt and myriad others covered "Sail Away," in which slave traders promised their captives they'll "be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree," they often changed the line, "Climb aboard, little wog, and sail away with me" to "little one" or "little child." To Ronstadt, the song was about the promise of America; either that, or the Sun City apologist was simply too embarrassed to admit what Newman was really saying. The rest of the record was equally bleak and hysterical: In "Political Science," Newman advocated (but not really, heh heh) dropping "the big one and see what happens"; an "Old Man" died alone; and God loved the idiots.
But Good Old Boy, released in 1974, was his rousing manifesto. It proffered the history of the South in less than an hour, from the "Rednecks" who opened the disc to the guy who loves his hometown of "Birmingham" to those poor crackers flooded out in "Louisiana 1927" to the impotent farmer of "A Wedding in Cherokee County" to the version of Huey Long's campaign song "Every Man a King." Featuring Cooder and members of the Eagles, the disc was a country-rock monument, songs of the South so recognizable they elicited a chuckle and a grimace. Indeed, Newman has often told how difficult it was (and still is) to perform "Rednecks" on stage, especially with its references to "keeping the niggers down"--a line that would sadden and outrage more than one African-American fan, much to Newman's dismay and confusion. It is not easy to sing songs about people you know are bad (and you know you're so far above, says the smug wiseman) without sounding like one of them.
Good Old Boys would also spawn the song that ranks as the favorite among Newman's fans, at least according to a Newman Web site (www.randynewman.com): "Marie," a gorgeous song in which a man can only proclaim his love for his wife by getting drunk. When he does, he becomes a poet: "You're the song that the trees sing when the wind blows / You're a flower, you're a river, you're a rainbow." Yet Newman still maintains it's not a love song; he likes to say the narrator is weak, pathetic. But no matter how hard he tries to deny his sentimental side, it still comes out in a song like "Marie," found on disc one of Guilty. So what if the guy's drunk? Most men never offer such love songs to their wives.