Maybe he's doing it wrong

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

"It's a really atypical song," Newman says, feigning shock at the results of the poll. "It's like, they really like me, but they don't like what I do." He laughs until he almost snorts. "You can't win. But 90 percent of the pop repertoire is romantic songs. I mean, 90 percent of the stuff Irving Berlin wrote, 90 percent of the stuff Paul Simon wrote, 90 percent of the stuff Sting writes are romantic songs. That's what the thing is about, and it's not what I've done. Me and 'Weird Al' Yankovic. I don't know who else. Maybe Lyle Lovett."

But Waronker doesn't believe Newman when his old friend tries to distance himself from the beauty of songs such as "Marie" or "Same Girl" and "Real Emotional Girl" off 1983's Trouble in Paradise, which is his second-best album of the 1980s (OK, so there were only two). "Sure, if you dig deep enough, you find the opposite of the sentimentality," Waronker says. "But it's there, no matter how much he hates it."

And it's there especially on 1988's triumphant Land of Dreams, a record that begins with a trilogy, of sorts: "Dixie Flyer," "New Orleans Wins the War," and "Four Eyes," thinly veiled songs about Newman's childhood in New Orleans. They were the first autobiographical songs he ever wrote--and, till Bad Love, the last. He explains he only did it in 1988 to see if he could. Now, on the new record, he does so because he must.

He talks about a song called "My Country," which deals with how he and his mother and father and younger brother used to communicate only when the television song was on. They would bounce words "off the screen," as Newman says, singing the entire lyric over the phone. And that was how he raised his three boys. Indeed, the boxed set includes a picture of Newman sitting outside--actually in front of a television--with his son Amos. It's a rather sad song, about how nobody listens to anybody anymore, how no one looks at one another ("We know what we look like, if you know what I mean," goes one lyric).

But it is no more sad than another piece from the forthcoming album, something called "I Miss Ya, I Miss Ya," a love song to his first wife--which, he admits, "is a truly malicious thing to do." He doesn't recite the whole song, only one small piece of it: "I'd sell your soul and my soul for a song."

He then spends the next few minutes explaining that it's a completely true sentiment. He is not singing it out of the side of his or anyone else's mouth. It's as honest as he gets, which is so honest it hurts. He knows this. And he does not care.

"I can't help it," he says, almost pleadingly. "I think I don't care. I used to think I cared. I wouldn't want to hurt my family or anything, but I think they give me that latitude. They don't count it as real. They don't...Things I write don't hurt them. I hope so, because I can't do otherwise.

"I still say, 'Yeah, and then the guy says this, and then the guy says that.' Maybe I'm evading the responsibility, but to me it's a work of, well, I don't want to use the word 'art,' but it's a work. I wouldn't hesitate to play any song for anyone in my family who's involved, like my brother in that TV song or my kids in the other one or either wife. And if they cause me trouble, well, I don't care."

After all these years, maybe Randy Newman just doesn't need any more characters. It's hard enough sometimes just being Randy Newman.

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