For years the album has existed like a rumor, like a myth--the secret spoken about in hushed tones, out of fear that to mention its name too loudly would scare it away forever. It wasn't even an album at all, more like the spoken-word outline of the Great American Novel written and then stashed in someone's drawer, where it sat for decades gathering dust and legend. Not even the bootleggers have been able to get their grubby paws on it, so the freaks and fetishists have been stuck for decades writing about the missing text as though it were the Dead Sea Scrolls of American songwriting; they've made do with mere transcripts, as though it's just enough to read the man's words--those of the songwriter who remains, even now, among the greatest short-story authors of the latter half of the 20th century.
The release, 29 years after the fact, of Johnny Cutler's Birthday--the original version of what would become, more or less, Randy Newman's third consecutive masterpiece of the 1970s, Good Old Boys--is nothing short of a major event; it's the complete Basement Tapes to some, the whole Smile to others. Sadly, it likely will be treated as mere footnote, as little more than lost effluvia; even Rhino is barely supporting the album and its companion releases, including an extended version of Sail Away and the Ragtime soundtrack, on CD for the first time. It's a goddamned shame: Johnny Cutler's Birthday is a remarkable find (it languished for decades in the Warner Bros. vaults, mislabeled and forgotten), both as a sketched-out work-in-progress and fleshed-out narrative. It reshapes our perspective of Good Old Boys and works all by itself; it props up a classic and, in the end, becomes a queer kind of masterpiece.
In February 1973, Newman hauled producer Russ Titleman into a studio to rough out notes for an album to be titled Johnny Cutler's Birthday--a day in the life, more or less, of a Birmingham mill worker, his oldest friends and Johnny's put-upon wife, Marie. It bears obvious resemblance to Good Old Boys, his conceptual piece about the South; among the songs that would repeat, in altered versions, are his infamous "Rednecks" (in which the poor crackers commemorate their stupidity and their attempts at "keeping the niggers down," an oft-misunderstood line crackling with compassionate insight and contemptible irony), "Birmingham," "Louisiana 1927" and the heartbreaking "Marie." Where there was little context on Good Old Boys--outside of the scattered settings and its various residents, including a nutty naked man and Huey P. Long--there's nothing but context on Johnny Cutler; it's one long story told by various folks, a full-on narrative sung, variously, by Johnny, Marie, drunken revelers and devout churchgoers. (Johnny Cutler succeeds where his Faust song cycle-cum-musical failed; it's wrought through with the very real pain of mundane people with mundane lives, not just some dolled-up metaphor for superstar guests.)
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Newman, sitting behind a piano, narrates the album, promising story and sound effects that would never arrive; no doubt, he abandoned the record because it was too ambitious in scope and offered too many blanks to be filled in. "This begins with the sound of children playing--possibly some boys playing football--and, in the distance, a park band concert," he begins, as though performing in front of a concert-hall audience. "Johnny Cutler and his daughter are at the park, presumably sitting on a bench or something...After he loses his temper, she goes off, and it quiets. He sings..." And then Newman begins a skeletal "Rednecks," which is somehow more powerful in this setting; we now know who the narrator is--what a drunken lout he is, how profound and casual his racism really is. Newman, in "voiceover," worries about being condescending--"I'm worried that it's a little bit of a cliché, ya know, and I really wanna avoid Southern clichés"--and his approach works; the song hurts, like a smirk followed by a slap.
From there, the album wanders--flies, really, like a camera on a crane whooshing from one setting to the next--into a church, where the faithful pray mostly to themselves: "If we didn't have Jesus," they croon (he, actually), "we wouldn't have no one at all." Then we're at Johnny's birthday party, where friends tell bad jokes and recount venerable folk tales ("Louisiana 1927," "My Daddy Knew Dixie Howell") for the umpteenth time, eliciting the groans of the revelers. "They're drunk and yelling," Newman explains, "everyone's so friendly on this album, like Jesus Christ Superstar." (Little wonder this album was shelved; Newman, talking to Titleman, seems almost embarrassed by his own explanations even as he delivers them for the first time.)
Maybe the most revelatory moments occur when Newman gives voice to Johnny's old lady--the "Marie" to whom a drunken Johnny professes his love, because he's only so affectionate when at the bottom of the bottle. Marie becomes flesh in this version; we're shown her dashed dreams, told her gloomy tale as she recounts it during a phone conversation between Marie and Johnny's mother. She begins as a pretty young thing "shining in the sun like gold"; she winds up with a "baby cryin'...laundry waitin' for me on the line...If I didn't wanna be alone, I didn't have to be alone/All I had to do was shine." A young girl's promise has been drowned in her husband's whiskey bottle; all that's left for her is a life cooking the same breakfast for the same asshole every morning for the rest of her godforsaken life.
In "Good Morning" (the response to "Marie"), she and Johnny fight over breakfast--"Daddy may not spend a lot of time with you," she sings to their children, and Johnny's only response is a snorted "fuck you"--and the result is a grim portrait of a broken home yet to fall completely apart; the only thing keeping it together, it seems, are Newman's wrenching lullabies. The only character more screwed-up than Johnny is his brother, who goes around naked stealing old ladies' purses; it takes a crank to make John look good. But Newman's specialty--before he started writing songs for Disney, that is--has always been rendering the grotesque human and the flawed oddly noble; Johnny Cutler would have been his masterpiece. Wait--it is, only now it's just one of the greatest albums never made attached to one of the greatest albums ever made.