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Nashville Scene To The Point

Concert heralds the return of an uncommonly great tunesmith

By Michael McCall

MAY 17, 1999:  Near the end of his outstanding two-hour solo performance at the Ryman Auditorium, Randy Newman started talking about the '80s celebrity anthem "We Are the World"--which is probably the last song anyone would expect a writer of Newman's wickedly satirical disposition to bring up.

Nonetheless, there he was, sitting at his Baldwin grand piano, talking about why the song made him jealous. Not only wasn't he invited to participate in the all-star recording, he said. The song also reminded him that he'd never written the kind of tune that would encourage people to join hands, sway, and sing along--especially one that featured famous people named Kenny (G, Loggins, Rogers) and Michael (Jackson, Bolton).

He mentioned this as an introduction to his own valiant effort at creating such an anthem, "I Just Want You to Hurt Like I Do," and once again, the Ryman audience--a small but adoring crowd of 1,200--laughed uproariously. A painfully humorous song about a dysfunctional father and his son, the tune comes from Newman's underrated 1988 album, Land of Dreams. It's packed with the singer-songwriter's diabolical brilliance, set to a perfectly constructed, unabashedly cheerful melody that all but forces a listener to join hands, sway, and sing along with the demented chorus. Of course, unlike the kind of song Newman spoofs, the song isn't one-dimensional; instead, the humor digs into a truism about a common human flaw.

As last Thursday's concert underscored, Newman is one of his era's boldest and most distinctive talents. He constructs sumptuous yet strikingly simple piano-based melodies that recall such masters as Stephen Foster, Irving Berlin, and Fats Domino. On top of that, he spins complex, unpredictable stories and characterizations with a depth of perception that few of his peers can match.

Moreover, Newman has managed to maintain his artistic persona over three decades without growing stale: Ever since he released his self-titled debut in 1969, his output has been remarkably consistent. It can be argued that he's had his epiphanies--some fans and critics say he hit his high point in the early '70s with the back-to-back excellence of Twelve Songs, Sail Away, and Good Ol' Boys. Others, however, debate that he was at his best on 1983's Trouble in Paradise or 1979's Born Again.

Regardless, he's one of the few songwriters who has repeatedly taken bold chances with his subject matter, often at the risk of gross misinterpretation. Thus, there are those who don't hear the satirical humor in Newman's most famous hit, "Short People," just as some people object to the first-person portrait of an Alabama bigot in "Rednecks"--both of which Newman performed at the Ryman.

But that's part of what makes Newman special, of course. He came of age during the dawn of the confessional singer-songwriter, yet he steadfastly refused to write about his feelings or his experiences, instead writing about places ("In Germany Before the War"), people ("Real Emotional Girl"), and events ("Burn On," about an Ohio river fire caused by pollution). He displays remarkable range as a songwriter--something that's rarely acknowledged, perhaps because his voice and his piano work give every song a personal touch. He's as good at open-hearted love songs ("I Love to See You Smile," "You've Got a Friend in Me") and first-person characterizations ("Guilty," "I Love L.A.") as he is at scathing social satires ("Political Science," "It's Money That I Love").

Even with the fluke hit "Short People"--which Newman sardonically remarked will set the bar for songwriters in the next millennium--he has never achieved a big commercial breakthrough. For instance, none of his albums has ever come close to selling a million copies.

Instead, the Los Angeles resident has enjoyed his greatest financial success as a writer of scores and songs for movies. The nephew of famed Hollywood film composers Alfred and Lionel Newman, he has largely concentrated on this aspect of his career in the last decade. At this year's Academy Awards, he became the first person to be nominated in three separate musical categories: Best Original Dramatic Score (for Pleasantville), Best Original Comedy Score (for A Bug's Life), and Best Original Song (for "That'll Do" from Babe: Pig in the City). Among the many other scores he's composed are those for Ragtime, Awakenings, Avalon, Maverick, Michael, James and the Giant Peach, and Cat's Don't Dance.

In concert, when he introduced "You've Got a Friend in Me" from the soundtrack of Toy Story, he implicitly addressed the challenge of writing music for films. After discussing the song at some length, he said, "Well, maybe you missed it." As it turned out, one of his musical segments had a character talking over the final stanza, and another had a dog barking through it.

The irony of Newman's widely heard, and heralded, work as a film composer is that it's not what he does best. While he might be outstanding at underscoring the emotions of a particular movie scene, what he will be remembered for--and what he does so uniquely--is write short and highly memorable pop songs.

That's what makes his upcoming album, Bad Love, such an event. Scheduled for a June 1 release, the collection is his first in 11 years, another searingly hilarious, and sometimes poignant, contribution to the Newman canon. He previewed a few songs from the album in concert, including "Better Off Dead," a song about baby-boomer rock stars who, as they gray and wrinkle, continue to dress and prance as if they were still young men. "If nothing else," he said, "that should effectively keep me out of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame."

Two other new songs nicely summed up his range: The first, "The World Isn't Fair," begins with Karl Marx working to achieve a just economic system and ends with well-to-do older men ("froggish men, unpleasant to see," as Newman describes them) escorting their young, beautiful trophy wives to parents' night at an L.A. grade school. Newman then performed "I Miss You," which he has described elsewhere as the first song he's ever written about his first wife, with whom he spent 20 years. Now remarried, she lives happily in Idaho, a point that Newman renders in heart-tugging, plainspoken terms.

Both in concert and on his upcoming record, Newman proves that, at age 54, he's not yet ready to abandon the popular song format in favor of film scores. That's good news for those who believe that songs can be more than superficial entertainment. For even if he never sells millions of records, there's no doubt that Newman's impact on popular music is significant indeed.

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