Sometime in the spring of 1983, I officially became something of a fan of Randy Newman. I honestly cannot remember why, but I just happened to pick up a copy of his latest album Trouble in Paradise. However, I do remember being the only person in my circle who liked the album, outside of the hit song “I Love L.A.” Personally, I found the album to be full of warped humor that either entertaining to others with like minds or was off-putting to those who took the lyrics at face value.
Sure, I had lived through the whole “Short People” controversy just five years earlier and found it amusing that so many people got so worked up about a song, albeit a song with acerbic lyrics that could lead to misinterpretation. It was during this time that I began to truly notice that maybe I was going to be an outlier in society. Now, that’s something which is not easy to handle as a teen. As a matter of fact, it is a factor that takes a very long time to come to grips with. So, it makes sense that this odd bent in my way of thinking allowed me to see patterns in the scientific and political worlds that academically put me ahead of my peers but also isolated me as well.
Which all simply brings me back to Randy Newman and his music. As a high schooler, I was off-put by his music, thinking he was simply writing show tunes for Broadway or movies. While, I, on the other hand, was a rocker through and through. But, while in college, I finally discovered the joke. Randy Newman was making wry commentary on the world around us while dressing it up in a soundtrack setting to make the lyrics palatable to his targets. Once I had that light bulb moment, I began to bow at the alter of Newman’s music.
Ironically, I noticed the exact same thing occurring in my older son’s musical tastes. In high school, he played in a band that only played pop-punk and material by Incubus and Linkin Park, stretching their chops so far as to add a Rage Against the Machine song to their set. But, when that band broke up, he started to branch out into Phish, Bob Dylan and The Band. Then, once he came back from college, Graham was espousing his love for Randy Newman. Remember, I went down a similar path, although I never learned to play an instrument as he had.
No, Randy Newman will never be a Top of Pops-type of artist. Sure, he will probably be more remembered for his soundtrack work, particularly Toy Story. But, for me, I will forever attached to his work from the Seventies and Eighties, although he has released two terrific studio albums in the past ten-to-twelve years.
Ironically, Graham and his wife went to see Newman perform at the newest venue in Central Indiana a few years back. This place, The Palladium, is a very opulent musical theater, that looks as if it were built centuries ago, not just years ago. Anyway, Graham says that early on in Newman’s performance, he looks around at the place, taking in its beauty. Then, he announced, “Wow! This place is a dump,” and went on with his next song. My son said it was a perfect moment, since the section of this Indianapolis suburb is notorious for its stereotypical haughtiness. He knew I would love to hear the piss being taken out of the place. We laughed and laughed, while my wife just looked at us annoyed. She is not a Randy Newman fan.
So, I thought I would attempt to list my 30 favorite Randy Newman songs. I have even included a “Christmas” song for the holidays.
30. “New Orleans Wins the War” (Land of Dreams, 1988)
29. “The World Isn’t Fair” (Bad Love, 1999)
28. “Little Criminals” (Little Criminals, 1977)
27. “Sigmund Freud’s First Impressions of Albert Einstein in America” (Little Criminals, 1977)
26. “Baltimore” (Little Criminals, 1977)
25. “Uncle Bob’s Midnight Blues” (12 Songs, 1970)
24. “It’s Money That I Love” (Born Again, 1979)
23. “The Story of a Rock & Roll Band” (Born Again, 1979)
22. “Wedding in Cherokee County” (Good Old Boys, 1974)
21. “My Life Is Good” (Trouble in Paradise, 1983)
20. “Korean Parents” (Harps and Angels, 2008)
19. “Dixie Flyer” (Land of Dreams, 1988)
18. “Christmas in Cape Town” (Trouble in Paradise, 1983)
17. “The Great Debate” (Dark Matter, 2017)
16. “Memo to My Son” (Sail Away, 1972)
15. “My Old Kentucky Home” (12 Songs, 1970)
14. “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” (12 Songs, 1970)
13. “Putin” (Dark Matter, 2017)
12. “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” (Toy Story OST, 1995)
11. “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)” (Sail Away, 1972)
10. “It’s Money That Matters” (Land of Dreams, 1988). This is the closest Newman ever got to doing a “Weird Al” type of parody, yet it is still light years away from a “Weird Al” song. Newman’s target was Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” and the whole MTV phenomenon.
9. “You Can Leave Your Hat On” (Sail Away, 1972). Yes, Joe Cocker does a fairly sexy version of this slice of satire, but Cocker missed the whole point of this tale of lurid lust.
8. “Louisiana 1927” (Good Old Boys, 1974). A great song about a famous flood whose lyrics proved eerily prophetic during the Katrina fiasco.
7. “I Love L.A.” (Trouble in Paradise, 1983). I just thought it was hilarious that the Lakers played this song during timeouts to fire up their crowd when the whole song is making fun of the whole L.A. image. As a Pacers and former Celtics fan, nothing was more subversive.
6. “Short People” (Little Criminals, 1977). This tune should tell you just how crazy the Seventies hit charts were when you realize this was a #2 hit. And the fact that people were livid about the lyrics just made my life.
5. “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” (Harps and Angels, 2008). You know, Newman wrote this for George W. Bush, but it seems even more applicable to Donald Trump. Now, that’s genius! And, it’s NOT even close to being jingoistic. HAHAHA!!!
4. “Political Science” (Sail Away, 1972). I am much less sophisticated than Newman, because I just simply say that people my age were just stoned during our high school government class. Yet, Newman does it with a poison pen that makes seem as if he is condoning the views of the ill-informed.
3. “Sail Away” (Sail Away, 1972). The beautiful nature of the Newman’s music on this song hides the fact that the lyrics are NOT describing a Neil Diamond view of coming to America, but that of the slave trade. This is subversiveness at its greatest.
2. “Burn On” (Sail Away, 1972). I have always laughed whenever I hear this song being played at the beginning of one of my all-time favorite films, Major League. What a great song about environmental issues.
1. “Rednecks” (Good Old Boys, 1974). You know, if Lynyrd Skynyrd were truly sophisticated Southern boys, this is the song they should have attached in “Sweet Home Alabama” instead of Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” But, they probably just thought Newman was praising them. Oh, the joke was on them!
After doing this blog entry, I think I would want Randy Newman to write a sardonic campaign anthem if I were to ever run for Congress or President. I want it to seem like I am all about my Hoosier background while eviscerating it. Now, that would be performance art!