The second live performance of Randy Newman’s controversial song “Rednecks” was during a show in Lafayette in the mid-70s. And if there’s any question as to whether the 64-year-old songwriter has mellowed since then, consider these lines from his recent single, “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country”:
Now the leaders we have
While they’re the worst that we’ve had
Are hardly the worst this poor world has seen.
“I wouldn’t call that mellow,” Newman says in a telephone interview with The Independent.
On Monday night, Randy Newman returns to Lafayette for a solo performance at the Heymann Performing Arts Center, which will include new material as well as the classic numbers that have solidified him as one of America’s preeminent songwriters and storytellers.
Newman was born into a family that already had its fair share of composers, including his uncles Alfred, Lionel and Emil. All of them composed music for movies; even Randy’s father, who was a physician, penned a tune for Bing Crosby.
Newman was born and raised in Los Angeles. His mother was from New Orleans, and it was there that he spent many summers as a kid. “It was the other place that I knew,” he told NPR in 2005. “There’s a good reason Louis Armstrong is from there. It’s not like any other place in the country.”
At the age of 17, Newman began his songwriting career, dropping out of UCLA and landing a recording contract with Reprise Records. In 1968 he released his first album, but it was the second release, 12 Songs, that would garner him rave reviews and attention. He followed those up with Live, Sail Away, and Good Old Boys. In all, Newman has released a dozen albums as a singer and songwriter, and his songs have been covered by Ella Fitzgerald, Three Dog Night, Etta James, Joe Cocker, Irma Thomas, The O’Jays, Nina Simone, Bette Midler, Aaron Neville and UB40. In 2006, musicians paid tribute to Newman with Sail Away: The Songs of Randy Newman, which included Sonny Landreth’s rendition of “Louisiana 1927” and Marc Broussard doing “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Other artists included Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Tim O’Brien, The Del McCoury Band, Joe Ely, Steve Earle, Guster and The Duhks.
Newman’s genius lies in his ability to tell tales that are both humorous and heart-breaking, convincing and completely unbelievable. He creates people who are fully convinced of their own convictions, and he entrusts them with a voice to tell their own tales. But we know that they aren’t to be taken at their own word, despite their certainty. At other times, his characters wrestle with the same problems of all great literature, what William Faulkner once referred to as “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.” Newman’s griefs grieve on universal bones.
“Sometimes the people in my songs are mean, but I’ve got a real high opinion of the audience, that they’re going to get it,” he said in a 1989 interview with the BBC. “I’ve defended myself for so long about ‘Are you cynical?’ I’m not. I expect that people are better than the people are in my songs.” But Newman’s high opinion of the audience doesn’t mean it always gets the joke. In 1977, he found mainstream appeal with the hit song “Short People,” which climbed to Billboard’s No. 2 spot. His chorus — “Short people got no reason to live” — was a toungue-in-cheek commentary on the absurdity of bigotry, which some misinterpreted as a dig at the vertically-challenged.
Despite his impressive songwriting credentials, Newman’s greatest honors have come from his work in the world of film. Since 1982, he’s been nominated 17 times for an Academy Award for his work on 20 different film scores — from movies like Cars, Meet the Parents, Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, The Natural and Ragtime. In 2007, he won an Oscar for “Our Town” from the Disney/Pixar film Cars, and in 2002 for the original score of Monsters, Inc. Since the early ’80s, his film work has earned him four Grammy Awards and 12 nominations. He’s currently working on the music for the Disney feature film The Princess and the Frog, which is set in New Orleans and has been touted as the company’s return to the animated fairy tale, as well as the first time a Disney film has featured a black princess.
In the days following Hurricane Katrina, Newman’s classic “Louisiana 1927” was ubiquitous, with prophetic lines like “Some people got lost in the flood/Some people got away all right” and the haunting refrain, “Louisiana, Louisiana/They’re tryin’ to wash us away/They’re tryin’ to wash us away.” Newman’s moving live performance of the song opened the telethon event Shelter from the Storm.
Last year, Newman released the song “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” on iTunes and posted an intimate, no-frills clip of himself performing it on YouTube. The New York Times ran an abridged version of the lyrics as an op-ed piece.
The Independent Weekly recently caught up with Newman to talk about his life’s work and his upcoming show in Lafayette.
What’s your connection with New Orleans?
My mother is from there, and her family is still there. They lived on Jefferson for a long time, and they lived on a street called Delord Street, a street that hardly anybody’s ever heard of it. So it’s that area.
When was the last time you were there?
I was there on Fats Domino’s birthday, playing at Tipitina’s with Dr. John and Allen Toussaint. We played on Fats’ birthday, and he came too — eventually. [Laughs] I had only met him once, and this was the second time. He’s a shy fella.
In going back to New Orleans, what’s your assessment of the city? How do you feel it’s recovering?
You know, I don’t feel qualified to say. I know that for some people everything’s fine. But I think morale is down. You don’t see it in the Quarter, but you never saw it there. All I’ve seen is family and the Quarter for years now. So I don’t know a hell of a lot.
There were less children it looked like and sounds like. My cousin told me there are fewer doctors, which her husband was. It’s a different town, and it’s shameful. I didn’t get to the 9th Ward. I didn’t see it unfortunately. I badly wanted to. I know what it looks like, and it’s unbelievable that there hasn’t been more help for the town. I mean, for Mississippi to be back on their feet, who got slammed head on. … When I was kid, it was the other way around — New Orleans was the progressive place, and Mississippi was truly backwards. Now Mississippi is the home of progress.
You opened the Shelter from the Storm telethon by playing “Louisiana 1927,” with the images of the flooded homes. In an interview a few years before that, you said you weren’t really interested in playing that song again. After the storm, do you still feel that way?
Is the song the same for you?
No, it’s not the same. I mean, for awhile it was hard to play it. That’s not what I was talking about [in the interview]. That was just familiarity with something, playing it, and it’s the same tune as “Sail Away.” Ever since I noticed that, which was years after I wrote them both, that’s bothered me slightly. But I mean, I never stopped playing it, and of course it does have a different feel even though it’s about another thing.
Since I wrote it I’ve read more about that flood. It was a tremendous event in American history because it caused the migration of African-Americans to the North and to a large part the cotton fields were wiped out in Mississippi. I don’t know if they ever came back.
In that song, the little fat man with the note pad in his hand, are you talking about Herbert Hoover?
No, it’s bureaucracy in general. It’s that vague paranoia the South used to have about all bad things come from the North and the federal government.
You know, New Orleans is not a great town at fixing itself. It’s not exactly what they’re really good at, and they shouldn’t have to. They should have been down there with trucks, the federal government. And all this talk about “Oh, it’s the mayor’s fault” or “Oh, it’s the governor’s fault.” It’s part of the United States, even though, thank God, they don’t act like they are.
This year marks the 40-year anniversary of the release of your first record. Do you still find yourself defending your work to people who just don’t get it?
No, not much. It’s either indifference, or they get it more. They sort of get the concept that words don’t always have to mean what they say, that sort of irony. That’s just tough to hear on the radio if you’re driving 70 miles an hour. Admittedly, I think it’s a strange style for the forum.
You said indifference, yours or theirs?
No, it’s indifference to me and music in general in this country. But no, people just get that better now. They’re used to it in their comedy now. TV comedy has reached a kind of high level. They want shows like Frasier where irony was at the forefront and The Office now. They get it.
Have you seen the British version of The Office?
Yeah, it’s painful to watch. But they both are. What’s shocking is that the American version is great. What’s shocking is that TV is doing the best work of any mass media, after being maligned for 50 years. Look at what they’re doing now.
Both professionally and personally over the years, do you find that you’re mellowing out any?
No. I’ve got a record that should be out in August, and it’s not more mellow. Nope, I’m not.
Will “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” be part of that?
It’ll be on there. I wouldn’t call that mellow.
Do you have any indication of how many copies that song has sold on iTunes?
No, but I think it’s done fairly well. It was named the No. 2 song of the year by Rolling Stone right after Jay-Z and before Rihanna, and it’s not even out [on an album].
Why did you choose to release the song on the Internet?
It was just a suggestion from my manager to do it since I had that song. And you never know with current events what may happen — not that he’s all of a sudden going to become a great president. I just wanted people to hear it.
I get a clear picture of how you see the world while listening to your music, but in your interviews, while you address the issues, you don’t seem to go as far as you do in your music.
That’s the best of me, not interviews or being a human being. That’s the best thing about me, you know. I’m almost certain it is.
What’s the writing process like for you?
It’s less horrible than it has been all the rest of my life. As I remember, when I started when I was 16 it was OK, but it’s hard to go in there. I have to make myself do it still, but it’s a little easier. With all of these assignment songs I’ve done for Disney, those are considerably easier for me, when they give me a few adjectives and tell me what they want, I can do it. And I’m proud of being able to do it like a professional musician.
Can you tell me a little bit more about that album you’re working on?
Well, it’s got that song on it. It’s got a couple of love songs and a couple of talking blues kind of things. You know there’s a lot of evidence that people do their best work before they’re 30. I keep watching myself for being crappy, and I don’t think I’ve gotten bad yet, probably because of the movies. It’s so hard writing for the screen, for me anyway. It keeps my brain alive.
What can we expect from your solo performance here in Lafayette?
Some new stuff. I remember I played “Rednecks” for the second time there in Lafayette. It was a theater — 1,500 people and one black kid who was offended. The first and only time that’s happened to me. He sent me a note, a very powerful literate note saying he was enjoying the show, and then I did that song. You can understand, people standing up yelling and the only black you can see was him. I talked to him, wrote him. He became a songwriter actually. I don’t know whether he’s still around. I tried to explain to him that I couldn’t avoid using that word in that song. If I wrote the song now, you almost could, but I’d do it again.
The Performing Arts Society of Acadiana presents Randy Newman in a solo performance at the Heymann Performing Arts Center in Lafayette, Monday, April 28, 2008 at 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices range from $20 to $75, plus handling fees. For more information, visit www.pasaonline.org or call (337) 237-2787. For more information on Newman, visit www.randynewman.com.