Hall Of Famer: Randy Newman Makes The Cut
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. This week, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its latest round of inductees, and among them is singer/songwriter Randy Newman. You have to have 25 years as an artist to qualify for the Hall of Fame, but Newman has clocked a lot more time than that.
His first album, "Randy Newman," was released in 1968, 44 years ago. After writing such songs as "Sail Away" and "Short People," he shifted his focus to Hollywood, where he's enjoyed a prolific and successful career writing scores for live-action and animated films from "Ragtime" to "Toy Story." He won an Oscar for Best Original Song, which he wrote for "Monsters, Inc."
Most recently, he's been revisiting his catalog in a series of American songbook solo albums, just Newman and his piano. Here's his new recording of one of his sharpest satirical songs, "Political Science." Newman wrote it in 1972, yet 40 years later it's anything but dated.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLITICAL SCIENCE")
RANDY NEWMAN: (Singing) No one likes us. I don't know why. We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try. But all around even our old friends put us down. Let's rock the big one, see what happens. We give them money, but are they grateful? No, they're spiteful, and they're hateful. They don't respect us. So let's surprise them. We'll drop the big one and polarize them.
(Singing) Asia's crowded, and Europe's too old. Africa's far too hot, and Canada's too cold. South America stole our name. Let's drop the big one. There'll be no one left to blame us. We'll save our strength. Don't want to hurt no kangaroo. We'll build an all-American amusement park there. They've got surfing, too.
(Singing) Boom goes London, and boom Paris, no room for you and no room for me. In every city the whole world round, we'll just be another American town. Oh, how peaceful it'll be. We'll set everybody free. You'll wear a Japanese kimono, babe, and there'll be Italian shoes for me.
(Singing) They all hate us anyhow. So let's drop the big one now. Let's drop the big one now.
BIANCULLI: That's Randy Newman, performing "Political Science" from his American songbook album, volume one. Today we'll hear two of Randy Newman's appearances on FRESH AIR, beginning with an interview Terry did with him in 1992, when he was seated at a piano in our studio.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Have you developed a separate sound for accompanying yourself at the piano than you use if you were just sitting at the piano alone to play? Do you think of yourself as having a sound that you use when you're singing?
NEWMAN: A pianistic sound?
GROSS: Yeah, I mean I think of you as having one, but I couldn't explain it.
NEWMAN: I don't think of it. But I probably just adjust to what I'm doing, yeah. I have a, you know, a style of playing, I think, that I can tell it's me if only because I can't keep time.
GROSS: Is there a certain kind of left hand that you think of as you or something?
NEWMAN: Oh, you know, my son does this imitation of me. You know, he goes - it's this...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NEWMAN: I'm very fond of shuffles. I have been all my life. It seems to be my natural mode of expression. My mother was from New Orleans. I don't know whether that has anything to do with it, but...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: So when you first got access to a piano, when you were trying to do things that you heard...
NEWMAN: As a kid?
GROSS: Yeah, as a kid.
NEWMAN: I never tried to do things I heard. I just played out of the little, you know...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NEWMAN: You know, the Thompson(ph) from a wigwam book. And the party...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NEWMAN: That was getting complicated there. But I never - you know, there was much in my family, and I remember when I was about six, all of a sudden there was like a piano in my room, you know, just in case I was Mozart.
NEWMAN: I think they wanted to have this thing loom - it was an upright, Hoffman(ph) upright, looming over me. My dad was a doctor, but he loved show business. Before he went in the Army, he went on that Hollywood caravan tour one of my uncles conducted during the war, and he was a doctor on that, and I guess he never got over it.
I mean, I think he wanted me to be a musician, though he never admitted it. I mean, what was the piano doing there? I didn't know what to do with it.
GROSS: Right. So if you started off playing, you know, piano for beginning type books, how did you start to learn rock 'n' roll? Did you just pick it up from records? Could you...?
NEWMAN: I think I did when I was, you know, started 15, 16, a friend of mine suggested, you know, why don't you try and write some songs. His father was in the record business. So I did. And a publisher signed me up. But it isn't like - you'll hear stories of a lot of guys listen to records, they just, it did something to them, it flicked some kind of switch in them where they'd listen and copy the riffs on everything.
I never did it. I never - I was pushed kicking and screaming the whole way, it seems like, into music in some kind of way. Even when I was in college, people would be all - they'd say, oh, did you hear Shostakovich's 11th symphony, or I don't know what it was then, about 11 then. And I, you know, I hadn't heard it. But I was better than everybody at composition classes and stuff like that, worse at, you know, sight-singing and things like that.
But I was like, I was good at it. I had a talent for it.
GROSS: What was the first kind of stuff you started writing at the piano for yourself?
NEWMAN: The first thing I wrote was like a summer song. I was 16, 17.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Can I ask you to do a chorus of "Lonely at the Top"?
GROSS: I just think that's one of your really kind of fun songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONELY AT THE TOP")
NEWMAN: It would be murder to listen, too, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: It's really embarrassing to...
NEWMAN: I couldn't do it.
GROSS: Yeah, right.
NEWMAN: Yeah, you don't know what to do. I don't know what to do.
GROSS: Exactly, exactly. So are you averting your eyes?
NEWMAN: Oh very much so. I'm afraid. As a matter of fact, I'm glad I can't see audiences. You know, when you do TV, they're lit up. So, you know, you're playing along on Letterman or "Saturday Night Live," and you can see the people, and, you know, (unintelligible) talking to each other. I'm afraid to look.
GROSS: I remember from the last interview we did that you wrote that for Frank Sinatra.
NEWMAN: Yeah, I did. I thought it really would have been kind of hip if he did that.
NEWMAN: And I played it for Streisand, but she said, well, people would believe it, you know, if she sung that. Maybe she's right.
GROSS: Did people believe it about you? Did they think that you're singing (unintelligible)...?
NEWMAN: It depends, some towns. You know, I used to play in Philadelphia, strangely enough, where we are, and they wouldn't laugh. They'd think I was, even if there were 12 people in the audience, you know, at a club.
BIANCULLI: Randy Newman at the piano, recorded in 1992. We'll hear another interview Terry recorded with him after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: Randy Newman will be inducted next April into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honor that many say is long overdue. After all, he released his career-encompassing CD compilation "Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman," 14 years ago. Terry Gross spoke with him in 1999 about that CD compilation.
GROSS: What was your image of a songwriter back then? This was kind of a transitional period in the early '60s. You know, you're past Tin Pan Alley, you're kind of in the end of the (unintelligible) era, and right at the kind of dawn of the big - of the period where bands are going to be writing their own songs.
NEWMAN: The image I had was that ancient motion picture image of Tin Pan Alley and two guys hammering it out, and it was also of Carole King and Gerry Goffin and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and the people who were very successful contemporaneously with my attempts to write songs for people.
GROSS: I want to get to another track from the third CD on your fourth CD box set, and this is the CD of demos and other mostly previously unreleased material. This is a song called "Love is Blind," which is - you know, just as the first song that we heard, "Golden Grid Iron Boy," is very out-of-character for you, this kind of cheerful - well, not cheerful, not cheerful but an upbeat football song.
NEWMAN: It's a generic lyric. You know, that's what it is.
GROSS: Exactly, right. You say in the notes that you wrote it when you were 18.
GROSS: So you were 18 and already writing that love is bitter, love is hopeless, love is blind. It leads me to think that you already had a sense of yourself as writing more dark and cynical songs than your average songwriter.
NEWMAN: Well, there are some pretty lugubrious love songs. You know, I mean, a lot of them are pretty bleak, you know, you stop loving her today and a lot of country things. But I was a pretty down cat, I guess.
NEWMAN: I don't know.
GROSS: Well, let's hear this song, "Love is Blind," written in about 1962. The recording we'll hear is 1968, and this is from Randy Newman's box set "Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IS BLIND")
GROSS: "Love is Blind," one of the demos on Randy Newman's box set "Guilty." What were you saying there?
NEWMAN: I was laughing at the ending. You know, I was just sort of aimless wandering, you know what I mean. Motion-picture movie business, we call it grazing.
NEWMAN: You know, it's just like I was waiting to end it. I know where I should have gone, but I didn't go there. It made me laugh.
GROSS: Well, that was a demo. Did you ever record it other than that for yourself?
NEWMAN: No, I never thought enough of it.
GROSS: Well, I like it a lot. Why don't you like it?
NEWMAN: Yeah, I do, too. Oh, veil of tears you know, things like that.
GROSS: Well sure.
NEWMAN: I mean, yeah, sure, but I grew to not be able to stand that stuff coming from myself. I mean, I'll listen to records and love them, and they'll have lyrics like that in them, but I can't do it. You know, it's like if you know better, don't do it.
GROSS: I just figured I could put kind of like little quotes around the veil of tears and say oh, that's a little tip of the hat to the genre.
NEWMAN: Well, that's being too kind. I mean, it's just - you know, none of it was heartfelt in that, you know, I don't think I've been in love with anybody. You know, I certainly didn't have all these sophisticated, you know, it's bitter and blind at 18, you know. So I mean I hope not. I couldn't - I just didn't think of recording it.
I like it, too. I like everywhere it goes. The harmonic, you know, structure of it, I mean, I've - it sounds like me. It's what I do today.
BIANCULLI: We're listening back to Terry's 1999 interview with Randy Newman. During the interview, she also asked him about his song "Maybe I'm Doing it Wrong," a waltz about sex not living up to expectations.
GROSS: So many pop songs are supposed to be sung in the voice of the seducer who's bragging about how good a lover he is.
GROSS: Did you intend this to subvert that kind of song?
NEWMAN: Yeah, and it's really a great idea because it's a widespread thing. You know, people don't necessarily talk about it. I mean, you have no idea from knowing a person, my experience is, at least, what they're like sexually, or you can't even guess at that, that and money. You know, you can try and borrow $5 from someone you've known for 30 years, and they won't give it to you.
And it's a complete unknown. And I really like - this song is short, but I always thought it was a great idea for a song, and like I'd wished I'd done more, but I couldn't think of what more to do.
GROSS: Let's hear it. This is "Maybe I'm Doing it Wrong."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAYBE I'M DOING IT WRONG")
GROSS: Why did you write that song as a waltz?
NEWMAN: I don't know. It just came out that way. Almost every song I've written has had words and music sort of come at the same time. But no, usually the music comes a little first. So I probably was just clumping along like that, and it just - I didn't do it for any artistic reason, though I'd be happy to take credit for any sort of Viennese reason that you'd like to give me.
GROSS: Oh, well, thanks for the invitation.
GROSS: I have a reason I'd like to give you.
GROSS: This song is about kind of frustration in sexuality, but the waltz has such a nice lilt, such an easy lilt, that it's a nice contrast.
(SOUNDBITE OF HUMMING)
NEWMAN: It does. You know, it, yeah, it's sort of in one. Yeah, it could be. It might be also I love the record called...
(Singing) If you got to make a fool of somebody...
I don't know which came first, but I mean, I wanted, maybe I wanted to write something like that. It's an - this is an instance I hear - I listen to the audience where sometimes, Harry Nilsson once told me, I asked him, you know, it was a constant thing with him not performing, why he didn't perform.
And one time - it was mainly I think because he was frightened of it, I think, but I don't know. But he said once it was because he was worried it would hurt his work, that the audience reaction would be, like, throw him off because he wouldn't know his good stuff.
And it's a very small thing that you can isolate it as a writer. I mean, the audience will react to some things, like sometimes I'll throw off a good one. Like I probably could have done better there, you know, but they laughed at it. I knew they liked it. So I left it alone.
GROSS: Randy Newman, thank you very much for talking with us.
NEWMAN: Great pleasure, as always.
BIANCULLI: Randy Newman, speaking to Terry Gross in 1999. He'll be inducted in April into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.