Dancing bears, racist rednecks, junkies in love, prodigal sons, chauvinists, homophobes, theologians, politicians, little criminals, good old boys and God. These are just of few of the fascinating characters in Randy Newman’s richly populated musical world. His songs can be frightening or funny, absurd or heartfelt. But his characters always present some flash of surprising, lucid insight. “The people in my songs are generally exaggerations; what they say and think is colored by who they are,” he says. “They are sometimes liars and braggarts and puffed up people, but I wouldn’t sing about them unless I cared about them. And when a song works, the audience understands the character’s point of view. And they don’t mistake it for mine.”
To celebrate Randy’s birthday today, here are excerpts from an archived interview with Randy where he told us stories behind some of his greatest songs.
Is writing difficult for you?
It’s been murderous for me in some ways. I never liked writing. If you read back in interviews there’s whining and complaining. You’d think I was threading pipe for a living, rather than working in a nice room, you know? Songwriting time when you’re not thinking of anything is really slow time. I mean it’s like school, you know, where I was going “Oh, I know it’s 10:00 but I’ll guess it’s 9:30,” and it’ll be like 9:15 (laughs). And it’s because I come to the table with nothing. I sit at the piano and I’ve got nothing in my head, not a goddamn thing.
How do you know when a song is finished?
Sometimes you don’t know. I’ve written songs that were too short —”Beehive State,” “Dayton, Ohio” maybe. There’s a song about Canada now that I’ve written that’s too short. But I just couldn’t think of anything else that didn’t “clank” in my ear. They seemed done to me. It’s always easy when the story is told. An old song of mine called “Suzanne” doesn’t exactly go on too long, but it reaches it’s peak in a funny spot. I didn’t gauge it well. “Political Science” is fine, I’m okay with it, but it’s a little Tom Lear-ish for me.
Tell me about “Political Science”
It was fast. I think I got into a character, this sort of jingoistic type of fellow. You know, it isn’t the type of song I wanted to write much of. Not that I didn’t love Tom Lehrer, but I don’t want to be, like Don Henley says, “What’s this, another novelty song” (laughs). And I do write a lot of those, songs that are meant to be funny in a form that listeners take the people in it more seriously than literature.
Where did the character in “Redneck” come from?
That was actually one of the rare events where I actually saw the character. I saw Lester Maddox on The Dick Cavett show. They sat him next to Jim Brown, the audience hooted at him, and he didn’t say a word. Maddox didn’t get a chance to be bad on that show. And I thought, “Now, I hate everything that he stands for, but they didn’t give him a chance to be an idiot.” And here he is, governor of a state—these people elected him in Georgia, however many million people voted for him—and I thought that if I were a Georgian, I would be angry. I would be angry anyway, even if I were a nice, liberal, editor of the journal in Atlanta. And so I wrote that. And there are some mistakes in it, like, that guy wouldn’t know the names of all those ghettos, but, so what.
Is it still scary for you to get up and sing that song?
It makes me nervous all the time. A lot of my stuff makes me a little nervous because I don’t like controversy, but I can’t help the way that I write.
For the songs that you know you’ll be performing, do you write with your voice in mind?
You know, it’s a learning process, so probably more and more so. There’s this little area I sound good in and I tend to write a lot in it. There are some of these things that I wrote a long time ago, like “I Think It’s Gonna Rain” or even “You Can Leave Your Hat On” is too low for me to sing it. I can’t rock it too hard, which maybe I should have … or maybe not. But when you hear the Eagles who sang on some of my records, and they’re up an octave above me and it’s this tremendous “hit” kind of tenor thing, like these guys have in the metal band. And every time I hear one of those I think “geez, that sounds like a hit!” (Laughs) There’s some real excitement to a tenor voice or has been for like 600 years (laughs) and it just works. But yeah, I write for my voice. It’s blues oriented, it’s what I do, it’s what I’ve sounded like since the minute I opened my mouth.
You said before that you don’t like controversy. Wasn’t there a problem with “Short People”?
Yeah, they got mad. I had no idea that there was any sensitivity, I mean, that anyone could believe that anyone was as crazy as that character. To have that kind of animus against short people, and then to sing it and put it all in song and have a philosophy on it (laughs). And yet, there were people who took a genuine beating. I mean, who wants to be bothered, you know, “here’s your song again, honey, ha, ha, ha”. I almost regret nothing that I’ve written, and I don’t regret that because I like it. But you could make a case for that one. Of course I didn’t mean it, but it doesn’t do any good if someone is going into an office every day and gets ribbed about being short, or “Mom, I don’t want to go to school today…this damn song” you know. And when they stopped playing it — they got complaints at one station — it just jumped on everywhere else and went to number one really fast and then was gone. It was the biggest single that I have had. And it was probably my biggest album in the U.S.
But how do you come up with a concept like “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear”?
That was it. That was the first one I wrote like that. I was writing a song, believe it or not, for Frank Sinatra, Jr. And it was called something like “Susie” or “Mary” and I just all of the sudden couldn’t do it. So I ended up somewhere with “coat to wear” and “dancing bear”. There I was, and I just sort of followed it on. And then I was never the same. And I never wrote particularly conventional songs after that.
What are some of your favorite songs that you’ve written, as far as feeling like you wouldn’t want to go back and mess with them?
“Davey the Fat Boy” was a very early one that if I could do it again I’d conduct it better and I’d get it exactly right. “Dixie Flyer” I like very much, it does lots of good things. I like “Red Bandana”. I can see that guy very well. I like “Same Girl”, the record — not the song so much, it’s like a made for television thing. (Pauses) I’ve got a couple of songs that have two people I can see well, and I like that — “Real Emotional Girl” with the narrator who’s sort of bad and the girl. It may be too short. “Capetown” is a very good idea, but it should be sung by a guy with an English accent. “Redneck” I sort of enjoy doing, although it’s still scary to perform.
If you wanted to be remembered for one or two what would they be?
“God’s Song” is really a very good song … maybe musically it could be a little bit more interesting, I don’t know.
Any closing tips for songwriters?
One thing that you can never let happen to you is to become more of a critic than you are a writer, where you actually choke yourself off. I tend to get that way. The guys in the Eagles tend to get that way, Paul Simon does, where the critic in you stops everything. Finish some stuff. You know, you look at some of the Bach inventions, well Bach finished everything. Sometimes it’ll be just like no kind of idea at all, but he’ll go right to the end and something will happen. Finish your stuff.
—By Lydia Hutchinson