"Who the f--k am I talking to, anyway? Who's going to hear this?"
Randy Newman uttered those words to a lone engineer in a recording studio almost 30 years ago. Newman was doing a piano and vocal demo session of songs he was working on for his next album, tentatively titled "Johnny Cutler's Birthday." He was already earning praise and scorn for his ambitious, politically incorrect songwriting, especially the title track to his 1972 album, Sail Away, sung from the standpoint of a slave trader recruiting Africans for a slave ship headed to America. Before Eminem was even born, Newman was the original Slim Shady, giving suspect, sometimes repulsive characters a voice.
For the follow-up to Sail Away, Newman planned to use the untrustworthy narrator device for an ambitious song cycle tackling the South. The result was ultimately 1974's Good Old Boys, one of Newman's finest albums, and one populated with multiple Louisiana references. It contains the brilliant Louisiana-themed trio of "Louisiana 1927" (on the Plaquemines Parish flood), "Every Man a King" (a version of Huey P. Long's campaign theme song) and "Kingfish" -- giving Long the platform to ask, "Who looks after shit-kickers like you?" There are also nods to dumb LSU college boys and the Roosevelt Hotel sprinkled in amidst twisted tales of love, blue-collar anthems and drinking set from Mobile to Birmingham, Ala.
Good Old Boys immediately stirred up controversy, as its opening track "Rednecks" featured use of the word "nigger" -- despite being a scathing indictment of Northern racism. To this day, the song still triggers strong reactions. Newman says, "Even now, if I'm playing with an orchestra for a subscription audience, I won't play 'Rednecks,' because they'll go running up the aisle."
That's just one of the tidbits in the liner notes to a newly issued deluxe version of Good Old Boys (Rhino), which features a bonus disc of the solo demo session Newman recorded in the album's early stages. For Newman fans, it's an intimate look into the acclaimed songwriter's creative process, featuring stripped-down versions of "Rednecks," "Marie" and "Rolling." Such gems alone are worth the price of the expanded reissue, but there are also seven songs that didn't make the final cut for Good Old Boys -- and many of them are so dark, explicit and chilling that they make the original album sound almost tame in comparison. Newman's current career incarnation as the genial film composer of Disney fare such as "You've Got a Friend in Me" is probably the only thing that saved this disc from having a parental advisory warning sticker.
In typical Newman fashion, the unreleased songs unfold innocently enough, thanks to Newman's original vision for the album. He conceived "Johnny Cutler's Birthday" with a cinematic treatment, complete with dialogue and sound effects (like children playing in a park) to set up each song. So as Newman shuffles with papers in the studio and wonders aloud that he doesn't want to include Southern cliches, he skewers organized religion -- "probably Southern Baptists," he says. Then an upbeat ditty starts, with the lyrics, "If we didn't have Jesus, we wouldn't have no one at all ... God gonna set this world on fire, one of these days/ all of the sinners gonna turn up missing."
It gets much bleaker on "My Daddy Knew Dixie Howell" -- a reference to the '40s-era Ole Miss football star -- as a 29-year-old man delivers a drunken birthday speech, "since all my f--kin' friends are here." The tale is Newman's take on the family patriarch, a barber in this instance, pressuring his son to be an athlete, placing a football in his boy's crib and bed. In the wake of his father's funeral, the son places a razor in his father's coffin, and pours vaseline on his head. "Don't you wish it was me laying there instead?" he asks his deceased father. "Tomorrow I will be sober, Daddy -- and you will still be dead."
The family dysfunction continues with the one-two emotional punch of "Shining" and "Good Morning." Both songs expand on Good Old Boys' "Marie," giving Marie a voice and showing her slow descent into unhappiness. Over a haunting fugue-like piano figure, Newman sings, "Lord it just don't seem right, to cook the same breakfast for the same man every morning, to sleep with the same man every night, for the rest of my life." Then Marie tells of her daughter singing happy birthday to Johnny Cutler, with acidic asides from Marie like "Daddy may not spend much time with us, but I'm sure that he loves you a lot." Cutler's response? A string of venomous F--k offs.
"If I had a career to worry about destroying, I wouldn't let them put this out," says Newman of "Johnny Cutler's Birthday." "It was never meant for anyone to hear. They should have waited until I was dead, like Hendrix."
As usual, Newman isn't to be trusted on this statement. The expanded version of Good Old Boys is an important addition to Newman's considerable -- and often twisted -- artistic legacy.
- A new 'deluxe' version of Randy Newman's classic 1974 album, Good Old Boys, is even darker than the original.