Randy Newman is the rock era's greatest smartass. I mean that as a huge compliment. While much of mainstream music has reveled in its own dumbness, Randy Newman has always been a little too smart for his own good. He came of age alongside the rock era, but has always maintained a place somewhere outside of all of that; a place steeped in dancehall music as well as the theater and silver screen.
Like many of my generation, my introduction to Randy Newman came when he was a guest on NBC's Saturday Night Live. I was in sixth grade and he performed his then-hit single 'Short People.' The song created an outcry from people who didn't get it. Around that time, I also saw him on a TV news show where he tried to explain the song's intentions. He thought the premise of that kind of prejudice so absurd that he couldn't believe people missed the point.
A year or so earlier, Newman had written and recorded a song cycle about people's prejudices and misperceptions about the South and its people. The album was Good Old Boys and initially, I didn't know how to take it. It went on to become one of my all-time favorite records, but I have never seen an album so able to polarize opinionated people. The album deals with broad, sociological questions yet it does so with astute personal details that give it a personality and soul.
Good Old Boys is both educational and moving, and succeeds in doing what it does in ways that have profoundly influenced my band and our writings to this day. When we were writing and recording our album Southern Rock Opera, we had a different agenda and story to tell, but we spent a lot of time listening to and studying Newman's 'original Southern rock opera' -- as we put it. After our album's release, we were often asked about which Skynyrd or Allman Brothers album had influenced us, and the interviewer often thought we were being ironic when we would begin talking about the then-often-forgotten Randy Newman record. In terms of actual influence, no other record had a bigger impact on the one we made.
I was initially very put off by 'Rednecks' the first time I heard it. I wasn't sure of his intent and was bothered by some element of it, no matter where the writer was coming from. I knew he was singing in some other person's point of view, but thought he was being somewhat condescending in his portrayal of a Southern man's defense of his own prejudice.
At the same time, there was no denying the authenticity of its character's viewpoint. In three minutes, I had been led to question the language and viewpoints of the first-person narrator, the writer, and eventually my own prejudices and attitudes. And that was only the first of 12 perfect vignettes about all of us down here and how we think and view ourselves, as well as how we're viewed by the rest of the world.
Later in the album, Newman talks about former Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long and the terrible flood of 1927, which wreaked havoc and destruction on much of this state nearly 80 years ago. Again, the genius is in the nuance that makes it all real. In 'Louisiana 1927,' I was knocked out by the chorus, in which the flooded-out farmer says, 'Louisiana, they're trying to wash us away.' It's a perfect detail in which the protagonist illustrates the paranoia so omnipresent in the Southern psyche that even the flood is some kind of conspiracy between God and the industrial North. Some years later, I discovered that much of the devastation was due to a rerouting of the waters away from the cities, so in fact the Southern paranoia was based on truth. Someone was 'trying to wash us away.'
Recently, Newman has had his biggest success following his uncle Albert Newman's legacy in writing for movies. He won an Academy Award for the theme song to Monsters, Inc. and his music has highlighted numerous Hollywood films. I recently saw him interviewed and he was asked about his relative lack of mainstream commercial success. He said he probably had chosen the wrong medium to work in. That perhaps the three-minute pop song isn't the correct medium to tell detailed and often heavily ironic stories. That commercial radio isn't the place for character studies, often about reprehensible people, or at least folks with dislikable traits or views. He also acknowledged an American tendency to not 'get' irony or to separate the character in a song from its creator. From a commercial point of view, there is certainly no denying his point, but thankfully he did it anyway.
Thank you, Randy Newman, you smartass.
Patterson Hood plays in the Drive-By Truckers, who performs at 2 a.m. Saturday, April 23, at Tipitina's (501 Napoleon Ave., 895-TIPS; www.tips.com). If scheduling permits, Hood will try his damnedest to finally see Randy Newman play live.
- Pamela Springsteen/courtesy Reprise Records
- While much of mainstream music has reveled in its own dumbness, Randy Newman has always been a little too smart for his own good.