September 18, 2008

Master of Sideways Satire Stages a Head-on Attack


WHO: Randy Newman.

WHAT: Singer-songwriter.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday.

WHERE: Carnegie Hall, 57th Street and 7th Avenue, Manhattan; 212- 247-7800 or

HOW MUCH: $35 to $89

Warning: Randy Newman's new album contains explicit lyrics.

No, not that kind.

In "Harps and Angels," his first album in nine years, the master of oblique, equivocal, does-he-or-doesn't-he-mean-it satire spells out his views ... bluntly.

"The leaders we have, while they're the worst that we've had, are hardly the worst this poor world has seen," he sings in "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country."

The song, which points out that there have been worse leaders in history than George W. Bush (Hitler and Caligula, for example), has had a life of its own outside the album - it went viral months before the album's August release, was declared the No. 2 song of 2007 by Rolling Stone and was extensively quoted in a New York Times editorial.

"I knew the administration was going to be gone, so the song was going to have a short life," Newman says. "There won't be another administration like this one. So I wanted it out early."

Such a full frontal attack is not characteristic of Newman - one of the greatest, and least conventional, songwriter-satirists of the last half-century. His usual method is to go at a target sideways - writing a lyric like "I Love L.A." (is he serious or not?), "Short People" (is he attacking prejudice, or spouting it?) or "Rednecks" (is he targeting Southern racists, or Northern liberals?).

"I've always written about racism in this country, and obliquely about the disparity between rich and poor," Newman says. "If you really think about it, it shouldn't be in this country that people are as poor as they are. [Americans] are so tight. The idea of taxes scares them so badly. I mean, how could you stand for a tax cut for rich people? It's incredible. It seems like that would really piss the middle [class] off."

Even after a long career that has encompassed albums (13, including his masterpiece, "Good Old Boys,"), cover classics ("Mama Told Me Not to Come" for Three Dog Night, "You Can Leave Your Hat On" for Joe Cocker), film scores ("The Natural,""Ragtime,""Toy Story,""Leatherheads"), show scores ("Faust"), Grammys (four) and Oscars (one), Newman is not about to hang his irony up in the closet, or tell his outrage to go stand in the corner.

There are songs in "Harps and Angels" about the failures of American education ("Korean Parents"), immigration ("Laugh and Be Happy") and - with apologies to John Mellencamp -- recording artists who sell out ("Piece of the Pie").

"It's not personal," says Newman, who points out that he's played ball with corporate America at least as much as Mellencamp -- one of whose songs was used in a GM commercial.

"I kept trying to change the verse to get Mellencamp out of it, but I liked that part of it too much to do it," he says. "It wasn't an attack on him."

But full-bore political comedy is not really his thing. When he tried it on one previous occasion, in the 1972 song about nuclear brinksmanship, "Political Science" ("Boom goes London, and boom Paree/More room for you and more room for me"), he wasn't really at ease with the results - though it remains one of his most popular songs in concert.

"I wasn't that comfortable with something that was just comedic, that was so like Tom Lehrer, who is a great songwriter, obviously, but not my style," he says. "But it's really a better song than I thought. There isn't anything particularly wrong with it that I can think of."

Likewise, "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," in its directness, may not be a typical Newman lyric. The music, on the other hand, is Newman to a T.

Like so many of his tunes, it's an easy, lazy New Orleans shuffle -- his default mode, though he can write in many other styles. The contrast between the sunny, nostalgic musical pictures he paints, and the spiders and scorpions he drops into the lyrics, are part of his satirical equipment.

"Shuffles come naturally to me," says Newman, who grew up in New Orleans. "That's where I'm comfortable. Someone once asked Miles Davis why he wasn't recording ballads anymore. He said, 'Because I love them too much.' And I'm gonna have to try not to constantly write so many shuffles. But in general, that's where I start."


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