The Sincerest cynic
Randy Newman, great American songwriter?

Man, don’t you think I know she hates me?
Man, don’t you think I know that she’s no good?
If she knew how, she'd be unfaithful to me
I think she’d kill me if she could
Maybe she’s crazy, I don’t know
Maybe that’s why I love her so.
        (Randy Newman, "A Wedding in Cherokee County," from Good Old Boys)

If there’s any American pop musician who embodies the notion of knowing something is no good but loving it anyway, it’s Randy Newman. The most supremely ironic songwriter ever produced by a country that has never had a particularly friendly relationship with irony, Newman might be a superstar if he was French, or even French-Canadian. Unfortunately, he’s not only a product of the U.S. of A., he’s a resident of Hollywood, a city that simultaneously generates massive amounts of irony and seems superhumanly immune to it. Evidence of this curious duality can be found in his best known song, “I Love L.A.”: it became a massive hit and was even used as an anthem for the 1984 Olympics, and listening to the overblown synthesizers and canned drums, it’s easy to mistake the song for what it appears to be: a big, blowsy love letter to Los Angeles. But then you hear him singing the praises, inexplicably, of run-down Victory Boulevard; you hear him sing about “that bum over there, man, he’s down on his knees”; you remember that this is Randy Newman singing — the least likely man on the planet you can picture tooling along with the top down, the Beach Boys cranking, and "a big nasty redhead" at his side.

It’s not that he’s cynical; at a certain level, Randy Newman probably does love L.A., or he wouldn’t have lived there most of his life. But it’s not that he’s sincere, either; people who unreservedly adore the laid-back cartoon of Southern California life don’t stick lyrics in their songs about supplicant homeless people. In too many critical assessments, Newman, the supreme ironist, is attacked for his sneering insincerity, his mean superior mockery of characters (caricatures?) who are beneath him. For everyone who loves Good Old Boys, his brilliant concept album about life in the South, there seem to be a dozen who hate what they perceive as its snobbish insincerity. For everyone who is stunned by the depth and feeling of the dozen character studies on his outstanding Little Criminals album, there’s someone who sees a West Coast smartass laughing himself sick at hapless lowlifes he doesn’t care to understand.

This is a terrible misunderstanding, and it’s a misunderstanding that keeps Randy Newman from being appreciated for what he is: one of the Great American Songwriters of the latter half of the 20th century. Worse still, he’s misunderstood in both directions: people who take him at face value are either offended or perceive him as an ally in giving offense, while people smart enough to detect the presence of irony in his work but not smart enough to dig a little deeper tend to write him off as a smarmy elitist. He hasn’t scored a single pop hit that wasn’t profoundly misunderstood; most famously, his monster hit “Short People” (from Little Criminals, his only album to crack the Billboard Top Ten) gathered frowns from humorless people who thought the hulking Newman was legitimately mocking the small-statured, while it sold hundreds of thousands of copies as a novelty hit to people who likewise thought he was serious but were A-OK with goofing on the height-deficient. “It’s Money That Matters,” a vicious parody of 80s materialism, became his last chart hit on the strength of listeners who mistakenly thought it a celebration of same. “The Blues,” from Trouble in Paradise, is the least bluesy song imaginable, but sold well on the strength of a painfully unbluesy guest vocal by Paul Simon; the same album featured the hugely misinterpreted “I Love L.A.” and the similarly themed — and similarly misread — “My Life is Good,” the plainchant of a beautiful person whose life is anything but good.

But the most misunderstood of all his songs, and the one that comes closest to showing the nature of the man who is both sincere and cynical in his best moments, is “Rednecks.” The opening track to his stunning Good Old Boys album, it’s a song that receives a wide range of receptions, almost all of them based on a fundamental misreading of the song. I’ve seen two live performances of the song where it was received quite warmly — once by an audience of white southern, well, rednecks, who seemed to think it was an anti-P.C. celebration of their own ignorance and racism; and once by an audience of well-bred, wealthy east coast liberal types who seemed to think it was nothing more than an attack on white southern rednecks. AllMusic’s review of Good Old Boys features a typical read on the song, calling its songs “simplistic,” “mean-spirited” and possessed of “willful cruelty” — but against who? Were the rednecks right, or the liberals? The answer is painfully clear, when, after giving voice to the song’s main character, a Jew-hating, virulently racist Georgian, he twists the knife in the final chorus:

Down here we’re too ignorant to realize That the north has set the nigger free Yeah, he’s free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City And he’s free to be put in a cage on the South Side of Chicago and the West Side And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland And he’s free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco He’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston.

Randy Newman is kidding, but he’s kidding on the square. He’s anticipated — and repudiated — almost every possible reaction to the song. He’s damning the southern redneck, tempting you into what he’s often accused of: a patronizing, sneering contempt for the subject of the song. But the second you succumb to it, he steps aside and lets you throw yourself over a cliff: and how are you keeping the niggers down today? In every petty lowlife character study Newman has written — from the bewildered square of “Mama Told Me Not to Come” to the impotent hillbilly of “A Wedding in Cherokee County” to the two-bit hustler of “Can’t Fool the Fat Man” to the abusive monster of “I Just Want You To Hurt Like I Do” — he has discovered that sweet spot where contempt and understanding muddle together, where you know that they’re no good, but you love them anyway. Randy Newman is neither a righteously angry Phil Ochs, condemning the evils of the world with his every word, nor a too-sympathetic Lou Reed, who all too easily finds himself inhabiting the headspace of even the worst of his creations: he’s musical proof of Richard Rorty’s notion that irony creates solidarity, that an ability to formulate an understanding of even those things you condemn lets you find a basis for dealing with them.

In many ways — his geographical location, his mastery of dated-seeming pop forms (the piano roll, the Tin Pan Alley flash, the rag, the walking blues), his rough, unlovable voice and his affinity for singing about tramps, scumbags, drifters and losers, he deeply resembles two other men who deserve inclusion in the ranks of Great American Songwriters — Tom Waits and the late Warren Zevon. More cynical and less dissipated than the former, more sincere and less aggressive than the latter, he still shares with them a jaundiced view of his fellow man tempered with an almost universal understanding, an ability to place himself in almost anyone’s shoes and make it sound like the most natural thing in the world. And like them, he has achieved a certain level of success without ever scoring more than a tiny handful of pop hits; all three have worked as songwriters for other people, but have seen relatively few covers of their outstanding material, so distinctive are their voices and viewpoints. Linda Ronstadt tried to sell Zevon’s “Carmelita,” but no one could picture her strung out on heroin, pawning a typewriter to buy junk until her welfare check showed up. Likewise, Three Dog Night made “Mama Told Me Not To Come” into a #1 hit, but it was Randy Newman’s version that really sold the perspective of a fussy partygoer being scared out of his wits by colored lights and passed-around joints. Only Nixon could go to China, and only Newman could sing “Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America.”

That song, one of the most bizarre and dazzling items in an incredibly impressive catalog of brilliant songs — cruel but always human — spread out over close to 40 years, takes its place alongside many others, far less known than his handful of hits (the only charter I haven’t yet mentioned is “Rider in the Rain,” a ridiculous goof on cowboy songs that somehow ended up a minor country hit), but that deserve more attention than they’ve received. Newman’s catalog is filled with amazing songs that never made much of an impact but that taken together, on the strength of his subtle but always-impressive arranging and compositional skills as well as his razor-keen lyrics, formulate one of the most impressive bodies of work of any 20th century pop musician.

His first, self-titled album starts off slow, doing more to provide other singers with good material than establishing the Newman canon — Judy Collins effectively covered “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and the then-ubiquitous Linda Ronstadt took a stab at the outstanding “Bet No One Ever Hurt This Bad” — but it’s still a bit overly influenced by film music (virtually the Newman family profession) and show tunes, with only “Davy the Fat Boy” firmly in the mode of simultaneous mockery and sympathy that streaks through his later work. The follow-up, 12 Songs, is a genuine classic, though — a coherent, fully formed piece of work, with Newman blending his seemingly archaic influences into a unique musical sound, which he uses as the backdrop for fantastically arranged and lyrically devastating songs like “Uncle Bob’s Midnight Blues,” “If You Need Oil,” the hilariously simple-minded “Yellow Man” and a corny yet subversive take on “Old Kentucky Home.”

With 1972’s Sail Away, Randy Newman had created his first masterpiece. The title track is as close to a pure statement of his blend of sympathy and irony as you’re likely to find; like Lou Reed’s “The Blue Mask,” it places the singer in the most morally outrageous position imaginable: it’s a sweet, gospel-tinged song being sung from the point of view of an American trader trying to convince Africans to voluntarily give themselves over to a life of slavery. Perhaps Newman’s most incredible gift is making a song like this beautiful and monstrous at the same time. The album also features the jauntily xenophobic “Political Science” (which never seems to lose its relevance) and the devastating “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind),” as fierce a defense of atheism as ever heard in a pop song. To top it all off, there’s “Lonely at the Top,” a fatuous plea for sympathy from a millionaire superstar that Newman wrote for Frank Sinatra to sing. The Chairman of the Board declined, and it’s too bad; he would have made it an instant classic, and it would have lent him an edge of self-deprecating humor he always lacked.

Good Old Boys is Newman’s most talked-about album, and rightly so. Aside from the songs already mentioned, it featured the powerful tandem of “Every Man a King” and “The Kingfish”; the moving “Guilty” and “Birmingham,” the highly Newmanesque “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man),” by turns pitiful, hilarious and condemnatory, and “Louisiana 1927.” This song deserves special mention; the criticism is sometimes leveled that Newman is a cultural tourist whose mockery of the south doesn’t come honestly — even AllMusic claims he possesses a “fascination for the South,” as if he only read about it in books. In fact, Newman’s entire childhood and early adolescence was spent in New Orleans; if his southern roots are fraudulent, so too are those of any number of other artists who don’t take his kind of heat. After the catastrophe of Katrina, Newman re-recorded “Louisiana 1927,” an account of the last major flood in New Orleans, and I can still remember listening to it in the car on the weekend of the worst devastation, my eyes welling with hot salt at the thought of the city disappearing. Hearing Newman sing “Louisiana, Louisiana/they’re trying to wash us away” still brings home the whole stupid, frustrating, horrible sense of loss of Katrina and its man-made aftermath more than any other single piece of music for me.

Indeed, Randy Newman has a talent for encapsulating a sense of the tragedy and joy of American cities. Aside from “Birmingham,” “Louisiana 1927” and “I Love L.A.,” he’s written “Christmas in Capetown,” Trouble in Paradise’s damning portrait of apartheid; the funny and touching “New Orleans Wins the War” from the uncharacteristically autobiographical Land of Dreams album; the absurd, overblown ode to Las Vegas, “Happy Ending”; and Little Criminals’ “Baltimore,” which the producers of The Wire are fools if they don’t use as the final montage sequence music in season 5.

Little Criminals is Newman’s last great album before a prolonged slide caused by overwork, an increase in film scoring work, and a prolonged bout with Epstein-Barr-induced chronic fatigue syndrome. It features, in addition to “Baltimore,” “Short People” and the nasty character study of the title track, the creepy “In Germany Before the War” and “Old Man on the Farm,” as well as lesser but still effective songs. It was followed by Born Again, rightly considered by most critics to be his weakest album, but which still contains a gem or two and proves that the last thing in the world a human being wants to hear is Randy Newman saying “Will you take off my pants?” in a tone of voice that indicates that it will be your final act on this earth. The well-received Trouble in Paradise followed, and if it suffered from hideous overproduction and a clear case of trying too hard to produce big hits, it still featured “I Love L.A.,” “Christmas in Capetown,” the nastily funny “I’m Different,” and “Song for the Dead,” one of the most devastating anti-war songs ever put to vinyl. 1988’s Land of Dreams was extremely spotty (and featured “Masterman and Baby J,” possibly the most misguided attempt at rap in the history of white people), but it did show that Newman was capable of actually writing about his life and experiences in a convincing and even charming way while still retaining a bloody edge of cynicism, as evidenced in “Follow the Flag” and “I Just Want You to Hurt Like I Do” as well as the minor hit “It’s Money That Matters.”

Soundtrack work occupied the bulk of Newman’s time for nearly a decade; his only pop record was the horribly misbegotten Randy Newman’s Faust. It was a record that might have been something if only Randy Newman were involved; the hilariously snarky liner notes and a few performances by the man himself (especially the hyperactive love song “I Gotta Be Your Man”) indicate that there was a good album in it waiting to come out. But unfortunately, there were a few too many duds, and way too many good songs handed over to the likes of James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley — performers in no way capable of delivering Newman’s black-hearted irony in the way it was intended. A perfect example is “How Great Our Lord,” a ramped-up quasi-gospel shouter where an arrogant, intolerant God sings of tossing Buddhists out of Heaven and refuses to disclose any eternal mysteries even though he boasts of having all the answers. In Newman’s hands, it would have been brilliant; in James Taylor’s, it just sits there and dies.

After a minor comeback with Bad Love — a decent if not spectacular album that added the cruel (and self-mocking) “I’m Dead,” the moving “I Miss You,” and the basically-just-a-retread-of-“Political-Science”-but-still-funny “The Great Nations of Europe” to his catalog — Randy Newman made the kind of bold move he could only make at this stage of his career: he put out The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1. Critics had long complained, often rightly, that his songs were excessively slick, overproduced, laden down with excessive instrumentation and overblown when they should have been understated. Newman didn’t deny the charge, and while he put some responsibility on Warner/Reprise for pressuring him to make more commercial albums, he took all the blame himself. Songbook, he said, was his attempt to make good on the bad years; it features a selection of some of his greatest songs, recorded bare-bones with nothing but vocals and a piano accompaniment. Newman is the only player on the record, and it’s a revelation — this is the way almost all of his material was meant to be heard, and it forces listeners, whether they love him or hate him, to hear him with new ears. If his astonishingly rich back catalog isn’t enough to cement Randy Newman in the pantheon of American musical geniuses, Songbook, Vol. 1 should do the trick, and it’s devoutly to be hoped that a second volume is forthcoming.

Randy Newman is a strange-looking, extremely cynical man who’s lucky enough to have been born into a musically talented and well-connected family. He’s influenced almost no one, aside from equally quirky footnotes like Harry Nilsson and Lyle Lovett. His voice is barely tolerable, his musicianship is skillful but never staggering, and even though his lyrics have a vein of sympathy and sincerity that often goes undetected, they’re still frequently mean, suspicious and possessed of a humor so black it’s invisible. But he’s also an incredibly gifted arranger, a diamond-sharp observer of human nature, and a man who has synthesized a number of unlikely musical elements into a style that belongs to him alone. He’s written songs that encapsulate entire eras, cities, classes and conditions. And if, on the strength of his songs, he doesn’t belong in the category of Great American Songwriter, I’d be hard pressed to think of anyone who does.

Maybe we’re both crazy, I don’t know
Maybe that’s why I love her so.