I left two concerts, one in New York and one in Berkeley, feeling angry and a little disgusted. Good Old Boys was selling well, both halls were full, both crowds responded to every number and every humorous aside with wild applause. Randy Newman was their man, the crowd thought, and I thought he was my man as well, but as the evenings went on I began to realize that the crowd’s man and my man were not the same.
The number that made this clear was “A Wedding in Cherokee County,” the most affecting cut on Good Old Boys, an almost impossible love song about a backwoods farmer, his wedding day, and his impotence. The man has always been laughed at; no one has considered the woman worth laughing at. But on record, Newman was not mocking them: his touch was never more delicate. “Lord help me if you will,” sang the man, knowing he would fail on his wedding night. You shared some of the man’s suffering, knowing there was no help.
It may be that in a concert hall nothing Newman could do would keep an audience from laughing at the people in this song. His audience may be too young, too smug, and Newman at his best too subtle. But that, if true, is not half as disturbing as the fact that on stage Newman himself made it impossible for a crowd not to laugh at this song. He did not merely fail to put the song across, he destroyed it. Taking a long time to introduce the number, he made it clear that the song was a joke, that the people were jokes, that their predicament was something those smart enough to buy tickets to his concert could take as a sideshow staged for their personal amusement. The man and his bride truly became “morons,” as one reviewer called them; before the first verse was done Randy had the crowd in the aisles. He turned the audience into the people who pay to see Davy do his famous fat boy dance, and turned himself into the carny barker that eggs them on. Perhaps all the sympathy Newman demanded for Lester Maddox and the Birmingham steelworker needed to be softened with a little contempt. Face to face with the audience whose preconceptions about the South Good Old Boys is meant to change, Newman stepped back from the complexity of the song, and offered instead just a picture postcard of an old Kentucky moonshiner with flies buzzing around his head.
If Newman’s fucking over of the characters of “Cherokee County” indicates his lack of trust in the ability of his audience to grasp the subtleties of his songs (and other songs on Good Old Boys, mainly the Birmingham numbers, now seem anything but subtle—more a liberal fantasy about the South, generated more by fears that Nixon and Agnew were right about the “silent majority” than anything else), then the statements Newman made about himself throughout his shows indicate a more serious insecurity, and allow his audience a deeper smugness.
Newman, after all, is a cult figure; his fans are thus self-defined as those in the know. So, on stage, in the midst of his first national tour, Newman made much of the fact that he was “selling out” to the mass audience. “I want Shea Stadium!” he cried. The ironic point being (Newman’s reviews make much of his irony, his fans are attuned to it, but irony is cheap and Newman’s best songs are ironic only on the surface) that the audience was not to take Newman’s rising popularity all that seriously. Deep down, Randy seemed to want to assure the crowd, he would remain a cult artist, unsullied by the mob. He would still be classy. The audience liked this, and they got the joke—a joke not all that different from the joke made of “Cherokee County,” for both implied the audience’s superiority over those different from it.
Obviously, though, Newman does want Shea Stadium. He does want the mass audience, both because he thinks his work is good enough to deserve it, and (if the truth of songs like “Cherokee County” is in their sympathy and not their condescension) because he thinks the mass audience is good enough to deserve his work. But he pretends he doesn’t want that audience, and that his fans aren’t part of it. Newman’s use of the Shea Stadium line in every concert makes it seem as if he’s always selling out tomorrow night; his rap allows even arriviste ticket buyers implicit admission to his cult, so that his cult can grow bigger and bigger, until it really is something like a mass audience, at which point, maintaining its cult cachet, it will have to feel superior to itself.
Newman, then, is trying to perform a populist act—to write songs that make us care about people we would ordinarily laugh at or dismiss, and to expand his audience by touring for months in all parts of the country—while placing himself and his audience under an elitist umbrella. I think he might be attempting this unpleasant balancing act because while he does want that mass audience, and on its terms as well as his, he is also afraid of it—afraid of what its demands on him might do to his idea of himself and his work, afraid that he cannot live up to those demands—and thus he protects himself by disparaging that audience and sabotaging his songs. Newman’s catering to his fans, as they presented themselves in New York and Berkeley last fall, is evidence enough that he has a right to worry about his ability to deal with the crowd—but while he may joke about selling out to the mass audience, which is to say, taking the chances to reach it and change it, so far he has only sold out to his cult.
Village Voice, February 24, 1975