Days Between Stations: Lonely at the Top (2003)

Randy Newman‘s first album for his new label, Nonesuch Records, is The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1, a set of solo piano remakes of tunes from across his career. It’s an austere and moving piece of work: The songs, some going back 35 years, sound absolutely fresh. If you listen to his earlier albums now—the elegant 12 Songs from 1970, the sardonic Born Again from 1979, or the rough, bitter Bad Love from 1999, his last collection of new songs—you might hear in the orchestration and accompaniment the clichés and hot names of the year in question before you hear the songs. All of that is stripped away on Songbook. There’s nothing here that, as the world turns, couldn’t have been written and recorded for the first time yesterday.

Still, this isn’t how people usually hear Randy Newman: it’s not why so many people report that he’s their three-year-old’s favorite singer, what with his tunes for Monsters, Inc. (2001), A Bug’s Life (1998), and James and the Giant Peach (1996). Newman makes most of his living in the movies. Take Seabiscuit, for one. Its biggest surprise is in the credits: “Music by Randy Newman.” You might respond as I did: “You mean those temperature-gauge adjust-merits you hear in the film is music? Actually composed? By a person?”

Even for a performer whose greatest presence in culture may be anonymous—by means of, say, the innumerable versions of his “I Love to See You Smile” recycled for McDonald’s commercials, or his recent mouthing of the slogan “If you haven’t looked at Ford lately, look again,” accompanied by his signature piano shuffle—this was a real disappearing act: There are no Newman fingerprints on this picture.

“The worst experience of my life,” Newman says, referring to his work on Seabiscuit. “I was going to take my name off it.” The last 15 minutes of the movie features music he didn’t write. “[The director] just wanted everything slowed down. They had five sessions after I left. I could not stand dealing with him anymore. But I saw it—I went to the theater and saw it. I had never seen the last reel. And it was just absolutely grazing—the music that was written for it. It was like taking body blows. The person sitting next to me must have thought I was crazy. I was like, ‘Uhhh. Ohhh.'”

“I don’t want your pity,” Newman said at the 2002 Academy Awards, when after 16 losing nominations he won the Oscar for Best Original Song for “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters Inc. “I want to thank first of all the music branch for giving me so many chances to be humiliated over the years.” And then there he was a year later, in a movie theater, humiliated again, by what was putatively his own work. “I mean,” he explains, as if trying to convince a judge, It’s a horse racing movie. It’s about a horse. He wouldn’t let me play the horse races at all”—the sort of turn of phrase that makes the ordinary talk in Newman’s songs cut tiny holes in the routines of everyday life. “It’s tough writing music for orchestra and writing for pictures,” he says. “But you get paid off when you see where you’re helping the movie a little bit. Even in the cause of evil. But when that gets taken away from you it really hurts.”

Maybe his commercial work—his movie music, his ads—shouldn’t matter to an artist, but it does. Since 1968, when after years as a contract songwriter he released his first album, Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun, critics have celebrated his subtlety, his craft, his humor, even his glibness and his cheap shots. “I think I wanted people who knew what they were talking about to like me almost more than I wanted a big audience,” Newman says. “For a while I did, anyway. It’s kind of a snotty thing to want. I got it—and then I would rather have sold two million records.”

Two million people don’t know his name: two million people aren’t going to listen to The Randy Newman Songbook. They aren’t going to hear his new version of “Lonely at the Top,” sung in the wasted voice of a Sinatra-like legend spewing contempt for his fans. They aren’t going to hear the dreamlike “Louisiana 1927,” done almost as a folk song, about the great Mississippi flood of that year. They aren’t going to catch “The World Isn’t Fair,” a Hollywood lament for the failed dreams of Karl Marx, brought down to the level of poolside gossip. There’s no moral reason two million people should. But as a pop-music artist, Newman wants to be heard, and movies are a chance to be heard, although this year is a missed chance.

For pop-music artists, no matter how fine the work they have to announce to the world, not all missed chances are defeats. Seabiscuit, Newman laments, “was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” but The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1 is, despite its old clothes, something new.

Interview, 2003 (month/issue unknown)

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