'I don't care about anyone's feelings'
Randy Newman would sell his soul for a song - if he believed he had a soul.
Duncan Campbell meets the US singer-songwriter
Thursday October 2, 2003
It is more than 30 years since Randy Newman wrote Political Science. Yet in
the past few weeks the song has been quoted everywhere from Baghdad to
London to Washington as a musical interpretation of American foreign
policy, a satirical masterpiece and a dire warning of plans for global
"No one likes us/I don't know why/We may not be perfect/But heaven knows we
try/All around even our old friends put us down/Let's drop the big one and
see what happens," sings Newman in the distinctive voice that a critic once
described as sounding like a "frightened bison". "Asia's crowded/Europe's
too old/Africa's far too hot/And Canada's too cold".
Last month, an imam at a mosque in Baghdad quoted the song as evidence of
American intentions. And now it appears - along with other Newman standards
such as Rednecks, Sail Away, You Can Leave Your Hat On, God's Song and I
Think It's Going to Rain Today - on a new collection of his work, The Randy
Newman Songbook. For anyone who has never heard his work, it is a perfect
introduction to one of America's finest and most original songwriters.
The latest of the many films he has scored, Seabiscuit, which is based on
the Laura Hillenbrand book about the famous American racehorse, has been a
hit in the US, and he has just completed a successful tour. All of which
would make the average musician a contented soul - but Newman is not an
average musician and he is not convinced that we have a soul, even though
he wrote and recorded a musical version of Faust. The doubts go back to his
"My father was an aggressive atheist," says Newman, sitting in his west
Hollywood office. Newman Sr, a doctor, dismissed religion as "bullshit" and
was happy to expand on this theme to his many showbusiness patients.
"Whether this is apocryphal or not, it's too good not to tell. My dad used
to do house calls, and he got a call in the middle of the night from Oral
Roberts [the famous television evangelist] who had haemorrhoids, really
severe. My dad said, 'You call me at three in the morning - why don't you
stick your own finger up your ass and cure yourself?'"
Newman's mother's family came from Louisiana, a state that was later to
inform what many regard as his finest album, Good Old Boys, a double-edged
but affectionate portrait of the south made in 1974. Randy did not follow
his father into medicine, choosing instead to pursue the other family
profession of writing music for films, like his celebrated uncles Alfred,
Lionel and Emil.
Newman has always tried to explain to people that many of his songs are
written in character. Faust, which he recorded in 1995 with Elton John,
Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Don Henley, allowed him to
write the ultimate character parts: both God and the devil, who cheerfully
sings to God: "We're a figment of their imagination/Me and you."
"If I knew there was a soul to sell, I wouldn't sell it," says Newman, who
cast himself as the devil in Faust. But if it was possible to trade, he
would exchange it "for the chance to feel good about my work, to just
breeze in and enjoy it. I would like to get this boring gorilla off my
back, the lack of discipline about going through the door and sitting there
for four hours."
Other careers he might have enjoyed, such as baseball, he had already
discarded by the age of nine - when he realised some other boys were that
much better. The Newman family genes were already beckoning, in any case.
Uncle Alfred, who died in 1970, had scored everything from Modern Times to
The Grapes of Wrath, and other family members have written, arranged,
orchestrated or performed the music for enough films to start a video
Newman himself had 15 Academy award nominations before he finally won an
Oscar in 2002 for If I Didn't Have You from the film Monsters Inc. He has
also won three Grammys. "I'd rather have had it for a score," he says of
the Oscar. "But I was much more moved by the event that I ever thought I
would be. You know it's not a measure of anything real, but I was up there
and so was Jennifer Lopez and the orchestra stood up and it kind of got to
me. I was almost embarrassed - but not quite."
His songwriting abilities have never quite given him the kind of pop
success that he admits he would have enjoyed. His 1999 album, the
critically praised Bad Love, sold only 70,000 copies. In a Faustian twist,
his one big hit, Short People, brought commercial success but at a price.
The lyrics - "They got little hands and little eyes/And they walk around
tellin' great big lies" - enraged many people who did not see it or accept
it as a satire on prejudice. Another of his best-known songs, Rednecks,
contains even more inflammatory lines: "We're rednecks, we're rednecks/And
we don't know our ass from a hole in the ground... And we're keeping the
"To me, the justification for a white person to use that word is a very
narrow window," he says. "I thought I needed it for the song, but I was
never that comfortable with it. I don't like writing it down, I don't like
saying it and I hate hearing it, but not in the context of the song. It
still isn't OK for any white person to say the word, almost never."
He has been married twice and has five children; both families have had to
get used to appearing either clearly or obliquely in his music. One of the
most haunting songs on Bad Love is I Miss You, which contains the lines:
"It's a little bit cold/For all those concerned/But I'd sell my soul and
your souls for a song... "
"My first wife and second wife and kids, they know I'm going to do what I
have to do," he says. "I don't know how ruthless I am but it's so important
to me that I don't care about anyone's feelings. I sometimes wonder whether
that is a pose - 'The ruthless writer, he really doesn't care' - but I
really do feel that way. If I can get a song out of it, I don't much care
about myself or anyone else."
He is intrigued with the way that Political Science has returned to
prominence. "There is a strain in the country, a frontier, isolationist,
aggressive kind of ignorance that wants to forget about the rest of the
world. They don't quite want to blow up London or Paris, but they don't
want to help anyone or deal with it."
The song had been written in 1970, he says, before people of vaguely that
persuasion took power. "It was pre-Reagan, and even Reagan, in retrospect,
wasn't that far to the right in many ways. The right to me means, 'We're
not going to help people who might need help.' They might deny this and
say, 'Do you think we have no hearts? Do you think we don't care?' and I
would say, 'Yeah, I do think that.'
"This administration has come closer to saying things like, 'Europe's too
old.' The stupidities and exaggerations of that song are still
exaggerations, but the way Donald Rumsfeld talks and Paul Wolfowitz talks
is like breaking the rules. Somehow, with Reagan and Nixon, there was an
understanding that you don't say things like, 'We don't need France and
Germany... we have the new Europe: Bulgaria, Poland and Lithuania.' They
may have thought things like that and done bad things secretly, but they
didn't say that."
On Bad Love, one song, The World Isn't Fair, is addressed to Karl Marx as
an explanation as to why Marxism cannot work. The song explains to Marx
that Newman had "stumbled into a new family" and attended the school
orientation, where all the mothers were "these beautiful women arrayed for
the night/Just like countesses, empresses, movie stars and queens/And
they'd come there with men much like me/Froggish men, unpleasant to see."
The sight of beautiful young women with older, rather less beautiful, rich
men is a common sight in Los Angeles, and one that would, the song
suggested, have made poor Karl realise that his dreams of equality were
"I've never seen anyone whose goal was to make money be happy because of
that," says Newman. "They are never satisfied, never. I find myself not
liking rich people, even though I am one... well, I never liked myself that
much either. All that talk about private planes and Air France first class
and lasering their underarms. I hear it but I don't like it much. I like
musicians, unless they get rich." He laughs. "And even when they do."
Often, his songs are misconstrued. His dry homage to Los Angeles, I Love
LA, was adopted as a theme song for the city's 1984 hosting of the
Olympics. It was welcomed by civic figures who failed to see that it was
double-edged. Many of the places it mentions are bland and depressing.
"You can't write a hooray, chamber-of-commerce song, like New York, New
York or I'll Take Manhattan, about an American city now - or you can only
if the character is misguided or over-enthusiastic, as in my song
Birmingham ("the greatest city in Alabam"'). I like that, when a person
thinks that Slough is the greatest city in the country... I once played a
concert there for the BBC that was free and I didn't sell it out!" He
laughs out loud at the idea of not selling out a free concert. "I never
have been able to make it to Manchester or Birmingham [the English one]. My
one trip to Manchester left promoters dying along the wayside."
He has been following the California gubernatorial election, and is wary of
people from the world of showbiz playing on a political stage. "In general,
if someone from showbusiness told me the sky was blue, I wouldn't believe
them. It's too weird a life - it's too divorced from anything real for the
most part. What the hell does Arnold Schwarzenegger know about life's
reality at this point? He's isolated from it."
If he had entered the race himself, he says, his platform would have been
to raise the property taxes (famously low in California) and put the money
into education (famously underfunded). The state's "three strikes and
you're out" law, which means that even shoplifters committing a third crime
can end up behind bars for more than 25 years, depresses him. "There's no
one speaking for those people any more. I never forgot when someone in the
Nixon administration advised 'benign neglect' for the ghetto, and then it
just sort of happened. They did it."
Two of his three children from his first marriage have entered the
entertainment business: one now manages a British band, and one is a film
producer. The third is an aspiring writer in New York. His own future
plans, apart from trying to find something that will detach the gorilla
from his back, include writing. "A novel attracts, but I don't know if I
have the discipline to hang in there." He would like to write some
orchestral music, possibly some short stories.
In 1970, in his song Lonely at the Top, Newman wrote: "Listen all you fools
out there/Go on and love me - I don't care." The final song on his most
recent album, nearly 30 years later, is called I Want Everyone to Like Me.
He may not be perfect, but heaven knows he tries.
·The Randy Newman Songbook Volume One is out now on Nonesuch.