Review: Randy Newman — Political Science and Funky Jokes at Carnegie Hall

By Bradley Bambarger <2008>

If our highest political circles were enlightened enough to re-institute the court jester — someone who cuts through the bull with a song or a joke, able to get away with saying things that need to be said but that few dare — Randy Newman would be the ideal candidate.

Newman has developed a fine art out of seeing the good in the bad and the bad in the good. Although patriotic and romantic, he can’t help but view the world with a gimlet eye, alerting us to our contradictions and weaknesses in satire as cutting as a scalpel. In two hours at Carnegie Hall, the droll raconteur provided more food for thought than a year’s worth of media punditry, and he did it with soul.

The 64-year-old is on a solo tour, with the fine new Harps and Angels album to draw from alongside his vintage catalog. Alone at the piano, he strings songs together thematically. Addressing the current rue on Wall Street, he opened the Carnegie show with two classics about the greedy out-of-touch: “It’s Money That I Love” and “My Life Is Good” (though, being more than well-off from years of Hollywood tunes, he was quick to point out, “I’m not actually a populist”).

The unreliable narrators in Newman’s songs are never just straw men. He imbues even the one in “It’s Money That I Love” with humanity as the character recognizes that what money buys “may not be love, but it’s all right.” Via Newman’s froggy drawl and his barroom piano, the song was both funny and funky. He doesn’t get enough credit for the funky part. The way he played his 1977 hit “Short People” made it seem like the sort of gag old Storyville pianists made up to keep waiting johns from getting restless.

Being a songwriter and not a virtuoso, Newman hit a clam or two, causing him to mutter about being “no Pollini,” in a nod to classical’s Maurizio Pollini, the breed of pianist that usually plays Carnegie. Newman also got over-ambitious in acceding to requests that he hadn’t rehearsed, following a false start with, “You ought to ask for half your money back. I would.”

The full house loved it, though. A particular cheer of recognition greeted Newman’s “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” the lyrics of which were recently printed as an op-ed column in The New York Times. The song damns George W. Bush and company with the faint praise that they are, after all, not as bad as the Caesars or Stalin. It’s indicative of Newman’s art that one great line was just an aside; pointing out the cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition, he sang, “It put people in a terrible position/ I don’t even like to think about it/ Well, sometimes I like to think about it.”

Newman’s Cold War lampoon “Political Science” may have sounded like a relic in the ’90s, but he has Dick Cheney to thank for making the “let’s drop the big one and see what happens” refrain seem frighteningly up-to-date. The songwriter also expressed his frustration with such domestic concerns as education. Amid the Tin Pan Alley orientalisms of “Korean Parents,” Newman half-ironically suggested that a disciplined work ethic is all students need: “Look at the numbers, that’s all I ask/ Who’s at the head of every class?/ You really think they’re smarter than you?/ They just work their asses off/ Their parents make them do it.”

After the rather tentative applause for that one, Newman muttered, “Some of the things I do are close to being offensive. I try not to cross the line, but I’m not sure where the fucking thing is now.”

It’s hard to imagine the “N” word having ever rang out in Carnegie before, but the fearless, still-contentious “Rednecks” featured it as much as any gangsta-rap number, the song lampooning both Dixie racists and smug Yankees. With New Orleans roots but a Los Angeleno’s sensibility, Newman writes about the South as both outsider and insider, leavening sharpness with sympathy. Although he penned the beautiful “Louisiana 1927” long before Hurricane Katrina, there is no more moving, resonant song about the Southern poor left feeling as if “they’re trying to wash us away.”

There was also empathy for human frailties in “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind),” Newman’s dark-yet-touching essay on the absurdity of faith in a cruel deity. He was more ruthless in making fun of still-at-it ’60s rock stars in “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” getting the crowd to gleefully pitch in on the chorus. The singer joked about his own aging, too, although the new “Potholes” pointed out the upside of fading memories. And it wasn’t all japes. Like Tom Waits, his cousin from another dimension, Newman often excels in ballads that are full of sentiment without being too sentimental. The stark truth in “Losing You,” a new one about the kind of loss one doesn’t have enough time in life to get over, hit harder without the strings on the record.

Sexy might not be something generally associated with Newman, but the strip-tease groove of “You Can Leave Your Hat On” makes it wonderfully erotic — especially with the intimacy of Newman rolling the ivories, as opposed to the full-blown production of Joe Cocker’s hit version. Characteristically, though, the song has a double edge. The narrator tells his woman to “shake ’em” and “give me a reason to live.” Newman noted afterward, “When I wrote that song at 25, I thought it was funny. Now that I’m older, I take it a lot more seriously. I think it’s one of my saddest songs.”

(Originally published in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey on September 22, 2008.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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