Saturday, September 20, 2008

Feeling like a Newman

Had the amazing opportunity to hear Randy Newman live at Carnegie Hall last night. I've had his latest, Harps and Angels, on repeat for a few days now, and I was extremely psyched to be able to check this out. I feel like Newman has been sort of rumbling in the background of my mind for awhile--maybe due to the amount of times that I watched the intro to Major League when I was young--but it's only recently that I've woken up and realized that I should be paying more direct attention. It seems like he's nestling into my personal pantheon, in a snug niche right between Bob Dylan and Steely Dan. And yes, this was a hell of a show.

He was solo at the piano, in the middle of Carnegie's huge stage. I think I was only there once before. I saw Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter play duo; it was probably about eight or nine years ago. I have no recollection of that show other than that I was in the nosebleeds. Last night I was only about 15 rows back, sitting with my Time Out buds Jay Ruttenberg and Steve Smith. (Across the aisle, interestingly were Bruce Hornsby and Pat Metheny.)

So the overarching impression I came away with was that Randy Newman is a true old-school entertainer, one of those disheveled, lovably curmudgeonly, rumpled-suit dudes who can get up alone on a stage like Carnegie's and treat it like a nightclub. He's just doing his act. (Fitting, then, that I was there with Jay, as he's one of our foremost connoisseurs of that type of entertainment, as evidenced by this sterling reappraisal of Joan Rivers that ran a while back in Heeb.)

And what is his act? I guess the way I think of it is that he's sort of like this doomsday prophet in the form of a lounge act. His between-song banter and the witty asides he throws in between lines reveal him to be a true master of the "But seriously, folks..." school of comedy. (After an awesome rendition of the brutally honest "Korean Parents," he said, "I used to worry about crossing the line--now I don't even know where the fuckin' line is anymore.") He can seem quaint or goofy, but then you realize how raw and real his emotional and political commentary is. Last night, I kept thinking about how his persona is often that of a dope, caught up in lust ("You Can Leave Your Hat On," of which Newman quipped last night: "I wrote this when I was 25 and I thought it was a joke, but the older I get, I take it more and more seriously. I think it's one of the saddest songs I ever wrote."), greed ("It's Money That I Love") or prejudice ("Short People"). But that dopeyness comes to seem a lot less dopey and a lot more endearing when he's singing a love song. Last night, "Feels Like Home" was heartbreaking: In a song like that--or like "Losing You," from Harps and Angels--the narrator comes across every bit as ignorant as the ones in those aforementioned songs, but the ignorance no longer seems like a vice--it just seems like beautiful simplicity.

It was very weird to see Newman, who sings most of his songs from a populist perspective, even if it's like a studied, devil's advocate type of populism, at Carnegie Hall, amid a whole bunch of obviously wealthy, limousine-liberal (I'm really loving that phrase these days) types. Newman's offhanded plug for Obama got huge applause, and his tunes about elitism got huge laughs, i.e., the line in "It's Money That I Love" when he sings, "Used to worry about the poor / But I don't worry anymore / Used to worry about the black man / Now I don't worry about the black man." Seeing Newman in that setting was almost like seeing one of those old-time court jesters, whom the rich kings would pay to make fun of them. Newman sang "It's Money..." and then commented on the recent travails of the market, saying, "But don't get me wrong, I'm no populist." Everyone enjoyed a good, haughty laugh.

I don't think I'm getting this point across so well, but it's that same sort of thing with Steely Dan, where the people he's singing to are the exact people that are lined up in the crosshairs of his satire. I think the irony is even more vast with Steely Dan, because they attract that breezy baby-boomer crowd that gets sent up so mercilessly on albums like Gaucho. With Newman there seems to be a little more recognition on the part of the audience that they're the ones being lampooned.

Anyway, an obvious highlight of the show was "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," a truly awesome and timely song that I've replayed constantly in recent weeks. (Great and definitive YouTube version is here.) That one truly gets at what I was saying before about the doomsday-prophet-as-lounge-singer vibe:

The end of an empire is messy at best
And this empire is ending
Like all the rest
Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea
We’re adrift in the land of the brave
And the home of the free

This and Newman's various other social and poltical satires are strange songs to hear at Carnegie Hall at an $80-a-seat concert amid a wealthy, all-white audience in these polarized election-year times where everyone you meet is either on exactly the same page or reading out of an entirely different book. Preaching to the choir is rampant, truly, and much of it takes the shape of "We Americans are truly fucked." (Witness such well-intentioned but ultimately pretty useless McCain disses and Obama endorsements as these from well-known avant-garde musicians on the Ecstatic Peace website. To be honest, I prefer the productive friction generated when Barack spars with folks like Bill O'Reilly. I'll be voting for Obama, no question, but enough with the love- and hatefests, please.)

I've muddled a few different points together here, obviously. But I'm talking about this weird, very New Yorkish phenomenon of people only interacting with other people who think the same way they do and how that discourse can completely absorb and defang even the most cutting satire. Take "Rednecks," a song I'd heard about via this excellent Rolling Stone interview, which contains a lot of the banter that Newman touched on last night. It's a vicious, scary song: a scorched-earth satire that seems to be sending up Southern ignorance, but ultimately turns the real firestorm on the North, discussing how urban racism may not be about using the word "nigger" or practicing those sorts of obvious, open forms of discrimination but about offering African-Americans the "[freedom] to be put in a cage in Harlem," and the South Side of Chicago and East St. Louis and all the other fabled ghettos.

So even if Randy Newman isn't telling anyone anything they don't already know--or reaching people who haven't grown numb to this kind of satire, even if they're not the least bit immune to the charges it levels--hearing the n-word spewed liberally and scathingly from the Carnegie Hall stage was truly intense. Like Becker and Fagen, he's built an outstandingly effective Trojan Horse, sneaking into pop culture on the strength of his Toy Story contribution and other cuddly, lovable tunes and then unleashing a flurry of low blows from the spotlight. It's a hell of a royal scam.


Here's an incredible vintage version of "Rednecks" (listen to the nervous laughter when Newman sings "some smart-ass New York Jew," and you'll get a sense of that tension I've been trying to portray above):

And here's a gorgeous "Feels Like Home," with some intro commentary on the background of the song:

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