Rant ‘N’ Roll: 15 Minutes With Randy Newman

Aquarian Weekly: In a national solo tour lasting all of eight shows, I’m lucky you’re coming to my town, Easton, Pennsylvania, to play the State Theatre on November 21.

Randy Newman: I thought it was nine shows.

Two shows in Florida, one in Mississippi, Austin, Texas, Princeton, Boston, Easton, PA and Indiana.
You know the State, in Easton, PA, has such great acoustics, everyone will hear every lyric. It’s also haunted.

Yeah, someone told me that.

Are you going to do “Rednecks” in Mississippi?

That’s a good question. I used to. Now I don’t. Maybe. There’s always kids in my crowds and I’d have to do a lot of explaining.

But you voice the voice of numerous despicable characters in your songs. Not just the racist stupid-ass rednecks of “college men from LSU/go in dumb come out dumb too…” You do it without blinking. Bravely so. You say the N word 17 times in that song. Other songs of yours are voiced by total assholes, freaks, weirdos and child molesters. Your lyrics, in fact, cut right to the heart of everything that’s “dangerous” in rock ‘n’ roll. Yet you also do Disney stuff. How could the same guy who wrote and sang “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” from Toy Story also sing “It’s Money That Matters” or “It’s Money That I Love” where you go “money will get you a half-pound of cocaine and a 16-year-old girl. Now that may not be love but it is alright!”

I changed that lyric.

Yeah, I know. You changed it to a 19-year-old girl. Did the label drag you kicking and screaming to that alter?

No, I changed it myself. I wrote that song in 1978. Now that I’m nearing 90 [he’s 71], I just thought it was too damn creepy to be singing about a 16-year-old girl.

I would think discerning listeners would understand you by now and not get offended. Do they really think you want to “drop the big one and pulverize ‘em,” like you wrote in “Political Science?” Do they really think you don’t like short people? Don’t they know it’s a humorous but seething indictment of bigotry?

People believe everything artists say. It might have been a mistake singing “short people got no reason to live.” I mean, hell, I chose to say that consciously, and continue to do so because it interests me more. It also interests the people who like me. Why not? Right? So there’s something wrong with the narrator of these stories. They’re, uh, slightly askew. So? But the truth is I really do hate short people.

You wrote “It’s Lonely At The Top” when you were a teenager with the great line “go on and love me, I don’t care.”

I wrote it for Frank Sinatra.

He turned it down.

So did Barbra Streisand.

I’d love to hear you do “The Women In My Life.”

I just might. I’ll do that for you. What’s your first name, again?

Mike. Or “I’m Dead But I Don’t Know It” making total fun of bands who continue to tour past their prime. In your London live CD, you even name-check The Moody Blues!

Yeah, that was mean of me, wasn’t it? Not very nice, I admit it. They don’t come out onstage pushing walkers, do they? Are they in the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame?

No they’re not.

Neither is the Steve Miller Band. I mean, what kind of snobbery keeps anyone out like that? That Jann Wenner wields a lot of power. I thought I’d get in 25 years ago. Then I thought I’d have to die to get in…so I didn’t bother about it at all. I was surprised when I did get in.

Who do you listen you?

Not much at all. Paul Simon, maybe, or something my kids are into. I remember liking “We Are Young” by Fun a while back. I heard A Christmas Cornucopia by Annie Lennox I liked very much. She’s good. I mean, I’ve liked some things that have shocked my kids.

I consider you, Paul Simon, John Prine, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson as the Greatest Living American Songwriters. Did I leave anyone out?

Neil Young.

He’s Canadian. Or I would have added Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.

Kanye West.


Yeah, really. Kanye West. Listen closely to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

I gotta ask you about one guy: Harry Nilsson. You played piano on Nilsson Sings Newman (1970), a surprise tribute to you. You weren’t even that famous at the time. Is it true that he was so crazy in his über-perfectionism that you walked out of the sessions?

No, he walked out. He left. Went away. He wasn’t a slave driver on me. We just did basic tracks. He just had a habit of never telling me anything. Nothing. He wanted to do everything himself. He went away because I don’t think he wanted me around. Maybe he was polite. I wouldn’t have been around when he did his vocals, anyway. I knew how personal they were to him. Maybe he just didn’t want to see my face making judgments on his take of my words. Harry was very very lacking in self-confidence at the time. Needlessly so. It’s amazing how many people have that disease. I’ve had it all my life.

He never toured.

No, and his reason for it, I’ve never quite believed. The reason he gave me was that he didn’t want to be misled by an audience reaction to what was his good stuff and what was his less-than-good stuff. He was one serious guy when I knew him. Totally serious as an artist about his stuff. It was a time when we all waited to see what the Beatles were going to do, those last few years of the 1960s. He was very nervous and calculating about his art. To an extent, we knew what we did as popular songwriters wasn’t exactly high art, but everything was competitive. We were all wondering what the next thing was going to be. We would all wait there afraid to commit. I remember a time when we just had to know what The Bee Gees were going to come out with. We all wanted to see what they would write next. This was ’67, ’68.

Do you feel the sense of surrealism going on here? All the love is flowing one way. You don’t know me from Adam yet I know you so closely and intimately like you’re a member of my own family.

Maybe, but I love the nature of your questions. Don’t be like Harry Nilsson. We can do this again when I have more time because retirement is near for me, I fear.