As a songwriter and a satirist, one of the best America has produced in either category with brutally funny, eminently hummable demolitions of racists, sexists, size-ists and fascists in his catalogue, Randy Newman knows that an excess of opportunity isn’t always desirable.
Buffoons in the White House, Aldi bags in the state house, ultra-conservatives labelled spies for the Left, teenage girls labelled threats by the Right, morality lessons from jailed child abusers and a dissembling shambles lying to the Queen.
Forget the future, sometimes the present is so bright - so vivid indeed that it might be called lurid – you have to wear shades. Indoors, with the curtains closed, rather than write. So while Newman wrote a song about Donald Trump a few years ago - “I did, but I didn’t want to do it,” he chuckles - it is yet unreleased. And so far it seems, alone.
Although he has assayed another world leader (in Putin, the almost hip hop, brassy romp from his 11th album, 2017’s Dark Matter, which explains “When he takes his shirt off, he drives the ladies crazy/When he takes his shirt off, makes me wanna be a lady”) does he think he will have to wait until the Trump years are over – by which time Newman would be 78, if Trump is re-elected - to venture fully into that swamp?
“I did with Vietnam,” the multiple Grammy, Emmy and Oscar-winner – and a Golden Globe nominee this week for Marriage Story - points out, referring to his elegiac but nonetheless fierce Song For The Dead. “I wrote about that when it was safe to do so, though I’m satisfied with what I wrote. I don’t know [about Trump songs]. He is a difficult sort of case. He’s an easy target, there’s so much material. I wrote this song when Obama was president, and damn if it didn’t come true.
“It was a song called I’m Dreaming Of A White President [he starts singing], ‘I’m dreaming of a white president/Just like the ones we’ve always had/A real live white man/Who knows the score/How to handle money or start a war/Wouldn’t even have to tell me what we were fighting for/He’d be the right man/ If he were a …’.”
There’s an argument made sometimes that, to paraphrase Tom Lehrer, the craziness of the world has all but killed satire.
Some of us didn’t agree with it when Lehrer said it 50 years ago as the bombers of Cambodia, Nixon and Kissinger, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And now, living in an era when sexists and racists don’t know they’re racists and sexists, or they don’t care, does it really matter that these might be easy targets or an overabundance of targets?
We still need satire even when satire is made flesh, surely?
“It’s got to go both ways,” Newman says. “There is the genuine reaction against women being oppressed for 5000 years going on now, but there is the occasional silliness involved in it and you should be able to write about that, but I don’t think you can. I’ve seen comedy routines and stuff that made fun of things but maybe is not the time for it. You can’t do it, and it bothers me. The big thing is that of course the oppression has to end, but I don’t like anything when you can’t talk about it.”
If we held to the idea that there are some things you can’t talk about and mock, some things you just can’t say, Newman’s career would have been severely curtailed. No Short People and Davy The Fat Boy, no slave trader in Sail Away or the tanned “aggressive ignorance” in I Love L.A.
“I’ve written characters that often are not nice people, like the president is not a nice person. And I need the audience to know this guy is an ass, like the guy in My Life Is Good [where the supremely smug narrator is a songwriter who, among other things, brings back a Mexican girl “who cleans the hallway /She cleans the stairs … she does the laundry too/She wrote this song for me” and then, after meeting Bruce Springsteen one evening is asked by him “Rand, I’m tired/How would you like to be the Boss for a while?” … ].
“I even thought that in You Can Leave Your Hat On, that guy was more impotent than Tom Jones or Joe Cocker do it. They were right it turned out.”
The jury may still be out on that one. For some of us the cockiness of those interpretations undercut the hard, low punch of Newman’s lyrics of a needy, desperate man who blurts out “you give me reason to live” to the stripper before him.
“They did it so happy,” Newman says of those hit versions. “And I thought, God, Joe Cocker has sex differently than I do maybe.”
If Newman has sex differently to your average blustery singer, he also approaches the past differently to your average history-minded writer. There’s a resistance to confining himself in so many ways.
To present on Dark Matters a song about the Kennedys in 1961 and another about Putin nearly 60 years later – not to mention legendary blues man Sonny Boy Williamson x 2 - suggests history remains flexible for him. The past and the present are all available.
“Yes, it is. That’s not why I write the way I write, but all that stuff is there and it interests me,” he says. “It’s not usually the historical event particularly, it’s what the characters are like. Sonny Boy Williamson running into another Sonny Boy Williamson, for example, because there were two of them, or Putin taking his shirt off.
“It’s sort of fantastic but with rock ‘n’ roll and pop music the way it is, you can do it. I do it because people wouldn’t want to do it. The medium is such that people really want to hear ‘I love you/you love me’, they always have, for the past 500 years.”
Does he look for a resonance now in these tales from the past, or some connection, or is just intrigued or amused by them? Is it looking for a message?
“Rarely, but sometimes. I knew I wanted to write about the two Sonny Boy Williamsons in some kind of way, and I did know I wanted to write about Putin, but usually I don’t have an idea in my head. I’ll play something then I’ll start thinking of the lyric somehow. Something I’ll play inspires, to use a nice word for it, something.
“It makes it a little scary. I’ve never liked to write much, but I’ve done it a lot, so presumably I should be good at it. I ought to like it, but I don’t.”
This does sound like the sort of thing you hear many an experienced novelist say, that they enjoy the completion more than the creating, the end of the writing more than the writing.
“Yes,” he says. “Finishing something, unless you start to tear it down, which I try to avoid, is great. But having nothing …
“At least when I’m doing a [score for a] picture there’s something to go on. There’s Woody running around and at 26.8 seconds he goes up the steps - you know you’ve got to be there, you know what the job is. But with a song, when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing. Look, it beats working, so it’s what I do.”
One of the recurring elements in the kind of despicable characters we expect from him is that they are weak people. They may bluster and swagger but … “they lack self knowledge,” Newman says, completing the sentence. Indeed. Which may well bring us back to Trump and Putin.
Anyway, while Newman is known to one or two generations for writing about the worst people, there’s a generation who know him for writing about the best in people. A generation for whom Toy Story’s much loved You’ve Got A Friend In Me and We Belong Together, Monster’s Inc’s almost as sweet If I Didn’t Have You, and the soundtracks to many others, such as James And The Giant Peach and Babe: Pig In The City, mean far more.
Is it easier to write about good people or, to badly paraphrase Tolstoy, is it that good people are alike but bad people are bad in their own way so the good are limited when it comes to writing about them?
“I think it’s easier to write a song like You’ve Got A Friend or the one from Parenthood, I Love to See You Smile,” he says. “I’m grateful when I get a chance to be like, normal, when it takes me to something people might actually like. The middle of the road to some extent and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense.
“My stuff is sort of convoluted: it’s in character, and I’ve got to explain that if people don’t know. It’s nice to be able to say you’ve got a friend, you got a friend in me, and not sound like a used car salesman.”
It’s understandable why that might appeal, at least for a break.
“I’m glad I write songs like that but only on assignment; I can’t seem to do it for myself.”
Does he have a theory for this anomaly?
“I’m generally more interested in aberrancies, people that are a little off. For me it has more going on. It might be shyness, who knows,” he says, pauses, and then laughs.
“No, I don’t think so, I’m not shy. I can’t remember when I was.”
Randy Newman plays:
Thu Jan 30 Riverside Theatre, Perth
Sun Feb 2 Hamer Hall, Melbourne
Tue Feb 4 State Theatre, Sydney
Wed Feb 5 Canberra Theatre Centre
Fri Feb 7 QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane
Sun Feb 9 Civic Theatre, Auckland
Tue Feb 11 Wellington Opera House, Wellington
Thu Feb 13 Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch
A version of this story first ran in the Sydney Morning Herald