Interview by Bruce Pollock
Randy Newman claims the characters he writes about are never him. While that may have been true at the time of this classic interview, way back in 1974 or so, these days the most prevalent Randy Newman song on the air seems to be totally about him, even though it was written for the super neurotic TV character Monk ("It's a Jungle out There"). In fact, this whole interview reads something like a therapy session, where the dour Newman, almost surely exaggerating for effect, reveals all his songwriting demons in an exhilarating one hour confessional.
Although he'd already written such gems as "Mama Told Me Not to Come," "Lonely at the Top," "Cowboy," "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," "You Can Leave Your Hat On," "Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong," "So Long Dad," "Louisiana, 1927," "Burn on Big River," "Sail Away," "Political Science" and "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)" by then, if he'd really been serious about giving it all up to play in a lounge, the world never would have gotten to hear his small masterwork, "Short People," as well as other gems like "I Love L.A.," "The Blues," the remarkable and devastating "My Life Is Good," as well as his defining movie songs like "You've Got a Friend in Me." Which is not to say, if someone were to corner the droll Mr. Newman at the right bar at the right hour, that he wouldn't still admit to the veracity of his earlier remarks.
In the meantime, for all his great works, he's yet to tackle the most perfect subject of all for someone of his "Monkish" bent: High School. He talked about it with great joy during our long ago interview. "It was all so sullen and boring and small and vile," he said. "I discovered that everybody was always scared all the time socially, whereas I thought that people were really together. No one was. It's a meaty topic, the whole way it was, and nobody's done it right. It was so seedy. You might have thought it was fun, but it was pretty grim, and not for me alone. God! The torment. What a great subject that is."
I don't interest me; I couldn't name you any song where I was writing about me. I mean, there's a whole world of people and there's no reason why a songwriter should be limited any more than a short story writer or a novelist. A lot of the people I write about are insensitive or a little crazy in a different way than I'm crazy. Maybe there's a part of me in there sometimes in what I'm having this person say, and my attitude is reflected in how I have him say it. But it's never a situation where I'm living through these twerps that I write about. Still, they're more interesting to me than heroic characters, way more interesting.
I've always worked the same way. I just sit there. Very rarely, maybe a couple of times, I've jumped out of bed with an inspiration. But usually it comes while I'm sitting at the piano. I hardly ever have the words first. A piece of a melody or a figure of some kind will be enough to get me going, and sometimes it'll be right there where you can see to the end of it, and sometimes it won't and you'll change it and you'll go somewhere different than where you thought.
I just say what I have to say and that's all I have to say about it and I'm done. There are a couple of songs that could have been longer, but usually I'm just happy to be done. I have urges to change them all the time. I would do it, but I know I could never get them right. There's ruin there if you start to do that. But I can't think of many of them where something musically or lyrically doesn't really bother me, which is a deterrent from working. You bust your ass with a crazed kind of worrying about every little thing and then you wind up seeing all these bad things about it two weeks later. It's a psychosis. For long periods of time I've been unwilling to work. When I walk into the room with the piano in it my legs begin to get heavy and I feel a pressure.
Maybe in a way what I wanted, more than money or sales or fame, was praise, and now that I've got it, it seems I'm worried that I won't get it again. But it probably isn't as important to me as it was. Writing, although I know it's more important, is rough. Performing is so easy, so immediately rewarding. I had a talk with Nilsson once and I thought he was crazy. He said he didn't want to perform because he thought the audience would sway him unduly about songs. Now I'm not convinced that he was totally crazy. Or it might be that performing is so easy and lucrative that I'm getting the gratification that I used to get from writing, without all the grief.
Actually, I could quit both writing and performing and just do nothing at all. I'm capable of doing absolutely nothing for long periods of time without much remorse. Recently I've overcome my guilt about it, which had always acted as a goad. But every once in a while I'll wake up and say, 'Jesus Christ, what a waste. What a big talent I used to be, like a meteor across the sky.'
The Early Years
When I was 21 I ran a Thermo-Fax machine. I liked that. There's a great gratification that comes with having a nine-to-five job, in that you had to be at a certain place at a certain time and you could go home at a certain time. You didn't have to impose any discipline on yourself. I wish I could get into a set routine. I've made up schedules for myself since I was eight-years-old, but I haven't followed one of them. Tolstoy made those kinds of lists for seventy years and never kept them.
My first songs were bad rock 'n' roll, typical Shirelles stuff. At the time I liked Carole King, Barry Mann. I liked the music better than the words. When I started working for a publisher my only concern was that the lyrics should be commercial. We may have said, What a great lyric,' but it was great because Little Peggy March could do it. I think eventually I became too interested in words to put up with songs that said nothing, or in writing things that embarrassed me. But it was easier when I was writing for people, when I'd have someone in mind and write a song for them. When I have to think about writing for myself it's a different matter - what I'd be willing to put in Tom Jones' mouth and what I'd be willing to put in mine.
A while ago I was worried about slipping out of the mainstream, or any stream, so I decided to write a song for Tom Jones. I didn't give him the song, but I did write it. It was a fairly representative Tom Jones song, not a good one, just a representative one. It made me feel pretty good for a while. Now all I have to do is make songwriting seem less unpleasant or I just won't write. It'll be all over. I'll have to go back to North Hollywood, or play in a lounge somewhere.
Bruce Pollock has written ten books on music, including Working Musicians: Defining Moments from the Road, the Studio, and the Stage. In his column "They're Playing My Song," Jackie DeShannon, Steve Forbert, Dean Friedman and many other songwriters tell the stories behind the one song that most impacted their careers. Visit Bruce at brucepollockthewriter.com.