Songwriting Legends In Their Own Words

Randy Newman

by Bruce Pollock

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Through his archive of interviews with songwriting legends, renowned music journalist Bruce Pollock tells their stories in their own words.

Randy Newman claims the characters he writes about are never him. While that may have been true at the time of this interview, back in 1974, 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"). It's included on 2017's Dark Matter, his first solo album in nine years.

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.

"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," he said. "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.'

"I just have to make songwriting seem less unpleasant or I won't write. It'll be all over. I'll have to go back to North Hollywood, or play in a lounge somewhere."

Although he'd already written such gems as "Mama Told Me Not to Come," "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," one of nearly a dozen tunes he's composed for Walt Disney. He might never have pocketed two Oscars, three Emmys, and seven Grammy Awards.

Which is not to say, if someone were to corner the droll Mr. Newman at the right bar at the right hour, he wouldn't still admit to the veracity of his earlier remarks. And the enduring struggle he may still have with the muse.

"I've always worked the same way," he told me, backstage at the Cambridge Performance Center in Massachusetts. "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."

As for why his songs are often so short: "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 walked into the room with the piano in it my legs began to get heavy and I felt a pressure."

Back when he was a kid it all seemed easier. "When I was 21 I ran a Thermo-Fax machine," Newman told me. "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 70 years and never kept them."

By the time he stepped out from behind the songwriter's mask to record his own material, he'd already compiled a significant resumé, placing songs with some pop music legends, including Gene Pitney, Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, Pat Boone, Jerry Butler, up to and including Judy Collins, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and Linda Rondstadt. Alan Price of the Animals put seven Newman songs on the album A Price on His Head. Nilsson went him three better with Nilsson Sings Newman. He was one of the founding members of the group that would come to be known as Harper's Bizarre.

Not surprisingly, Newman regarded much of his early work with a cringe. "My first songs were bad rock 'n' roll," he said. "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. A while ago, when I was worried about slipping out of the mainstream, or any stream, 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. 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."

Of his own work, he's slightly more forgiving. "I still like 'Davy the Fat Boy.' I kind of like 'Political Science,' but I didn't like it for a long time. I thought it was too close to a Tom Lehrer type song, not that there's anything wrong with Tom Lehrer. I'm proud I wrote 'Sail Away.'

"In fact, the thing that did precipitate some of my writing was the Watts riots of 1965. The biggest shock to me, and the biggest inequity in this country, is the way black people are treated. I always felt the race situation was worse here than anywhere. Other than that, I'm essentially apolitical. I don't think my views are of any interest."

Neither does he especially mine his own experience for material. "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 I write about."

If he did want to throw himself into a project where he was the main character, Newman might well choose to go back to high school. In that cramped dressing room in 1974, he really got enthused about the topic.

"It was all so sullen and boring and small and vile," he said. "You know, barfing and stuff, making fun of ugly people, social castes, where you ate your lunch, standing around looking tough. I went to my high school reunion. That was something! I discovered that everybody was scared all the time, socially, whereas I thought that people were really together. No one was. It's a meaty topic, the way it was, and nobody's really done it right. It was so seedy. You might have thought it was fun but it was pretty grim, and not for me alone. I was all right, on the approved list. Although I never approved of the approved list. God, the torment. What a great subject that is."

March 8, 2019
Next in the Legends of Songwriting series: Laura Nyro

More Songwriting Legends In Their Own Words

Comments: 2

  • Fritz Souder from MarylandI'd like to hear him write a song with a touch of humor in it about the growing police issues in dealing with the undertow of society in slum areas. Something to make people lean back and think clear about these troubling issues. How about it, need any help?
  • Barbara G. SherrillIt was great to read another artist's comment re personal scheduling. I thought I was the only one who could not adhere to one and write only spamodically. The difference might be that I do get up writing. Sitting before the piano inhibits me and I end up
    improvising but not really composing. Thanks for the info! I do enjoy the "Jungle" song every time I hear it. I didn't know it was written for Monk; I thought it was a previous song that was adapted for the show. Inspirational article for my determination to complete the details for my new musical drama.
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