In a hard town by the sea
Ain't nowhere to run to
There ain't nothin' here for free
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Randy Newman is not your average pop singer/songwriter. For starters, he was never prolific when it came to love songs. The old "boy meets girl" situation was not his regular scene. Often he wrote about quirky characters in quirky situations. His 1977 album Little Criminals
kicked off with a song called "Short People," which did well on the charts. Newman wrote it as a commentary on bigotry and its success helped make the album reach heights it might not otherwise have climbed. "Short People" sent some listeners into a spin and others, who may have misunderstood its meaning, into a rage.
The name Baltimore is not uncommon; the states of Indiana, Vermont, and Ohio all hail a Baltimore within their boundaries, not to mention several in countries outside the United States. But the best known Baltimore is the city in Maryland, even better-known now because of the television series The Wire,
an HBO production that pretzels the average crime show genre into something far beyond merely solving crimes.
Row houses in Charles Village, Baltimore
Photo: Jon Bilous, Dreamstime
But why would Newman choose to write a song about this
particular Baltimore - and such a scathing one at that? Did he get mugged there? Stalked? Did he suffer a debilitating concert there where "fans" pelted him with small balloons filled with green jell-o?
Maybe the answer lies in antiquity: during the War of 1812, Baltimore's regular Joe "Nest of Pirates," so-named by the British, repulsed British forces by throwing pots and pans at them after they ran out of ammunition. Embarrassing loss for the British, at best. But the born-under-the-stars-and-stripes Newman would have no reason to rekindle a 200-year-old battle that the city had already won.
Perhaps the answer lies with the bloggers. On "The Straight Dope" message boards, there exists a plethora of commentaries about this song, some claiming to know exactly why, others going on expletive-filled rants about what they would like to see happen to the hapless Newman for the way he verbally plundered their beloved city. One individual offered up some thoughtful insight: "Make of it what you will, but, being familiar with Newman's style, I interpret this song much differently. The narrator of the song is a disaffected citizen of the city bemoaning hard times that have resulted in a decline in the quality of life there. (Remember, this was written in 1977, when Baltimore, like much of the country, was suffering through a crippling economic recession.) In subsequent verses, he talks about gathering up his family and moving for good to the country. I see it as a modern lyrical equivalent of those black-and-white photos of bread lines during the depression."
Another recalled a radio interview where Newman said he wrote the song because he liked the name, but wasn't familiar with the city, so he called a friend who lived there to ask specifics and wrote the song from there.
Still a third wildly disgruntled yet terribly colorful individual had this to say, "Well, Randy, it's clear that you have never been to the Queen City or the Patapsco River basin. I don't suggest that you visit, either. All of the blue collar working class Joes here would be glad to rip off your head and take turns (bleeping) down your neck. Where in the bleeding hell do you get off condemning our city? You celebrate the bright lights, plastic culture and insincere relationships of L.A. ('I Love L.A.') What would you know about a real city, with real people who live, love and work in blissful ignorance of what it's like to be in a situation where you can't trust your 'best friend'?"
Newman himself has had little to say publicly about the song. In one rare comment in an interview with A.V. Club, he gives us a little something to chew on. ""I've been in Gainesville and Dayton, but I hadn't been when I wrote about them. There's a Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill show about Chicago that's all about gangsters, and it's all wrong, but it's interesting. It's an interesting view of the place. Like 'Baltimore,' my song: All I'd seen of Baltimore was when I rode through it on a train, but I wrote a song because I saw something about it in National Geographic
, all these backyard porches and brick fronts and marble staircases. Sometimes, the places you haven't been evoke some kind of romantic response, and turn out to be more interesting than they would be from a purely journalistic angle."
Take away from that all what you will. While the single itself fell away at the gate, the album Little Criminals
shot to #9 on the U.S. Billboard charts, mostly due to the love-it-or-hate-it success of "Short People
." Newman, himself, seems to embrace the same love-it-or-hate-it persona, although these days it's mostly love-it. Since his Little Criminals
days, he has written several bona fide love-it songs for various beloved Disney movies, including Monsters Inc., Toy Story 1, 2 and 3, A Bug's Life,
and James and the Giant Peach.
Is that enough to redeem him in your eyes? Indeed, was redemption ever really necessary
? Cenarth Fox and Shawna Hansen Ortega
January 13, 2010
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