"My dad was a doctor," says Randy Newman. "And one day when I was about 11, he came home from work and said, 'Jesus Christ, I had this patient today who had no homosexuality in his background, and he's taking a shower at the Y and all of a sudden he goes down on this guy, and the guy beat the shit out of him.' And I sat there with my mouth open. How can you tell an 11-year-old a story like that? I never forgot it! I kept worrying that I was just gonna dive into someone's lap. Like at a movie theater without any provocation." This heightened state of adolescent homosexual panic eventually bore fruit in the form of a song titled "Half a Man" that appeared on Newman's 1979 album Born Again ("not that anyone liked it," he says). The song is from the point of view of a hypermasculine, gay-bashing truck driver who is horrified to find himself magically transformed into a "fag" during the course of an assault. "I really like 'Half a Man,' but it offended people. They didn't seem to get that I know it's not actually contagious," Newman protests.
Randy Newman is a solitary figure in American music, and one who seems to thrive on contradiction and paradox. For decades, he's played the part of the ironically sophisticated singer-pianist, specializing in disturbing songs written from the perspectives of slave traders, carnival hawkers, would-be rapists and gay-bashing truck drivers, among other unsavory types. At the same time, he's made a comfortable living scoring Hollywood movies, providing the sweeping orchestral settings for Avalon and The Natural as well as sentimental, feel-good tunes such as "I Love to See You Smile" from Parenthood and "You've Got a Friend in Me" from Toy Story. This week, Newman will be giving Houston music fans a chance to see both sides of this split personality as he teams with the Houston Symphony Orchestra for a three-night stand, with each performance split between film music (accompanied by clips from the movies) and his quirky, often confrontational songs.
To say that Randy Newman was raised in a musical family is a bit of an understatement. "Growing up, I always just thought I'd be a soundtrack composer," says Newman. "When you see a job in the family that people are doing, it looks possible. It wasn't like I was in Michigan and dreamed of being a Hollywood composer. My uncle Al" -- Alfred Newman, 1901-1970 -- "might've been the best there ever was. And I may not be!" He guffaws. "It's a strange thing; I've got feelings about film music and where it is now. But I hesitate to go into it too much. It's like when you're at a party and someone comes up to you, talking about, like, badgers and they get up close to your face and go on and on, 'and then the badger' you back off. When I start talking about film music, I notice that people take one step back and one to the left. It's like, too much fervor. I'll try not to start. I will say this: Fifty percent of film scores today are in d minor and never move. A big GROAN in d minor and then they'll stay there." His contempt is palpable.
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Randy Newman appears with the Houston Symphony Orchestra Friday through Sunday, September 30 through October 2.
Newman says the set list for a gig like the one this weekend is pretty well determined in advance, explaining, "you can't just decide to change the chords like Dylan does when you're working with orchestras." Also, he's planning to hold back on some of his more corrosive work. "I probably won't do 'Rednecks' " -- with its bitter refrain about "keepin' the niggers down" -- "because I don't want to do anything to discourage people who just wanna go see an orchestra, because they're disappearing. I realize this is gonna be an audience where half of them, or a third of them, have never seen me and barely know who I am, and they won't know to have their guard up. I mean, I might be John Tesh, they don't know. I don't want 'em running up the aisles. I've heard artists say, 'Oh, any reaction, I love it,' but I really don't want some 75-year-old symphony subscriber feeling assaulted.
"It's a strange thing about rock lyrics, though," he continues. "They're really not so important in some ways. The people who write about them are writers. Here's an example: I was doing this benefit kinda thing a while back and everyone was playing Elton John songs. So I did 'Benny and the Jets.' Now, when you see Bernie Taupin's lyrics on paper, he's actually trying to make an ironic point, sort of making fun of fans in that song. But that's entirely undermined by the pop genius of Elton John," he says with a laugh. "Now, if I'd been Elton's songwriting partner, he'd be broke, and I'd be oil-painting in Bora Bora now."
Speaking of rock stars, Newman is planning to play "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)," his parody of aging rock acts that won't surrender the spotlight. "That one came true; no one's retiring!" he says. "Except they're all doing better than ever. The Moody Blues are doing better than they've ever done. Mick Jagger always had a clear-eyed view of what he wanted. He's a tough boy. Not tough in the way he acts tough onstage: He's tough-minded, which is even scarier."
Some of Newman's songs, written years ago in the spirit of satire or irony, have come to ring differently in today's ears. "Political Science" in particular, with its narrator's reductive "first strike" approach to diplomacy, hits perhaps a little too close to Homeland Security these days. "They all hate us anyhow / so let's drop the Big One now," indeed.
"It's still hyperbole," he says of the language of the current administration. "But now the Defense guys really do talk that way. Well, almost. It's hard to believe. Bush actually used the phrase 'Old Europe.' I realize this is not the best way to get a 'Welcome to Houston' from the people who subscribe to the symphony, but it's like Nixon broke all the political rules, God knows everyone used to Hoover and the CIA, everybody. But with these guys, it's like they don't even know the rules. But they're still sure they're right. There are certain things you just don't say, like Karl Rove and that whole CIA agent thing. That's kinda colossal. I mean, can you imagine if a Democratic administration ?" he sputters, then calms down. "This kind of thing is really more for Bono to speak about rather than me. It's really beyond my ken. I think I got a screw loose, I'm talking about things that I stopped talking about when I was 24 after I read an interview with myself in the paper "
"Louisiana 1927" is another song that resonates more today than it might have before, but for other, more immediate reasons. The stark, mournful description of a hugely destructive flood that devastated the state nearly 80 years ago was performed by Newman to open the September 9 Hurricane Katrina relief telethon.
"It's heartbreaking," says Newman, who was born in New Orleans and still had family there, all evacuated safely. His voice is suddenly quiet, hesitant. "Everyone talks about, and justifiably so, the music and the food and the spirit of the people of the town, which is this kind of carefree feeling. New Orleans just always had this kind of inefficiency that I love. You know, it was never a place you'd wanna get your car fixed. It's early to write the obituary on the town, but right now it's hard to be carefree. It hurts very much."
There were several autobiographical songs on Newman's Land of Dreams album that detailed his childhood in the Big Easy. "And some of it's even true," he chuckles. "There are some lies in there: We didn't live in the Garden District. I haven't spent a full month there since I was 14, I don't think. But how can you not love it? To describe this tragedy, as a writer, you're stuck with words like 'horribly,' 'unbelievably' " His voice suddenly returns to its normal, offhand drawl. "I'll say this: It may save the adverb. 'New Orleans Died to Save the Adverb': There's your chilly headline."