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He's back in the saddle

Randy Newman doesn't come 'round often. But when he does, it's worth listening.

August 03, 2008|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer
  • MERRY: With "Harps and Angels" --  his first pop album in nine years -- landing Tuesday, Newman, 64, can afford to horse around on Santa Monica Pier.
MERRY: With "Harps and Angels" -- his first pop album in nine… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Randy NEWMAN strolled along the wooden planks of the Santa Monica Pier on a recent summer afternoon, a balmy ocean breeze rustling his short, curly hair that, at age 64, is mostly salt but retains a dash of pepper. A crowd of onlookers craned their necks in his direction, some with video cameras, others with cellphone cameras, but a female security guard quickly waved them back.

In a just universe, this small throng would have been jockeying to celebrate the unique place Newman holds in contemporary pop music -- anxious hordes looking to pump him for details about "Harps and Angels," the long-overdue album he's releasing on Tuesday. Instead, the teens and twentysomethings looked right past one of the most respected songwriters of his generation to where Miley Cyrus was filming in front of the pier's roller coaster and Ferris wheel.

"Maybe," he said with characteristically deadpan delivery, "they think I'm Hannah Montana."

Newman long ago came to terms with the fact that he and the masses wouldn't be spending much time together, choosing instead to concentrate on creating a compelling and varied body of work that has spanned some 40 years and a number of different venues. He's spent most of this decade being introduced as "Academy Award-winning composer Randy Newman" thanks to his Oscar win for the song "If I Didn't Have You" from 2001's "Monsters, Inc." He's crafted more than a dozen film scores in all and even penned an autobiographical musical revue, "The Education of Randy Newman."

Each of Newman's albums has practically constituted a one-man reunion, because they've been relatively few and far between. Despite the long gaps between studio releases -- there have been just three in the last 20 years -- Newman has plumbed the depths and shallows of the American psyche with greater consistency than perhaps any of his contemporaries, certainly with more precise musical acumen and lyrical illumination.

He's peeled back the curtain on stalkers ("Suzanne"), child murderers ("In Germany Before the War"), alcoholics ("Marie"), materialism ("It's Money That I Love "), American chauvinism ("Sail Away") and bigots and hypocrites ("Rednecks"). He's often done so by inhabiting a range of characters, from a son who's emotionally isolated from his father in "Old Man" to a hapless groom in "Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father."

His songs have been a lightning rod for controversy, from "Short People" -- "It's not a bad song," he says, 30-plus years later, "it's just a bad song to have a hit with" -- to the new “Korean Parents,” which has ignited heated debate for its pointed take on why Korean students excel academically.

"It's never quite what you think it is," said Lenny Waronker, who produced or co-produced most of Newman's albums, including "Harps and Angels," of the meaning of the songwriter's lyrics. "He always takes a broader view. For a man who writes so few words, for them to have so many layers in a song, it's amazing."

A bit farther down the pier, Newman stopped in front of a street musician tapping out a steel-drum rendition of Grover Washington Jr.'s 1981 hit "Just the Two of Us." He pulled a bill from his pocket, dropped it in the tip jar. "A superstition," Newman explained before being asked. "It ain't that great a distance," he added with a chuckle. "It turns out to be a tough thing to make a living out of music."

In addition to a distinctive musical vocabulary that's part Stephen Foster, part Gershwin, part Professor Longhair, Newman's signature is songs in which the narrator's objectivity and honesty are suspect. "I love that in literature," he said. "What people choose to lie about tells you a great deal about them."

But since 1988's "Land of Dreams," a set of autobiographical songs about his childhood in Los Angeles and the years when his family moved to be with his mother's relatives in New Orleans, he has ventured into more directly personal territory. He considers "Harps and Angels" the best record he's made. Admittedly, every musician tends to make that observation about a new recording, but given Newman's penchant for self-critique, the statement carries weight.

"There's a school that says, 'It doesn't matter if people love it or hate it, as long as they have a strong reaction,' " Newman said over a dish of cold salmon at an Italian restaurant across from the pier. "That's not me. I want people to like my stuff."

Another shock: Newman confessed that he was on the verge of tears when he won his Oscar after 15 previous nominations.

"As a measure of worth, it means nothing," Newman said. "But when I went out on stage to get it, and I saw the members of the orchestra standing and applauding, I really started to lose it. I was choking up, and I thought, 'You're not going to cry! Not now!' Somehow I managed to keep it together. But all my life I've wanted the respect of people like that, and when I saw those musicians standing up, I found it meant far more to me than I ever thought it would."

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