An Evening with Randy Newman:

In Concert at Royce Hall - October 3, 2015

I Love (UC) LA

By Ross Altman PhD

Randy NewmanNo introduction, no fanfare, no preliminary announcements of upcoming events—when the lights went down at a few minutes after 8:00pm Randy Newman—dressed in a simple black pullover with a gold abstract design on the front, black jeans and worn tennis shoes—walked purposefully yet somewhat diffidently from the wings across to center stage, where a roar of applause and anticipation met his silent bow and whimsical smile. He sat down at the piano and before we knew it a devastating satire of the recently visiting Russian Premier Vladimir Putin took us by surprise and wouldn’t let go—speaking at times in Putin’s own persona Newman described in painstaking detail his prominent bare chest and then shifting to the singer’s own disarming wry wit Newman said “Just looking at you makes me want to be a lady,” which brought down the house with the first song. And to demonstrate what separates Newman from the typical topical American songwriter he didn’t mention Donald Trump the whole night—he went after their buffoon, not ours. It was a joyous opening moment in a concert full of them.

Above the stage at UCLA’s major venue Royce Hall are inscribed the following words: Education Is Learning to Use the Tools Which the Race Has Found Indispensable.

Randy Newman went to his hometown school UCLA (leaving one semester shy of his BA) and he must have learned to use those tools, because he has since become our indispensable songwriter—indeed an education unto himself. Anyone who absorbs his catalog over the past half century will have been exposed to a university quality education in virtually every field—from Political Science (Political Science and The World Isn’t Fair) to Economics (It’s Money That Matters) to Theology (That’s Why I Love Mankind—God’s Song) to Geography (I Love LA and Louisiana, 1927) to American history (Sail Away, the story of a slave ship bound for Charleston, South Carolina in the 18th century) to Western Civilization (Great Nations of Europe) to Current Affairs (Putin) to Modern Philosophy (I’m Dead but I Don’t Know It) to Psychology (Living Without You, She Loves Me, The First Time I Saw You and I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today).

In the midst of these many disciplinary and multi-disciplinary songs are a number that are simply beyond categorizing—at least in university terms; his Oscar-nominated Dog song from the 1996 Toy Story You’ve Got a Friend in Me (sung by the dog) and his politically incorrect surprise hit song—the satirical Short People, from his album Little Criminals. In a more general sense his songwriting across a wide spectrum is also a course in English Literature—utilizing the dramatic monologue that Robert Browning adopted and refined as a major Victorian poet—where he sings through the voice of a character other than himself—as in the ramped-up satire on human greed (It’s Money That I Love) and America’s imperial militaristic foreign policy (Political Science—which descends into the dark belligerent “Let’s Drop the Big One!”). And underlying all this of course is a post-graduate level seminar in Music—which ranges across a number of styles from classical to pop to rock (he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013) to blues and folk—beginning with his early cited inspiration of Ray Charles—who became his initial model as a songwriter. Finally, his own specialty would inform UCLA’s Film School as well; Randy Newman has been nominated for twenty Oscars for both film scoring and songwriting—winning twice. He has won six Grammys and two Emmys.

One index of how far-reaching his musical vocabulary and imaginative world has become is simply the next stops on what he hinted may be his last major tour; they’re all in Europe, starting with the Netherlands and moving across the continent; they’ll love his Great Nations of Europe—which goes back to the 16th Century in its satire of Western History; here are the upcoming venues:

Muziekgebouw, Eindhoven, Netherlands Saturday October 10, 2015;

De Vereeniging, Nijmegen, Netherlands October 11, 2015;

De Roma, Antwerp, Belgium October 13 & 14, 2015;

Concertgebouw, Bruges, Belgium October 16, 2015

It’s the tour schedule of a world-class musician and singer-songwriter.

This concert, simply entitled An Evening with Randy Newman, was a two hour and 45 minute journey through one of the great American songbooks of our time—no band, no director, no light show, no stage backdrop—just Randy Newman and his Steinway piano.

Even the intermission was memorable: As he passed by my aisle seat I got to shake hands and thank one of the most brilliant comedic minds of our time—David Steinberg—who I had noticed sitting a few rows in front. He is now a great teacher who hosts an interview show with mostly younger comedians and I was delighted to be able to convey my appreciation for the many times he had made me laugh while on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. To see his twinkling eyes and warm smile up close was truly magical.

Newman’s performing style is that of a casual raconteur, almost spoken as well as sung, going in and out of each song with informal personal anecdotes, self-deprecating humor where he is almost always the butt of his own jokes, and occasional tributes to fellow musicians like Joe Cocker and his friend, producer and Warner Brothers record company champion Lenny Waronker (for whom he sang Happy Birthday—celebrating the fact that the song has now been judicially reassigned to the Public Domain—for the first time in nearly a century. Indeed, Newman was so excited by this long overdue court ruling that he offered to sing the song twice—for anyone else in the audience whose birthday it was. For the first time in a generation he wouldn’t have to pay royalties to sing it in public.

I only wish he had mentioned that October 3 is also the date in 1967 that Woody Guthrie passed away at 55—which was the reason I was almost late to the concert—I had to stop at the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club monthly gathering to sing This Land Is Your Land in honor of Woody’s yahrtzeit; only then could I focus on Randy Newman.

With such a vast catalogue of songs to choose from it is imperative to highlight a few songs for their historical significance that far outweigh their chart position and awards. First and foremost among them to my mind is Louisiana 1927. First released in 1974—more than thirty years before Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005—it became the most-played and associated song in the aftermath of the worst New Orleans disaster in modern times—what can only be called the anthem of the Big Easy.

A cadre of contemporary political songwriters (I know because I was one of them) tried their hand at writing such an anthem—pointing the finger at a do-nothing president and his incompetent underlings (“Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job”) without touching a nerve in the national psyche. Newman’s 30-year old historical masterpiece—about a 1927 flood in Louisiana, with the mesmerizing and haunting chorus:

Louisiana, Louisiana, they’re trying to wash us away;

Louisiana, Louisiana, six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

did touch that nerve—and became the prism through which we saw this modern flood, now ten years old.

Newman’s song also had a do-nothing president whose inaction compounded the tragedy—Calvin Coolidge, of whom Will Rogers once said, “An empty car pulled up to the White House and Calvin Coolidge got out”—and no one had to be reminded of its contemporary resonance. The historical distance from Newman’s account of the worst flood prior to Katrina on August 29, 2005 made it possible for everyone—without regard for current political partisanship—to identify with the human tragedy unfolding before our very eyes. It was played on commercial radio, historical documentaries and nightly newscasts—a song that sounded like it was written for the occasion with an uncanny prescience 30 years ago—casting its eye backwards and forwards at the same time—a stunning artistic achievement.

Newman’s mother was nicknamed Dixie, and it was she who took her young son to New Orleans until he was 11 years old, as recounted in the moving autobiographical Dixie Flyer—a train trip that evokes with homesick love his memory of a time and place that was formative in his artistic upbringing—and led to his historically authentic recreation of the Louisiana flood of 1927. A black couple sitting right in front of me validated that observation with stinging clarity; I could feel their applause right through the back of their Royce Hall seats; the highlight of the concert for me.

But in close proximity was I’m Dead but I Don’t Know It, Newman’s unforgiving satire on aging rock stars that closed the first half of the show—and the song he performed to a not entirely pleased audience of fellow aging rock stars when he was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in December 2013: It defines both his brilliance and honesty as a songwriter that Newman satirizes himself as mercilessly as anyone else; indeed, here he is his own best target: “I have nothing left to say, but I’m going to say it anyway…I have nothing left to report, but I still have a family to support.” The hallmark of his greatness is that he doesn’t spare himself in the epic tale of human folly that eventually comes under his steady gaze.

However, there was one song that did give me pause, not so much for the song itself as for the timing of performing it in the immediate aftermath of the US bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan run by Doctors Without Borders in which twenty-two patients and staff—including three children—were killed. To hear a sold-out auditorium full of presumptive liberals cheering lustily at the line “Let’s drop the big one and pulverize them” Saturday night when that very morning our military had done just that in Kunduz province was distasteful to say the least—obliterating the line between satire and reality. I knew it was satire; the audience knew it was satire; but you sure couldn’t tell from their unseemly response. When Randy Newman’s songs are so chillingly close to the bone of any morning’s potential headlines he needs to keep one eye on the newspaper in planning a set list. Not every song is right for all occasions. For what the audience—enlightened though they may fancy themselves as they were sipping Chardonnay in Royce Hall’s adjacent bar—was applauding for is as of Monday morning’s L.A. Times an accused war crime. The screams of the wounded, maimed and killed could be heard like ghosts over the ignorant cheers of L.A.’s most literate elite.

That disjunction of images is not a pretty sight; read it and weep for your country.

However, this occasional lapse of judgment by no means ruined the concert for me. In some sense it shows what a fine line a great artist must walk between pushing our imagination to the edge of what’s acceptable without falling off into tasteless vulgarity. Most of the time Newman succeeds magnificently and lands on his feet; this one time, I’m not so sure. But it is precisely the fact that he is willing to take those risks that underscores his brilliance as a songwriter and performing artist. Safe artists don’t challenge us and don’t risk looking bad themselves. Randy Newman has always been on the high wire and is still willing to take those chances. There is no one quite like him.

In another song he sings of the tormented “frog” who is lucky enough to marry a princess who chooses him over many a better-looking man; almost unbelievably he rues the disparity between his own unappealing looks and her unqualified beauty with She Chose Me. In a lesser songwriter you can bet that the “frog” would have been someone else; in Newman’s raspy quaking voice of utter honesty he exposes his deepest self-doubt if not self-hatred. He lays his open heart on the table—for lyrical surgery of profound self-revelation. It was his most naked song of the night, and exposed the chronic pain at the heart of his genius. That is the Randy Newman I most prize and cherish.

Here is Newman’s set-list, based on my own hasty notes written in the dark; so with allowances for a few oversights:

--Set I--

Putin

Short People

Great Nations of Europe

Lonely At the Top

The World Isn’t Fair (Why Marx Failed)

The Dixie Flyer

I Miss You

Mama Told Me Not to Come

You Can Leave Your Hat On

Happy Birthday (for Lenny)!

It’s Money That Matters

Baltimore

I’m Dead, but I Don’t Know It

--Set II--

She Chose Me

That’s Why I Love Mankind (God’s Song)

You’ve Got a Friend In Me

(Oscar-nominated Dog’s Song from Toy Story)

My Life Is Good

Red Bandana, Hollywood USA

The First Time I Saw You

Political Science (American foreign policy—

Let’s Drop the Big One)

Louisiana, 1927

Sail Away

I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today

Harps and Angels

--Encores--

I Love LA

Feels Like Home To Me

Randy Newman is a local hero and a national (and international) treasure. The prolonged and impassioned standing ovation at the end clearly moved him, and I hope it will change his mind about returning to his hometown audience before too long. After all, as much as he loves LA, LA clearly loves Randy Newman.

With thanks for Press Pass to Jessica Wolf of Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA.

Friday November 20 at 8:00pm Ross commemorates the Centennial of the execution of Labor’s greatest troubadour Joe Hill at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, 681 Venice Blvd, Venice, CA 90291 310-822-3006 ; $10.

Sunday evening December 20 at 7:00pm Ross Altman and a Small Circle of Friends celebrate Phil Ochs 75th birthday with a concert of his songs at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center, 681 Venice Blvd, Venice, CA 90291 310-822-3006 ; $10.

Los Angeles folk singer Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature; for further information about these events Ross may be reached at greygoosemusic@aol.com