Living by the Putdown
Surrounded by know-nothings and phony radicals, Randy Newman has never made any bones about being a disillusioned liberal--an embittered one, even. In the '60s his unabashed cynicism was a relief from the hippie-dippy bullshit of the Revolution, and through most of the next decade it served to distinguish him from his chosen peers, the self-righteous young millionaires of El Lay rock. But gradually, inevitably, it became an annoyance--or maybe just took over. Not since Good Old Boys has Newman's artistic metabolism been equal to it--has he managed to absorb it into his craft for more than a song at a time, to break it down into anything healthier than heartburn. Because Newman is one of those dour perfectionists who don't know what else to do with their principles except put them into their work, the results have been less than ruinous. But basically, his jaundiced worldview has been out of control for over a decade.
He who lives by the putdown shall die by the putdown, so it's no surprise that Land of Dreams, Newman's first nonsoundtrack album in almost six years, hasn't set the world abuzz. Despite a modicum of chart action--"It's Money That Matters" had been kicking around the lower reaches of the Hot 100 for eight weeks at year's end, making it Newman's biggest song since the proudly chauvinistic self-mockery of "I Love L.A." hit MTV in 1983--the new record won't add to his renown or his liquid assets. With Newman's chum Lenny Waronker busy running the record company, the album's divvied up among three producers, most prominently chosen peer Mark Knopfler, and for all the PR about how autobiographical it is, it's short on direction. Only the first two songs, which take off from the New Orleans toddlerhood he wandered through while his dad fought World War II, are any more autobiographical than usual, and the rest sum up as a mishmash: fabricated childhood memory, rap parody featuring Beatmaster Marky K, uninteresting unhappy love song, unconvincing happy love songs, two of the so-straight-they're-bent unclassifiables this compulsive ironist has been turning out since "Dayton, Ohio 1903," and three scabrously cynical putdowns.
As always, artistic principles shore up the weaker material--the love songs are spare and hooked, the unclassifiables would signal a mind at work anywhere else, and if the rap beats are ignorant, the rap rhyme is respectfully bemused, a compulsive ironist's parody of a parody. But that's not why I'm pro Land of Dreams. I'm pro because history has caught up with Randy Newman. As his cynicism deepens and his craft turns back on itself, events conspire to make both useful again. Not revelatory, much less politically effective or something--in this soul-sapping interregnum and the life-destroying reign that will follow, refreshing, even entertaining, will have to do. Things have gotten so bad that the pretzel logic of Land of Dreams is at least as inspirational as, for instance, the no longer fresh-faced idealism of Rattle and Hum, a record I like more than most of the cynics who put Newman down these days.
True or whatever, the autobiography comprises half the useful stuff. The New Orleans songs seem like normal Newman at first: your basic deft vignettes with a twist. "Dixie Flyer" is no departure even if Crescent City boosters wish they could explain away the part where Randy's relatives pretend to be Gentiles by drinking rye in the back seat. (Bunny Matthews in New Orleans's Wavelength: "Jews seem pretty assimilated in New Orleans, don't you think?" Newman: "No, they're not assimilated in America--not really. It's not our country.") But next song the twist screws deep, as Newman's dad returns in 1948 and informs the locals that peace is at hand: "They started to party and they partied some more/'Cause New Orleans had won the war/(We knew we'd do it, we done whipped the Yankees)." And if you think this surreal always-for-pleasure displacement is just Newman's joke on the capital of the land of dreams, "Four Eyes" must be his assault on the land of nightmares. The words he chooses to describe a five-year-old's first day at school are fairly subtle: "Here's your little brown cowboy shirt, put it on/Here's your little brown cowboy pants, put 'em on/Here's your little brown shoes, can you tie them yourself?" But as music, with the vocal all wounded betrayal and James Newton Howard's orchestration Peter Gabriel on a Stravinsky jag, it's a funny-scary overstatement of the travails of childhood, not to mention the machinations of parental love. It's mean--mean to the parents and mean to the kid. But it isn't small--it's as extreme as any Newman since "Rednecks."
The truly inspirational numbers, though, are the putdowns. These are also extreme. But where the narrative displacements represent a formal break, the satirical overkill is emotional: as if the march of history and his own life is turning Newman's disillusion ugly, goading him to strike out. Where the nuke-'em nut of 1972's "Let's Drop the Big One" remains a cheap joke, a fringe character frat boys can feel superior to, fraternities are the stomping ground of supply-side bigots, one of whom counsels resilience while blaming unemployment on the unemployed in the cruelly casual "Roll with the Punches." Rock radio went for "It's Money That Matters" because it makes fun of the "public radio" grinds who "never adjusted to the great big world." And the title refrain of "I Want You to Hurt Like I Do" is directed first at the singer's latest girlfriend, then at his abandoned son, and ultimately at "all the people of the world." Really. As Newman told Bunny Matthews: "I wanted to put a bunch of voices on there and do a celeb video but having them singing not `We Are the World' or `Save the Crippled Squirrels' but `I Want You To Hurt Like I Do.' I still may do it. I like that song."
I wouldn't have liked it five years ago, but in 1989 it's tonic. Reagan was such a consummate performer that you could at least hold your breath while he was on--tell yourself he was a horrible accident. George Bush looks like the president of cynicism rampant--not just 20/20 ambition and two-income subsistence, every organization man for himself and dueling tongues up the boss's pompous ass, but erstwhile idealists embracing capitulation and calling it wisdom. Bullheaded lefties like me and I hope you need all the friends we can get these days. We need our disillusioned liberals. We need anybody who can rub America's face in this shit.
Village Voice, Jan. 17, 1989