Graded on a Curve: Randy Newman,
Good Old Boys

Where does one begin a review of Randy Newman’s 1974 classic Southern concept album Good Old Boys? With the naked man and his dark secret? With the distraught bridesgroom of Cherokee County who cries out, “Why must everyone laugh at my mighty sword?” With Birmingham’s Dan, “the meanest dog in Alabam'”? With the mental patient and his fantastic story of his stripper sister, who runs off with a black man only to discover he’s a white millionaire? With the great 1927 Louisiana flood? With the legendary Louisiana politician “Kingfish” Huey Long? With the lovely and sad “Marie”? Or with the great “Guilty,” the confession of a man who “takes a whole lot of medicine for me to pretend that I’m somebody else”?

Too many folks nowadays tend to dismiss Newman as the fellow who writes all those soundtracks for rug rat flicks, or know him only as the guy who wrote the tempest-in-a-teapot toss-off “Short People,” but Newman could write soundtracks for midget porn and I would still respect him every bit as much–the guy’s a genius. Newman was and remains (check out 2008’s “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country”) probably the funniest, most sardonic–and yes, serious–pop songwriter ever to plop his ass in front of a piano. No one–with the possible exception of Bob Dylan on The Basement Tapes–has ever written songs that are as funny or as deep, and the amazing thing about Newman is that, unlike the Dylan of Big Pink, he possesses the ability to do both in the same song. And who else would think to write a hilarious ode to ELO (“The Story of a Rock and Roll Band” off 1979’s Born Again), or question his own sexual prowess in “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong?”

A concept album about the Deep South might seem like an odd choice for a Jew who resides in Los Angeles, but Newman either lived or summered in New Orleans until he was 11–a childhood he recounts in “Dixie Flyer” off 1988’s Land of Dreams–and it left an indelible stamp upon him. You can hear it in his masterful command of southern dialect, and detect it in his understanding of Dixie resentment in title track “Rednecks” and other songs, and I think it’s these things that make Good Old Boys the best of Newman’s LPs, which is saying a lot given he’s the same very guy–perhaps the least unlikeliest looking rock star in history–who bequeathed us 1970’s brilliant 12 Songs and 1972’s Sail Away, not to mention the underrated 1977 record Little Criminals.

Good Old Boys–which was originally intended to be a concept album about a Southern Everyman named Johnny Cutler–is many things: a farce-laden classic larded with hilarious songs and brilliant one-liners, a thoughtful examination of race relations and the yawning gulf that separated North and South during segregation, and–this is perhaps its greatest achievement–a solemn meditation on the pain of being human. Living hurts, and causes us to hurt one another, and in such songs as the dark and beautiful “Marie,” the amazing “Guilty,” and even the hilarious ditties “Naked Man” and “Back on My Feet Again,” Newman doesn’t let us forget it.

So where does one begin a review of Good Old Boys? Right where Newman starts, with the scathing “Rednecks,” a sly condemnation of Northern hypocrisy sung by a character who knows exactly what his Yankee neighbors think about southerners: “We talk real funny down here/We drink too much and we laugh too loud/We’re too dumb to make it in no Northern town/And we’re keepin’ the niggers down.” Then comes the chorus: “We’re rednecks, rednecks/And we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground/We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks/And we’re keeping the niggers down.” But then the “dumb redneck,” who may be bigoted but obviously knows his ass from a hole in the ground, cannily turns the song on its head: “Now your northern nigger’s a Negro/You see he’s got his dignity/Down here we’re too ignorant to realize/That the North has set the nigger free/Yes he’s free to be put in a cage/In Harlem in New York City/And he’s free to be put in a cage on the South-Side of Chicago/And the West-Side/And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland/And he’s free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis/And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco/And he’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston/They’re gatherin’ ’em up from miles around/Keepin’ the niggers down.” It’s a clever song, condemning North and South alike, and I can’t imagine anyone but Newman pulling it off.

“Rednecks” is followed by “Birmingham,” a seemingly innocuous but deeply ambiguous tune if ever there was one. Its narrator sings the praises of his home city (“Birmingham, Birmingham/The greatest city in Alabam’/You can travel cross this entire land/There ain’t no place like Birmingham”), then goes on to extol home, wife, family, and even his dog Dan (“He’s the meanest dog in Alabam’/Get ’em, Dan”). Nothing happens in the song, it’s a paean pure and simple, and the listener is left in a quandary; are we supposed to look down with contempt on the singer as a small-minded fool, especially given the fact that the town he so loves just happened to be a lightning rod for violence against blacks seeking equal rights, home to the likes of the infamous racist and Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor, and the site of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls? Or are we supposed to grant him the simple respect we’d grant any human being doing his best and proud to live where he lives? In short, is the singer a racist or just clueless and imbued with an excess of misplaced civic pride? I can’t say, but I’ve always thought the seemingly innocuous “Get ’em, Dan” was loaded with meaning and the key to the whole song. Just who does the narrator want Dan to get, anyway? And does anyone want to take a bet on the color of their skin?

Meanwhile, “Marie” is one of the darker love songs you’ll ever hear, both a poetry-laden declaration of love and a confession of shitty behavior and gross indifference sung by a guy who’s “drunk right now baby/But I’ve got to be/Or I never could tell you/What you meant to me.” He sings, “You looked like a princess the night we met/With your hair piled up high I will never forget,” then undercuts the romanticism by admitting, “Sometimes I’m crazy/But I guess you know/And I’m weak and I’m lazy/And I’ve hurt you so/And I don’t listen to a word you say/When you’re in trouble I just turn away,” before returning to romantic mode in the lovely chorus, “I loved you the first time I saw you/And I always will love you Marie.” It’s the saddest and loveliest song on Good Old Boys, especially when one knows that its being sung by a maudlin drunk unlikely to ever change his ways, and it never fails to make me think of Neil Young’s lines in “Tired Eyes”: “He tried to do his best/But he could not.”

Which also applies to “Guilty,” which is my favorite song on the album and in fact one of my favorite songs in the world. “Guilty,” like “Marie,” is a confession of worthlessness so nakedly candid that, in its own way, it possesses a certain kind of dignity. I would quote the song in full, that’s how much I like it, but to paraphrase it’s about a guy who shows up drunk and stoned (“Got some whisky from the barman/Got some cocaine from a friend”) at an old lover’s place because he’s fucked up somehow and has “nowhere else to go.” The chorus goes, “I’m guilty baby I’m guilty/And I’ll be guilty all the rest of my life/How come I never do what I’m supposed to do/How come nothin’ that I try to do ever turns out right?” The feckless narrator goes on to answer his own question: “You know how it is with me baby/You know, I just can’t stand myself/It takes a whole lot of medicine/For me to pretend that I’m somebody else.” As somebody who’s taken a whole lot of medicine in his life for the exact same reasons, I can relate. I sometimes think of putting the word “Guilty” on my tombstone, because Lord knows I am. As are you for that matter, and everyone, with the possible exception of that Indian guy whose idea of casual wear was a pair of diapers.

I originally thought “Mr. President” was set in the Great Depression, but as it turns out it’s a plea for Good Old Boys-era President Richard M. Nixon to “have pity on the working man.” The song begins in a fawning tone (“”We’re not asking you to love us/You may place yourself high above us”) but as it moves along, pleading turns to contempt (“Maybe you’ve cheated/Maybe you’ve lied/Maybe you have finally lost your mind/Maybe you’re only thinking ’bout yourself”). It’s an uptempo tune, and its perky melody serves as an ironic counterpoint to its sentiment, which the adamantine cynic H.L. Mencken summed up best when he said, “A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”
This theme of the indifference of the high and mighty to the troubles of the downtrodden continues in “Louisiana 1927,” a seemingly dispassionate recounting of that year’s great flood (“The river rose all day/The river rose all night/Some people got lost in the flood/Some people got away alright”). That is until one listens to the chorus, which hints in a paranoid manner at outside forces being responsible (“Louisiana, Louisiana/They’re trying to wash us away/They’re trying to wash away”) and the great and hilarious final stanza, which underscores the callousness of Washington (sound familiar? as in 2005?) towards the tragedy: “President Coolidge came down in a railroad train/With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand/The President say, “Little fat man isn’t it a shame what the river has done/To this poor crackers land.” That “Little fat man isn’t it a shame” always cracks me up, but Newman’s outrage, albeit veiled in saturnine humor, is very real, as is his compassion for the “poor crackers” who have run out of money or find their whole world being swept away by a great flood.

Those “poor crackers” finally found a savior of sorts in Huey “Kingfish” Long, the populist demagogue and governor and later senator of Louisiana, who while not busy exploiting the rural poor’s resentment of New Orleans and its rich powerbrokers found the time to write “Every Man a King,” a share-the-wealth bromide (“With castles and clothing and food for all/All belongs to you”) which Newman sings accompanied by, uh, the Eagles. (I have a simple philosophy that I live by. Namely, never judge a man by the company he keeps. Unless that company happens to be the Eagles.) Sure it’s a bad song, but Newman and Company sing it with the same gusto the poor must have sung it with back in the day. “Every Man a King” serves as the perfect prelude to “Kingfish” (later covered by the great Levon Helm), which has Newman playing Huey Long as he damns the “Frenchmen” (“Your house could fall down/Your baby could drown/Wouldn’t none of those Frenchmen care”) who run the state and tells his constituents, “Everybody gather round/Loosen up your suspenders/Hunker down on the ground/I’m a cracker/You are too/But don’t I take good care of you?” He then goes on to boast of his achievements: “Who gave a party at the Roosevelt Hotel?/Invited the whole north half of the state down there for free/The people in the city/Had their eyes bugging out/Cause everyone looked just like me.” Of course the Kingfish wound up being assassinated (hey, I read half of All the King’s Men just like you) and maybe even had it coming, but you can’t help but feel some admiration for anybody who “took on the Standard Oil men and whipped their ass/Just like he promised he’d do.”

As for the great “Naked Man,” it’s a mystery story of sorts about an unclothed gentleman running around an unnamed city on “the coldest night of the year.” It begins with an “old lady lost in the city,” who is scared and doesn’t know “but in a minute or so/She will be robbed by a naked man.” The chorus goes, “Beware beware beware/Of the naked man” but no explanation of why he’s naked or someone to beware of is provided, that is until little old lady and naked man meet and the latter explains, “They found out about my sister/And kicked me out of the Navy/They would have strung me up if they could/I tried to explain that we were both of us lazy/And doing the best we could.” Then he snatches her purse and runs off into the sleety night, crying, “Won’t nobody help a naked man?/Won’t nobody help a naked man?” And once again Newman has pulled off the seemingly impossible–I never fail to laugh during the Naked Man’s confession of incest performed out of sheer laziness, but the song possesses a certain poignance; the poor fellow is as naked as Adam, and like Adam has eaten from the Tree of Life and found it has brought him nothing but disgrace, disaster, and ignominy. Why, it’s so great it was covered by The Grass Roots!

“A Wedding in Cherokee County” may be the most hilarious song on a very funny album, what with its love between an impotent man and a seemingly comatose woman, of whom her bridegroom-to-be sings, “Man, don’t you think I know she hates me/Man, don’t you think that I know she’s no good/If she knew how she’d be unfaithful to me/I think she’d kill me if she could.” But he loves her anyway, despite her mangy assortment of relatives (“Her papa was a midget/Her mama was a whore/Her grandad was a newsboy til he was eighty-four/What a slimy old bastard he was”) and the fact that she “She don’t say nothin’/She don’t do nothin’/She don’t feel nothin’/She don’t know nothin’.” His declaration of love is actually touching: “I’m not afraid of the grey wolf/That stalks through the forest at dawn/As long as I have her beside me/I have the strength to carry on.” As is, in a sublimely ridiculous way, his imagining of their coming wedding night, a fiasco of fecklessness and pure humiliation that constitutes perhaps the funniest set of lyrics I’ve ever heard: “I will carry her across the threshold/And make dim the light/I will attempt to spend my love within her/Though I try with all my might/She will laugh at my mighty sword/She will laugh at my mighty sword/Why must everybody laugh at my mighty sword?/Lord help me if you will/Maybe we’re both crazy, I don’t know/Maybe that’s why I love her so.”

Newman continues in this absurdist vein on “Back on My Feet Again,” a conversation between a most likely delusional mental patient and his psychiatrist. It opens with the patient saying, “Doctor, let me tell you something about myself/I’m a college man and I’m very wealthy/I’ve got no time to trifle with trash like you/Cause I must be ’bout my business.” Done bragging, he proceeds to regale the doctor with a wackily implausible story about his sister, “a dancer from Baltimore” who “ran off with a negro from the Eastern Shore/Dr., she didn’t even know his name.” Her new boyfriend takes her by train to the “Hotel Paree,” where he goes into the washroom, and reemerges “as white as you or me.” He explains himself by saying, “Girl, I’m not a negro I’m a millionaire/As you can plainly see/So many women love my money/But you have proved that you love only me.” The patient then says, “Doctor, doctor/What you say/How ’bout letting me out today/Ain’t no reason for me to stay/Everybody’s so far away,” and that final line is so sad, and so hopeless, that it undoes all of the singer’s earlier braggadocio and turns what is essentially a farce of a song into a kind of tragedy.

The album closes on a seeming up note with the easy-going “Rollin’,” which is sung by a man who has discovered in alcohol the answer to all his problems, or so he says. He sings, “Let me tell you what I do/I sit here in this chair/I pour myself some whiskey/And watch my troubles vanish into the air.” All the things he used to worry about he doesn’t worry about anymore, and he concludes by singing, like a true survivor, “But I’m alright now/I’m alright now/I never thought I’d make it/But I always do somehow/I’m all right.” Well, maybe he is or maybe he isn’t; and it’s just like Newman to end the album on a note of ambiguity, as it’s impossible to know whether the singer has achieved some real sense of peace or just plain given up. Regardless, the chorus sure is catchy, and I’ve sung it dead drunk more than once: “Rollin’ rollin’/Ain’t gonna worry no more/Rollin’ rollin’/Ain’t gonna worry no more.”

I realize only now that I’ve just managed to write a record review without once mentioning the music, which is rather like writing 2,000 words on steak without once mentioning you can eat it. So for you folks who care about such things, here’s a handy-dandy mini-description of how each song sounds:

“Rednecks”–Starts slow, then kicks into an uptempo gumbo with a horn section tossed in for flavoring. I’ll bet you two Hurricanes (the drink, which I drank a bunch of in the French Quarter once then found I couldn’t stand up, not the rapidly rotating storm system) Russ Kunkel plays on it, even though I have no idea who Russ Kunkel is.

“Birmingham”–Lilting piano, strings and horn section, mid-tempo. There’s even a cool country lick, and by that I mean one single solitary guitar lick, thrown in. My bet it was played by Russ Kunkel.

“Marie”–Very slow, some nicely orchestrated strings, but often it’s just Randy and his piano. This is not a rock song in any way, shape, or form. It’s pure sadness in sound, and if it doesn’t move you, you deserve to have the really fat guy from Bowling for Soup fall out a window onto your head.

“Mr. President”–Starts with drums and piano, then kicks into spritely mode. Take away the words, and Tricky Dick Nixon himself probably would have dug it.

“Guilty”–Slow as sin, which is what, after all, the song’s about. It’s just Newman, piano, and some lugubrious strings, and I forgot to mention that the late John Belushi once did a version of it that hurts every bit as much as Newman’s.

“Louisiana 1927”–Slow as the rise of the flood waters in the streets of Evangeline. Big chorus, lots of strings, and if you think this song is “historical” just talk to some of the folks who found themselves trapped in the Superdome back in 2005.

“Every Man a King”–Jolly and dumb. Just Randy and a piano and The Eagles, who though they stab it with their steely knives, still can’t kill their lack of talent.

“Kingfish”–Starts slowly with an oddly discordant piano figure and strings coming out of the woodwork, then picks up in tempo as the Kingfish brags and brags and brags.

“Naked Man”–By far the pluckiest, most fast-paced song on Good Old Boys. Why, it literally bounces like a superball before hitting you in the eye with its message, which is to be merciful because when all is said done we’re all of us naked and freezing, and there isn’t a Boy Scout in sight.

“A Wedding in Cherokee County”–Very slow. Opens with piano and a simple drum beat, most likely played by Russ Kunkel. And remains slow, with no strings or horns, and I wish I could have been at the sessions because even I could have played that drum part, though I have all rhythm of a hair net.

“Back on My Feet Again”–Slow starter that perks up thanks in part to some nifty slide guitar by Ry Cooder. The chorus is downright feisty. I’m so glad I no longer have to pretend to be a Negro from the Eastern Shore.

“Rollin'”–Laid back but rollicking. Starts with piano, some strings come in, and we’re rollin’, rollin’, ain’t gonna worry no more.

Footnote: I just did some research, and Russ Kunkel does not play on Good Old Boys. According to Wikipedia, he is a top-notch sessions drummer who has worked with the likes of Bob “Why did my sense of humor disappear in 1967?” Dylan, Jackson Browne, Carole King, and Adolf Hitler (on his 2004 album, Hitler Sings Randy Newman.) Perhaps the last-named LP accounts for my confusion.

In the end, what can I say? Good Old Boys is a dark work, as dark as Neil Young’s brilliant Tonight’s the Night, but leavened with a wit as sharp as one of those ginzu knives you used to see advertised on late-night television. Which is why I love Randy Newman. He can write a song as funny as “A Wedding in Cherokee County” or as unremittngly bleak as “Baltimore” (off Little Criminals) with its poignant chorus, “Oh, Baltimore/Man, it’s hard just to live.” And it is. It’s hard to live. There’s a darkness that surrounds us, and we’re all guilty and naked and alone on the coldest night of the year, and there’s a grey wolf that stalks through the forest at dawn, and without love, even for a woman who would kill us if she could, that wolf, which is our own dark nature, could just devour us. And what’s worse, Russ Kunkel is missing and nobody seems to knows where he is.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON JULY 22, 2013

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  • dan_oz

    Thought I’d already written an essay in response to this article, must’ve forgotten to post it, couldn’t be arsed writing it again but it was erudite & witty rest assured. 
    Suffice to say that this was a formative album for me & this review hit all the major points I harp on about when extolling its virtues to the uninitiated …& I learned some shit too, I thought “Birmingham” was just a bit of a country idyll I didn’t guess at the subtext.
    I thought it was good to give a brief description of all the musical settings in list form because while the musicianship & arrangements are superlative it all only serves to highlight the fact that Randy Newman is principally a great poet.

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