Graded on a Curve:
Randy Newman,
12 Songs

In my mind’s eye I see Randy Newman supine on a sofa, taking an afternoon nap. Or a morning nap. Or an evening nap. It doesn’t matter. Or I see him in a comfortable armchair watching television, an old movie perhaps, or a documentary about acid rain, or an infomercial–anything at all really, he doesn’t care. He looks as blissful as a Buddha, but he’s talking it all in. Nothing escapes his amused notice. It’s all material for his fantastic songs.

Randy Newman is an unprepossessing fellow, and he likes it that way. He doesn’t worry too much about his image because in a sense he doesn’t have one–he’s spent his whole career hiding behind masks, amidst personae, inhabiting characters who aren’t Randy Newman.

I’m talking a rogue’s gallery of miscreants–whether they be wicked, deranged, pathetic, megalomaniacal, impotent, deluded, dumb but not nearly as dumb as you might think, sad, self-aware but only to a point, proud for no damn reason at all. I could go on, but suffice it to say they’re a terribly flawed bunch, and therein lies their pathos: all of them, no matter how awful, are human to a fault.

Newman gets tagged as a singer-songwriter, but singer-songwriters bare their souls; Randy’s far too reticent a soul for such confessional nonsense, and far too modest as well–Randy Newman would be the first person to tell you there’s nothing very interesting about Randy Newman. No, the label is accurate only to the extent that he writes and sings his own songs and performs a whole lot of them all by his lonesome on the piano.

But to return to the beginning. Randy Newman strikes me as a lazy man because he sounds like a lazy man; it’s the rare occasion indeed when he manages to rouse himself from that drowsy New Orleans-by-way-of-Los Angeles drawl of his. Can you imagine Randy Newman excited? I can’t. Well, maybe if you tried to keep him up past his bedtime.

On 1970’s 12 Songs, Newman’s second and second best–the No. 1 spot goes to his brilliant 1974 outing, Good Old Boys–LP, Newman sings a whole slew of very off-kilter love songs, and throws in some truly offbeat numbers of the sort that make him a true American original, a national treasure even.

Take the sprightly but very anxiety-ridden “Mama Told Me Not to Come.” Here it is the dawn of the drug-soaked seventies and instead of trying to prove how hip he is Newman speaks out in the guise of Bob Dylan’s very confused Mr. Jones–he’s at a party and something’s happening and he don’t know what it is, but it’s all making him very, very uncomfortable. The cigarettes smell funny, he’s seeing things he wishes he wasn’t seeing, and he doesn’t want anybody to turn on the lights because he doesn’t want to see any more. And the funny part is the party he’s at doesn’t sound all that wild–he could be at a cocktail party, by the sound of things.

Also on the upbeat side is the countrified “Old Kentucky Home.” It may sound like your standard loving homage to the Bluegrass State until you scan the lyrics, and what you get is a sordid family drama–brother Gene’s kicking mama down the stairs, and as for poor sister Sue she’s “Short and stout/She didn’t grow up she grew out/Mama says she’s plain but she’s just being kind/Papa thinks she’s pretty but he’s almost blind.” But, says our unflappable narrator, “I’m all right so I don’t care.”

“Have You Seen My Baby” is 50’s R&B by way of the Big Easy, complete with a great horn section, and on this one Randy’s a cuckold looking for his baby everywhere. He’s desperate, and endlessly forgiving too: “I seen her with the milkman,” he sings, “Ridin’ down the street/When you’re through with my baby, milkman/Send her home to me.” Hilarious.

Lyrically speaking, the rollicking piano number “Uncle Bob’s Midnight Blues” is the strangest song on the LP. The narrator is paranoid, and isn’t making much sense because “that shit that we been using/Sure confuse my thinking.” Which he proves in the lines that follows: “Gonna send out to the drugstore/Buy myself a goat.” Now, I haven’t happened upon a line that flat-out surreal since The Basement Tapes, and it makes me happy every time I hear it. As for what he means by repeating the words “We love you” at the end, I haven’t a clue. Is it a poke at the Rolling Stones? Does it really matter?

“If You Need Oil” is the plaint of an all-night gas station attendant who wants his baby to come over and relieve his awful boredom. Newman nearly warbles the thing, and what makes it funny is that what could be seen as lewd sexual innuendo (“Baby, please come to the station/And I’ll wipe your windshields clean/If you need oil, I’ll give you oil/And I’ll fill your tank with gasoline”) is almost certainly meant literally; our boy’s that hard up for company, and when he says he’ll give his girl oil he means WD-40.

“Yellow Man” is the tale of a man who has come to the amazing discovery that all of those funny looking folks on the other side of the world are “just like you and me”; “Underneath the Moon” is a cover of a Mack Gordon-Harry Revel tune and details the wild night life of all those high-stepping, former cotton-picking slaves whose current “cabin is a penthouse on Lennox Avenue.”

What else have we got? “Lucinda” is your standard love song–guy sees girl on beach in her graduation gown, guy sits down beside girl, girl gets run over by one of those beach sand-rolling machines. Got it? “Suzanne” is a love song sung by a stalker. “Lover’s Prayer” is sung by a guy with a set of very specific demands: “Don’t send me nobody with glasses/Don’t want no one above me/Don’t send nobody takin’ night classes/Send me somebody to love me.” As for “Don’t Burn Down the Cornfield,” it’s a smoldering, swamp blues that Randy sings on the real down low and concerns a guy and a girl who like to get it on in the warm glow of a really, really big fire.

Randy Newman’s story songs would get more baroque–”A Wedding in Cherokee County” from Good Old Boys is a marvel of hilariously fine detail–but I love the simplicity of 12 Songs. These songs sink or swim on the subtlest of nuances–a word or too here, a curious aside there. The man’s an alchemist, turning the dross of the popular song to gold by means of his impeccable comic timing. Put simply, he’s one of a kind, and the world would be a po-faced place without him. I’d applaud him–but I’d hate to wake him from his nap.


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