Forty years after the release of his debut album, Randy Newman still writes songs with outrageous and often controversial characters.
On Harps and Angels, Randy Newman is back with his wonderfully sharp tongue. His songs over the decades have skewered rednecks, kingpins and heartless politicians. Newman may be the most misunderstood songwriter ever: The narrators of his songs say things about the slave trade or short people that he would never say, but that doesn't stop people from being angry with him. How many?
Newman puts the figure at "26,438,982."
He can now add Korean-American parents to that list. On "Korean Parents," he sings: "Korean parents for sale / You say you need a little discipline / Someone to whip you into shape / They'll be strict, but they'll be fair."
Yet another group to add includes Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" addresses the loss of empire, setting up a cast of characters who seem to say, "If you think things are bad now, think about the Spanish Inquisition."
"It's digging deep to defend, saying that the leaders we have — they may be the worst we've had, but they aren't the worst the world has seen," Newman says.
"The New York Times printed 'A Few Words in Defense of Our Country' in its Op-Ed page," he says. "And they made cuts in it, which didn't surprise me at all. They have an editor, they edit. But they took out a verse about the Caesars where I say, you know, they were sleeping with their sisters, stashing little boys in swimming pools and burning down the city.... What are they protecting, Tiberius? It's like, these people have been dead 2,000 years. I mean, they're not going to — you know, Kevin Caesar isn't going to come out of the woodwork and sue 'em. I mean, what difference does it make?"
Even with the biting wit of his song lyrics, Newman has never really been one to offer his opinions to the press.
"But you know what? I've been giving my opinions too much," Newman says. "In interviews I've been doing, all of a sudden I've turned into, like, Warren Beatty, like an activist or something. I used to hate it when show-biz people would be commenting on issues, but the way things have gone with this administration, it's in your face all the time. It's so noisy that you almost can't avoid talking about it with people."
Newman says he's surprised by the change. He's spent his whole career writing about characters, not situations.
"You know the old saying, 'It's a curse to live in interesting times.' Well, in a way, that applies in this situation. It's much more interesting to me to examine an individual character or something."
Newman closes Harps and Angels — an album packed with sardonic lyrics — with a sweet, heartfelt song called "Feels Like Home." It's hard to imagine how Newman can make the switch.
"It doesn't have much to do with how I'm feeling, what I write. I'm always feeling like, 'Well, I hope I come up with something here.' But I chose ... at some point not to do what the general repertory does, and that is love songs. And I, for whatever reason, some shyness, some strange psychological reason, or just because I figured, 'Well, you can do more....' But a song like 'Feels Like Home' will end up being the most popular song throughout the years. Little Newmans will be earning something from it 30 years from now."