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Electing Randy Newman

“I think there are a lot of people who find it jarring to have a black man in the White House and they want him out. They just can’t believe that there’s not a more qualified white man.” So says Randy Newman upon the release of his new single and free download, “I’m Dreaming.”

It’s a bagatelle, as good a song as any Randy’s released in recent years, and an on-point satire of the Obama derangement that makes local Republican officials e-mail-blast watermelon-gorilla cartoons. But the election of 2012 will pass. Where “I’m Dreaming” is truly useful is as an introduction to Randy Newman, for those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure.

If you’re not already a fan, you probably have some exposure to Randy Newman.  At the very least you’ve heard “You’ve Got a Friend in Me“, from the Toy Story movies, more than once. You may think of him as a minor demigod of classic rock, or a melancholy musical humorist, as if Elliot Smith had joined the Capitol Steps. The new song on its own would confirm as much. But I want you to hear it with the rest of his work, because Randy Newman has been singing a song about America for a very long time.

“I’m dreaming of a white president,” sings Randy, “just like the ones we’ve always had.” It’s a fantasy encounter with the Obama Nation’s imagined Romney voter, who favors the kind of affirmative action that favors him: “Won’t be the brightest, perhaps, but he’ll be the whitest.”

As such a portrait, it’s in close keeping with many of Randy’s political songs. The songwriter distinguished himself from his peers in the adult contemporary 1970’s by eschewing confession for unsettling character sketches. Unlike sincere and sorrowful James Taylor, the critics’ go-to contrast, Randy writes in voices that couldn’t possibly be his own. (Randy himself has found the comparison useful: “All combined, my records have sold as many copies as James Taylor’s last album sold in Des Moines,” he once told an audience, and decades later he put a cherry on top of the “rivalry” by casting Taylor as the Devil in his Faust.)

Many of these sketches are intimate and disturbingly plausible, like 12 Songs‘ “Suzanne” (1970), written from the point of a view of a creep stalking a girl whose number he found in a telephone booth. More often, Randy gives us the kind of character who voices Sail Away‘s “Political Science” (1972). That song starts with a believable bit of crank wisdom – “We give them money but are they grateful? / No, they’re spiteful and they’re hateful” – and proceeds to a sarcastic reductio ad absurdum – “They don’t respect us so let’s surprise them / We’ll drop the big one and pulverize them.” “Short People,” who, according to the song, “got no reason to live,” is another entry in this mode, so obviously satirical that Randy was taken aback when actual short people protested it.

“Political Science” and “Short People” are perfectly funny Randy Newman songs. They are among the best known Randy Newman songs. But please, pay heed: they are by no means the best Randy Newman songs. On the surface, the new song lives in their bin, political satires with obvious targets. But “I’m Dreaming” leads back into a much richer and weirder vein of Randy’s imagination—his own obsession with race.

Sail Away‘s title track can uncontroversially be called Randy’s masterpiece. Musically, it’s a gentle lullaby; on the album (though not in most live performances), the orchestra swells underneath, suggesting an overture to a terrifying American opera. But the soothing music belies the song’s complicated moral picture. Randy plays a slaver weaving a dream in front of African tribesmen; picture Melville’s Confidence Man, transplanted a few centuries and time zones from the Mississippi River to the Ivory Coast. “In America, you’ll get food to eat / won’t have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet.”

What do we make of this? The Randy Newman chapter of Greil Marcus’s book Mystery Train, titled “Every Man is Free,” is one of my favorite-ever pieces of rock criticism…

Wait: Let me–Josh–interrupt myself.  Before I tell you what Greil Marcus says, I should tell you what I have to say about Greil Marcus. Greil Marcus broked my brain several times over. My first years of higher education, spent on a cattle ranch among twenty-five male students (yes that one), thinking about women and glasses of beer, were made marginally less lonesome or at least more tolerable by long hours spent still and staring at the picture of Emmy Hennings on page 156 of Lipstick Traces. That book saved the academy and me from one another when my attempts to ape its freewheeling associative thoughtways spectacularly ruined an otherwise passable senior thesis on The Day After, Ronald Reagan, and American jeremiads. If you are near a bookstore or a library, you may as well stop reading this and go pick up Mystery Train, to which the remainder of this essay owes its meat. There’s a good bit about Sly Stone in there too. I know Sly’s dentist, but that’s a story for another time.

…and it prefaces its close reading of “Sail Away” with this observation:

“In America,” Newman sings, “every man is free/ To take care of his home, and his family.” But no more than that, is the bitter, unsung line.

Most of the song is directed at the future slave. That one line is directed at the contemporary listener: you think you’ve made it to freedom? Not so fast.

Newman’s follow-up album to Sail Away is Good Old Boys (1974), a concept-album tour of the Old South and my personal favorite. It stitches together “Louisiana (1927),” widely revived in Katrina’s wake, with a tribute to Huey Long (“Kingfish”) and a cover of a campaign song penned by Long himself, and it contains the Southern-Gothic-lurid sorrow of “Wedding in Cherokee County.”

The album opener, “Rednecks”, is the standout. Randy, in character, sings from the point of view of a resentful Southern Man who’s just seen segregationist Georgia governor Lester Maddox trashed on TV by “some smart-ass New York Jew” (presumably a reference to goyishe kopf Dick Cavett, who famously drove Maddox off his show). “We’re rednecks,” he sings, in a chorus that introduces a tour of the region’s finest masculine specimens, “we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground.” It sounds at first like what Marcus calls the “sledge-hammer ironies” of “Political Science” etc. but keep listening: this narrator is capable of more mischief, and he doesn’t even have to break character.

After touring the south, the narrator changes course.

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

You, the listener, are too in some kind of cage. Came to make fun of the hicks, stayed to confront the sorry racial legacy of the urban North. J. Anthony Lukas, call your office.

To Marcus, Randy’s next album, Little Criminals, would be a disappointment, the moment that Randy “sold out to his cult.” Granted, it’s not in the class of Sail Away and Good Old Boys, but I stand by it. It was my first, purchased in Las Vegas on a road trip with my dad, and it contains “Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation of Albert Einstein in America.”

Mystery Train passes over this song, but it’s a truly perfect storm of Randy’s fascinations: with blackness and whiteness (and, mind the title, Jewishness and goyishness), about sex and purity, about how America dreams those things and they dream it right back.

(The title, a joke which is all set-up and half punch line, hints at Randy’s inclination toward narrative Matryoshka dolls, the pinnacle of which “My Life Is Good” finds, on the album Trouble in Paradise. You have to follow closely, but it seems that the fourth verse of that song is sung by Bruce Springsteen, as retold by Randy to his child’s teacher, as written by a girl who Randy and his wife picked up in Mexico and who purportedly wrote the whole song, as described by Randy in the song’s prologue. Find your way out of that one.)

The finale of “Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation”:

Americans dream of gypsies, I have found
Gypsy knives and gypsy thighs
That pound and pound and pound and pound
And African appendages that almost reach the ground
And little boys playing baseball in the rain

America, America
Step out into the light
You’re the best dream man has ever dreamed
And may all your Christmases be white

“May all your Christmases be white,” and naturally, your presidents too.

“I’m Dreaming,” taken alone, is about as sharp as “Political Science” and “Short People.” This is not bupkis, but Randy’s mighty sword has it some edge, and this song reveals his blade at its most rococo. The penultimate verse brews together an Orientalist bedroom flamenco, the savage sexual hysteria at the heart of the original American sin, and the Norman Rockwell U.S. imaginary in four efficient lines. That brew suffuses the final verse, glazing two patriotic classics in mash-up (if Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” isn’t a hymn of hegemony then I don’t know what is).

Einstein, whose presence is shall-we-say overshadowed by Sigmund Freud’s impersonation in the song above, finally gets stage time in the play-within-the-play in “I’m Dreaming”:

In deepest darkest Africa nineteen three
A little boy says, “Daddy, I just discovered relativity.
A big eclipse is coming
And I’ll prove it. Wait and see!”

“You better eclipse yourself outta here, son
And find yourself a tree
There’s a lion in the front yard
And he knows he won’t catch me.”

How many little Albert Einsteins
Cut down in their prime?
How many little Ronald Reagans
Gobbled up before their time?

The election will pass. America will continue, stumbling around, about, above, aboard something resembling freedom. Randy Newman? After the election, he’ll still have something to tell us. Yesterday the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Fisher vs University of Texas, a case brought by a woman who was rejected from that school, matriculated at and was graduated from Louisiana State University, and still decided to sue UT for giving her slot to some unnamed minority, perhaps imagining herself a little Einstein cut down in her prime. “Rednecks” has a rhyme for LSU: “went in dumb, come out dumb too.” Nonesuch Records has a suggestion: “While the song, which Newman performs solo at the piano, is free, anyone wishing to contribute is encouraged to donate to the United Negro College Fund at www.uncf.org.”


Josh Joy Kamensky: Sincere Smile, Dancing Bear.

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  1. “That book saved the academy and me from one another when my attempts to ape its freewheeling associative thoughtways spectacularly ruined an otherwise passable senior thesis on The Day After, Ronald Reagan, and American jeremiads.” I would like to read that senior thesis, Joshua Joy Kamensky.


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