Randy Newman’s ‘Dark’ and light side


Randy Newman, who performs Friday at Symphony Hall, has something of a Jekyll-and-Hyde catalog.

Back in 1972, he was the master of dark comedy, chuckling at nuclear annihilation with the song “Political Science.”

Today, listeners know him for Disney sweetness and light, and such songs as “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from “Toy Story,” which is among the 20-plus movies that he’s scored.

Which guy is the one that we’ll remember?

“Odds are I’ll be remembered for ‘Short People,’” Newman said recently, citing the absurd 1977 novelty hit that somehow got America’s underwear in a twist because it suggested “Short people got no reason to live.”

“I’ve got no problem with that,” said Newman, 73, during a recent conversation.

“Short People” was a joke, but as with other Randy Newman tunes, we didn’t always catch the punchline. (A 5-foot-5-inch Maryland state legislator tried to have it banned from radio play.)

His satirical homage to his hometown, “I Love L.A.” (“Look at that mountain/Look at those trees/Look at that bum over there, man/He’s down on his knees”), became the theme song for the L.A. Dodgers and a highlight of Nike’s 1984 Olympics ad barrage.

Was he making fun of L.A.? Yes. Does he still love L.A.? Also yes. He’s like a truth-bomb in a charming package, with orchestral accompaniment, though on Friday it will just be Newman and his Fats Domino-inspired piano.

During Newman’s solo show at the Woodruff Arts Center, he will introduce this summer’s “Dark Matter,” his first album of new, non-soundtrack songs in nine years.

It kicks off with an acerb nine-minute showdown between religion and science called “The Great Debate,” includes a hilarious send-up of “Putin,” and winds up with the heartbreaking “Wandering Boy,” a lament from a man who has fallen away from his youngest son. (Though it doesn’t include an NSFW song about Donald Trump.)

Q: Has anyone told you that “Wandering Boy” made them cry?

A: Yeah, they have. The truth is when I was playing it, it kind of made me cry the first time. I had trouble getting through it. When something makes you cry, I’m suspicious if it isn’t about yourself. (Newman has four sons and one daughter. His own father has been described as emotionally distant.)

Q: You’ve written some funny songs. Is it harder to write a song that makes people cry?

A: They’re easier to write. I wouldn’t say easier: Something will strike me down. But the comedy ones are harder. I don’t know why I do it … I like to make people laugh.

Q: Like with “Political Science” (sample lyric: “Boom goes London and boom Par-ee/More room for you and more room for me”)?

A: They’re not laughing at that as much as they used to. I’ll play it, you’ll see. In “Putin,” people laugh. That’s all I’m asking of them. I’m surprised how favorable he turned out in my song. I’m not that hard on him.

Q: Is it because you find something in common with grotesque characters? Like in “Rednecks” (a lampoon of Southern intolerance, that also turns sympathetic)?

A: The guy (the narrator in “Rednecks”) has a case. He’s saying that Northerners who claim any sort of moral superiority over the South — it’s wrong. They don’t have it.

Q: What would happen if “Rednecks” (with a racial epithet in the chorus) were released today?

A: It would make the news, you know. It would be about the same: It wouldn’t get on the radio, of course. I couldn’t play it anywhere. I played “Rednecks” in the old days. I don’t play it now.

Q: How did it feel to hear “Louisiana 1927” (a song about a historic flood ) getting played again after Katrina? (After the 2005 flooding, the song became a staple for performers at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.)

A: I wished the event had never happened. I was glad to do something, if it provided some comfort. My cousin lost a house there; she lived there on Claiborne. One thing she said she didn’t want to see anymore was Spike Lee come down there with a camera, or to hear my song again. She’d had enough of it.

But I’m glad it got played. … My songs are not for the millions, exactly, and the fact that there’s that song that was such a big deal, and there’s “I Love L.A.,” that became the Dodgers song, and in Disneyland, I’m all over the place.

I took my granddaughter to Disneyland, and because of “Toy Story” and “Cars,” and “A Bug’s Life” and “James and the Giant Peach,” movies I did for them, I’m everywhere there. It’s surprising to me, and gratifying really. I’m glad I could write the way I’ve written, pretty much the way I wanted, except in the movies — I do what they tell me there — to have that kind of (acceptance) to be in those kind of places is great.



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