RANDY NEWMAN: Humor With Character

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

I assumed, incorrectly, that was a song about yourself. But like most of your songs, it’s about a character. What brought you to writing character song?
I don’t know. It might be a psychological defect. I don’t want to stand up there and say, “I love you…” I don’t feel like it. It doesn’t interest me. Or I’m afraid of it. It seems much more interesting to get inside of someone else’s heads.

Often those heads belong to ignorant, prejudiced people. You called your song “Yellow Man” a “pinhead’s view of China.” How do you connect so well with pinheads?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I think the people in my songs are generally exaggerations. They’re worse and stupider than people actually are-for the most part. Though the more you see TV shows, you actually see people who are that stupid. Specifically, for that song I read the first Will Durant book of history of civilization, Our Oriental Heritage. It is consigning six thousand years of Chinese history into our Oriental heritage. It’s a great book. That’s where I got the idea. It was a little Jimmy Cagney, Shanghai Lil production number where they do this offensive, coolie kind of stuff.

Now on this album you have song about Asians, “Korean Parents,” which both musically and lyrically is amazing.
It worries me. That people might find it offensive, because it’s pretty close to being a stereotype. But it’s true that Koreans kids do better in school. It’s a close call. And there are things in there nobody understand-the line “Never forget who sent Fido to the farm” was meant to be about regret. But people took it that I was talking about Koreans eating dogs.

Even your greatest love songs, such as “Marie,” are written in character. It’s like you trick yourself into writing a great love song that way.
I wrote that one to explain the character of the guy in “Rednecks” and “Birmingham.” It’s probably some deficiency that I require a character, like an actor does. Otherwise I never would have written that.

And on the new album you have “Feel Like Home,” which almost seems like a straight-up love song, but you wrote that for your musical Faust.
People really like it, so I wanted to do my version of it. It’s such an odd, convoluted process when I write a love song. That was a song she was supposed to sing to the devil, to trick him, into making him think that she loved him. And she breaks the devil’s heart. Which a 19-year-old girl, I imagine, can do. “Losing You,” as I said, is about reaching an age when, if something happens to you, you don’t get over it. “Miss You” is a love song to my first wife. They’re love songs, but not straight love song ideas. You know, if I had written just love songs, well, I don’t know if I would have been an artist. But I think I would have made more money.

Maybe, but great songwriting doesn’t always equal hit songwriting.
But I’ll tell you something: It’s better than any art form, in terms of good stuff being rewarded. Think of it. Broadway is absolutely dreadful. Movies, for the most part, are dreadful and some really bad stuff gets rewarded. The fiction Top Ten is absolutely the worst. That’s the biggest disparity of all. But when we listen to hits of the past-like one of those Motown records-man, that’s pretty good. This is a field where merit is rewarded. Pop music, what’s being remembered, isn’t some old guy squirreled away in an attic writing songs. It’s “Stop In The Name of Love.”

In “Piece of the Pie,” you describe the world going to hell, and no one really caring about it. Except Jackson Browne.
And I mentioned John Mellencamp doing commercials. And the truth is I do more commercials then he does. So that worried me. I didn’t want to offend him.

It’s surprising that you worry so often about being offensive, because you’re Randy Newman-you’re known for being a humorist.
Yeah, but there’s a line. If you’re offensive and it isn’t clear that you’re joking or it isn’t clear that you know what you’re doing, you lose the audience. People in my audiences at shows know I’m joking. But a lot of people don’t get the joke.

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Delaney Bramlett, 1939-2008