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Monday, December 25, 2023

A little Randy Newman for Christmas

Randy Newman at Symphony Center in 1996
(Sun-Times file photo)

On one hand, this is completely out of left-field. On the other, I'm supposed to have Christmas off, so I figured, "It's better than nothing. I hope." It's long as it is, so I couldn't go into his comfortable Jewishness. And I didn't dare mention his "Christmas in Capetown." I also ran a follow-up post of reader reaction to this column.

     Randy Newman is the greatest living American songwriter.
     Forgive me for sidestepping the usual introductory throat-clearing. Sometimes you need to cut to the chase.
    Particularly during the holidays. Everyone’s busy, wrapping gifts — I almost said “shopping,” but nobody shops anymore, right? Not in stores. Amazon just drops stuff on our doorsteps.
     At least we’re still listening to those Christmas carol collections. Apple Music is chocked with ’em. People complain about holiday music, but I love it. Great songs by timeless composers like George Handel and Felix Mendelssohn. (What, you didn’t know the former inspired the music to “Joy to the World” and the latter to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”? They did.)
     When the subject of great American composers of holiday tunes comes up, we’re left with Irving Berlin, whose “White Christmas” has not aged well, even though it’s about snow, supposedly.
     Raising the question: Who’s the greatest living American composer? Not Bruce Springsteen — his songs are too personal. Nobody sings a Springsteen song; it’s unimaginable. I’m tempted to say Tom Waits, just to hear that groan that goes up when I mention his name. “Hold On,” “Mr. Siegel,” “Train Song” and dozens of other classics. Fantastic.
     But he doesn’t compare to Randy Newman.
   Even if the name leaves you blank, you know his work, at least the soundtrack to “Toy Story.” Newman wrote “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and no doubt cringes to consider his best-known song is a bit of hired fluff. He’s scored dozens of movies.
     Music is personal, and I should show my hand. Randy Newman songs have been the soundtrack of my entire life, from his first hit, “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” which came out in 1970, when I was in fifth grade, a hint of the sort of parties I’d seek and, to my sorrow, eventually find.
     Newman is a humorist and storyteller who sings in character. That would trip him up as his songs became hits, and listeners had to figure out he didn’t really, personally think short people have no reason to live.
     In 1988, he stepped out from behind the mask and offered up “Land of Dreams,” an obviously autobiographical album, since nobody could imagine “Four Eyes.” And how could anybody who ever showed up to elementary school in glasses not love him after that?

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  1. Hard to argue. But I think Jason Isbell should get honorable mention. If you're not familiar, go find his "Southeastern" album for starters.

  2. Randy Newman is a national treasure. At any public event where they play the National Anthem or "God Bless America" it should be required to follow with "Sail Away".

  3. Love Newman-haad a few CDs of his-fun stuff and heavy stuff too

  4. I love Randy Newman as much as the next late middle-aged white guy (and face it, we're dealing with white guy music here, aren't we?), but Carole King, Stevie Wonder are still living. Granted, many of King frequently wrote with partners, and Wonder song output seems to have dried out. Bob Dylan and Paul Simon also to come mind, but again precious little songwriting this century. So it is hard to argue against Randy Newman.

    I wonder if Newman's distinctly odd-ball characters, situations and topics are what have kept him from having his body of work turned into a successful jukebox musical.

    1. Stevie Wonder. Now I did not consider him. I would have to call him greater on an objective scale. I listened to "Fingertips (Part II)" just the other day.

    2. Added him to our life list in 2010, when he performed at Oberlin College on the weekend they unveiled the sleek and modernistic Bertram and Judith Kohl Building, which serves as a home to jazz well as programs in composition, musicology, and music theory.

      He came out wearing a long dark trench coat, which made him resemble either a hit man or a street person. It was a bit unsettling. And he did not perform anything that had made him famous. Instead, Stevie sang a lot of relatively obscure stuff that probably doesn't get much airplay.

      But what the hell...we were guests of the school, the tickets were complimentary, and at least we can say we've seen Stevie live. It still counts.

  5. My personal Christmas nightmare comes up whenever someone mentions "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." As a kid, I would consistently mix it up with "Deck The Halls With Boughs Of Holly," which has the same beat, or meter, or something, in its first line. I would start off smoothly singing Deck The Halls to the tune of Hark The Herald by mistake, only to crash into the wall when the Fa-La-Las came along on the next line. Try it sometime.

    My personal Christmas favorite is a modern rendition of a couple of classics in mashup: the 2004 recording of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by Barenakedladies. It opens with a jaunty upbeat rendition of the first couple of verses, and then Sarah McLachlan joins in with a version of "We Three Kings" that's so achingly clean and clear that it will bring tears to my eyes. Listening to their recording makes you wonder why no one ever thought to combine them before.

  6. I'm certainly a fan of Newman though turning and looking at my record collection I'd lean towards Dylan , who I think is still alive .

    Newmans: "Keeping the niggers down" is particularly cringeworthy and might put into question his greatest living nomination. In our current era that piece although satirical might get him cancelled. Then there's : "Drop the big one now"

  7. Joni Mitchell. "Urge for Going," among so many great songs. She's Canadian, but let's not split hairs.

    1. No let's. Living american does not include Canadians of which Joni is the best.

  8. Randy Newman “Louisiana “ had the sweep and depth of an epic novel. That said, I have to stick with Sondheim. (btw, ms. google is being uncooperative again, so for today, I revert to being):
    paul w
    roscoe vil

  9. I like Randy Newman, even though I'm not an old white guy. When I first saw this column in the paper this AM, I thought you might reference his song, "Christmas in Capetown", given the date. I'm glad you didn't. Too heavy for the holiday.

  10. I feel you've been waiting for one really approaches the body of work of Bob Dylan. Include his 2001 'Love &Theft'--especially "High Water Everywhere'. Prolific. Poetic. Political, not political. And a history from the the early 60's.
    Not that I don't love Randy Newman too. But really...


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