Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Randy Newman: Sail Away

If the best evidence of genius is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at once, few of Randy Newman's songs fail to offer evidence of genius. Take, for example, "Dayton, Ohio–1903," a track from Sail Away, one of three Newman titles inaugurating a set of Rhino reissues. On the surface a celebration of simple afternoon diversions, the song has a devil in its details. "The air was clean and you could see / and folks were nice to you," Newman sings, in the guise of a character recalling an idyll that looks all the better for the intervening years of change. In America, as everywhere else, the only paradise is a paradise lost, and the song works at once as a heartfelt tribute to times past, a poke at free-floating nostalgia, and an examination of how history can lay waste to those in its path, all within the Trojan-horse confines of a simple pop song. Newman's characters don't always come by their divided consciences so honestly. The charming sales pitch of "Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear" has a grim echo in Sail Away's title track, a recruitment ad for the slave trade sung with a smile that hides the whip. Sail Away dates from 1972, the heart of a fruitful early period in Newman's career that revealed his ability to write songs of biting wit, novelistic complexity, and deep understanding. It's easy to laugh at the guy stage-directing his own debasement in "You Can Leave Your Hat On," but it's hard not to feel for him and maybe wish him luck, too. Two years later, Good Old Boys found Newman calling on the same gifts for a concept album about the South: its past, its present, and all its attendant contradictions. Newman attracted controversy for using the word "nigger" in Boys' opening track, "Rednecks," but his best defense remains the one he addressed to a troubled black fan at the time: "I wouldn't have used it if I didn't need it in order to say what I wanted to say." Singing from the perspective of a Southerner offended at the dismissive treatment of Georgia's segregationist governor Lester Maddox on The Dick Cavett Show, Newman needed the word to call the North out on its own racism and to focus attention on the way dismissive mockery allowed racism to thrive in Maddox country. But the story didn't end there. Good Old Boys began as an album called Johnny Cutler's Birthday that followed the same Maddox booster as he prepared to turn 30. It touched on the character's pride in his hometown of Birmingham ("greatest city in Alabam'"), his strained relationship with his wife, his triumphs, and his failings. A demo version of that record is included as a bonus disc on the new incarnation of Good Old Boys, and as fine as it is, it also works to confirm Boys as Newman's masterpiece. Zooming out from Cutler, whose songs still open the album, Newman presents the South as equal parts history and myth. "What has happened down here is the winds have changed," begins "Louisiana 1927," a devastating understatement about the flood that eliminated a way of life overnight. Whether addressing the Dayton of '03, the Louisiana of '27, or the departing Nixon of '74 on "Mr. President (Have Pity On The Working Man)," few songwriters measured the changing winds with Newman's skill. In 1980, Newman marked the proper beginning of a second career as a film composer with his score for Ragtime, which is making a long-delayed debut on CD. Newman took to the task well, and the result, in Ragtime and elsewhere, has been a career of frequent brilliance. The only downside: The scores have cut into his pop-album production schedule. After all, genius is always in short supply.


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