(Okay. I exaggerate. I wanted the opening to be grab-by.)
A giant piano, a crooked smile (befitting his craggy face) and a twisted mind are Randy Newman's weapons. (I'd list his laugh, but he didn't laugh that night. I wish he had; one writer has called it a "gravedigger's giggle, low and evil, that rises up from some secret chamber where I'm sure the sun rarely shines.") He's been warping minds and raising ire since the 1960s. He's dismissed his career as "writing songs for money," but he's written classic songs. His two big ones are "Momma Told Me Not To Come," popularized by Three Dog Night, and "You Can Leave Your Hat On," redone by Joe Cocker. ("Go over there/ Turn on the lights/ No, *all* the lights.") Add his anthem "I Love L.A." and you have his rock trifecta. You also have a famous song with lines like "Look at the mountains/ Look at the trees/ Look at that bum over there, man, he's down on his knees." That's played over the sound system at the Staples Center during Lakers games, if you listen closely enough...
And then there's his film music, most notably The Natural and Toy Story un and deux; most recently Seabiscuit ...but talking about his film career is another whole e-mail, so I'll ignore it. (Just to say that a fan of his, film composer Hans Zimmer, once claimed Newman had not won an Oscar "because the world is not ready for Randy's acceptance speech." He won one. Finally. On the 16th try.)
Last time Newman came to Portland, he played for nearly 3,000 in the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, backed up by the Oregon Symphony. This time it was the 650-seat Aladdin Theater -- I hope someone told him that the place once was an adult movie house; he'd've appreciated that -- and he did evilly funny magic with just his piano, his froggy, nasal voice, and lines like these:
Columbus sailed for India/ Found Salvador instead/ He shook hands with some Indians/ Soon they all were dead/ They got TB and typhoid and athlete's foot/ Diphtheria and the flu/ 'Scuze me! Great nations coming through... -- "The Great Nations of Europe"(...I feel I should mention that in the concert, he made the "girl" 19 years old, making the song only slightly less horrible...)
Sometimes I'm crazy/ But I guess you know/ And I'm weak and I'm lazy/ And I've hurt you so/ And I don't listen to a word you say/ When you're in trouble, I turn away/ But I love you... -- "Marie"
They say that money can't buy love in this world/ But it can get you half a pound of cocaine/ And a sixteen-year-old girl/ And a great big long limousine/ On a hot September night/ Now that may not be love but/ It's all right... -- "It's Money That I Love"
I want everyone to like me/ That's one thing I know for sure/ I want everyone to like me/ 'Cause I'm a little insecure... -- "I Want Everyone To Like Me"Randy Newman is the character actor of famous songwriters: except when he's being autobiographical, he's singing in the voice of yet another person he's created. (So. Don't assume the "I" in his songs is him unless he tells you so.) His inspirations have included fires, slavery, bad parenting, abandonment issues (in kids' songs, mind you), modern-day cowboys, inner-city rot, fatal floods, xenophobia, a dancing bear, exploitation of good friends, colonialism, pathological lying, impotence (in two tunes), even a song about Satan getting dumped by his girlfriend. He described his recent "I Miss You" as "a love song I wrote for my first wife while I was married to my second." He's not kidding. (And by the way, he's still married. To the second one!)
Short people got no reason/ Short people got no reason/ Short people got no reason to live/ They've got little hands/ Little eyes/ Walk around telling great big lies/ They have little noses/ Little teeth/ They wear platform shoes on their nasty little feet... -- "Short People." (Don't remember the '70s? "Short People" was a No. 2 hit in 1977. And a magnet for controversy, too: people thought he was serious. He thought it obvious that the character's a screaming idiot, but Newman still got called a bigot. "Maybe I was right about the little pukes all along," he once said, slyly...)
He opened his show with "Last Night I Had a Dream" ("I saw a vampire/ I saw a ghost/ Everybody scared me/ You scared me the most"), and he made fun of his lyrics in between verses: he sang "You said 'Honey, can't you tell me what your name is?/ I said 'You know what my name is'," then said, "It was the '70s. I don't know what the hell it means." Later he had a coughing fit that stopped a song; he looked down at the stage like he was gazing to Hell, rumbled "I'm not that old, don't take me yet," and added "It's times like this I wonder, what would Sting do?"
Being unaccompanied by other musicians, sometimes he'd fill in the guitar part on a song by humming it, or he'd say "Take it!" to players who weren't actually on stage. He thanked the show's sponser, KINK-FM, for airing his songs: "If I had that in every city, I'd be Elton John. But even gayer."
He told some stories that had to have been made from whole cloth -- he claimed one song grew out of an attempt to write a national anthem for Albania -- and he can be brutal about his drug-abusing past. ("I'm gonna change costumes and shoot up before the next half," he announced before intermission. He was kidding there, folks...)
Another thing that came out of his mouth: "I'm married again, and in a stunning reversal of what's normal my second wife's younger than my first." (Audience laughs knowingly.) "She has two kids. I went with them one time to school orientation. It was quite a stunning event, socially and culturally, and I wrote a song about it, but not wanting to waste a song on that kind of personal minutia, I included in the song the reason for the failure of Marxism."
Would I make this up? (The tune's called "The World Isn't Fair" and is sung by a character who thinks he's being clever when he sings "If Marx were alive today, he'd be rolling around in his grave.")
He got the audience to sing along twice. On the song "Shame," about an older New Orleans rich man who's hung up on a young pretty lady who's certainly not hung up on him, he had us sing "Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame" during the chorus while his character defends himself ("I ain't 'shamed of nothin'... I don't know what you're talkin' about..."). On his ode to rock singers who refuse to retire, "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)," we chanted "He's dead, he's dead, YOU'RE DEAD!!!" We even clapped along on another song. Now, normally, clapping happens on like, I dunno, folk tunes and campfire songs. This time it was for the song "Political Science," about someone who thinks that the U.S. of A. is so great that anyone who doesn't instantly support us on foreign policy gets bombed. So it was a sarcastic response to the lyrics "We give them money, but are they grateful/ No, they're spiteful and they're hateful/ They don't respect us, so let's surprise them/ Let's drop the big one, pulverize them... Boom goes London, Boom Par-ee, more room for you and more room for me/ And every city the whole world 'round/ Would just be another American town/ How peaceful it would be..." (Written in 1972, I might add.)
Newman's spent his career creating moods through song. He's not easy listening. (His words: "My music has a high irritation factor. You can't put it on and eat potato chips and invite the neighbors over for a barbecue. It's got 'prick' in it, and 'wop' in it, and 'I'm gonna take off my pants.'")
But then this world-class smart-ass will surprise you with the sadness and feeling he puts in a song like "Louisiana 1927," about huge floods that ravaged the state where he was raised. Trust me: "Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline" can cause a lump in your throat when sung by him. "I Miss You" is tough and lovely: "I miss you/ Sorry, but I do/ I miss you/ Sorry, but it's true/ I'd like to thank you for the good years/ And apologize for the rough ones..." He's proud of how kids sat still for "When She Loved Me," the song for Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl in Toy Story 2 and her fear of being "lonely and forgotten." He ended the show with "I Think It's Going To Rain Today," which is decidedly not a rah-rah last-song-of-the-encore song:
Broken windows and empty hallways/ A pale dead moon in the sky streaked with gray/ ...Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles/ With frozen smiles to chase love away/ Human kindness is overflowing/ And I think it's going to rain today...And with a smile, a jerky wave, and an audience full of the surprised and the touched, Randy Newman left.