By John Cody
ONE OF the most highly regarded composers working today, Randy Newman’s list of accomplishments is impressive.
His songs have been covered by an incredibly diverse range of acts; he also has a healthy catalogue of solo releases; and he has scored numerous major motion pictures, garnering one Oscar and 13 nominations.
Typically, Newman’s songs are populated by oddballs. Like Matt Groening and his Simpsons characters, everyone is fair game. Newman is an equal opportunity offender, and can be easily misunderstood. His most popular recording, ‘Short People,’ lampooned the inanity of racial prejudice, yet was taken by a rather thick public as an intentional slight toward the height-impaired. Like southern gothic novelists Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, he writes from perspectives that are rarely endearing, yet always fascinating.
Newman has dealt with the divine throughout his career; 1968′s ‘I Think He’s Hiding’ tells of humankind’s confusion as to a loving God’s existence: “Come and look at what we’ve done / With what you gave us / Now I’ve heard it said / That our Big Boy’s dead / But I think He’s hiding.”
‘God’s Song,’ from 1972′s Sail Away, portrays the voice of the creator: “I burn down your cities — how blind you must be / I take from you your children, and you say ‘How blessed are we’ / You all must be crazy to put your faith in me / That’s why I love mankind.” The same album includes ‘He Gives Us All His Love,’ a praise song which would hardly be out of place in any Sunday morning church service.
Perhaps Newman’s most daunting — and underrated — work is Faust, his retelling of Goethe’s classic struggle between good and evil. Originally released in 1996, the disc — which was mounted as a musical — met with public indifference; but it is seeing new life in a deluxe, expanded reissue.
Newman is particularly proud of the musical, stating: “Everything I know is in it. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever done, the stage version. I loved the theatre.”
Newman wrote the book, music and lyrics, which updates the story to the present day; it takes place in the midwestern U.S., as well as the celestial kingdom. Like Kevin Smith’s Dogma, there is much to enjoy. The writing is witty and well-informed, if at times less than subtle. Unlike the Catholic Smith, Newman is an atheist — though hardly fanatical: “I would certainly not carry a banner around saying ‘Be an atheist, it’s the greatest!’ It’s not the greatest. But I can think of more good arguments for it than I can against it.”
His version of the Lord is omnipotent — and a nice guy, to boot. As Newman describes: “Everyone loves Him, He knows everything, but sort of misses the old days when the Red Sea used to part, and there was all that kind of action. He knows that Heaven has gotten soft, and He really hasn’t been watching Earth too closely since about World War I. It’s just too much trouble for Him, and He’s preferred to deal with more cosmic concerns. He’s a big, relaxed, handsome guy to whom everything comes easy, like Gerald Ford or George Romney.”
The devil, meanwhile; “thinks that he’s smarter than God and doesn’t understand why he always loses to this guy. He seems to be more in touch with the real world. There is a volley of profanity out of his mouth. The devil is angry.
“The musical starts with Satan getting expelled from Heaven for telling the Lord that they’re both just the invention of an animal who knows he’s going to die. [He sings] ‘We’re figments of their imagination,’ and the Lord, of course, is upset by this; so the devil is expelled, and he goes down to hell to reign, singing ‘Can’t Keep a Good Man Down.’
“But he wants to go back to Heaven, because it’s comfortable there, with golf courses and roller coasters and stately homes. And the devil isn’t allowed to have anything like that. The devil’s home is more sort of stucco and astro-turf. Things have gotten too easy for the devil. He says men think of things to do to each other that even he wouldn’t think of. And the Lord just misses the old days. So here they are, playing the game again, except now the people just don’t cooperate.”
The devil argues that, in creating mankind, the Lord made a mistake. Initially, they consider a Canadian for their experiment: “Oh Northern Boy / As thick as a tree / As dull as a butter knife . . . Only a man / half blind on whiskey / would choose to make / this land his home” (‘Northern Boy’).
But Canadians are considered too godly, as the devil complains: “just like a sheep he will follow you / whenever he can.”
They eventually pick a subject named Henry Faust. In the original, Faust was a highly intelligent man, whereas Newman has turned him into a vacant, self-centred, 19 year old Generation X undergrad. Offered earthly riches in exchange for his soul, Henry blandly inquires: “So what’s the catch?”
When a contract is produced, the devil remarks, “Aren’t you going to read it first?” Faust responds: “No, I don’t like to read on my own time. I’ll just sign it.”
On the original CD, each character is sung by a different vocalist. Newman takes on the role of Satan; James Taylor is cast as the benevolent Creator; and Don Henley is Faust, offering the right amount of cynicism to the role. Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and Elton John also make appearances. Every vocalist turns in fine performances.
But it’s just as pleasing — to this writer even more so — to hear the second disc with demos of Newman singing all the roles, including material not on the original release.
© John Cody 2004