The time: a warm evening this past July. The setting: a Gallo-Roman amphitheater in France during the Nice Jazz Festival. My buddy and I were fortunate to be backstage, but we soon realized it was not the best vantage point from which to view a concert, so we scaled the ancient, crumbling wall and perched our butts on a 2,000-year-old block of stone to watch Randy Newman sing about rednecks.
I had forgotten how many great songs Randy Newman has written. He sang and played piano, without a band — an unassuming, bespectacled man more resembling a high school science teacher than a pop icon. I was slowly entranced by his clever compositions, one after another, spanning a career that started, I think, in the 1960s — some made famous by him, others as hits for other artists. Some I was hearing for the first time (my kids being grown, I've missed out on Newman's songs in Ragtime, The Natural, Toy Story I & II, A Bug's Life, James and the Giant Peach, Monsters, Inc., and on and on). But there were plenty I recognized and was happy to hear again: "I remember this!" "He wrote that?" "Oh, yeah!"
One song about a girl was so sad that the audience sat in silence for several stunned seconds before breaking into applause. Newman's "Political Science" was as relevant today as it was when I first heard it back in 1972. Then came the sing-along "I'm Dead (but I Don't Know It)," about an over-the-hill rock star who won't quit: "I've got nothing left to say. I'm gonna say it anyway. . . . I'm dead and I don't know it." ("You're dead!" screamed the audience. "You're dead!")
The range of characters Newman inhabits is astonishing; he's a rocker, he's a con man, he's a Tin Pan Alley loser, and he croaks all their stories in perhaps the most distinctive voice in pop music. (It's amazing how a guy with such vocal limitations can make such beautiful noise.) Those familiar with Newman understand his knack for taking his viewpoints from life's subterranean players. His amoral protagonists make no apology, allowing our reaction to bring home a moral message, and causing us to look at ourselves as much as others. This type of discovery often sticks longer than getting preached at.
We climbed down off the wall, strolled through the archway, and headed down Cimiez hill, overlooking the Mediterranean, feeling as though we'd discovered an amazing new talent, knowing he'd been there all along.
Randy Newman is at the Michigan Theater on Sunday, October 15.
[Review published October 2006]