The Devil and Mr. Newman

"I have three kids, and they're not the same as Faust but they go through a sort of period where they're somewhere else. It isn't like I was writing about my kids, but I can't believe it when people are so surprised and say, 'Well, what does this kid want?' What does a nineteen-year-old kid want? I mean, it's the basics -- girls and money and nice clothes and stuff like that, the traditional stuff -- but you don't get what you expect unless you expect nothing.

"I love Faust. I like how consistently self-absorbed he is. [The La Jolla people] have softened him up a little bit but not much. There's been constant pressure on me since anyone has read it to like, 'Well, couldn't he just have a minute where he actually loves somebody else?' And I'm like, 'No, you really can't.'"

As with so much of Newman's work, it is difficult to separate the sarcasm from the sincerity, the irreverence from the mean-spiritedness. By casting James Taylor as the golf-playing God -- this deity so thoroughly out of touch with reality -- and casting himself as the Devil, Newman is both playing off their respective images (white-bread WASP coasting on past success, self-effacing Jew who wishes he had more faith) while mocking them at the same time. But then Newman's the kind of guy who poked fun of Paul Simon on the song "The Blues" (about an upper-class white boy singing his pitiful and rather unbelievable tales of drug-hustling brothers and incarcerated uncles) and then actually hired Simon to sing a verse on the song itself.

"My Faust is not about good and evil," Newman says. "It's not an allegory. First of all, it's about the unpredictability of mankind and how I find it difficult to presume that anyone could imagine what people are going to be up to, and actually know everything, and be omniscient and omnipotent. And it's about the relationship between these two sort of out-of-touch yet still very powerful deities and their sort of consternation with the way things turn out.

"The Devil says things are a little too easy for him now, and the Lord says he hasn't been paying attention because he didn't know what to do with these people. He pretends he's concerned with big cosmic concerns and other parts of the universe, but he just found it so difficult to deal with people. And, ya know, people are difficult."

Randy Newman is America's best songwriter precisely because he so eloquently, so perfectly documents what it means to be an American A "the man who does not like what he sees but is wildly attracted to it anyway," as Greil Marcus wrote in Mystery Train, "a man who keeps his sanity by rendering contradictions other people struggle to avoid."

Whether dissecting the large issues A war ("Political Science"), bigotry ("Rednecks" and "Short People"), classism ("My Life Is Good"), or greed ("It's Money That I Love") A or revealing the smaller, private ones, Newman has painted a vivid portrait of this nation. He is Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Marvin Gaye, Muddy Waters, and Ray Charles packed into the body of a contemporary George Gershwin; he is the rock and roller who uses strings and piano, so angry and repulsed by what he sees that all he can do is play his beautiful music as the city and the cornfields burn.

"It's hard to say," Newman says when asked if he considers himself a documentarian. "Naturally I try, but you get changed by the fact your life becomes different. My life is the same [as most Americans'] in that I had kids and brought them up and was active and got divorced and lived in this country and watched television and all that stuff, but you're changed a little by what you do for a living. It's an odd job."

Newman's fame and success, such as it is, stems primarily from two songs: "Short People" and "I Love L.A." The first went to number two on the Billboard pop charts in 1977 (the album from which it came, Little Criminals, crept into the Top 10); and "I Love L.A.," from 1983's Trouble in Paradise, quickly became that city's anthem, with Newman filming a popular video that further perverted the song's meaning (which was: "I Hate L.A.").

Perhaps no pop song of the past twenty years was more misinterpreted than "Short People," which was actually a hamfisted reworking of his own "Rednecks," from 1974's Good Old Boys; it was a song about bigotry, about how some people will hate all people for any reason. But when Newman sang, "Short people got no reason to live," those who were diminutive in stature took the song as a slight, just as some African Americans were offended when Newman's redneck sang of "keepin' the niggers down." They missed the point, got lost in the irony, failed to distinguish between songwriter and character. Those familiar only with Newman's hits, those who know nothing of such songs as "Dixie Flyer" or "Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear" or "Sail Away," think of him only as a writer of novelty songs -- the guy who goes for the easy laugh, the schmuck cruising around L.A. in a red convertible with the bimbo by his side.

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