The Devil and Mr. Newman
Randy Newman's publicist is on the phone one more time apologizing for the delay: Newman wants to do the interview, she explains, but he's locked in a room trying to finish his songs for the upcoming Disney film Toy Story. The first movie made completely with computer animation, it features the voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.
Then Newman has to fly from Los Angeles to La Jolla, California, twice a week to put the finishing touches on his musical, Faust, a modern-day retelling of Goethe's play about the Devil and the Lord fighting for one puny man's soul. The musical is scheduled to open September 19, a week after the release of the Faust album, Newman's first nonfilm soundtrack record since 1988's Land of Dreams; Faust, the album, "stars" such folks as James Taylor, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, and Linda Ronstadt.
So Newman's busy, she explains, real busy.
"Oh," Newman says when he finally comes to the phone after several days of postponing, "I'm not that busy."
The man on the other end of the line is amiable and easy -- relieved, perhaps, to concentrate on something other than writing songs for cartoon characters. He is happy to talk about a work that has been his obsession on and off for more than ten years, willing to discuss those songs that have made him one of the U.S.'s most important songwriters in the second half of the century.
Thirty years ago he was writing hit singles for the likes of Three Dog Night and Peggy Lee and Judy Collins; today he's the lost conscience of Everyman -- male or female, black or white, Jew or gentile, Yankee or Southerner, Devil or God. He's been working on Faust for more than a decade -- so long, he aurally shrugs, that often he considered putting it down and never again picking it up. At the very least, he figured, it might become an album, but an actual stage production? Maybe, but probably not.
The songs for Faust were composed over a span of years during which Newman also wrote the autobiographical Land of Dreams and soundtracks for films such as The Natural, Avalon, The Paper, and Awakenings. Most likely that's why the music for Faust sounds like a summation of the 51-year-old Newman's career -- sweeping and grand orchestral moments alongside faux hard rockers, intimate songs sandwiched in between sarcastic and lurid lyrics. The album was recorded at a handful of studios from February 10, 1993, through June 1, 1995; during that period, a production of Faust was staged in New York City in a rough workshop format. Newman and director James Lupine clashed over the production, however, and it was left for dead until Warner Bros. wanted to try it again in a "more fleshed-out way," as Newman describes it. The La Jolla Playhouse version is being financed by Warner Bros. and produced by Saturday Night Live creator/Newman's old friend Lorne Michaels.
Whether it will play on Broadway, as Warner Bros. and Newman hope, is another question: Unlike Tommy and Big River, two other musicals that had their debut at La Jolla before moving to the Great White Way, Faust -- which will star a cast of unknowns on-stage, not the superstars who appear on the album -- isn't exactly filled with sentimental and rousing feel-good material. Rather, it's a celebration of sin in which Newman's Devil sings of a "Happy Ending" filled with "destruction and corruption and reproduction," and in which Don Henley's Faust imagines a world in which he can walk into any restaurant with his bodyguards and say, "That's Mr. Faust's chair your big ass is in. Don't you understand, motherfucker?" A play in which, at its conclusion, Faust is allowed to ascend to Heaven after betraying the woman he claims to love and proving himself soulless and selfish till his last breath.
"It's a musical comedy, which hasn't been goin' on on Broadway for many years," Newman says of Faust. "It isn't what they do there now, but it isn't so abstruse and difficult. There are the lowest kinds of jokes imaginable in it, and it's not like a cerebral outing. I don't know. I get the same kind of feeling when I go see Broadway outings -- this is something I don't exactly understand. I haven't done anything remotely like it, and I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't have any life past San Diego."
Newman was drawn to the source material in the early 1980s, he explains, because he had always been fascinated by depictions of Heaven in old comedies such as the 1936 film Green Pastures, which featured an all-black cast and depicted life in Heaven under the kindly guidance of Rex Ingram's "de Lawd." In Goethe's original Faust, only the prologue is set in Heaven; in Newman's version, the pearly gates are a rotating door, with the Devil coming and going as he visits his old friend and nemesis, God.
"The Devil and the Lord just sort of speak in a companionable way," Newman relates, referring to his Faust. "The Devil says at the end of the prologue, 'It's nice of the Lord to be so kind to me,' and that's what mine is about A it's about their relationship more than anything else, the fact they have some sort of commonality of experience and are equally frustrated with trying to play this game again with the type of people we've got inhabiting the world today. They just won't do what the Lord and the Devil have learned to expect from people. They haven't been paying attention lately."
At the outset of Newman's Faust, the Lord is singing his happy tunes, exhorting the newly dead to hop on his "Glory Train" for redemption, and celebrating his almighty power over a world he's long ignored ("I've been busy up here, you know," the Lord explains). As Newman describes him in the script, God is a deity who has begun to doubt his own immortality: He has become lethargic, bored, listening to Hawaiian music and playing golf all day. He's not a mean God, not a vengeful God -- despite his comments early on that he's thrown the Buddhists out with the trash -- but a lazy God.
The Lord of Faust isn't too far removed from the Almighty that Newman portrayed in "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)" on 1972's Sail Away -- a God for whom "man means nothing," a God who laughs at man's prayers. "You all must be crazy to put your faith in me," God sings on Sail Away. "That's why I love mankind."
Newman, though, argues that the God of Faust isn't as nasty as the one who sings "God's Song." In fact, Newman likes to say his newest incarnation is just "careless."
"He doesn't do one really mean thing," Newman notes. "He doesn't do anything to hurt anybody. There are terrible things that happen and his explanation is, 'My ways are mysterious.' But that's where you end up if you get in a theological discussion with somebody who believes in such things. It's an unanswerable. Whenever I was in trouble, I'd just say, 'Well, yes, you don't understand me,'" he adds with a laugh. "'Ah, my ways are mysterious.'
"The line about throwing the Buddhists out with the trash is a slip because God's a little grumpy. I say in the liner notes he's having an off day, but there's no meanness in him in the show and on the album. It's a mistake, but I just couldn't resist having him be a little exclusive about who gets in. I mainly couldn't resist the angels' reaction: 'Oh, no, oh, whoa, Buddhists.' It's so harmless and benign."
When it comes to mistakes, none are greater than those made by Lucifer, God's old boyhood chum. The Lord kicks him out of Heaven during the first few pages of Faust for calling God "a master of bullshit." The Devil, like God, isn't necessarily evil, just restless; he's the ultimate nonbeliever with too much time on his hands, and he'd like to regain his rightful place at the Lord's side and set up his palace in Heaven. As it is, the Devil is forced to reign in Hell, where it's hot all the time and the grass has all been replaced by spots of blue Astroturf.
Not that Heaven's a significantly better option -- as Newman describes it in his script, "Groups of angels are engaged in various soft hippielike activities, a re-enactment of the Whole Earth Catalog Games" A but the Devil has become so bored down in Hell, boiling, frying, and generally making the afterlife miserable, that he has decided he'd like to give God a hard time after so many years. So the Devil has returned to Heaven to tell God that he, Lucifer, no longer has to work to make humans evil because they now do a good job of it on their own.
"They think of things to do to each other that even I, in my wildest, my most insane fantasies of a perfect world, would be too modest to hope for," the Devil tells the Lord.
"They're not bad," God says. "They're weak."
"Did you know this is the worst century we've ever had?" the Devil wonders. "The worst. Did you know that?"
"Worse than the Fourteenth Century?" God gasps. "Come on!"
The Devil bets the Lord that he can pick a "representative specimen of mankind" from the Balkans or maybe Troy, New York, and prove to the Lord how corrupt humans have become. They settle on Henry Faust, a nineteen-year-old freshman at Notre Dame University who's in his third year of college.
Faust -- as "played" on the album by Don Henley, so perfect and sharp is Newman's eye for casting -- is a self-absorbed pretty-boy egomaniac whose only desire in life is to own a video-game company like Nintendo. Faust is only too happy to sign over his soul to the Devil in exchange for such certain fame and fortune; as Faust sees it, he's getting "something for nothing," which the Devil figures is about as good as the deal's going to get.
"Faust is a pain in the ass for the Devil in the original, and he is in mine, too," Newman points out. "He's completely a schmuck, yeah. He's a kid. You don't get anything back. When you look in his eyes it's like looking into the eyes of a goat. It's hard for people to understand. Some of the people in the theater say, 'Well, he should have an arc' and 'What happens to him? Is he good?' And I tell them no -- he doesn't want to go to Disneyland, he doesn't want to go back in time, he doesn't want to do anything. He doesn't know what he wants to do, and we really don't know what he wants to do.
"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.
"I never thought they were like novelty songs," Newman allows. "I mean, I just thought 'Short People' was about someone who was crazy in a very peculiar way. It's an odd mania. There's hardly some kind of short-people oppression going on, but I like to make people laugh, and it's another thing that isn't done much with the [songwriting] form. It's taken very seriously, and so I've written more comedy songs than any other pop writer that I can think of. So I guess it's like novelty songs."
Even when singing in the first person, Newman writes simple and powerful character studies -- the down-and-out Southerners who populate Good Old Boys, the slave-ship captain of "Sail Away," the kid who promised to take care of "Davy the Fat Boy" and then sells him into the freak show. He has been Sigmund Freud mocking Albert Einstein's love for America, the poor man watching his land destroyed by flood and the rich man laughing at the homeless, the Jew who wants to be a gentile and the white man who wants to be black, the impotent Devil and the spiteful God.
But Newman's greatest talent lies in his ability to subvert, even pervert, the songwriting form -- to write around a subject without becoming abstract, to make his point without preaching or becoming condescending. He will write a love song but never stoop to sentimentality (in the haunting "Marie," from Good Old Boys, the narrator professes his love only when he's drunk). And he will write an antiwar song during the height of Vietnam but still make you laugh ("Boom goes London and boom Paree/More room for you and more room for me," he sings on "Political Science").
"I guess I don't think songs are such a great medium for directness," Newman says. "I'm happier with the indirection of it. What are you going to say A'War's bad?' Yeah, sure it is, but I'd rather do 'Political Science.' What do you say -- 'Don't be an asshole and act like a rich fool?' Or do you do a song like 'My Life Is Good?' I think I like 'My Life Is Good' better than that. I think I'm setting up straw men and knocking them down left and right.
"Of all the things I do, like soundtracks or write one of these concept things, probably the most individual thing about me and the thing that makes it different -- the reason to do anything -- is the songs I write are strange. I mean, they're different from most people's, and if I do any kind of work at all after this, I should be doing that -- writing strange songs.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.