by Clive James
As if when after Phebus is dessended
And leues a light mich like the past days
And every toyle and labor wholy ended
Each livinge creature draweth to his restinge
Wee should beginn by such a partinge light
To write the story of all ages past
And end the same before th' aprochinge night
                                       - Sir Walter Raleigh

RANDY NEWMAN , or someone like him, was there hundreds of years before the rock culture began and will be there hundreds of years after it is over. Newman is a classic artist; and the classic artist is a permanent type, displaying certain characteristics in all eras. One such characteristic -- perhaps the leading one -- is a self-sufficiency of creative output. Classic art doesn't ask for justification or clarification through reference to the age in which it is produced: in fact, the age is justified and clarified through reference to it. Nor is permanence an attribute which this kind of work is in a position either to seek or to reject. Permanence is what it is made of -- and its maker is a traditionalist whether he wishes to be or not.

This may seem like a lugubrious claim to advance on behalf of a man barely thirty, but I would have made it just as confidently several years ago, when I first heard some of his songs on Judy Collins and Alan Price albums. The intensity of expression was identifiable straight away: it was then, and still is, the only rock writing unswervingly dedicated to exhausting its own creative opportunities. Newman, it was plain, hadn't got typewriting confused with writing. His faculty of invention was concentrated. And since only a concentrated inventiveness has a chance of lasting, it was no great risk to pick Newman as the rock culture's sure-fire classic.

Secretiveness is a heavily recommended component in the building of legends, as myth-mongers from T. E. Lawrence to Bob Dylan have demonstrated. But Newman's secretiveness goes all the way to the centre. He is a genuinely secret man -- not just in his reluctance to tour or give interviews, but in the presentation of his work on records. In this as in many other things, Newman goes directly against the rock culture's orientation. Where it is outspoken, he is reticent -- just as, where it has no way of being old, he has no way of being young. On neither Randy Newman nor 12 Songs is it at all easy to hear what he is singing: his throwaway technique of vocal elision is further alienated by a ruthlessly suppressive mix.

The Randy Newman Live album presented him unaccompanied and proved transitional. By the time of Sail Away the voice was allowed some of the prominence it necessarily had on the Live album, and in places could almost be said to be in front of its own backing. Even with Sail Away, though, we're scarcely dealing with a pushy singer. Newman is a superb vocalist, but he works on the same principle as W. C. Fields. You must go to him, because he will never come to you. There is no delivery. The parsimoniousness is part of the deal.

Playing it close to the vest, Newman is well to one side of rock's main stream, which is strident, blatant and flagrant -- generous with its cheap treasure. But then, rock is not where his cultural roots reach. They go back into the old Los Angeles where the men of his family signed their names to a hundred film scores and where, at one time or another, everybody from Rachmaninov to Schoenberg holed up. Every modern musical idiom was processed through Hollywood, and Newman acquired an effortless command of the entire range. For him, rock is one more idiom. What it offers -- its one unique aesthetic quality -- is its natural capacity to tolerate extremes of subject matter. Newman would have been savagely restricted by the old 'art song' tradition, which was always hampered by its solemn literalism. With rock he is in the ideal situation of being able to play off his tragic sense against an idiom which automatically creates enjoyment. The tension leads naturally to humour. This doesn't mean, however, that humour is the end which Newman's art seeks to attain. The end sought in Newman's art is to transmit his sense of reality. Humour is the light given off by the energy of the effort.

There are 74 musicians on Randy Newman and sometimes you feel that prizes should be awarded for being able to transcribe a single complete stanza sung by the 75th, the one with his name on the front of the sleeve. Nevertheless the marvellous compactness of his lyricism comes glittering through. 'We'll have a kid,' he moans in 'Love Story', 'Or maybe we'll rent one/He's got to be straight/We don't want a bent one.' This amiable blandness is raised to the heroic scale by the enormous Spectoresque backing behind the chorus ('You and me, you and me, you and ME, babe') which, besides being one of the funniest things ever written about Phil Spector, is a subtle reminder that the narrator is seriously overestimating the smoothness of the ride which fate is likely to hand him. Bent children exist, and they are farmed out quite arbitrarily to the wise and foolish alike. Newman is fascinated with the vocabulary of insensitivity and has mastered it completely, to the point where he can compose searingly revealing stanzas out of straight quotes. One such occurs on Sail Away, in the song 'Memo to my Son':

A quitter never wins
A winner never quits
When the going gets tough
The tough get going

All phrases straight from the locker-room. The quality we can see in embryo in Lennon and McCartney -- and beyond embryo, of course, it never got -- is here fully developed, to the point where it becomes a source of inspiration in itself. Newman can hear the poetry in what is being said and written in the everyday language all around him. And being able to hear that, he need never run out of subjects.

It would be a mistake, though, to limit Newman's originality to this quality, even if it is more highly developed in him than in any other modern songwriter. Even more striking is his faultless sense of tactics. In lyric-writing, much more than in the writing of poems, the order in which the effects are made is decisive. A song is linear: the reader of a poem can let his eyes travel down, up or diagonally, but the listener to a song must construct his understanding from pieces of information arriving sequentially. To adapt the current sociological jargon, a song is a diachronic, and not a synchronic, event. In manipulating the order in which effects occur, Newman is without a competitor. Here is the opening stanza from another song on Randy Newman, the famous 'Living Without You':

The milk-truck hauls the sun up
The paper hits the door
The subway shakes my floor
And I think about you

The economy of such scene-setting is better than mere atmospherics: the song dawns like a day. In this, as in every other song Newman has written, a lot happens very quickly, but with no feeling of overcrowding. Consider 'I Think He's Hiding': Newman has got his attentive absorption of cliché and his definitive sense of order both working at once. The clichés, delivered in a voice strangling with piety, create a world of pin-brained religious fear and smug certitude. ('Have you been good? Have you been bad? If you haven't lived the way you should you'll wish you had.') The redeemer, alias the Big Boy, is called upon to return and sort the elect from the damned. But underneath the cretinous invocation of the holy name, Newman's irony is subversively at work. 'Come on Big Boy,' sings the narrator: 'Come and save us.' There is a flurry of melisma on the word 'save', giving an idiotic air of devotions confidently sung in church or synagogue. 'Come and look at what we've done' he adds, and we can hear Newman's own judgements coming to the fore -- he isn't entirely impressed with mankind's achievements. But there's a capper: 'With what you gave us.' So the fault's the Big Boy's. After all, it's the Big Boy who's claiming to be omnipotent.

For this assured power to advance an argument through successive stages of subtle complication, we can look anywhere in Newman's work. (And for his continuing critique of heavenly doings, we can look at two songs on Sail Away: 'He Gives Us All His Love' and 'God's Song'. The latter is openly atheistic, but it's quite possible to imagine the former being adopted by those of the faithful too innocent to realise that Newman is proclaiming any creator of the world we live in an automatic moral bankrupt.)

Newman's lyric technique calls attention to itself, but as a means of alienation rather than display. As a solid rhymer he is superb, springing surprise after surprise. Beyond that, he has a trick of vowel-rhyming which treats the vowel rhyme as solid through the simple expedient of suppressing the terminal consonant. Blues singers worked the same dodge, but Newman has assimilated it to his artistic personality, making it seem a product of his muttering, crouched-down shyness. With such a flexible ploy to hand, he has largely neglected to keep contact with the Tin Pan Alley tradition of up-front bravura rhyming. But in 'So Long Dad' you can still see a trace of it.

Home again
And the streets are not much cleaner
And the quaint old South side scener-
-y is quaint no more

Randy Newman, meet Lorenz Hart. (Sometimes I think I've found my hero/But it's a queer ro-/ -mance.') Having learned to do it, Newman moved on. He's a brilliantly clever technician, but without any desire to stop a show or please a crowd. His rhyming, especially, is chasteningly dedicated to providing the song with a neat outline, rather than endowing the singer with a cute lip. The main effect, as always, is of a disciplined despair.

On 12 Songs meticulously chiselled sentences flash fitfully through the mix, illuminating Newman's progressively deepening concern with sexual deprivation -- of which, I think, he is already the supreme lyric diagnostician in this century. Apart from its prophetic Last Picture-Show settings, listen to that frustrated and potentially violent narrator in 'if You Need Oil':

I've taken all I can take
Baby how can you be sleepin'
When you know that I'm awake?

In 'Suzanne' we get the voice of the sex nutter (Don't try and run away from me, little girl/Wherever you go I'll find you') which becomes a recurring tone in Newman, perhaps reaching its most celebrated outlet in that chillingly weird song on Sail Away called 'You Can Leave Your Hat On'. But Newman's sense of deprivation is expressed just as piercingly in the cadences of normality as in those of perversion. 'Lover's Prayer' is a well-known example on 12 Songs ('All the young girls are afraid of me/Send me a woman tonight') and on Randy Newman there is 'Linda', which would be a straight-out howl of underprivilege if it were not distanced by those Piaf-at-the-Olympia opening strings and a general atmosphere of America conquering Paris. The essence of this mood is in a song recorded by Alan Price for that key album A Price On His Head. Called 'Come and Dance With Me', the song translates the wallflower's silent scream into lyric phrases of shattering force. The banality is paralysing. 'Music fills the air,' sobs the narrator. 'Some one please/Come and dance with me' (with every word except the 'and' imperatively stressed -- a voice from a throat tight with hurt).

Any attempt to relate this theme to Newman's own life would be impertinent. Besides, any revelation that Newman was neurotically diffident would be no guarantee that he hadn't encouraged the condition order to ensure a regular flow of inspiration. On Newman's level questions of personality aren't very interesting, since the artist is involved in a continuous and steadily intensifying process of converting selfhood into art. Such a process has little to do with self-expression, which is best left to David Bowie or whoever else Andy Warhol is wearing this week. But we can usefully say, I think, that Newman sings of deprivation on behalf of us all. Everybody's life is half wasted, nobody sensitive is ever really confident, and everybody longs for the one love that never arrives -- the one that will take the loneliness away. For Newman that loneliness is the presence of death. Death throws a long shadow and Newman is already shivering inside it. On Randy Newman he said goodbye to father; on Sail Away an 'Old Man' got the same treatment; and on 12 Songs there was the unsettling 'Uncle Bob's Midnight Blues', consisting of an unremitting, scarcely audible monologue of bitterness and revenge ('Baby, are you against me too?') which reminded the listener of the paranoiac who was refused hospitalisation because he turned out not to be deluded -- everybody really did hate him. Newman's vision of the end is bleak. A permanent apocalypse, with rivers burning.

In this area too, Newman goes a long way beyond what the rock culture knows. He knows about the elegaic, and not just the nostalgic -- just as he knows that beyond the hang-up there is such a thing as destiny. He knows that life is not a playground. And it's this maturity of gaze which gives his criticisms of modern America such force. At his wonderful Festival Hall concert last year it was disturbing to hear how easily the billows of laughter rolled when Newman, singing 'Political Science', got to the lines:

They all hate us anyhow
So let's drop the big one now.

It is a funny song, but it doesn't spring from mere hipness. It springs from a profound regret. In 'Sail Away', when Newman puts that stab of irony into the slaver's spiel ('It's great to be an American'), the depth of the chasm is more easily sensed. Newman is qualified to analyse the nightmare, since he appreciated the sweetness of the dream.

What's left of Newman's heart seems to be evenly distributed among places like 'Dayton, Ohio - 1903' and the 'Vine St' on the Nilsson Sings Newman album. But he is only fleetingly a nostalgic artist. His sense of the past is as tragic as his sense of the present: which is to say, his intelligence doesn't let him forget that the present is the past's begotten son.

Finally there is nothing consoling about Newman's work except its quality. But that, needless to say, is all the consolation art need ever offer. Every year Rolling Stone expresses the commercially devout hope that Randy Newman will make it. The wish is an irrelevance. Newman has already made it, and the real question is whether anybody else will.

Cream, June 1973
© Clive James

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