THE WORLD ACCORDING TO RANDY NEWMAN
On writing, for Hollywood
It was like having a real, respectable job. Every day, Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels and I would get together at Steve's house from two to six or seven to work. We would hang around and say things like "Now they have to do this." A lot of time was taken up trying to get out of difficult situations without a rocket ship's picking you up and taking you away.
Steve, whom I knew from Saturday Night Live, asked me to work with him on Three Amigos! He just thought I was funny, and he knew from Lorne, who is a friend of mine, that I might be interested in doing something like this. Actually, I think it was that they knew if they let me work on the script, I'd write some songs for them. Otherwise, I wouldn't have. I'd suggest something for the script and they'd say, "Yeah, yeah, that's fine. When are you going to write the songs?"
On professional discretion in Hollywood
The story of /Three Amigos! is this: A small Mexican town in 1916 gets in trouble and needs help and, through a series of horrible errors, sends for these three guys who are ill equipped for the job. At first, the studio told me it didn't want me to talk about the plot. I don't understand why; it isn't as if there were a surprise ending or anything. When it comes to my songs, I'll say anything--but in the movie business, they persuade you to be very careful what you say. I've been co-opted. I never thought I would be so conservative, but--you know, you want your stock to go up. In Hollywood, they test things. If a test-tube audience laughs, they leave a joke in. If it doesn't, they take it out. If I exposed my songs to that, I'd end up with nothing. Nothing.
So, anyway, it's a great movie and I wrote three songs for it and a third of the script, and if it does more than $400,000,000, I get some money. I also make my acting debut. There's a singing bush in this thing. That's me singing.
On the muse
I don't know where the songs come from. I just sit until something happens. I've tried everything--looking through The Elton John Songbook or listening to Prince, taking piano lessons again, scribbling nonsense down, listening to classical music. I've tried playing basketball, swimming in the pool. Everything. But what I mainly do is just sit there four hours a day, though I don't always make four hours. I make myself sit there and hope that experience and everything else will make something good happen.
On easy listening
I prefer making a little noise to being mellowed out. If I had to eliminate easy listening or heavy metal, I'd eliminate easy listening. If one thing had to go, I'd eliminate the sort of nice, mellow music to chew potato chips and talk to your friends by. I don't care for that too much. I like the edge to rock. Mostly, I admire people who say something.
On a songwriter's songwriters
I admire Prince. Even if it's babyish sex stuff, he's saying something. I prefer him to Springsteen--to almost anybody else, in fact. He tries new things. He's brave. He takes chances that people won't like him in the music and the lyrics. I don't even know if he knows what he's doing harmonically, but the stuff interests me a lot more than anyone else's music at this moment. I also like Don Henley for taking chances. That's what you oughta do. It's easy to talk about the old U.S.A., but I'm not interested in easy. None of this has anything to do with selling records. Hall and Oates, for instance, sell records. Musically, it's so good, it's so slick, but I don't care what the lyrics are, except Family Man, which I like. I like Neil Young. Paul Simon is a conscientious writer. Says stuff. Tries. Works hard. Good musically. Sings very well. Rickie Lee Jones is an enormous talent. Some substance to the stuff. She can create a world in a song. Dylan at his best is the best. I don't know whether he's been at his best for a while. I loved Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, Girl from the North Country--that period. He and Lorenz Hart are it for lyrics. Hart's stuff, like "I took one look at you ... /And then my heart stood still. ..." Mmmmm.
On bad-mouthing the Boss
Springsteen's all right, but I'm not one of the converted. I hear that as a performer, he's the best in the world. I hear that from people who never liked him that much before they saw him. And, by the way, I loved Nebraska. I don't think Springsteen as a writer can shine Prince's shoes. They're not even in the same league. Springsteen's not in the same league as Stevie Wonder musically.
On wimpy Mr. Lloyd Webber
There are people who don't have the talent for writing music but do it successfully. Andrew Lloyd Webber, for example, doesn't have any talent that I can see. (I wouldn't say this if he were an American.) He keeps doing it and he's enormously successful. I can't hear one note in Cats that would indicate he has any talent. And that Requiem Mass of his is the wimpiest, limpest thing I've ever heard. So you can gather I really don't like the guy's stuff. I assume he doesn't like my stuff, either. It's OK with me.
On writing hit songs
I've had only a couple. People thought Short People was sort of cute. People liked Mama Told Me Not to Come when Three Dog Night did it. Sail Away has done well because so many people have covered it. I don't try to write a hit. It's not like I can do what Hall and Oates do and have hit after hit, and I'm just not interested--I'm too good, ya know. That ain't quite it. The frustrating thing about not having a hit is that a record goes away so fast. It can be over in a week. If it weren't for I Love L.A., which came in through the back door because of the Olympics, my last record would have been a six-week record--after I put in nine months making it.
On his record company
They've never told me what to do, though maybe they've hurt my feelings a few times at dinner. I'm sort of a loss leader for them. They have hope, but I've always been sort of a prestige artist. They made money on Little Criminals, but now they're a little behind--though not like $1,000,000. Regardless, they let me keep doing it. If I couldn't do this anymore, I could do something else. I could certainly do movie scores for the rest of my life. Still, there's nothing as great as the feeling of having written a song.
On the healing properties of a good song
When you've written a good song, you feel, Look what I did! No one else in the world can do this as good as me and I'm the greatest, for maybe 20 minutes, and then it goes away. I used to get it for longer. It used to be that anything could happen to me if I had written a great song. That would insulate me against anything. I wouldn't care. Nuclear disasters? Hey, no problem. Nothing bothered me. I went through the whole Vietnam war like that.
On Rhyme and reason
Yeah, I have a rhyming dictionary, but I don't use it much. My attitude about rhyming is a little irreverent. Some people say you can never rhyme time and mine, but I don't care. I'll rhyme mine and time. I know Hart wouldn't have done it, but Neil Young would. And I would. The way I pronounce things, it doesn't matter. It's like Fats Domino's rhyming New Orleans and shoes. It's acceptable. Sometimes I may rhyme girl and world, which makes some people crazy, but it's a crazy game we're playing, anyway.
On the subject of art's being the artist himself
I write about other people because that interests me more. I don't think it's shyness and personal reticence. I'm just more interested in oblique characters.
Maybe people want personal confessions. Maybe that's why I don't sell 2,000,000 records. In fact, I always thought people could tell what I was like from my stuff more easily than they necessarily could tell about a confessional kind of songwriter, like Simon or John Denver or Dan Fogelberg--who shouldn't all be mentioned in the same sentence, but what the hell. You know what I mean? I don't know what Fogelberg is like from his songs. You can tell what I'm like.
On who would he think he was, given his songs, if he didn't know himself
Sort of a pseudo-intellectual, well-fed west side liberal. And that's what I am.
On human nature
I got this real good idea for a song called I Want You to Hurt Like I Do, which I think is a very real human trait. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I'll find out it's just me--no one else thinks that way. It's like what happened with Queen's song Fat-Bottomed Girls. They put it out thinking, Everyone thinks that's funny--fat-bottomed girls on bicycles. But everyone heard it and thought, Something's the matter with these fellows. That's what it might be like. Still, I Want You to Hurt Like I Do is apt. I know we are the world, but I don't believe it. And I didn't believe it in the Sixties, either.
On pie-eyed idealism, sixties style
I knew it wasn't going to happen. People aren't like that. They haven't been like that for the past 4000 years. Why are they going to be like that now--'cause of acid? And yet I'm not cynical about people as individuals. In general, I think people are pretty good. One thing happened out of the Sixties: I was allowed to do what I do. There weren't singer/songwriters before then. You were allowed to be not a handsome guy; you could write your own stuff and not have a traditional voice. But the flowers aren't in anybody's hair anymore. I knew it was transitory. It's too bad, because the idealism was nice. It just ain't gonna work. Instead, it's the Japanese winning the war--all business.
I got ideas from the Sixties, but they didn't work. My first kid went to nine schools. It was awful how we jerked him around. He went to one that was completely unstructured and then to one that was so structured it made him sick--and it was the place he learned the most. I sent my kids to touch-me-feel-me schools for a while where they'd be sensitive, and they'd come home with lice.
On filial feedback
My kids think I'm OK, but it's not like they come up to me and say, "Your new album is great, Dad." My little boy was a giant Duran Duran fan for a while--had their pictures up and everything. Had me worried. (continued on page 180) Randy Newman (continued from page 86)
In defense of L.A.
I like the weather. I know a lot of people here. I drive around with the top down, like in the song, but a nasty redhead I don't have. She's gone back to Cypress. So, anyway, I like the space. I feel a little enclosed if I'm somewhere like San Francisco, where I can't see a lot of distance. New York's the same, though New York I love.
On hanging out with rock stars in L.A.
Never done it. I see Henley when we work. I've always had a family. I haven't been socially oriented, particularly. If there was a club of rock people, I wasn't in it. Maybe I wasn't asked. When The Troubadour was open, I'd go there occasionally. But I'd go there by myself and see if I could pick up a disease.
On being mean
People think my songs are mean and cynical. I don't agree. Well, maybe one. The Blues was actually over the line of being a mean song. It sort of made fun of sensitivity. I hate that type of songwriter who is overtly sensitive, who says, "When I was a boy, music was my solace against the world," so I made fun of that. But I regret it a little bit. There is some truth to the idea that a songwriter, as a kid, would go to his room and play music and tune out the world, though I never did that. I read baseball statistics.
On being misunderstood
It happens less than it used to, though I've felt that as a problem. People misunderstood Political Science. They thought I really wanted to bomb everybody. They misunderstood Short People, as if there were some cabal against short people. People really thought that. Half a Man is about homosexuality's being contagious, and I got some letters on that. Some gay kid in Houston was really upset about it. I called him, but he didn't change his mind. I was obviously making fun of people who think homosexuality is contagious. But some people didn't get it. And I do care. Remember in school when they'd give you a poem to analyze? You'd say, "It's about two monkeys that fly to the moon." Someone else would say, "It's about two lovers who are going on a vacation to Florida." The teacher would say, "That's right. You're right, too." I don't think so. I like people to get what I try to do. I used to be nervous about playing Rednecks in front of blacks. I still am a little. If I use nigger or another terrible word in a song and people don't understand why I'm using it, it worries me. I don't do it for fun. I don't do it without trepidation, but I have to do what I have to do. I wouldn't change the way I write for anything. (concluded overleaf)
On taking it back about short people
I was right about the little suckers. They proved it. There were midgets picketing my shows. They sure got mad. I had a death threat. People don't like to hear the truth. Actually, the truth is that people don't like to work for their entertainment.
On being cynical
Well, I guess I am, but cynical reminds me of such narrow people. But I gotta admit it: You see what people do to one another and how things don't work out and it's like a failure of evolution. The mind hasn't gotten over things like jealousy and war and wanting other people to hurt like you're hurting, wanting people to be in the same hole you're in. No, there's nothing to be cynical about. But, you know, I've never been a big animal lover, but I am a fan of people. They try so hard, you know. They're so cute.
On why short beagles got no reason to live
My song about animal lovers would be about the type who will watch 60 people get slaughtered on the screen, and then a dog will get hit by a car and he'll go, "Oooooh ... look at the poor doggy." Maybe it'll be called I Love My Puss. They say that Hitler loved animals. And Hitler was short, too. Proves it.
On his ideal guest spot on miami vice
I have a Miami Vice calendar my kids gave me as a joke because I used to be so angry about all the posing on that show. "He's on stake-out! Where did he get that suit?" I know what I'll play: sort of a fat, cigar-smoking know-it-all talking about poetry. That's how I sound to myself.
On pet peeves
Beer commercials make me mad--that "We're all part of America" jingoism. It's not healthy. I know the country was way down in morale and now the morale has come up a bit because the economics are better, but neither way is healthy. That bothers me more than the Rambo stuff. People know Rambo is riot real--it's a story about clear-cut bad guys and clear-cut good guys and, anyway, Stallone played the part in the second one like a dumb guy in a car club in North Hollywood. Another peeve is how in movies, people tromp on other people's feelings and don't notice it. I remember in "10," some woman likes Dudley Moore. She's in a bar and she's older; she isn't pretty like Bo Derek, so he tramples all over her, makes fun of her, then just forgets about her. I don't like to see that kind of stuff. But I don't have any pet peeves in the actual world. I don't know anything about the actual world.
One of my kids wants to be rich. It is a very strange thing. I say, "Yeah, what do you mean? That's not happy." He says, "There are happy rich people." I say, "Yeah, but what makes you happy is having a job you like and having a family you like. Look forward to going to work and look forward to going home. That's all you can ask for. The money is not the main thing." I would have been embarrassed to admit it when I was in school, but he's into the whole thing--the Ralph Lauren shirt; he wants to go to Princeton or go to school in Switzerland.
None of my friends cared about money. I remember my brother's graduating class at medical school. They were all going to go to Biafra or New Guinea and help starving people, and now they're all plastic surgeons and gynecologists. I told him at the time, "This isn't going to happen. They're going to get ground down." I was right. But I have not succumbed. I can say lots of bad things about myself, and I live well, but I don't base my life on money. Never will. Even when I didn't have money, I didn't. I base my life on pride in the work I do. That isn't going to look good in print, but it's absolutely true.
On self-criticism and bad stuff about himself
I'm lazy. I'm not a good friend, probably. I'm a good father, probably, but not a good husband. I'd run over my mother for a song. If I had to use her in a song and use her up, I would do it.
On real men
To me, being a real man means always doing your job. Real men are the nine-to-fivers who get up every day and drive to work whether they like it or not. They're there for their kids and take them to zoos and museums or to see Pete's Dragon. They go places they don't want to go. They take their kids to the beach when they'd rather watch a ball game. I'm better now than I was. I'll go play ball with my kids even when I'd rather watch a basketball game on TV or go take a pain pill and sit in the sun.
In high school, you tended to admire people who could do these little unimportant things very well--great surfer, great pool player, guy who could dance great, guy who had a lot of girls, guy who could drink four quarts of gin. I was playing basketball with a friend of mine recently. I hadn't played with him in 20 years. He had the same jump shot, the same everything. He said, "Look at all the time we wasted doing this." He was right. None of the high school stuff means a thing. At the I reunions, we saw how things changed: bitter little guys with millions of dollars who used to sit under the geek tree; big-deal guys who used to be on top of everything, doing nothing.
On the ideal woman
No such thing. Just real women and real men. Either way, people should be willing to do things with their mates that they don't want to do--and do them relatively cheerfully. To give of themselves to each other, just like to their kids. And everyone should be good at fighting.
In summation on the philosophy of life, the basic advice in one line
Don't bend over.