Tag: music

The subtlety of Randy Newman

Posted by – August 13, 2017

Randy Newman is best known for a couple of satirical humorous songs, Political Science and Short People. Political Science is a send-up of American wounded amour propre:

No one likes us
I don’t know why
We may not be perfect
But heaven knows we try
But all around
Even our old friends put us down
Let’s drop the big one
And see what happens

We give them money
But are they grateful
No, they’re spiteful
And they’re hateful
They don’t respect us
So let’s surprise them
We’ll drop the big one
And pulverize them

Short People is racial prejudice translated to heightism:

They got little hands
And little eyes
And they walk around
Tellin’ great big lies
They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet

[…]

They got lil’ baby legs
They stand so low
You got to pick ’em up
Just to say hello
They got little cars
That got beep, beep, beep
They got little voices
Goin’ peep, peep, peep
They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They’re gonna get you every time
Well, I don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
‘Round here

Perhaps because of these songs, Newman has a reputation among some people for “on-the-nose” satire, being too obvious by half. According to my dad, legendary Finnish songwriter Juice thought that. But if anything, that’s backwards. I think Randy Newman is so subtle, even smart people often miss a lot. This is from a song called Rednecks:

We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks
And we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground
We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks
And we’re keeping the niggers down

Now your northern nigger’s a negro
You see he’s got his dignity
Down here we’re too ignorant to realize
That the North has set the nigger free

Now *that* is on the nose! In fact so on the nose that it seems like it’s satirizing the satire. Indeed, the song starts:

Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With some smart ass New York Jew
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too
Well he may be a fool but he’s our fool
If they think they’re better than him they’re wrong
So I went to the park and I took some paper along
And that’s where I made this song

So the rest of the song is explicitly in the character of this second songwriter:

We talk real funny down here
We drink too much and we laugh too loud
We’re too dumb to make it in no Northern town
And we’re keepin’ the niggers down

The song is in fact a take on smug liberal attitudes from the opposite point of view. So is Newman making fun of it or not? Well, you can be pretty sure he’s not in favour of racial segregation or opposed to the civil rights movement. But when the Southern man says:

[…] the North has set the nigger free
Yes he’s free to be put in a cage
In Harlem in New York City
And he’s free to be put in a cage on the South-Side of Chicago
And the West-Side
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland
And he’s free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston

I think Newman is genuinely allowing his Southern character to put a strong foot forwards and allowing his point that the liberal north hasn’t really solved the black man’s problems either, and that some of its moral superiority is unwarranted. Also, he allows his Southern character to effectively be self-deprecating, *in character*:

We got no-necked oilmen from Texas
And good ol’ boys from Tennessee
And college men from LSU
Went in dumb, come out dumb too
Hustlin’ ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes
Gettin’ drunk every weekend at the barbecues
And they’re keepin’ the niggers down

I think this shows that the Southern character who is the voice of the song *does* admit that the South is backward and racist, while simultaneously claiming that it is misunderstood and blamed for everything. It’s really quite a deep setup, and of course Randy Newman himself *is* a “New York Jew” (though not really, he’s from New Orleans and Los Angeles, and not observant; supposedly when turned away from the country club where he was supposed to go on a date, he had to ask his father what a Jew was).

Here’s another one, called Christmas in Cape Town:

This English girl from the North somewhere
Is stayin’ with me at my place
Drinkin’ up all my beer
Talkin’ about the poor niggers all the time
It’s a real disgrace, she says
I tell her, Darling, don’t talk about things
You don’t understand
I tell her, Darling, don’t talk about something
You don’t know anything about
I tell her, Darling, if you don’t like it here
Go back to your own miserable country

You know my little brother, babe
Well, he works out at the diamond mine
I drove him out there at five this mornin’
The niggers were waitin’ in a big long line
You know those big old lunch pails they carry, man
With a picture of Star Wars painted on the side
They were starin’ at us real hard with
Their big ugly yellow eyes
You could feel it
You could feel it

It’s Christmas in Cape Town but it ain’t the same
The stores are open all the time
And little kids on skateboards cut in and out of the crowd
And the Christmas lights still shine
Myself, I don’t like to drink the way
I used to, man, you know
It don’t seem to get me high
And the beer don’t taste the way it
Ought to taste somehow
And I don’t know why

Don’t talk to me about the planes
Man, I’ve heard it
Just take a look around
What are we gonna do, blow up
The whole damn country?

Again, it’s not like he’s in favour of Apartheid, and this isn’t the sort of intelligent satirizing storyteller from Rednecks, but it is a genuine character. This is not a straight in-your-face moralization about the end of Apartheid. It’s about a character, not a hate figure, but an ordinary dumbass with relatable feelings.

And while he was in some sense on the opposite side ideologically from this character, I suspect Newman probably did think that people really didn’t understand what they were talking about when talking about South Africa, himself included. And he let this outgroup member say so. I really like that. And of course, the reality has turned out to be more complicated and depressing than newspapers at the time were probably expecting.

These are one idiosyncratic type of Randy Newman song. Here’s another, of an unsympathetic character laying down his flaws in such an endearing way that it’s hard not to go along with it to some extent. From It’s Money That I Love:

I don’t love the mountains
I don’t love the sea
I don’t love Jesus
He never done a thing for me
I ain’t pretty like my sister
Or smart like my dad
Or good like my mama

It’s money that I love
It’s money that I love

They say that money
Can’t buy love in this world
But it’ll get you a half-pound of cocaine
And a sixteen-year-old girl
And a great big long limousine
On a hot September night
Now that may not be love but it is all right

[…]

Used to worry about the poor
But I don’t worry anymore
Used to worry about the black man
Now, I don’t worry about the black man
Used to worry
‘Bout the starving children of India
You know what I say now about the starving children of India
I say, oh mama

It would be easy to listen to just part of the song and figure it as the character assassination of people who only care about money. But really it’s someone who’s laying down his shortcomings, his feelings of inadequacy and his self-awareness in going for “now that may not be love but it is all right”. You can’t condone it, but you can’t feel superior over it either. I’m so moved by this poor guy’s story that when I listen to that song and hear the part about a half-pound of cocaine and a sixteen-year-old girl, I’m going “Hell yeah that’s all right!” just in support of him. (Note: I have never used cocaine.)

Somehow he sells just about any character so well you can’t really truly see them just from the outside, as a clown or a villain. Even this violent homophobe who meets with an absurd transformation, in Half a Man:

This big old queen was standing
On the corner of the street
He waved his hanky at me
As I went rolling by

I pulled the truck up on the sidewalk
And I climbed down from the cab
With my tire-chain and my knife

As I approached him
He was trembling like a bird
I raised the chain above my head
He said, “Please, before you kill me
Might I have one final word?”

And this is what he said:
“I am but half a man, half a man
I’d like to be a dancer
But I’m much too large
Half a man, half a man
An object for your pity, not your rage”

Oh, the strangest feeling’s sweeping over me
Both my speech and manner have become much more refined
I said, “Oh, what is this feeling?
What is wrong with me?”
She said, “Girl, it happens all the time”

Now you are half a man,
Half a man
Look, you’re walking and you’re talking like a fag!”
Half a man,
I am half a man
Holy Jesus, what a drag

I don’t really even know what to make of that song. It’s closer to the absurd writing of Daniil Harms than anything else. But who else is going to write a song about an indended anti-gay murder where the murderer gets infected by homosexuality and you can’t really figure out what it’s all supposed to mean? Whatever it is, it’s not obvious satire.

There’s another fairly well known Newman song, You Can Leave Your Hat On, which paints a picture of a dirty old man:

Baby take off your coat (real slow)
Baby take off your shoes
(Here I’ll take your shoes)
Baby take off your dress
Yes yes yes
You can leave your hat on

Go on over there
And turn on the light
No all the lights
Come back here
Stand on this chair, that’s right
Raise your arms up in to the air
Shake ’em

But the delivery, if not the words, of the last verse must leave everyone siding with the dirty old man:

Suspicious minds are talking
Trying to tear us apart
They say that my love is wrong
They don’t know what love is
They don’t know what love is
They don’t know what love is
They don’t know what love is
I know what love is

And what about those obvious songs I started with, Political Science and Short People? In the middle of Short People, there’s this bridge verse:

Short people are just the same
As you and I
(A fool such as I)
All men are brothers
Until the day they die
(It’s a wonderful world)

Sung by a we-are-the-world choir together with Newman. Is that then supposed to be satire too? It certainly doesn’t seem like a genuine message either. Is it an attempt of the in-song character to make fun of we-are-the-worldism? I don’t really know. Even that song is a bit puzzling the more you think about it.

Which Wohltemperirte

Posted by – July 12, 2010

About halfway through GEB I decided that I should give this Bach stuff a day in court. I’ve long liked what I’ve known, but known relatively little. Fairly arbitrarily I had pre-decided to start with The Well-Tempered Clavier, which comprises two sets of 24 preludes and fugues (a pair of 24 pairs!). But covetousness always brings more pain: now you have to decide which recording to get. Wanting only a complete set and drawing on the expertise of some friends and the Internet, I came up with this shortlist (all played on the piano, due to no special prejudice):

  1. Edwin Fischer 1933-1936
    Fischer is an extremely big, maybe the biggest, name in the appropriate Germanic tradition. I think this is the most famous of all the recordings, and something of a default. It has authority, but I worried that it’s too old – perhaps by now the consensus on Bach recordings is more settled. Also, I suspect that the standard of top musicianship has been steadily rising.
  2. Glenn Gould 1963-1965 for Book 1, 1968, 1970 and 1971 for Book 2
    Gould is, of course, the big eccentric celebrity, by far the most intriguing as a person and, according to many, as a musician. He certainly cared as much about Bach as anyone, going so far as to revive his music in the Soviet Union on then-unusual tours there, and giving his all to make perfect recordings. But perfect by his own standards: notorious for both a large number of takes and singing along as he played, the recordings have passionate haters as well as lovers. Ultimately I deemed Gould insufficiently neutral, and neutrality is what my heart yearns for.
  3. Angela Hewitt 1997-1999
    Hewitt is probably by consensus the greatest living Bach performer. This recording is currently the most popular choice on eg. Amazon, and according to Wikipedia “the set has often been recommended as a ‘reference’ version”. I can’t find any complaints about it, and Hewitt is certainly the real deal: in 2007-2008 she undertook a six-continent world tour performing the entire Well-Tempered Clavier each concert.
  4. Angela Hewitt 2008
    The recordings I’ve mentioned so far took a long time to complete, but after the aforementioned world tour, Hewitt decided to re-record the whole thing in a week and a day in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin. She said that after playing the work so many times on tour and becoming more and more acquainted with a new custom-build piano, she felt that she had a new, refined vision for the recording. Some people who have heard it prefer it, saying that it has a lighter, clearer tone. But I decided for now that I don’t want new, refined visions, thank you very much (as intriguing as it sounds). For neutrality!

I went with choice 3, fairly confident that I’d be completely unable to tell the difference between any of them.

Only an expert

Posted by – August 31, 2009

Went to see Laurie Anderson & Lou Reed tonight. Everything was very tight and thought out, pretty much the opposite of what I’d worried might happen. Laurie Anderson in particular is such a master of effects and synthetic sounds, using them to put together an entire real-time soundscape at one moment and dropping back to normal-land the next. Lou Reed was constantly clacking away at guitar pedals; they sounded like a faint gun-cocking sound effect to his Clint Eastwood New York aging badass demeanour. All in all it was great, especially for Laurie Anderson’s stories (especially especially the monologue she delivered in the character and voice of a huge black man) . And as for Lou Reed – maybe he’s an old fart, but he sure doesn’t stand still. Artistically he’s somewhere between Neil Young and William Burroughs: not afraid even of being boring. It was kind of sweet to see how impressed he was by Laurie’s stuff.

A couple nights previous was Iiro Rantala (“this one was going to be on a film soundtrack… the first Swedish cowboy movie, actually… they were going to call it Brokeback Malmö…”) and Paquito D’Rivera. Iiro was brilliant but brief, Paquito was groovy but don’t have much else to say about it.

Driving music

Posted by – March 21, 2008

I don’t have a driving license and I don’t really like cars, but I like listening to music in moving cars. Especially at night. As a kid I used to think it would be great to have a car and listen to music really loud with the windows down but my dad told me that only insecure stupid people do that, so I thought maybe I’d keep the windows up. Alas, even that remains a dream since I don’t like the expenses or the various practicalities involved in operating a car. But sometimes I get an opportunity to indulge in loud night-time motorway music-listening in other people’s cars and at times like that it’s good to have opinions about everything at the ready. So I’m going to give you a list of appropriate music so you can copy my opinions and become a better person. The music falls into two distinct drivin’ moods: one is when you’re feeling a bit dangerous, going a bit fast and generally rocking out. The other is exclusively at night, when you’re going slow enough (or your car’s fancy enough) for there not to be much road-noise, it’s maybe raining and the world seems cool and beautiful. I won’t say which records are in which category because it’ll be pretty easy to figure out anyway.

1) Stop Making Sense by The Talking Heads
The original cd, not the movie soundtrack (as it were) which has more tracks and a different order. Very tight and neurotic, never drifts off for a moment. Relentless. Very clean sound.

2) A Night At The Opera by Queen
Admittedly, some tracks are far from optimal – I even considered one of the Greatest Hits albums here but didn’t want the scorn I’d get from some Queen fans reading this. But with probably the best opener of the lot, the thematic I’m In Love With My Car, the confusing The Prophet’s Song and the iconic Bohemian Rhapsody it would be impossible not to pick this. If it had Innuendo on it it could have had first place.

3) Kind of Blue by Miles Davis
Huh? What kind of philistine wants to listen to one of the greatest jazz albums ever in a car? Well, I obviously don’t need to answer that question, but hear me out. The album is actually a lot less “complicated” to listen to than most famous jazz: the pieces have an intro with a theme, then each soloist plays around for some set number of bars with a determined set of scales, and that’s it. Each bit sounds like it has oceans of time to move around in and they never run out of ideas – and still they keep it simple, elegant and beautiful. Granted, you need a pretty quiet driving environment for this to work.

4) England Made Me by Black Box Recorder
Again, a record with an unconfusing sound that’s beautiful to listen to throughout. Rain is a definite plus here.

5) Some Led Zeppelin album – possibly III, but I’m witholding judgement until I’ve had a chance to listen to more of them. III suffers a bit from things like That’s The Way and Bron-Y-Aur Stomp. Some sort of compilation album without Stairway on it would probably be perfect. No explanation necessary, quite frankly.

Not on the list: Autobahn by Kraftwerk. I considered it, but – just no. Better listened to when stationary.

Valhalla, here I come

Posted by – March 12, 2008

I finally took the plunge and bought two Led Zeppelin albums, with limited success (it turns out Hanna had the symbol album all along). As I suspected, they totally rock. Or something else: I’d almost say they’re more hard blues than hard rock. Nobody told me Queen and Zeppelin were so similar! Or perhaps I’m the only one who thinks that they are.

Led Zeppelin have “Led” instead of “Lead” in their name because they wanted it to be obvious that they’re made out of lead, as opposed to being the leading zeppelin. True fact! But of course now the only correct interpretation of their name is that they’re a zeppelin that has someone leading it. How embarrassing! Somehow these kinds of things don’t occur to rock stars.

I’m probably going to have to buy some more now. This was actually the first time in ages I’d spent money on records (the prices are shocking), but when I contemplated how much money I’ve spent on alcohol in the meantime it didn’t seem like such a splurge.

She’d like to be married with yeti / he grooving such cooky spaghetti

Posted by – December 19, 2007

Now, this is almost too sad but I’m going to tell you about it anyway. There’s a rather silly Beatles song called You Know My Name (Look Up The Number) which was originally only released as the B-side of a single (Let It Be, amusingly enough). That 4:19 release was edited by Lennon from an already edited but unreleased version that clocked in at 6:08. That in turn was edited from 20+ minutes of master tapes which contained a kind of surreal comedy jam. It’s all a bit Goon Show, silly silly stuff. Anyway, I’ve never heard the 6:08 version, but I do have a version that was on the Anthology Volume 2 (disc 2) which is 5:43 in length. It mostly has the same bits as the 4:19 one and a bit more, but not exactly – some bits are actually longer in the 4:19 version. This has always annoyed me (I even wish I could get the original unedited stuff), so now I tried splicing the tracks together to get all the bits I have in one version. It kind of worked, but kind of not – I wasn’t able to make the cuts imperceptible without spending a ton of time on it. Maybe one day I’ll get a definitive version together. Maybe someone already has!

Yup, not much left to do before Christmas. One physics lab on Friday and then there’s just the Christmas eve death march (still haven’t decided on the best combination of suffering and getting people to hate me vis-à-vis where I’m going to be).