Jeff Meshel's World

085: Randy Newman: ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’

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Randy Newman has had a really sterling career–22 nominations for Academy Awards (2 wins) and 15 for Grammies (7 wins) and 3 Emmys. Over the last 30 years he’s focused on composing for films and performing live, but before that he was primarily a singer-songwriter, with a string of nine albums from 1968 to 1988, some of them merely fine, some of them greatgreatgreat. I imagine he makes an awful lot of money writing scores for movies such as all three Toy Stories (in 2007, he became a Disney Legend – I’m not sure what that is, but it probably impresses a lot of people), and I’m not really in a position to diss them because I’ve never seen them.

The Randy Newman I’m so fond of is someone wholly other than the guy in the tux up there on the stage. In fact, as his career has developed, his stature and success have consistently grown – as is befitting, because he’s a really talented guy, and he deserves it. I’m pretty sure that there’s almost no one else in the world who views his career like I do, in absolute inverse relation to his success. But I’d like to tell you about the Randy Newman I most admire.

Photo Bill Eppridge

1966, I’m working summers in a Pepsi Cola factory during college. Factory work, good pay for a kid. Got the paycheck on Friday (around $80, if I remember correctly), and drove out to some faceless Kmart which for some bizarre bureaucratic reason stocked all the new record releases. So I’d go through the copious racks as methodically as an archaeologist, as focused as a brain surgeon, every Friday, and come home with three or four new albums, $2.99 a shot.

One of them was Judi Collins’ album “In My Life”, in which a pretty predictable folk songstress covered some really exciting new music: Richard Farina’s ‘Hard Loving Loser’, Dylan’s ‘Tom Thumb’s Blues’, Donavan’s ‘Sunny Goodge Street’, The Beatles ‘In My Life’ (a remarkably correct reading of the song which I discussed in SoTW 053, and especially ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ by someone named Randy Newman. It was the first time I’d heard his name, but the song knocked me out, and it was a name I watched out for. So when “Something New Under the Sun” appeared in the netherstacks of Whatever-Mart, I was probably the first–maybe the only–person in the Midwest to buy it.

“Something New Under the Sun” Original Cover

Here’s the story I didn’t know at the time. Randy was born in 1943 and raised in LA, son of a local doctor and a mother from New Orleans (both locales would be formative in his musical landscape). Two of his uncles, Alfred and Lionel, were among the most successful Hollywood composers of the 1940s and 1950s. From the age of 17 he was writing pop songs recorded with a modicum of success by Gene Pitney, Jerry Butler, Jackie DeShannon, The O’Jays, Irma Thomas and especially Alan Price, formerly the organist of The Animals (yes, the guy who played on ‘House of the Rising Sun’). Price was an early (and fine) singer-songwriter (‘Poor People’), who recorded many Newman songs (‘Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear‘, ‘Living Without You‘) before anyone else, including Randy himself.

Randy’s boyhood friend Lenny Waronker got a job at Warner Brothers records as a producer. He brought in his friends pop/avant garde arranger/composer/pianist Van Dyke Parks, Leon Russell, and Newman. Randy was studying music at UCLA, but it seems that Waronker called and said something like: “Listen Rand, the record business is booming, the bigshots around here are going crazy looking for talent. They’ll throw a bundle at anyone with long hair and a guitar. Forget school, come over here, I’ll sign you to the Reprise subsidiary, we’ll make an album. Whatever you want. Van Dyke and I will produce it. Complete artistic freedom. No limits on budget! Spend whatever you want!! The best studio musicians in town, whoever you want. Bring in a whole goddam orchestra, for all I care.”

“Something New Under the Sun” Rerelease Cover

And that’s what they did. They made an album called either “Randy Newman” or “Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun.”

It was originally released in 1968 with a blue cover and sold numerous dozens of copies. It was such a flop that Warner Brothers announced that anyone who bought it could trade it in for a different album from their catalog. A couple of years later, after he developed a small following, they rereleased it with a brown cover. This time it actually sold several hundred copies. It was so far under the radar that even the critics missed it. The album was out of print for 15 years, when it was released as a CD in 1985. It remains almost unheard of even today, even among those who should know better.

Despite the fact that a number of the songs on “Randy Newman” have been covered by many major artists, and despite the fact that Randy continues to perform songs from it in concert, the album languishes in criminal obscurity.

I’ll tell you what I think of the album. I think it ranks with “The Band”, “Astral Weeks”, “John Wesley Harding”, “Rubber Soul”, “Pet Sounds”, “Eli & the 13th Confession” as one of the greatest works of art to arise from the ‘rock’ idiom.

It’s hard to think of it as having roots in rock, because there’s only one song that has anything like a rock backbeat. There’s a large, lush orchestra playing charts of such intelligence and beauty and complexity that it’s mindbending to think that this is the freshman work of a 25-year old. All his award-winning Hollywood scores down the road blanche in comparison.

But even more prominent here is his piano, and his voice, and his ‘songs’. They’re so much more than songs. They’re vignettes of the Newman world – irony, satire that cuts to the very bone, obscure Everymen living lives of quiet desperation; pain, grimaces, regret, angst, compassion, and more pain.

Take for example ‘Davy, The Fat Boy‘. Before they die, Davy’s parents entrust their freakishly fat son to the care of the narrator, ‘the only friend he ever will have’ – who promptly puts him on exhibit in a carnival freak show, to make a few quarters out of the deal. The song is Art in its conception–melody, chord structure, scoring–George Gershwin being serious for once. The piano is somewhere between Fats Domino and Aaron Copland. The voice is Tom Waits from Beverly Hills.

From a great article by David Kamp in Vanity Fair: “Until his first album, which has 75 credited musicians, Randy had never written an arrangement for orchestra. Among the first he attempted was the one for the album’s closer, “Davy the Fat Boy,” a bizarre, asymmetrical suite-song whose narrator exploits an orphaned, obese friend (the titular Davy) as a sideshow freak.Al Newman, undaunted by his nephew’s flight of fancy, dutifully ran the orchestra through rehearsals of Randy’s woozy, Italian-circus-like arrangement. But he left it to Randy to conduct the live recording. The reason the song, eccentric to begin with, sounds especially warped and melted, its author says, is that, in his greenness as a conductor, he followed his musicians rather than the other way around, resulting in “a weight to the orch”—a lurching heaviness to the music’s movement.” Say what you will–I LOVE the orchestra on this album.

Or his post-Nietzschean theology, ‘I Think He’s Hiding‘:

Come on, Big Boy, come and save us.
Come and look at what we’ve done with what You gave us.
Now I’ve heard it said that our Big Boy’s dead, but I think he’s hiding.

But you have to hear the Neapolitan guitars with the raunchy slo-mo sliding bass and the out-of-tune nightmarish honky-tonk piano to get The Picture.

Or ‘The Beehive State‘, a thoroughly convincing paean to lobbyists for the Department of Tourism of the great state of Utah. You don’t believe me? Go listen to it.

There’s nary a song among the eleven that isn’t a masterpiece, and it’s causing me palpable anguish to present just one, and that one out of context. In 10 of the 11 songs–indeed, for virtually the entirety of his singer-songwriter career– Randy is acerbic, oblique, ironic, and funny. He doesn’t pull your leg, he amputates it.

Only in this one song does he play it straight. No indirection known. No wicked twinkle in the eye. He looks at you straight-faced and naked, and paints the bleakest, grayest, most desolate aural landscape you’ve ever heard.

The song is of course ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today‘.

There are many live versions of Randy Newman performing the song. It’s been covered by Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield, Peggy Lee, UB40, Joe Cocker, Norah Jones, Irma Thomas, Wynton Marsalis, Cleo Laine, Lyle Lovett, Peter Gabriel, Natalie Cole, Cass Eliot, and Bette Midler. That’s one very impressive list of singers, isn’t it? But to tell you the truth, I can’t even be bothered to go listen to their versions. It’s inconceivable to me that there could be a treatment more honest, direct, intense, precise, exhaustive, more harrowing than the original.

Broken windows, empty hallways,
Pale dead moon in a sky streaked with grey.
Human kindness is overflowing,
And I think it’s going to rain today.

Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles,
With frozen smiles to chase love away.
Human kindness is overflowing,
And I think it’s going to rain today.

Lonely, lonely.
Tin can at my feet,
Think I’ll kick it down the street.
That’s the way to treat a friend.

Bright before me the signs implore me:
Help the needy and show them the way.
Human kindness is overflowing,
And I think it’s going to rain today.

I hope to come back to this album someday, to introduce you to another masterpiece or two from it. In the meantime, I couldn’t recommend more highly that you listen to the entire album, or even better, run out and buy as many copies as you can. Give them to your friends, to your enemies, put one under your pillow, one in your safety deposit box and one in a time capsule. This album really is, without hyperbole, something new under the sun.

 

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