Ignoring the obvious Newman's songs are dark, funny, disturbing

November 06, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Randy Newman has this thing about hit songs.He knows he can write them. In fact, his "Mama Told Me Not To Come" was a chart-topper for Three Dog Night in 1970, while he himself made it to No. 2 with "Short People," a wickedly funny dismissal of the stature-impaired. And a smattering of his songs, like "I Love L.A." or his "Parenthood" theme "I Love To See You Smile," are well into second lives as TV commercial music.

Obviously, there's something salable about the guy's sound.

So why doesn't he have more hits? Or, more to the point, why does he keep undermining his own commercial potential?

Because that's just the way he is. "I couldn't have written any differently than I have," he says over the phone from Los Angeles. "I can't help it. If I could write hits, I'd have done so."

Take "I Love To See You Smile," for example. "I'd have never written that on my own," he says of the song, which was written to specification for the film score. "It's so cheerful. There isn't much that interests me about that. As a matter of fact, I didn't want to write it; I had something else for the main title, something that would have set the movie up a little differently. I still think I was right."

Not that Newman regrets penning the song; it has been, as he puts it, "very successful." Nor can he complain about the way his career has gone. "Listen, I've been incredibly successful financially," he says. "And the fact that I've been around so long -- particularly considering what I do -- that says something."

Still, Newman has little interest in the sort of facile melodies most hit-makers specialize in. Some of that stems from the fact that, as a singer, Newman makes a pretty good piano player. But mostly, it's because he really doesn't care for doing the obvious thing.

"Sometimes the music is memorable, the backing track and stuff like that," he says. "But it isn't like a Bon Jovi thing that gives you a traditional hook that you remember forever. I don't do it. 'It's Money That Matters' was sort of like that, but it always felt a bit contrived to me because of that."

Perhaps that's why he wasn't impressed with the way Three Dog Night tarted up "Mama Told Me Not To Come." Sure, their version was catchy, but as Newman says, "They made it like that. It was the clearest case ever. I wouldn't have had a hit with that. And I like my record better than theirs. But my record was no hit."

Does he have any regrets, then, about hits that got away? Surprisingly, he does. Take the song "Baltimore," which was on the same album that gave us "Short People." Looking back, Newman says, "That's such a popular song around the country, I got the feeling that if I paid a little more attention to the record I made, it might have been a hit after 'Short People.' But I didn't. I messed up the chorus. I had all these guys singing on it, and I think I made a mistake."

Changing the arrangement probably wouldn't have made "Baltimore" any more popular in Baltimore, though. Indeed, his portrait of the city as a bleak place where "it's hard/Just to live" didn't exactly win him friends here. In fact, the last time the singer played the city, in 1978, his greeting included an anti-Newman poem from then-city Comptroller Hyman Pressman.

" 'Randy Newman is not human,' " he quotes, laughing. "I won't forget it. Miss Baltimore came out on stage, and there were a lot of letters, pro and con. I never felt totally phenomenal about the song, since I didn't know the town; I'd just driven through it and saw a feature on it in National Geographic. It was just so phenomenal-looking to me, all those marble stair fronts and such. But I couldn't legitimately defend my extensive knowledge of the town. The song just came out."

Newman's lyrics have always undercut his commercial appeal, even when civic pride is not at stake. Because he likes to write about the sort of things most singer/songwriters would rather ignore, his songs have been, as he puts it, "some of the roughest stuff around until hip-hop came along -- and not easily likable, always."

His best songs tend to be darkly funny or downright disturbing, addressing such uncomfortable topics as slavery ("Sail Away"), street crazies ("Naked Man"), carnival geeks ("Davey the Fat Boy") and naked greed ("It's Money That I Love"). And though his writing is often brilliantly sarcastic -- look at the way "Rednecks" skewers both racism and Bubba-bashing in one fell swoop -- it isn't exactly the sort of thing radio programmers look for in a

song.

"If I were to ask why I haven't had more hits, I'd point to the fact that the lyrics are odd, and almost demand that you listen to them," he says. "I do tend to . . . language that disqualifies things. It isn't quite like singing, 'Yesterday, you [expletive],' but I do sink myself. And I do it because I like it better. What can I say?"

Randy Newman

When: Monday at 8 p.m.

Where: Senator Theatre.

Tickets: $25.

Call: (410) 435-1174 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets.

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