Man, it's hard just to listen

October 08, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"Baltimore."

Prepare yourself. Somehow, somebody -- perhaps some wag from a town on the shores of Lake Erie -- is going to bash the Birds by bringing up "Baltimore."

That's the song, not the city, a scabrous little ditty penned by Randy Newman during his bitter years. He's much happier now, scoring movies -- everything from Barry Levinson's "Avalon" to Disney's "Toy Story" -- and writing operas based on "Faust" (OK, he's not that happy).

But back in 1977, the year "Short People" became his biggest hit, Randy recorded a song that didn't exactly show Charm City in its most favorable light (sample lyric: "Beat up little seagull/On a marble stair Oh, Baltimore/Man, it's hard just to live").

The song raised a ruckus in these parts, particularly when Newman played the Lyric in February 1978. Armed with petitions signed by the city's faithful, Miss Baltimore trotted up on stage to defend her namesake's honor. Hyman Pressman, the city's longtime comptroller and unofficial poet laureate, composed a response ("There is no need for us to fret/ For we know Randy is all wet").

Backstage that night, Newman admitted making the whole thing up, choosing "Baltimore" only because the name had three syllables and thus fit into the song's meter.

"It's an urban song," he explained. "It's just too bad that Newark doesn't sound as good."

But sure as God made little green apples and rock deejayshave long memories, someone is going to drag up this 20-year-old chestnut and use it to show just how sorry a town -- and, by association, its baseball team -- can be.

And if those muckrakers do happen to be from Cleveland. Hey, we're ready for 'em.

Because Newman was an equal-opportunity cynic.

Five years before "Baltimore," Newman recorded a haunting little melody called "Burn On." Backed by a plaintive piano and soaring string section, he immortalized in song an incident the Cleveland Chamber of Commerce would just as soon forget: the day in 1969 that the city's oil-laden Cuyahoga River actually caught on fire.

That must have been quite a sight; reports of this odd, only-in-Cleveland mixture of fire and water certainly made an impression on Randy.

Cleveland, city of light, city of magic

Cleveland, city of light you're calling me

Cleveland, even now I can remember

'Cause the Cuyahoga River

Goes smokin' through my dreams.

Now, the smart Clevelander will retort that "Burn On" recounts just a single incident in the city's fabled history, while "Baltimore" depicts a whole city and a whole way of life.

To which the smart -- and informed -- Baltimorean can now reply: Hey, at least Newman had to make up stuff about Baltimore.

The Cuyahoga really did burn; that's a fact, Jack.

Sing along

To hear excerpts from Randy Newman's songs about Cleveland and Baltimore, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the code 6117.

Pub Date: 10/08/97

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