Rainman: a few minutes with Randy Newman

randy newman

Randy Newman

When you have had a career as extensive and celebrated as the one Randy Newman has maintained over the past 45 years, time can be a curious companion.

On one hand, Newman has long been heralded as one the country’s most resourceful songsmiths. Such a reputation was initially forged by pop-oriented songs that revealed lyrics rich with powerfully emotive ruminations on human nature. In recent decades, Newman has been far more visible as an Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer of film scores. But with a career so vast comes another unavoidable product of time – age. Newman will turn 70 on Thanksgiving Day.

Such a milestone is not lost on the songwriter. When recounting the events of his last Lexington appearance (a February 2011 concert at the Opera House) – specifically, when a bat flew about the stage for the majority of the performance – Newman was typically self-deprecating.

“There will probably be a vulture out there this time now that I’m getting so old,” he said by phone last week from Los Angeles.

But Newman hasn’t exactly slowed down since his last local visit. A matter of days after the 2011 concert, he won a Grammy for his soundtrack to Toy Story 3. He followed that with an Oscar for We Belong Together (a song from Toy Story 3). This summer, his music is again on movie screens, with his score to Monsters University. And last spring, there was a hearty reminder of the role that Newman’s music plays outside of Hollywood when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

“The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing was unexpectedly nice for me,” he said. “It was really quite moving. I thought when I didn’t get in 25 or 30 years ago, I wouldn’t get in until I was gone. And Henley’s speech was so nice.”

Newman was inducted into the Hall of Fame by Don Henley of the Eagles, who cited a recent Newman performance in Texas of Rednecks (from 1974’s groundbreaking Good Old Boys album) as an example of the fearless social slant of his songs.

“When you can get 2,000 people to applaud a song like Rednecks in a state that’s elected Rick Perry three times,” Henley said at the induction, “you are a hell of an artist.”

“With the pictures I’ve done, I’ve always been writing for an orchestra,” Newman said. “Songs are radically different because I’ve always written by sitting at the piano without an idea. I’ll play. Just ramble around. That will usually spark something. But I’m often sparked by the things I want to avoid.”

“There are certainly things that I’ve written over and over on, though – like things about race in this country. I’ve written maybe three or four songs about money and its excessive importance to people.

“But I don’t add any love songs to the repertoire. I was just sort of bored with them. I couldn’t ever do it as well as Rodgers & Hart did or King & Goffin did or Paul Simon. When I do try a love song, it winds up like I Miss You, which is for the second wife when you’re married to the third or Losing You, which, again, is about an older person who is not going to get over something, where there is no time to get over a loss. Or it could be Marie, where the guy singing is a little drunk, or even Feels Like Home. That one is a lot of people’s favorite song of mine. But those kinds of things are very difficult for me.”

While Newman said he is currently working his first album of new non-soundtrack songs since 2008’s Harps and Angels, many of his older songs continue to attract attention from a variety of artists. Among them is I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, a stark meditation on loneliness that Newman cut for his self-titled debut album in 1968. The song has been covered by dozens of artists since then, but two recent recordings underscore its lasting appeal.

Peter Gabriel cut an ultra low-key version for his 2010 orchestral covers album Scratch My Back. In September, Gabriel will release an aptly-titled follow-up titled And I’ll Scratch Yours, where he invited the composers of songs he covered on the earlier record to submit interpretations of his songs. The album will feature Newman singing Gabriel’s 1986 hit Big Time.

The other is a real surprise. In 1970, Barbara Streisand recorded I Think It’s Going to Rain Today for her Stoney End album with Newman on piano as her only accompaniment. The recording was scrapped and forgotten. But it resurfaced last year on a Streisand album of previously unissued music titled Release Me.

“Your opinions can change as time goes by,” Newman said. “I was glad she didn’t put it out at first because I didn’t think it was any good. But I heard it again recently and I really liked it. She sang the bridge, which some people don’t do. The notes are there. And you hear that voice singing it, and it’s a remarkable voice.

“Maybe I really have gotten old and just became a fan or something, but she really did a good job on it. I don’t know why I’m surprised. Everybody knows what a great singer Streisand is. If it isn’t the best version, it’s close to it. But I certainly didn’t think so at the time.”

Randy Newman performs at 7:30 tonight at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets are $45.50-$65.50. Call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 to go to www.ticketmaster.com.

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