Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Drama of History: The 40th Anniversary of Randy Newman's Good Old Boys

"It's hard to hear a new voice, as hard as it is to listen to an unknown language," D.H. Lawrence wrote in Studies in Classic American Literature (1924). "We just don't listen." Lawrence wasn't just talking about something as basic as the fear of something new. New ideas, as he later suggested, can always be pigeon-holed. "The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything," Lawrence explained. "It can't pigeon-hole a real experience. It can only dodge. The world is a great dodger, and the Americans the greatest. Because they dodge their own very selves." Lawrence was addressing here the varied works of American writers James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. A panoramic and illuminating study, the polemic examines how a number of gifted writers were coming to terms with the experience of a young country still in the process of finding its identity. For an artist who has barely registered on the public's consciousness, except in his movie music and his songs for Pixar pictures, singer/songwriter Randy Newman could be one of Lawrence's great dodgers – an Artful Dodger – and one who deliberately creates paradoxical narratives in his songs. And his music, like the writers of the previous century, has also been on a comparable sojourn. For almost half a century now, the country he depicts with both love and devotion is also riddled with broken promises, violence, paranoia, superstition and arrogance.

In "Davy the Fat Boy" (from his 1968 debut), Davy's best friend promises the boy's dying parents to take care of him, only to stick Davy in a circus freak show after they're gone. In "Suzanne" (12 Songs), Newman's answer to Leonard Cohen's poetic tribute to a lovely and mysterious nymph, a loner finds Suzanne's name in a phone book and stalks her like a rapist. The song "Lucinda" (also from 12 Songs) has the poor girl accidently chewed up by a beach-cleaning machine while she snoozes in the sand. "Sail Away," perhaps Newman's greatest songs from the album of the same name, features a slave trader coercing African blacks onboard his ship by promising them watermelons and wine (not to mention opportunities to sing songs about Jesus all day) if they only come to America. On the subject of God, the gospel-inspired "God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind)," from 1972's Sail Away, has God blithely handing down plagues, wars and famine while laughing from his home in Heaven at all the futile prayers offered him. After all, Newman chortles, that's why God loves mankind. In "The World Isn't Fair" (Bad Love), the narrator brings that great agnostic Karl Marx back from the dead to show him a world so unfair that Karl wants to return quickly back to his grave. One more recent song from 2006, "A Few Words in Defense of My Country" (Harps and Angels), Newman tries to confront the malaise and hubris of the Bush Presidency by explaining that Caligula, Torquemada, Hitler and Stalin were worse, but as critic Greil Marcus remarks, it gave him (and listeners) "cold comfort" to realize that.

Randy Newman

Randy Newman's songs, which grapple with people and issues rarely found in chart-topping popular songs, are cleverly constructed, satirical pieces charged with ambiguity. "I'm more in the tradition of Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen and those guys who were just doing their job," Newman once said. "I'm just doing the job, too, with my kind of characters." But as much as Newman owes to Berlin and Arlen, he is doing more than just a job. Many contemporary songwriters besides Newman have attempted to overturn the quaint notion of the American experience. "I sometimes think when I hear Paul Simon or Irving Berlin that we're more interested in America, but we're just trying to get it right," Newman told Timothy White in 2000. While acknowledging Berlin's artistic savvy in depicting America, Newman also recognizes the kind of dodging that disguises it. After all, didn't Berlin, who was Jewish-American, turn "White Christmas" into a song about snow rather than the holiday, or "Easter Parade" into a romantic date rather than the resurrection after the blood and nails. "Berlin can sing about loving Alabam', but God help him if he ever went to Alabama," Newman asserts. When Randy Newman recorded his fifth album Good Old Boys, forty years ago this month, he went directly into that troubled South. With a romantic musical aesthetic out of Irving Berlin, he painted a picture of the American South that captured its many seductive contradictions torn out of the history of a defeated people. Besides being his most commercially successful record (it reached #36 on the Billboard charts), the album has since inspired a new book (David Kastin's Song of the South: Randy Newman's Good Old Boys, Turntable Publishing), and its songs ("Louisiana ,1927," "Rednecks") continue to be relevant invoking the rich dualities within the American character.

Maddox being ridiculed on The Dick Cavett Show in 1972.
Good Old Boys was also Randy Newman's bid to come to terms with an evolving South, by looking into its past and subsequently taking us to the present – the horrific 1927 New Orleans flood ("Louisiana, 1927), the corrupt Louisiana governor, Huey. P. Long ("Kingfish," "Every Man a King"), and Lester Maddox ("Rednecks") – as a means to grappling with the country in crisis as the President of the United States was about to resign in disgrace over Watergate. The opening track, "Rednecks," was perhaps the key to the album's rich complexity. It was inspired by watching Lester Maddox, the segregationist governor of Georgia, humiliated on The Dick Cavett Show, a sophisticated TV talk program out of New York. While Maddox was indeed a racist, Cavett, along with novelist Truman Capote, and football player Jim Brown, decided to spend the show ridiculing and mocking him until he got up and left. Newman had been born in Los Angeles, but he had spent many years as a child in the American South where the culture, with all its peculiarities and traditions, had seeped into his blood. So he understood the vile characteristics that made up Maddox's racism, but he also equally understood Northern liberal condescension which he felt dictated the show. "The audience hooted and howled, and Maddox was never given a chance to speak," Newman said. "So I wrote the song, and Northerners have recognized ever since that they are as guilty of prejudice as the people of the South." If Maddox had been allowed to speak, Cavett's audience might even have discovered something more complex about the governor than they at first assumed.

Born in the working-class district of Atlanta, Maddox was a high school dropout who found himself embroiled in one of the most contentious periods in American history. It was Maddox, the day after the 1964 Civil Rights Act had been signed into law in Washington, who chased blacks from his Pickrick fried chicken restaurant. Not long after his defiant stand against integration, Maddox became even more obstinate, choosing to sell his restaurant rather than be forced to serve blacks. Adopting a pick handle as a symbol, Maddox soon entered politics, where he made two unsuccessful bids for mayor. In 1966, however, he captured the Democratic nomination for governor after an odd fluke of circumstance. During the general election, Maddox trailed Republican Howard H. "Bo" Callaway, but write-in voters ensured that neither got the majority vote. The election instead was thrown to the Democratic-dominated Georgia legislature, which threw its support behind Maddox.

Lester Maddox.
To the surprise of just about everyone, a newly elected Maddox urged peace, declaring that there would be no place in Georgia "for those who advocate extremism and violence." He also confounded critics by appointing more blacks to key positions in government than had any of his predecessors. In 1968, however, Maddox reverted back to his old form, stirring up resentment when he refused to close the state capitol for the funeral of the assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., and raised hell over the state flags being set at half-staff. Despite his odious behaviour, Lester Maddox could confound both his critics and his admirers even though he was usually portrayed as a caricature possessed of a slick pate, thick glasses and a folksy humour. Maddox was an easy target for jokes. As Cavett had already judged Maddox a clown, the governor never had a chance to present himself in any other light. "He wasn't even given a chance to prove what an idiot he was," Newman said. "It was like, they sat Jim Brown next to him, and the crowd was razzin' him...He didn't get a chance to do anything, and they just elected him Governor, in a state of six million or whatever, and if I were a Georgian, I would have been offended, irrespective of the fact that he was a bigot and a fool."

"Rednecks" was written from the point of view of one (beginning as part of a concept album, Johnny Cutler's Birthday, about a Southerner that would eventually evolve into Good Old Boys). The song opens with a description of the Dick Cavett debacle where Newman tells us that Maddox "may be a fool, but he's our fool," implicating both himself and the country in the calamity of its racist history. From there the song's narrator (originally the character Johnny Cutler) launches into a hilariously self-deprecating appraisal of his Southern heritage with a series of identifiable stereotypes ("We talk 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 keeping the niggers down"). The chorus is cleverly designed to get white liberals on Newman's side by smugly confirming the obvious redneck attributes ("We're rednecks,We're rednecks/We don't know our ass from a hole in the ground/We're rednecks, We're rednecks/And we're keepin' the niggers down"). But before we can draw any satisfaction from the putdown of Southern crackers, Newman plays an eloquent piano bridge, in the manner of Stephen Foster, which puts us in the spirit of the Old South. The effect is to pull the rug out from under the Northern liberal conceit. Newman begins to name the ghettoes outside the South where blacks are anything but liberated, including Harlem, the Hough in Cleveland, the east side of St. Louis, the Fillmore district in San Francisco and Roxbury in Boston. Taken together, they tell the woeful story of criminal neglect and urban squalor that has the effect of putting the North on the same playing field as Southern racists.

This hideous irony has a long-standing history according to Mark Royden Winchell, a professor of English at Clemson University. In his essay "The Dream of the South," a study of the role of Stephen Foster in American music, Winchell explains that the double standard Newman sings about was argued long before the Civil War. "Throughout the 1850s, Southern apologists argued that slaves in the South enjoyed more social and economic security than the typical factory worker in the North," Winchell wrote. "Even in the decades over slavery immediately prior to the War between the States, honest Northern liberals such as Orestes Brownson noted the hypocrisy of Yankee abolitionists decrying slavery in the South while turning a blind eye to the plight of factory workers in their own backyard." For Newman, a simple putdown of the redneck would have been worse than pandering to a liberal conceit – it would have failed to provide the historical context that created him, as well as the forces that divided the country in the post-Civil War years.

comic Lenny Bruce.
In "Rednecks," Newman also gives the lie to one of comic Lenny Bruce's most celebrated routines of the early Sixties, "Are There Any Niggers Here Tonight?" After a short preamble on integration, Bruce asks the audience that question. The crowd, usually consisting of both blacks and whites, would get restless and uneasy. Bruce proceeded undaunted, pointing at the audience and calling out to the "kikes," "niggers," "spics," and "micks." By the end, he was parodying a gambler at a poker game ("I pass with six niggers and eight micks and four spics") and finally arriving at his point:

"The point? That the word's suppression gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. If President Kennedy got on television and said, 'Tonight, I'd like to introduce all the niggers in my cabinet,' and he yelled 'niggerniggerniggerniggerniggerniggernigger' at every nigger he saw...till nigger didn't mean anything anymore, till nigger lost its meaning – you'd never make any four-year-old nigger cry when he came home from school."

At its best, Lenny Bruce's art combined satire with shock, but here, he dips into preaching and phony moralizing. His solution to racism would hardly end racial intolerance, or inure four-year-old black children from the pain associated with the slur. Moreover if "nigger" lost its meaning, it would also lose its tragic historical significance, and as a consequence, give comfort to racists everywhere. Today, of course, the word is hardly repressed; it's been uttered quite freely by both black and white rappers, as well as other hipsters. Yet it still has the capacity to cause anger and pain. Newman makes us aware of that pain. Despite Newman's awareness, though, "Rednecks" was banned in Boston during the desegregated bussing riots in 1975. So the word still hasn't lost its ability to offend. "There was a black kid in Louisiana who was offended because he was sitting in an audience of fifteen-hundred white people who were roaring at the fact they were rednecks," Newman once told interviewer Paul Zollo.  

All through Good Old Boys, Newman provides character dramas that bring us a fuller comprehension of the people and circumstances he depicts. In "Birmingham" (which also began as part of the abandoned Johnny Cutler's Birthday project), underlying a sense of civic pride is danger and menace. "I like the guy being proud of where he's from, even if the city has a bad reputation, even in the South, for being ugly," Newman would recall to Timothy White. "Now it's entrepreneurial and a second Atlanta, but when I wrote it, it wasn't thought of as anything but sorta dirty and low." At first, "Birmingham" seems as affectionately nostalgic as The Beatles' shimmering "Penny Lane," but then Newman quickly reminds you of the meaner side of that adoration ("Got a big black dog/And his name is Dan/Who lives in my backyard in Birmingham/He is the meanest dog in Alabam'/Get 'em Dan"). The majestic "Louisiana, 1927" renders a Southern tragedy (echoed years later in 2005 during Katrina) of a New Orleans flood which brought wreckage, death and national neglect, yet Newman burrows equally into the wounded heart of the matter without sacrificing the rage that indifference ferments.

Huey P. Long.
Following "Louisiana, 1927" is a couple of songs about the controversial and demagogic governor of Louisiana, Huey P. Long, who would be elected governor of the state the year after the deluge in New Orleans. The songs include Long's own "Every Man a King," to be followed by "Kingfish," named after Long's nickname, which some claim was inspired by a character of the same name in the radio comedy Amos and Andy. (Long insisted the name had another meaning: "I'm small fry here in Washington. But I'm the Kingfish to the folks down in Louisiana."). In "Kingfish," Newman explores – and parodies – Long's paternal leadership ("Who took on the Standard Oil men/And whipped their ass/Just like he'd promised he'd do?/Ain't no Standard Oil men/ Gonna run this state/Gonna be run by little folks/Like me and you"). In the chorus, where Newman identifies the Kingfish, the strings soar in mock triumph as he announces that "the Kingfish gonna save this land." Long would become so legendary that novelist Robert Penn Warren would use that legend to inspire his book, All the King's Men (1946), which featured a fictional governor named Willie Stark, clearly patterned on Huey P. Long. The novel was a study of an American style of fascism, and would ultimately be adapted for an Academy Award-winning film in 1949. Warren's book brought to light, as Randy Newman would in "Kingfish," the convoluted history of the South. "If you were living in Louisiana you knew you were living in history defining itself before your eyes and you knew that you were not seeing a half-drunk hick buffoon performing an old routine," Warren wrote. "But witnessing a drama which was a version of the world's drama, and the drama of history, too: the old drama of power and ethics." The decision for Newman to depict Long on Good Old Boys, whose political star had risen after the events described in "Louisiana, 1927," would end in corruption and assassination. He couldn't have also been more timely. The recording of Good Old Boys happened to coincide with the downfall of President Richard Nixon, a more contemporary demagogue on the verge of leaving office after the Watergate scandal.

Nixon would also get his own tribute on Good Old Boys in "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)." It was even recorded on August 8, 1974, the same night Nixon, in an effort to stave off impeachment hearings, gave his resignation speech. Although the song is a simple plea for compassion from America's leader, Newman also addresses Nixon, who has some very familiar attributes to Long ("Maybe you're cheatin'/Maybe you're lyin'/Maybe you have lost your mind/Maybe you're only thinking 'bout yourself"). Newman portrays Nixon, like Long, as a dreamer caught up in a quest for absolute power, and sets out on Good Old Boys to illustrate how both dreamers represent both the promise and failure of their country's largest ambitions. To frame "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)," Newman draws partly from the well of lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, who cowrote "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" with Jay Gorney during the early part of the Depression. Their song focused on an everyman who is the victim of broken promises. In "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)," Newman borrows some of Yip's outrage to express his own disgust at a man who made a travesty of his own presidency.

Good Old Boys shares an affinity with the first two records by The Band (Music from Big Pink, The Band) which also celebrated the rich dualities within the American character while parsing the troubled strains of promises broken and promises that couldn't be kept. To paraphrase journalist Pete Hamill on the work of Bob Dylan: If totalitarian art tells us what to feel, Newman's art feels, and invites us to join him. Since doctrinaire thinking has perhaps never been more in vogue than it is today, Newman's work on Good Old Boys comes across today as refreshingly candid, music that engages us with ideas and challenges our prejudices and assumptions. Good Old Boys is the music of a dreamer who never tries to find comfort in the dream. Newman doesn't sing of the quaint America found in Phil Alden Robinson's Field of Dreams (1989), in which a farmer builds a baseball diamond on his land in an effort to heal the ruptured values of his country and family. Field of Dreams perpetuates a fraud which neatly airbrushes corruption, segregation and racism, from its nostalgic reflection of America, and urges conformity to the comforting moral values it sets before us. Newman's portrait of America on Good Old Boys encompasses all things we don't find warm and comforting – and that includes the misfits and outsiders he sings about.

"The real American day hasn't begun yet," D.H. Lawrence also wrote in 1924 about the young country before him. "American consciousness has so far been a false dawn...You have got to pull the democratic and idealistic clothes off American utterance and see what you can of the dusky body of IT underneath." Good Old Boys represents an avid quest to dig beneath that dusky body of American utterance. To be an American dreamer, Newman's songs continue to remind us, means learning how to live with the unresolvable truths of what those dreams mean – a hardship to endure and a challenge to embrace.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.  

No comments:

Post a Comment