Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Trouble With Paradise: Randy Newman's "Something to Sing About" and "I Love L.A."

Before singer/songwriter Randy Newman began work on his 1983 album, Trouble in Paradise, he was spending more time sitting around watching television and lounging by the pool than he was writing songs. "The gardener had contempt for me," he told Arthur Lubow of People Magazine. "He had to water around me." His inactivity was also having a strange effect on his family. "What made me really bad in those days is the kids would go off to school in the morning and I'd say, 'So long kids, you know, work hard and stuff,' and I just didn't do anything. [My son] Eric didn't know what I did. He thought I got paid for my tan." To solve his own trouble in paradise, Newman rented a room in Los Angeles with a piano and no telephone to disturb him.

One of the first songs he wrote and recorded was the appropriately titled "Something to Sing About." Originally known as "A Big Smelly Country Song," it was a hilarious off-beat tune with a slightly submerged tone of disenchantment. Done in a country-gospel style (just imagine Tammy Wynette attempting "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands"), "Something to Sing About" was similar in structure to Newman's earlier "Birmingham." Instead of being about a redneck with a sense of pride for his dilapidated city, though, the narrator in "Something to Sing About" boasts with self-satisfied arrogance about the suburban opulence that surrounds him.

Newman taped a demo version of the song in which the vocal is so soft and indistinct that some of the words are virtually unintelligible. It's as if the character in the song is swallowing his pride as much as he is bursting with it. Sure he has six children, money in the bank and a huge house on Elm Street. Of course, he has great neighbours who always get together "when the sun goes down," plus a wife who loves him (and picks him up when he falls). But in the chorus, when Newman sings, "I've got something to sing about/I've got something kinda special," his voice is so tightly constricted that he stirs doubt in the listener about all his claims (before the end, however, Newman briefly cracks up, giving away the irony in the song). The album he would soon record may have taken its title from the classic 1932 Ernst Lubitsch farce, but the subject here (as in the film) wasn't sex. Trouble in Paradise was to be a full-blown exploration of what Newman hinted at on "Something to Sing About."

"Something to Sing About" is about the delusion of paradise and the false sanctuary offered by material comfort. But Newman doesn't pillory his suburbanites for their false morals and bad taste. Unlike the condescending attitudes expressed in movies such as Ang Lee's The Ice Storm (1997) and Sam Mendes' American Beauty (1999), where the suburban characters are emotionally and sexually crippled by the spiritual emptiness of their lifestyle, Newman's song gets at exactly what attracts his characters to the suburbs. He accepts the paradox of their Southern Californian lives in a way that Nathanael West couldn't in his apocalyptic novel The Day of the Locust. "Something to Sing About" might have been the ideal cut to open Trouble in Paradise, but producer Lenny Waronker unfortunately didn't like it. They would instead settle for a new song that Newman was working on about the city he was born in.

Author Tom McDonough once wrote that "a haunted nostalgia, sometimes sentimental, sometimes irritable, accompanies most quests for America," and that view might best describe Randy Newman's own quests on his records. Singer/songwriter Van Dyke Parks once called Newman "a visitor to a dark place from a very bright place," and that, in part, describes the story Newman wished to tell on his new album. He was contrasting the sunny radiance of Los Angeles with the hidden shadows of places as far and wide as Miami and Capetown. Newman had no illusions about the seedier side of L.A., yet he also wanted to express some of his love for its shiny and hedonistic surface. And, why not? Mikal Gilmore, writing about the album in Night Beat, responded immediately to that sentiment. "[Trouble in Paradise] tells us that hard truths wouldn't matter much – wouldn't be endurable – without the chance to hit the highway, where the wind can cleanse us of thoughts and the radio can fill the gaps in our feeling the way it fills the shiny, dirty sky around us." In 1985, Manuel Puig, the Argentinian author of Kiss of the Spider Woman, told The New York Times he saw no reason to be condescending towards Tinseltown's spurious values. "It doesn't matter that the way of life shown by Hollywood was phony," Puig said, reflecting on the dreariness of his early life. "It helped you hope."

Randy Newman in the '80s
On Trouble in Paradise, Newman tried to probe the ambiguities that lay at the root of that hope. The germ of the idea was an examination of the sated lives of rock stars he knew, people who were often obscenely wealthy but seemed no longer able to indulge fully their riches. "I was talking to Don Henley on a plane," Newman told journalist Christopher Connelly. "He can't charter Lear jets anymore. I said, 'Ah, Jesus, that's tough.' He was laughing, too. Time for belt-tightening. You can't live on a million a year anymore." Here was a theme rich in possibility, but the album itself became disappointedly uneven, with good songs scattered among mediocre ones. The opening track, "I Love L.A.," was especially disappointing because he resists getting under the allure of the paradise he's satirizing (as he didn't in "Something to Sing About"). "I Love L.A." starts as a comical salute to the city of lost angels, borrowing the melody (and some of the lines) of Rodgers and Hart's "The Lady is a Tramp." Instead of hating California for being cold and damp, the song hates New York City, where "people are dressed like monkeys." The singer leaves Chicago to the "Eskimos," and with a "big nasty redhead" by his side, hits the road for Los Angeles, at which point "I Love L.A." becomes an equivocal anthem.

With Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie, of Fleetwood Mac, providing background harmonies, members of the rock band Toto supply the groove. Newman offers us a scenic tour:

Look at that mountain
Look at those trees
Look at that bum over there, man
He's down on his knees.

In the chorus, Newman shouts "I love L.A.!" while Buckingham and McVie answer back, "We love it!" The ironies, though, are obvious – the city's excesses hide its squalor – but they're a little too pat. Is this song really a put-down of L.A., or a celebration of it? Instead of grappling with the ambiguity, listeners embraced it instead as a new song for the city – which isn't all that surprising given the song's lack of satiric bite. By the time Newman starts endlessly rhyming off street names (Century Boulevard, Victory Boulevard, etc.), the song starts to tailspin. In "Rednecks," from Good Old Boys, when Newman overturned the song's joke and listed the Northern neighbourhoods and cities where blacks were still living in squalor, the song cut deep and the wounds bled. But when he tries in "I Love L.A." to uncover urban neglect and indifference, Newman barely breaks the skin. In 1991, on his album, Mighty Like a Rose, Elvis Costello's similarly impressionistic "The Other Side of Summer" tackled the themes of affluence and indigence with more authority and imagination while proclaiming that "there's malice and there's magic in every season."

"I Love L.A." even became the unofficial anthem of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the Lakers would ultimately include it during their home games. Nike would also incorporate the track into some of their ads. "I Love L.A." became so endearing to Angelenos, it was placed in a time capsule on December 14, 1984, as a promotion for John Carpenter's gooey SF drama, Starman. It could also be heard blaring from Bette Midler's car radio as she motored down the boulevard in Paul Mazursky's sly satire, Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1984) – a movie that conveyed much more successfully the dualities Newman was aiming for in his song. "I Love L.A." got placed, as well, in the police parody, Naked Gun (1988) and was part of a sick joke at the end of Volcano (1997). The song ultimately spawned a popular video for MTV (shot by Newman's cousin, Tim), where Randy goes from playing Sam Spade in a Northern city to riding in an open convertible tooling through the main boulevards of the city with that 'nasty redhead' by his side. On the PBS series Great Streets, Newman could once again be seen travelling down Sunset in a huge car – but this time without the 'nasty redhead.' Perhaps the biggest irony occurred though when Newman was presented with the keys to Los Angeles in September 1994. It was an unofficial proclamation recognizing the song's positive impact on the city. By that time, I guess, everybody had forgotten about that bum on his knees throwing up in the street.

(A rewritten and edited portion from Randy Newman's American Dreams, ECW Press, 2005)

– 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.  

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