Sunday, June 19, 2016

Rolling With the Punches: Randy Newman's Land of Dreams (1988)

For many years, as a singer-songwriter, Randy Newman had avoided writing songs about himself. In the Eighties, he was also chiefly occupying his time composing scores for motion pictures, as his uncles had decades earlier. But, by 1988, Newman hadn't released a new album of pop songs since Born Again in 1979. What prompted the return to songwriting? Perhaps it was the innocuous Hollywood scores he was doing, music that faded with the pictures they accompanied. Or perhaps it was a need for a passionate reply to the conclusion of the Reagan era. In general, the Reagan years were a reaction to the dissipated idealism of the Sixties, which had given way to recession, Watergate and the Iran hostages in 1979. Ronald Reagan offered a quick remedy to America's sinking morale with eight years of cheap nostalgia. Public discourse couldn't have been more glib, poisoned by a new cynicism and cheap B-movie style dialogue that turned politics into an ugly game polarizing the saved from the damned. It was a spiritually unpleasant time concealed by a cheerful portrait of a false America that never was, and maybe never should be.

So, in 1988, after years of writing incongruently funny songs about the kind of country Reagan preferred to ignore, Newman constructed Land of Dreams, a new body about the America he himself was part of. Only this time, his real face began to peer through the veil of ambiguity he'd created for songs like "Sail Away" and "It's Money That I Love." For most of Randy Newman's career, we were used to hearing songs about a variety of American archetypal figures, but we rarely heard songs about him. The initial shock of Land of Dreams was that we were no longer hearing outrageous tales about slave traders, stalkers, Southern racists or demagogues. The album caught us up in Newman's own story by looking back to his birth in Los Angeles, the years later in New Orleans with his mother waiting for his father to return from the Second World War, and his problems at school. On the album, Newman draws on his own early life to address the prevailing themes of contemporary American culture – including racism, disenfranchisement and assimilation. What also changed was his voice, now less masked by his standard drawl. Newman sang in a cadence that was direct while simultaneously making the humour in some of the songs more cutting. There was less distance between the singer and his material. But Newman wasn't baring his soul in the way many pop singer-songwriters do, revealing their innermost traumas and longings. Land of Dreams instead implies a connection between the personal dreams of the artist, the dreams of the characters in his songs and the dreams of his country. The title didn't just refer to the American Dream, but more specifically to New Orleans, where Newman had spent his early childhood. Even the album cover, featuring a photo of Newman as a young child in his full Roy Rogers cowboy regalia, with two toy six-shooters in his hands, seems to be posing a challenge to that other cowboy in the White House who was taking the country through Death Valley Days.

The opening number on Land of Dreams, the unassuming ballad "Dixie Flyer," begins with a beautiful lilting melody on piano and acoustic guitar that is quickly answered by the soft yearning of Mark Knopfler's electric slide. Suddenly, jumping out of the mix, Newman's clearly assertive voice takes on a new authority. The cadence is especially unfamiliar and shockingly stripped of all irony. "I was born right here/November '43," Newman sings, with the exigency of a miner staking out his first claim to a gold mine. On first listen, back in 1988, the music startled you. It made you feel that maybe the Reagan era itself, not the catalogue of satiric songs that Newman had previous written – "Rednecks," "You Can Leave Your Hat On" and "Davy, the Fat Boy" – was the ironic joke that had been played on the country. He's writing from the experience of being Jewish in the segregated South, but he's also satirizing the theme of Jewish assimilation ("Drinkin' rye whiskey from a flask in the back seat/Tryin' to do like the Gentiles do"). If Jewish songwriters like Irving Berlin created a dream of America everyone could be part of, as in "White Christmas" where the holy Christian holiday could be about the weather, in "Dixie Flyer" Newman explores the painful reality of segregation in America. In "New Orleans Wins the War," he sings about first encountering the discrimination against blacks where (like Jews) they live in a separate world while trying to find ways to fit in. But ultimately, escaping from the South to the West Coast, Newman concludes the track with a gorgeous R&B shuffle that integrates Jewish and black culture ("Blue, blue morning, blue blue day/All your bad dreams drift away"). Here, one can clearly envision Fats Domino rewriting his own version of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies."

"Four Eyes" deals with the eye problems Newman encountered later in childhood, in a sense turning the malicious humour of "Davy, the Fat Boy" and "Short People" on himself. "Roll With the Punches" might be one of Newman's strongest social critiques, a hard-hitting description of racial inequity in the Reagan era. The song describes a land of deliberately destroyed opportunities ("Little black kid come home from school/Put his key in the door/Mr. Rat's on the stairway/Mr. Junkie's lyin' in his own vomit on the floor").Newman provides a ragtime shuffle that dances to the indifference of the Reagan administration towards poverty and drugs in the black community, and to the anxieties of black youths attempting to survive ("You gotta roll with the punches, little black boy/That's what you gotta do"). Newman's black kid may acquiescently tap away, but we can feel the life being beaten out of him as he rolls with the punches. On "Masterman and Baby J," Newman goes from tapping to rapping – but he doesn't show a great instinct for it. Newman is trying to dramatize how the despair of black urban poverty has led to an incendiary and poetic form of musical expression, but the story of two rappers trying to jump-start their careers is ultimately too glib. The track never goes beyond the bragging to the rage simmering ominously underneath. "Red Bandana" is a much stronger effort, a look at the masks that people wear – in particular kids from tough neighbourhoods who use bandanas to cover their anger and their pain. This time, Newman reaches for the rawness inside his character.

It would be easy to mistake "It's Money That Matters" for a rewrite of "It's Money That I Love" from Born Again. But this song isn't a joke. Where "It's Money That I Love" was a deviously funny shot at Yuppie privilege, this song is about the spiritual price paid for that privilege. "It's Money That Matters" does begin with a nifty joke: A chunky guitar lick from Mark Knopfler closely resembles one that he wrote for Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing." That tune, from the Brothers in Arms (1985) album, was a satirical attack on MTV and the rock stars whose videos crammed the network's playlist. In Knopfler's song, a working class lout who hauls appliances for a living resents doing all this grunt work while all these celebrities get exorbitant salaries for singing and dancing ("Money for nothing/Chicks for free"). The character in "It's Money That Matters," however, is rather likable, because unlike the singer in "It's Money That I Love," he isn't celebrating selling out. He's appalled at what he sees. Throughout the song, Newman's character searches for answers to why the world isn't fair – but no one can help him.

If solipsism is under scrutiny in "It's Money That Matters," it comes full bloom in the album's concluding track. "I Want You To Hurt Like I Do" is described by Newman as his answer to "We Are the World." Back in 1985, close to forty recording artists had gathered to add their voices to a Michael Jackson song to raise funds for Ethiopian famine relief. Calling themselves U.S.A. for Africa, they represented a who's who of pop stardom, past and present: Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, James Ingram, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Rogers, Ray Charles and (of course) Michael Jackson. Newman, not surprisingly, was nowhere in sight. Produced by Quincy Jones, who asked that participating artists check their egos at the door, "We Are the World" was, in fact, all about ego. Forget that the song's banalities ("There are people dying") reduced a specific tragedy to an obvious generality, "We Are the World" treats the Ethiopians as merely the benefactors of our desire to save ourselves ("There's a choice we're making/We're saving our own lives"). Moreover, the song suggests, if the stricken Ethiopians will put their faith in the stars of U.S.A. for Africa, they would achieve their salvation. In "I Want You To Hurt Like I Do," Newman rejects the counterfeit dreams and bloated narcissism of "We Are the World." The song opens with a gospel melody played on the organ. A man is telling his current girlfriend he's running out on her just as he once left his wife and children. In fact, he's been running out on people his whole life. He tells her that the night he left his family they all cried, including his son. Putting his hand on his boy's shoulder, he said, "Sonny, I just want you to hurt like I do. Honest I do, honest I do." Here Newman borrows from Sam Cooke's "You Send Me," a song about a man who moves from infatuation to a deep and abiding love ("You send me/honest you do, honest you do"). But Newman changes the sentiment – this guy can't wait to get away from those he loves. In the second verse, with the help of a choir, the singer extends his reach beyond the loved ones to the rest of the world. He stands on a soapbox and, in a full tribute to self-centredness, declares that it's a "rough, rough world" and a "rough tough world." By having the speaker remind us all, in the end, that he wants us to hurt like he does, Newman cuts through the sentimental piety of "We Are the World."

For the first time in many years, Newman wasn't kidding. As Land of Dreams plays, Newman unravels his own truth, where nothing is a joke. Besides giving us an incisive portrait of a Jew living in the torpor of the deep South, Newman also addressed, much more directly than before, the lingering spectre of racism and the growing sanctimony of the decade in his homeland. In this music, Randy Newman acknowledged, by examining his own upbringing, that certain social issues some considered resolved were now in danger of returning. Forces were at work in America that aimed to push black people back to where they were before the 1954 landmark Brown v. The Board of Education ruling. Sensing this, Newman started to tap a new passion in his work, an intensity that cut deep below irony to a place where a vision of something new resided. On Land of Dreams, Newman asserted that whether or not he was an outsider, or a foreigner trapped in the ambiguous beauty of his own culture, he was still a huge part of it. As you listened, the music drew a delicate map of a dream – a distinctly American one in which the dreamer became an active participant. It's a dream where blacks and whites, rich and poor, took part in every pledge the country held out.

At the end of "Dixie Flyer," Newman opens up the territory by inviting us on board: "On the Dixie Flyer/Bound for New Orleans/Across the state of Texas/To the land of dreams." You can hear a promise calling out to Newman, and in this opening song he's answering back. We'd heard a similar promise back in 1970, but that was a deliberately deceptive one voiced from a slave ship in "Sail Away." This time, in an age of diminished hopes, the promise in "Dixie Flyer" was unambiguous, and so was the dream. Newman was taking us back to life before he donned the satiric mask – back to his roots. It was a candid appeal, this time, with the subversion no longer submerged. With Land of Dreams, Newman asked, would we still climb on board despite his nation's iniquities? Sail away, he seems to be saying this time, sail away with me.

 a re-edited and partially re-written excerpt from Randy Newman's American Dreams (ECW Press, 2003)

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial 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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