Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Pleasant Shock to the Senses: Randy Newman's Born Again (1979)

In August 1979, Bob Dylan had just confounded his fans with Slow Train Coming, a full-blown announcement of his coming out as a born-again Christian. That same month, another Jewish performer would also be born again – only not as a Christian. Born Again was the title of a Randy Newman album which might have gone just as far as Dylan's had in alienating his most loyal fans except that it vanished before a whisper of debate could be stirred. Where Dylan has always been an omnipresent figure, an ever-changing undefinable force in the world, Newman is largely invisible to mass culture (except as the guy who writes music for Pixar movies). Dylan is also a performer who is the sum of the masks he wears, where a hidden history lurks behind each face, and behind every recorded album. Newman wears a collection of masks, too, but they are a different set of disguises than Dylan's. Newman's masks (like Woody Allen's) suggest more the harmless invisibility of the nebbish, but they act instead as a veil for the clever satirist. Newman has always been an outsider who with his trojan horse quietly slipped inside.

With a collection of tunes that might be defined as misanthropic 'comedy songs,' Newman took the popular song on Born Again to the edges of cruelty, as if to test the audience's ability to listen to them. Once again using the voice of the untrustworthy narrator, as he had in previous records like Sail Away (1972) and Good Old Boys (1974), Randy Newman (like Dylan) worked against the grain of mass audience approval. But (unlike Dylan), Newman really had no mass audience to reject him – except that a year earlier, he briefly found one with a notorious hit single called "Short People." Kicking off his otherwise lacklustre Little Criminals (1977) record, "Short People" is a harmless ditty, but it ended up epitomizing Newman's brand of satire and working against it. An obvious broadside attack on the absurdity of prejudice, few, in the end, read this catchy little number that way. Besides his small legion of fans, a whole new audience came to Newman because of "Short People" – and they made him briefly a household name for all the wrong reasons. (As with Frank Zappa's "Valley Girl," the audience responded as if it were a naughty novelty song.) But if his new listeners were enthralled with the narrow-minded protagonist of "Short People," a bigot who begins his ridiculous manifesto over a galloping piano ("Short People got no reason to live"), others were severely pissed off with what they heard. Who else but Newman could write a song about a guy expressing paranoia about tiny folks? The film Freaks did so unintentionally back in 1932, but that movie was hardly a satire; there was a weird sentimentality in the way the movie played on our sympathies for circus dwarfs and pinheads. "Short People" was at the other end of the spectrum. The character Newman created here was pathetic, much like the stalker in his "Suzanne," or the voyeur in "You Can Leave Your Hat On."

"Short People" consciously copies the style of the school yard rhyme sung by nasty kids ("They got little hands/And little eyes/And they walk around telling great big lies"). The trick for Newman was to inhabit the part of the nasty kid without becoming one. To achieve this, he mocked the use of pop songs in the chorus by citing the standards "A Fool Such as I" and "What a Wonderful World" (with hilarious vocal support from Glenn Frey and Tim Schmit of The Eagles) as if they were endorsements for world brotherhood. The clichés of the popular romantic song then became inseparable from the blather coming out of the narrator's mouth. Nevertheless, "Short People" started a furor that prompted two Boston radio stations to take it off the air. Newman even received death threats, including one in Memphis while he was on tour supporting the Little Criminals album. (The fact that Newman is over six feet tall also didn't help his cause.) "[People] didn't understand that what made the song worthy of censorship was also what made it a masterstroke," wrote critic Robert Christgau. "But the nature of irony is that not everyone understands it." But if the audience missed the point of Newman's satirical swipe at people under four feet in height, with Born Again, Newman removed any means of missing the point.

Rather than worshipping at the feet of Jesus, Randy Newman was featured on the cover of Born Again sitting at a desk in an executive suite, wearing Kiss-style white-face make-up decorated with green dollar signs around his eyes. Newman might have been disguised on the cover, but he left nothing hidden in the songs. He was taking aim at all the attention he attracted with "Short People." Born Again began as a vicious attack on the emergence of the yuppie class which Kiss, in Newman's mind, personified. The album addressed the ushering in of the junk-bond Eighties in the opening track, "It's Money That I Love," which zealously attacked yuppie entitlement. Performed as a boogie-woogie shuffle, in full tribute to Fats Domino, "It's Money That I Love" spelled out his outrage at the acquisitiveness of the American middle-class. But Newman shrewdly stepped into the role of the liberal hippie who renounced his past and was born again into the religion of commerce:

Used to worry about the poor
But I don't worry anymore
Used to worry about the black man
Now I don't worry about the black man
Used to worry about the starving children of India
You know what I say now about the starving children of India?
I say, "Oh, mama!"
It's money that I love.

Newman's dramatic commitment to the lyric gives the tune a powerful jolt: otherwise we would simply laugh at the character's scandalous point of view. "It's Money That I Love" is a triumphant song about the most dubious of triumphs. After torpedoing liberals in "It's Money That I Love," Newman goes after rock 'n rollers in "The Story of a Rock & Roll Band" (which is a hilarious parody of the ersatz and bloated arrangements of ELO), Italian machismo ("Pretty Boy"), tweaking the hipster satire of straight society ("Mr Sheep"), and tackling xenophobic paranoia ("Spies"). While those targets could be deemed easy ones, inhabiting the skin of a homophobe ("Half a Man") in 1979 wasn't. (As with "Short People," "Half a Man" attracted its own share of protest letters.) Newman's song, though, daringly plays off a perverse heterosexual fear that homosexuality is a disease you might catch.

Originally, Randy Newman planned to close out Born Again with a cover of Kiss's "Great Expectations," but he opted for his own original, "Pants," which was unfortunate because it was a one-note retread of the sexual perversities better expressed on "You Can Leave Your Hat On." On the other hand, "Great Expectations," which concluded Kiss's 1976 album, Destroyer, would not only have matched up perfectly with the theme of Born Again, it would have also been a fascinating song for Newman to cover. Written by Gene Simmons and producer Bob Ezrin, "Great Expectations" was an inflated ode to the group's fans with the explicit goal of stroking their own overblown egos as rock stars. The song even had the gall to stick in a segment from Beethoven's Pathétique sonata. In "Great Expectations," lead singer Paul Stanley proclaimed to his audience, "You wish you were the one I was doing it to/You've got great expectations." Newman might have taken the pompous self-interest right out of the song – as he did with "Lonely at the Top" – and satirized the pop narcissism at work in it. "Pants" was also a fantasy rock stars dream about when playing to their audience, but it's an obvious joke next to "Great Expectations."

Although Born Again was an acrid response to the commercial success of Little Criminals, and especially "Short People," it was a searing commentary on the arrival of the Eighties. It also demonstrated much more guile than Little Criminals. But it would climb no higher than No. 41 on the Billboard chart. When Newman released the record that summer in 1979, he decided not to give any interviews to support it, or even tour, perhaps anticipating that the audience he'd won over – and the one he'd angered – wouldn't be there anyway. Nevertheless, the album acquired its share of bad reviews. Stephen Holden, in Rolling Stone, wrote, "How dismaying that the Mark Twain of American pop should have shrunk to the size of Martin Mull!" As for Newman, who was smarting from the review, he commented, "Born Again was a comedy record. I run into a lot of people who like my old, human-feeling issue-orientated albums better than that kind of nihilistic, no-human-feeling album, but I like it best."

After the mediocre prods in Little Criminals, Born Again was a pleasant shock to the senses. Newman's untrustworthy narrator had returned with a whole new authority because he was posing a damn good question: Is the audience responding for the right reasons? It was the same question that had crossed the mind of John Lennon when he made his Primal Scream album (Plastic Ono Band) in 1970, repudiating The Beatles myth he helped create. Sly Stone asked it again in 1971, after creating some of the finest and most racially inclusive soul music with the Family Stone. When he turned around and made the powerfully bleak (and distopian) There's a Riot Goin' On (1971), in the shadow of Martin Luther King's assassination, Stone was implicitly asking if there was any point in working towards this kind of inclusiveness. Kurt Cobain pondered the same question in 1992, after Nivana's State of the Nation single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" took the group to the top of the charts. Cobain's rejection of the band's success ended tragically in his suicide in 1994, as did the hopes of the audience who had come to identify with that song.

When Newman asked the question, however, his record tanked. But Born Again's commercial failure wasn't a tragedy. It only cleared the decks of those who thought of Randy Newman as a quirky oddball who liked putting down short people. For those who have always listened, and to those who will come to listen, they'll hear in the music an artist who doesn't sing of the quaint and vapid America found in director Phil Alden Robinson's Field of Dreams (1989), or the smug prejudices patronized in movies like American Beauty (1999), where the suburban characters are emotionally and sexually crippled by their spiritual emptiness. Newman's America is far too ambiguous and contradictory to exploit audiences deepest fears and resentments. He chooses instead to encompass all things we don't find warm and comforting – and that includes the misfits and outsiders he sings about. Which is why Randy Newman will never find the commercial success of a Celine Dion or Sting. His grating, cranky voice, for one thing, practically guarantees that he will always operate best under the radar. As for the subject matter of his songs, they will always play havoc with those who ignore the devious design of the untrustworthy narrator. What the audience missed out on ignoring Born Again was the music of an American dreamer who never tries to find comfort in the dream.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Randy Newman's American Dreams).      

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