Mister Newman’s Neighborhood

Folks under the age of say, 35, might be vaguely familiar with singer-songwriter Randy Newman for his catchy little tune “You’ve  Got a Friend in Me,” which played under the closing credits of “Toy Story.” They might even associate Newman with one of his only true hits, “I Love L.A.,” especially if they happen to be Dodger or Lakers fans.

I love that song. Is there a better rock lyric than this? “Rollin’ down Imperial Highway

With a big nasty redhead by my side

Santa Ana wind blowin’ hot from the north And we was born to ride.

Roll down the window, put down the top Crank up the Beach Boys, baby

Don’t let the music stop

We’re gonna ride it till we just can’t ride it no more.”

I grew up in L.A. and Newman captures the singular blend of La-La Land fantasy and reality perfectly. But he’s not content to stop there. The song oozes irony, Newman’s stock in trade, because L.A. is like a beautiful, impetuous, high-maintenance woman.

Oh, and the music kicks ass.

But if you’re not familiar with the rest of Newman’s work, it’s well worth checking out. His only other real hit, “Short People,” managed to piss off a lot of folks (especially short ones) who didn’t understand the subtext. Newman has spent much of his career as a social commentator, writing songs from the point of view of his characters. Racism and prejudice have been frequent targets. So when he sings…

“They got little hands And little eyes

And they walk around Tellin’ great big lies They got little noses And tiny little teeth

They wear platform shoes

On their nasty little feet.

Well, I don’t want no short people ‘round here…”

…he’s showing us how idiotic it is to hate anyone based on physical attributes. (Personally, I choose to hate people based on stupidity, which I find perfectly valid.) But many listeners missed the point. Still, the song rose to number two on the Billboard Hot 100, the biggest commercial breakthrough of Newman’s career.

If you think that song raised a ruckus, wait’ll you hear “Rednecks,” in which he dons the persona of a racist Southern cracker. In today’s politically-correct environment, I guarantee that song hasn’t seen the radio light of day for many a year. Here’s why…

“We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks

We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks

Keepin’ the n-word down.”

See, I can’t even repeat the actual lyric in this blog because I’m running scared. Again, if you give the song a surface listen, you might think Newman is advocating racism. But when you realize he’s making fun of these Deliverance-types, it takes on a whole new satirical meaning. Sort of like “All in the Family,” which people understood in 1971 (but would never get aired on network television in 2010). In a lot of ways, we’ve regressed as a culture. (And I use that word loosely.)

One more knock at racism before moving on to other topics: “Sail Away.” Newman himself has said it’s a recruiting song for slavery. Our 18th century narrator extols the virtues of coming to America:

“Ain’t no lions or tigers Ain’t no mamba snake Just the sweet watermelon And the buckwheat cake

Everybody as happy as a man can be

Climb aboard, little wog Sail away with me.”

There’s more on Newman’s mind than racism. In “Political Science,” his alter-ego offers this simple solution to the complex issue of foreign relations:

“No one likes us, I don’t know why

We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try But all around, even our old friends put us down Let’s drop the big one and see what happens.

We give them money but are they grateful? No, they’re spiteful and they’re hateful They don’t respect us so let’s surprise them We’ll drop the big one and pulverize them.”

I can think of a couple recent presidents who are nodding their heads in agreement right now. Finally, here’s Newman’s take on capitalism, from the song “It’s Money that Matters:

“Of all of the people that I used to know Most never adjusted to the great big world I see them lurking in book stores

Working for the Public Radio

Carrying their babies around in a sack on their back Moving careful and slow.

All of these people are much brighter than I

In any fair system they would flourish and thrive But they barely survive…

It’s money that matters Hear what I say

It’s money that matters In the USA.”

Agree or disagree, love him or hate him, Randy Newman has been a songwriter at the top of his craft for more than three decades. That’s why I’m nominating him for my first “Real Men of Genius” award, in the coveted “Underappreciated” category.

I doubt he’ll show up for the ceremony.