Randy Newman: I'm with stupid

Randy Newman has written some of the most witty, provocative and intelligent pop songs of the past 40 years. Yet, bizarrely, he describes himself as an idiot. Glyn Brown meets him
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Randy Newman, then. Here I am, in a room at London's Savoy Hotel, sitting opposite perhaps the most original and maverick of rock's many purveyors. His canon - bracingly sardonic, often hootingly humorous, and hugely misunderstood - has often seemed clever beyond the limits of the genre. Signed back in the Seventies when record companies still backed individuality, Newman has punted into places no one else cares to go, or would dare to, and as a consequence he has troubled the charts relatively rarely. Early stuff that worked out well includes "Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear" (a hit for Alan Price); "Mama Told Me Not To Come" (a big hit for Three Dog Night); and the almost unbearably moving "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today" (which did well for Judy Collins).

Penned on albums alongside these, however, are numbers like "Davy The Fat Boy", sung in the voice of "Davy's only friend", who promises the kid's dying parents that he'll care for him, then sticks him in a circus freak show. Or there's "Rednecks", an everyday tale of Southern racism; "Sail Away", a hauntingly lovely melody with a lyric crooned by a slave trader; and "You Can Leave Your Hat On", a love song to a low-rent hooker in a sleazy motel. Perhaps the track he's best known for is "Short People", which secured Newman his very own hit and contained the immortal line "Short people got no reason to live". Viciously funny, the song parodied bigotry in what Newman thought was an obviously preposterous way; the resulting tide of complaint showed that, once again, not everybody got it. And thus, Randy Newman has a 40-odd-year career of eloquent, witty, deeply compassionate music, a devoted following of Left-leaning liberals, and nowhere near the sales he deserves.

We've met to discuss The Randy Newman Songbook Vol 1, a collection of 18 of the best numbers from his serried ranks of albums (in addition to which there have also, of course, been highly successful movie soundtracks, including Ragtime, Pleasantville, A Bug's Life, Toy Story one and two, and - at last - his very recent Oscar-winner, Monsters Inc.). It's a collection that shows more than anything the fictional quality of his work, peopled by a range of narrators who are, says Newman now, "a little dumber than the audience - and if they're not dumber, they're more insensitive, and they know less about themselves than the audience will know by what they say".

He considers. "It's an odd way to use the medium, y'know." Maybe so; but speaking through a character is an effective thing to do if you tend toward self-doubt. Of which Newman, it begins to appear, has bucket-loads, a useful supply that means even composing is misery. "The writing process, starting with nothing at the beginning of a movie or a song," he grips his chair arms murderously, "I dread it every time. And I think I can't do it. It's a bad feeling."

He sits back, unclenching his teeth. At almost 59, he's slightly heavier these days, but still good-looking - tanned, white haired, in steel-framed glasses and a well-cut black shirt. Though he hates his singing voice - one critic described him as sounding like "a frightened bison' - he speaks in a deep, laid-back drawl that is perhaps how Robert Mitchum would have sounded if he'd come, as Newman originally did, from New Orleans.

Back then, Newman regularly called his friend Lenny Waronker to play him what he had, sometimes at dawn. If Waronker said the song was okay, Newman could relax. Is there anyone he plays songs to now?

"No. And I miss it, somewhat." He considers. "There's a story about Irving Berlin." (The driven, famously insecure composer of, among other songs, "White Christmas" and "There's No Business Like Show Business".) "He had a show with impresario George Abbott, and he had this song, and he called to talk to Abbott." Newman's brightening up as he recounts the tale. "And he says, Uh, is George Abbott there? He wasn't, so Berlin says, Well, is the director there? No, director wasn't there. So he says, The writer, Bob Whatsisname, is he there? Finally he says, Well, who are you? And the guy says, I'm just a runner for the show. And Berlin says, Well, would you please listen to this?" Newman draws a breath, finally smiles. "I've played a song first time for someone who's cleaning the room - y'know, Is this okay? And been influenced by their opinion."

He shrugs. "It's like you disregard your past, that you've done it a hundred times, that you've always come through. I think I'm not going to." He sips his water, looks at the ceiling, speaks with sudden lip-curling contempt: "And all this stuff, when you put it down, and when you're gonna write it up - it's like the kind of showbiz whining you don't like to see." Screws up his face. "It's such bullshit."

Actually, no it's not, but if you're determined to be hard on yourself, this is what you're bound to say. Just as, a little later, Newman answers my question about whether people are becoming more stupid by insisting that he himself is, that he's watched so much TV it's made him an idiot, and thus apparently he's achieved very little. "I'd like to have some of that time back. It wears you out when you don't do what you're supposed to do." Good lord, how much can one man thrash himself? What you've done is something to be proud of.

He manages to nod. "I am." More convincingly: "And I'm proud that I have the respect of musicians. Like when I got the Academy Award. Oh, I know what it's worth and what it isn't, I know it's no measure of merit." Fine, fine. "But when I went out to receive it, and I saw the orchestra standing up, happy for me that I got it, it really choked me." He thinks for a minute then tangentially observes: "Y'know, I couldn't recognise Jennifer Lopez. Up on that podium? She had, like, curly hair, and..." Raises hands, palms upward, quite amazed. "I expected more, y'know? This closeness to that kind of beauty. I mean, I'm in post-production, so we don't get to see it." But there she was, handing over your Oscar. "Yeah, but still I thought, do they have an awards girl or something? I knew that it's usually a celebrity, but my eyes are bad, I could only hope...."

And what of Newman and women? A self-proclaimed nerd, he's nevertheless been married twice: his first wife, Roswitha, was so devoted she'd punch out anyone who tried to threaten him. Newman's only autobiographical album, the faultless Bad Love, contains a track called "Shame", obliquely detailing the way the marriage came apart when Newman fell for a much younger woman. It's about your current wife, Gretchen - "Vaguely, vaguely. Only vaguely." He clears his throat. "It's... sort of about an older, Southern, not quite high-class fellow and this young girl..."

He stares at the window. "You're vulner-able. I mean, a 19-, 20-year-old girl can destroy you." He comes down hard on the word. "If they knew what power they have, they could rule the world." A part of him still lives with the guilt, as the tenderest track he's ever written, "I Miss You", dedicated to Roswitha, clearly indicates; still, she's remarried, and Randy and Gretchen have "worked out in the end". To add to his grown sons, he now has a young son and a daughter who has astounded him. "She's hyper-intelligent, the master of psychic warfare."

We move on to discuss the new release, particularly a couple of numbers that presciently depict the current mindset of the American government ("You don't dismiss France and Germany publicly. It's astonishing"); then we touch on his score for upcoming movie Seabiscuit, which as far as he's concerned is not what he turned in. "I was advised not to take my name off, draws too much attention." His voice dips.

Writing: the thing that can bring him most pain but also most pleasure. "What makes me happiest? Easy: having written something that lets me know I'm still okay." Absolute buoyancy again. "That's the best feeling. Yeah, for me it really is."

'The Randy Newman Songbook Vol 1' is released on Monday