White Man With Attitude

On the morning of Sept. 11, I leave a message on the answering machine of Randy Newman's manager. "Is that second interview we scheduled still on?" Nobody calls back. A thin veil of clouds yawns open to lovely weather, a sparkling blue-and-white mirror image of New York City, minus the smolder of dead planes and wounded buildings that plays in two- or three-minute intervals on CNN. My younger sister, the lawyer, shows up at the door; she can't go to work because she works downtown and the courts and everything else are closed, and she's already packed her infant son off to daycare. Her nerves are too jangled to sit at home and do nothing. I fix her some grits for breakfast, and together we watch more CNN.

Hearing nothing from the Newman camp, I resolve to keep the appointment for professionalism's sake. My sister in the front seat, I drive to Newman's home in the Palisades on highways and roads made clear and more hospitable by disaster, fear and orders to stay home. Overhead the sky is brilliant and boundlessly, stupidly optimistic. It strikes me that the morning so far, with its easy juxtapositions of tragedy and homily, of everything going to hell on television and everything coming up roses where I live, would be perfect fodder for a Newman song.

Look at those mountains, Look at those trees, Look at that bum over there, Man, he's down on his knees . . .

Newman shouts "Hello!" in a startled voice from upstairs before appearing in the foyer in rumpled shirt and shorts. His television in the spacious dining room is tuned to CNN. He looks bewildered, partly by the unfolding news of the world and partly because I've showed up. He doesn't seem to know if I'm supposed to be here any more than I do -- his manager is apparently too upset to return calls. "Okay. Where should we talk?" he mutters, rubbing his head of graying curls and glancing about his palatial house like he's never seen it before, as if it doesn't quite agree with him. We settle on his studio in the back yard. He takes his seat behind his desk, next to the Steinway grand that's always within reach during conversation.

"I figured this would happen in my lifetime," he says, fingering the keyboard idly, talking and playing nearly to himself. "I just didn't know when. Myself, I'm fine." We discuss what we know at this point about the attack's cause, the logistics, the body count, the futility and the inevitability of U.S. military strikes, of war. But what unsettles him most are things much smaller. "You know, you see it and it's almost too big to look at," he says of the hijackings. "Then somebody told me that a guy in the plane that crashed near Pittsburgh went to the bathroom and called 911 and said the plane was being hijacked." He shakes his head. "When you hear an individual story -- a guy in the men's room, and then the plane crashed -- it makes it rougher somehow. You hear there's a guy, and it becomes real to you. That he had the bravery to say that. It makes it worse."

For nearly 35 years, Randy Newman has been making records, and 2001 is like any other year. He has no comeback album or down-and-out-in-the-industry stories, thanks to a second career as a successful film composer, and thanks to a pop career that, admired as it was, never really ascended in the first place -- to be down and out you must at some point have been high and in, and he never was, quite. So the only reason to write about Randy Newman is that he's still Randy Newman, unrealized pop star (the film scoring he calls well-paying grunt work, something to essentially support his studio habit). At 57 he is perhaps more amiable than in the past, but no less a malcontent. Artistically, he's as much an enigma as he was when he officially arrived on the music scene in the early '70s with albums like Good Old Boys and Sail Away. At a time when pop music was splitting its sensibilities in two, echoing the raw anger of the '60s or offering soothing philosophical counterpoints to it -- the Eagles, Carole King, James Taylor -- Newman was doing neither. He was following some weird interior compass that often led him back, back to slave times or Reconstruction or an obscure historical event, or to various observations tied to no history at all, all of which violated pop music's ironclad rule about being in the moment.

He violated other rules, too, never directly addressing love and heartache and broken dreams; though he had plenty of discontent, Newman was not a rebel -- he was too glum and unsexy for that. He was a kind of accidental analyst and humorist who happened to be under 30. He was famous, he knew rhythm, even lived it, but he was never what you'd call hot. Even all the attention generated by the only two Top 40 singles of his career, "Short People" and "I Love L.A.," focused more on the songs themselves and their questionable sentiments than on the man who thought them up.

It's hard to tell if Newman's okay with this -- the first time we talked, I detected in him, at points, a lingering hope that one day he'll be a superstar. But he understands it. "I feel like an outsider. I always have," he told me. "I feel like an outsider in this country. Being Jewish is part of it. Philip Roth had this in a book: The next great Jewish genius after Moses was Irving Berlin. He took all the Christ and blood out of Easter and made it about fashion. He made Christmas about the weather." He laughs, relishing the idea that Irving Berlin pulled a fast one on fundamentalist America. "He wrote about Alabama, and he was never there! Sometimes people on the outside who want in so bad look at it differently, look at it harder. I'm very interested in the country, though I don't necessarily feel a part of it."

But Newman's music took alienation to new human depths; the personas in songs like "Half a Man" and "It's Money That I Love" may not have been his, but the feelings were. He wound up striving for a kind of emotional equity that pop music, skewed as it has always been toward love and triumph, never cultivated; in Newman's songs distance and disaffection and ignorance get equal time as significant, even sympathetic, characters in the theater of daily life. Newman credits part of his circumspection to growing up Jewish but atheistic, and another part to his father, Irving, a fiercely intellectual doctor who was attentive and conscientious with patients but spared them no painful truths. "I get my sense of humor from him," says Newman, somewhat reluctantly. "I don't have his consistently bad temper, not to the point of being unreasonable. He treated a lot of famous people. One of them was Oral Roberts, whom he liked very much, though my father actively grumbled about religion. He made fun of it. Once Oral called him in the middle of the night and said he had terrible hemorrhoids. My dad told him, 'Why are you calling me in the middle of the night? Why don't you stick your other finger up your ass and heal yourself?'" He howls at the memory.

Dr. Newman was something of a departure from family tradition, which was -- surprise -- scoring films. Randy's uncle Alfred was pretty much the gold standard for movie music during Hollywood's heyday; he composed for such classics as All About Eve, Wuthering Heights, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley -- even the trumpet-driven fanfare that accompanies every screen appearance of the 20th Century Fox logo and has become the shorthand theme song of Hollywood itself. Alfred racked up a total of 45 Academy Award nominations and won nine of them. Another one of Randy's uncles, Lionel, was senior vice president of music at Fox for 45 years, in addition to conducting for and scoring films; his 1969 effort, Hello, Dolly!, nabbed an Oscar. Yet another uncle, Emile, heads music at Samuel Goldwyn, and still another, Robert, is a studio executive. A cousin, Thomas Newman, is the Grammy-winning composer who scored American Beauty, among many other films.

The point is that Randy Newman is downright royalty in two of the most influential industries in town, if not the country, and he still manages to be a schlub. Even though he's evolved into a respected film composer in his own right, notably for Disney/Pixar and films like Toy Story and the recent Pixar release Monsters Inc., he complains about the machinations of the business and worries that he might be film-composing himself right out of whatever sociopolitical relevance pop music still affords. "Film people give me adjectives, and I write something," he says, a little wistfully. "I can't write shit-piss-fuck-fart-damn for Disney." And what he does write, he believes, often never breaks an audience's consciousness -- not even the most evocative and influential of his scores, like Avalon, The Natural and his first major assignment, Milos Forman's Ragtime, a film that was tailor-made for Newman's fascination with the dark energy of Americana.

"That big pile of movie music," he says, gesturing to carelessly stacked sheafs on top of the Steinway, "like some of it you don't even hear if the air conditioning is on in the movie theater. The time you have to spend doing movie music is not commensurate with the impact that it makes. Sometimes I think, 'Why am I worried so much about whether this is a B-flat or an F?' But I can't help it. I can't help but take it personally when directors say, 'Could you do this or that on the ending?' It hurts my feelings and makes me angry a bit."

Still, the musical purist -- and perhaps the fatalist -- in him enjoys the challenge of scoring, with its compressed work schedule and solitary studio confinement that can go on for weeks. "I'm really hard on it," he says of his film music. "I mean, I've written in 4/4 my whole life" -- he bangs out a sample bar -- "but in a movie you can't do that. It's open, but you gotta hit things in a picture, in animated pictures especially." To demonstrate, he plays fitfully, impressionistically, following some imagined action. "What you do is subordinate -- it's meant to help the picture. I'll have something I like, but I'll have to truncate it because the picture dictates it."

How does he feel about that mode of working? He sighs and crosses his arms. "There's a song I remember by James Taylor, called 'Bartender's Blues,'" he says, and begins singing in that familiar mocking/mournful voice: "'I need four walls around me to hold me tight, to keep me from drifting away . . .' And I do. I need that discipline from without, and that's the strictest kind, having to write for a picture on deadline." He shrugs. "But I'd write if I didn't have it."

Newman has been nominated for an Oscar 14 times, meaning he's consistently recognized by the industry for his efforts, but he has yet to win. I suggest the possibility of a Newman backlash, a reluctance to anoint another member of his family, even as the family must be acknowledged. Newman has another idea. "I thought at first there might be a possible bias because I came from pop music," he says. "But I've done enough scoring now where that would have no effect. There's always a reason a score wins -- it's a movie they love, or one that wasn't very popular but was a serious effort, like Il Postino. I mean, I do comedies. Of the 14 films I've been nominated for, I'd say I had a real chance of winning maybe only three times."

That doesn't seem to bother Newman at all. Unlike his failure to become a true pop star, not winning an Oscar seems to bolster the peculiar confidence he's always drawn from being an outsider: He might forever yearn for acceptance, but much of his identity rides on not getting it. "The people who really know a lot about film music don't run the Academy," he explains. "There are only a couple of hundred people in the world who really know a good score from a bad one. It's too arcane. It's like cinematography -- I get to vote for that, and costume design. That's ridiculous, I mean, look at me. What do I really know about costume design?" He chuckles. A long blue thread that's been hanging unnoticed from his sleeve the entire conversation quivers in assent.

Newman is not nearly as ambivalent about his pop canon as he is about his film one. Musically speaking, he's proudest of his studio albums, and his only regret is that he hasn't made more of them (he's released 11 over his career, versus 13 film scores in the last 20 years). Yet when asked about the larger meaning of music to him, or to anybody else, he admits an utter lack of faith. "I don't believe music can change anything," he says decisively. "Except fashion. And maybe the way people speak. What Madonna's wearing is a hell of a lot more interesting than anything she says." He doesn't have much good to say about current Top 40. "All harmonic interest has gone out of pop," he declares, "though I don't listen to much of anyone for edification." With typical equanimity he doesn't believe it's all a wasteland, either. He likes early Alanis Morrissette and Everclear and Lauryn Hill because, he says, they have something to say. He especially admires hip-hop wild boy Eminem, whom he calls a great comic artist with a gift for character, like himself. But overall, he doesn't think people are listening much to lyrics -- not that they ever really did. "Music's a strange medium for meaning," he muses. "Radio isn't it. There aren't a lot of people who'll listen without eating potato chips. And with my music, to like it, you have to listen to it. It's not something you put on as background music at a party." He grins. "You might if you were a snob of some kind."

This has always been true of Newman's music, which leads to a standard question of how it has aged. The answer isn't standard: It hasn't. Randy Newman is exploring the same big-picture themes not just of yesteryear, but of the ages -- the various meanings of companionship, abandonment, greed, human bondage, imperialism, patriotism. In cosmic time, barely a minute of Randy Newman has passed; we're still waiting for him to hit a stride or get to a point. This is distinctly different from the career trajectory of most graying rockers: Man plays guitar and rails at the world, gets famous, gets drunk/drugged out, gets older and/or has kids, gets reflective and/or more politically conservative, releases an album that is notably softer in tone than anything previous and is deemed "accessible" or "mature."

Randy Newman was always mature, or he was always a punk; in either case, he sings any song from Land of Dreams just as believably, or unbelievably, as he sang it 13 years ago. Despite a bout with drugs in the '70s, and a battle with Epstein-Barr syndrome in the '80s, he seems no worse -- well, no different -- for the wear. His wonder and disgust with the world are the same. He has been married twice and has five children, the last two under 10. Not surprisingly, he likes the idea of being the artist as an old man; a guy who never exactly had the world on a string. Age brings him a certain measure of relief. "I thought my last album was good," he says of Bad Love, an ostensibly intimate record that critics couldn't resist describing as Randy Newman finally letting his third-person guard down -- in other words, maturing. Newman actually agrees, to a point. "Bad Love was rock & roll, but it was talking about being older. It wasn't 18, or 21 or 27. It wasn't 35. That may be a bad thing. I don't know." He looks at me and gets inspired. "Writers are allowed to be 57 and do their best work. They're expected to get better or stay as good. I guarantee you that Philip Roth liked his last book. He's not going back to Portnoy's Complaint going, 'Ah, then I could write.' That's suicide. Music is different, I know. There's a lot of evidence that it's a young person's game. More people have gotten worse than have gotten better."

Newman likes to talk, but he likes to play more. His playing is directly him in a way that his lyrics, unvarnished as they are, are not. As he talks, he often turns to the piano to answer a question or give a fuller picture of himself. "Here, this is what I do," he says at one point, and with his left hand begins vamping a growly bass beat in straight time. He starts humming, and the right hand joins in with a syncopated melody, relaxed but urgent in a bluesy kind of way -- this is the hallmark of so many of his midtempo songs, from "Short People," "Roll With the Punches" and "It's Money That I Love" to "You Can Leave Your Hat On." The ballads -- if one can call them that -- like "Marie," "I Want You To Hurt Like I Do" and even "Sail Away" are old-fashioned in a different sort of way, lushly orchestrated or sparely orchestrated but precise as a bolero, as carefully designed as the faster material seems offhanded. This is all illusion, of course; Newman casts everything to very specific effect. But he's also open to change and different interpretations, which may be why many other artists, from Harry Nilsson to Aaron Neville, have covered Newman songs. Tom Jones' version of "You Can Leave Your Hat On," for the movie The Full Monty, became a latter-day anthem of sexual liberation, which Newman wholly appreciates but finds amusing.

"I didn't take the guy seriously," he says, referring to the song's protagonist. "He's weak, he's asking the woman to stand on a chair . . ." Newman goes to the keyboard again and sings in a register low enough to be a mumble: "'Baby, take off your coat . . .' It's really nothing, sort of sleazy. But Joe Cocker did it like this --" He sings the same line again in a much higher key, and it bursts forth, a revelation. "You put it in a higher register, and it changes the whole song. I could have sung it like that, I can sing it up there." He considers his own mild professional envy. "But I don't have the instinct," he finishes. "I meant it to be . . . that. I picked the wrong key. It's not a sexy song."

Humane as his music is at its core, Newman himself has never been characterized as being even remotely warm and fuzzy. Profiles over the years are filled with adjectives such as acerbic, irreverent, intelligent, pointed, satirical, wry. Newman's closest friends admit he's something of a grouch, but with good reason: He grew up shy and insecure about his looks, especially about his crossed eyes that were never quite corrected after several surgeries and which required thick glasses all his life. The self-doubt and introversion proved good for his musical development, not so good for his public image. Not that Newman's admirers ever considered that a problem; Lenny Waronker, his closest friend since childhood and longtime producer, essentially coaxed the young Newman out of his shell into a vaunted career. That was public-relations coup enough. "What it really boils down to, I think, is that I had a much clearer picture of his potential than he did," Waronker said recently. "I think my enthusiasm eventually wore him down, though he fiercely resisted it. Let's face it, you can't shield yourself indefinitely from someone relentlessly reminding you of your greatness. You want to hear it." On a more personal level -- a phrase that would doubtless make Newman cringe -- Waronker said that his friendship with the singer "helped me to understand so much. I just think that being around [Randy] has made me smarter and better."

That's about as touchy-feely as people get about Newman. Even in Hollywood, a place famous for its gush, Pixar director and frequent co-worker John Lasseter said he chose Newman to score kid-oriented films because "That blend of twisted humor and emotion is really unique." And, he added significantly, "He never speaks down to an audience in either the songs or the score. It's always from an adult point of view." Clearly, Newman's music represents him better than he represents himself. That's his greatest wish, and his greatest fear.

I FIRST HEARD RANDY NEWMAN WHEN a lot of people first heard him, via his radio single "Short People" in 1977, when I was 15. I immediately liked the song for all sorts of reasons -- its sing-along-simple but affecting melody, its driving piano, its droll but entirely serious take on the menace of mindless prejudice (Newman says the song was also a conscious musical inversion, and arguably a spiritual perversion, of the Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together"). I also connected Newman immediately to ragtime doyen Scott Joplin, whose work I deeply admired and felt had been grossly misinterpreted by a public that wanted to consume it for its great Negro entertainment value, then discard its complexities and contradictions like bones. Newman was also misunderstood, but he was certainly more in control of his fate and his product than Joplin had been at the turn of last century. "Short People" was at once radical and old-fashioned, flinty social commentary propelled by the cheery bombast of musical theater and American traditions reaching all the way back to Joplin and Stephen Foster. (I remark to Newman that he could have been Joplin's librettist, given the music the tart words and tension it deserved, and he seems genuinely impressed by the thought.) Newman fit my adolescent sensibility of not fitting, but in a good, almost arrogant way -- his stuff wasn't quite rock, but it rocked. He knew it, too, even while he hid behind the adenoidal voice, unruly hair, thick glasses and general loser persona. In another time and place, Randy Newman would have migrated to my clique of oddball friends in high school, and we would all have silently appreciated his smarts and self-deprecation and inability to get dates. He would have been a hero.

Later, in the early '80s, a friend introduced me to the Randy Newman I had always sensed was there but had never met -- "Mr. Sheep," "Jolly Coppers on Parade," "Rednecks," "Sail Away," "Louisiana 1927," never-more-topical "Political Science." I was astonished to hear a white singer get away with repeatedly using the word nigger, which since the official death of minstrel shows has been guaranteed to trigger outrage in America of some sort, somewhere. It evidently didn't; I ask Newman why, adding, as a kind of disclaimer, that I love the song "Rednecks" and the whole Good Old Boys album. I was especially moved by "Louisiana 1927," a portrait of the devastation wrought by the infamous flood of that year, though I've always known full well that the narrator is a cracker and wouldn't hesitate to shoot me on sight if he thought I was trespassing on his sorry, waterlogged property.

Creating such odd, even alarming but resonant emotional tableaux is Newman's gift. "If I were Neil Young or Dylan or someone else, people might have noticed, but there was this enormous apathy," says Newman of the N word. "Mostly they didn't know. In [early-'70s] Boston they were in the middle of all that school busing, and they took it off the air. Actually, I feel nervous every time I say the word, every time I play the song, just like I do with 'Christmas in Capetown.' But it made a point that seemed more in question than it does now. The North doesn't have any more moral superiority in the way it treats blacks. Things weren't great anywhere . . . but this is the really segregated town, L.A. More segregated than Atlanta, or San Francisco."

Newman knows L.A. in a way celebrities who live here generally don't, and he appreciates it -- both the subtleties and the abominations -- in a way most us of here don't bother to. For Newman it's less a company town and more home, as well as a logical landscape for his creative and political idiosyncrasies: He talks fervently about the color-coded inequities of public schools ("It's really sad"), about the north Long Beach/Compton rivalry, about the shifting demographics in South Los Angeles ("Where did all the black people go?" he asks me at one point), about his affinity for the Harbor Freeway ("It's one of those obscure roads, but it goes a long way") and his dislike of Santa Monica Boulevard ("Ugly from start to finish"). Newman was born here but spent the first three years of his life in New Orleans, and vacationed there in the summer until the age of 11 or so. Clearly, the South made an indelible impression; in his critically lauded 1988 album Land of Dreams, also unofficially voted the Album Most Likely To Be Autobiographical, Newman details those impressions in songs like "Dixie Flyer" and "New Orleans Wins the War" ("Momma used to wheel me past an ice cream wagon/One side for white and one side for colored/I remember trash cans floating down Canal Street/It rained every day one summer").

In an interview last year, Newman said that, despite its obvious shortcomings, he liked the South, and Southerners, their traditions of civility, the South's -- particularly New Orleans' -- sense of being a world apart from modern America. "There's just a few things they're bad on, Jews and blacks and gun control," he said. "It's one of those ancient things, but they do go deeper with people than we do in the rest of the country. They always did. They just had it written down on walls: 'No Colored.' 'No Jews.' Boston didn't have it written down. L.A. didn't have to write it down."

Part of the reason I identify so strongly with Newman is that he apparently finds it difficult, or untrustworthy, to be himself in his art. For him it's personal; for me it's that plus something else. Black artists historically have been allowed public identities, never private ones, so that their music is read as a reflection of social or even emotional struggle. The reverse is true for white artists, particularly singer-songwriters: The world proceeds from them. But Newman has always found intimacy and soul-baring confining and against instinct, and so has embraced emotional obliqueness and a storyteller role -- the de facto black musical tradition -- by default. Despite the prevalence of the first person in his songs, he positions himself as the conscientious observer in somebody else's shoes. Newman does this with such sincerity and lack of judgment that his songs emerge as unique in the annals of American song: examinations of broad types -- bigots, boozers, imperialists -- narrowed into people, played by Randy Newman. Newman is none of these people, and all of them; he is the medium who channels them, gives them heart, or brains, or motive. None of this guarantees you'll like the characters any better, but Newman's job has always been to make things clearer, not more bearable.

"The third-person thing has always been my natural mode of expression, but it's never proved very popular," he muses. "I'm not the 'I' in my songs a lot of times, and if I were, I wouldn't be heroic. I think it's some kind of character flaw, not necessarily an admirable modesty at work. I think it's shyness, and it turned into a style." It's a style that allows him to speak passionately where his shyness would ordinarily prohibit it. "In my songs, characters and people always come first," he says. When they don't, they're not as good. "I don't want to preach, I want the person to make the best case he can make. Like in 'Rednecks,' the guy's making a case, a good case, and yet he's not -- " He stops abruptly short of judgment. "Would you want to be his neighbor?"

Over the years, people have been tempted to say that Newman champions the underdog or the anti-hero, but like many readings of his music, that's often way too simple (the enduring controversy over "Short People," one of his least thematically complicated songs, makes the point). Newman scoffs at the popular notion of heroes, but admires heroism. He isn't really a pop singer, but he has no quibble with popularity. He may live in his own head but enthuses over the lowest-common-denominator likes of Lionel Richie and ABBA. "I fucking love that stuff," he says heatedly. "Of course in ABBA you have the winner taking all, the loser standing small. You have some language difficulties there, but it doesn't matter at all. I don't look for irony." Pause. "Now, I wouldn't want to be listening to it dying in a plane crash."

What Newman actually likes most about pop music -- ABBA notwithstanding -- is its veneration of male cool, which officially started with Elvis and lives today in hip-hop. "That's certainly the hippest stuff going," he says of hip-hop, a bit admiringly. "It's all part of that. I remember coming out of Marlon Brando movies feeling like" -- he squares his shoulders, puts out his chest, grins ear to ear -- "You know what I mean? It's a big deal, that feeling. I don't know who's the Brando or the James Dean anymore, but that's the lure of the music. Feeling hip and tough.

"But you can't believe your own story," he adds. "That rock & roll life. You can't pretend you're tough." I ask Newman what he thinks of the whole rap genre, which may be the current incarnation of cool but has always suffered creatively from its own hollow posturings of thugs, gangsters and womanizers. That black artists are generally encouraged into such postures and self-referential stereotypes by the music industry exacerbates the problem. Newman agrees with that, but resists pessimism. "I assume some of these guys have some interesting stuff going on," he says a bit defensively. "Dr. Dre is making some very good tracks for Eminem. I mean, kids aren't looking to Neil Young anymore, or to me."

He brightens, like he's just had a better idea. "I'll tell you a story. I don't know if it's true. I don't stand by it -- I'll deny it. A singer has just been on this awards show, and his manager comes backstage, a Jewish guy. This white guy -- we'll call him Andy -- is back there doing coke and drinking. He's had substance-abuse trouble or something. The manager says, 'Andy, you've worked so hard, why are you doing this?' The guy says, 'Leave me alone, you little Jew bastard, I'm just enjoying myself after I've had this big triumph.' They wander into a room where a bunch of black guys are hanging around. The manager says, 'Come on, Andy, let's go, let's go home and start over again.' Then the guy starts yelling real loud, 'You Jew prick, you bastard!' And some of the black guys start saying, 'Yeah, yeah,' getting into it a little. And the manager says, 'Okay, Andy, I'm going.' There's a crowd of black guys gathered around. Then when the manager gets by the last guy, Andy turns to him and said, 'My-y-y niggas.'"

Newman cracks up. "I don't know, that's such a bad story. But it's a phenomenal one. They're like egging him on, Andy's high, feeling a part of it -- 'My niggas.'" He shakes his head in disbelief, or disapproval, or something else.

Randy Newman's wit is formidable and obvious, but after spending time with him, I find myself more impressed with his heart, which is also formidable, though not what he's known for. Newman likes to keep even his most loyal public off-balance, guessing at who he is or what he might mean. But he also frets about being misunderstood. He's come to expect indignation over "Short People" and "Rednecks," but what's thrown him more recently are fans agreeing with the rednecks, singing the refrain proudly ("We're rednecks, rednecks/We don't know our asses from a hole in the ground") at concerts, or taking the simple uplift of "Follow the Flag" solemnly, at face value. Yet Newman will never blame his audience, to whom he's always accorded more integrity and insight than the characters in his songs. "It's difficult," he says, reiterating "Follow the Flag" on the piano and listening closely. "It's not meant to be patriotic, but it's a close call. It's obvious to me, but . . . maybe I didn't do it well enough."

That kind of falling short seems to be the artist's greatest worry; his song "Maybe I'm Doing It Wrong" was also the name of a revue of his music done at the La Jolla Playhouse back in 1982. He regrets "The Blues," a song from his Trouble in Paradise album of the following year that mocks a boy who finds solace in playing music; here was the intruding "I" that Newman had dedicated his whole life to avoiding. That didn't mean he didn't participate in the goings-on; he wanted to, and did. He still does. He may never be in charge, but he never stands so far away from the essence of things that he can't feel them. Feeling, he believes, is everything.

I remark how I always thought his hit "I Love L.A.," despite its subversiveness and frank criticism of us, was also joyous and deeply felt. "Yeah, it's so chamber of commerce -- Imperial Highway! -- it's just funny," he exclaims. "There's some kind of ignorance L.A. has that I'm proud of. The open car and the redhead and the Beach Boys, the night just cooling off after a hot day, you got your arm around somebody." He crosses his arms again and smiles in wordless satisfaction, smiles from the momentary depths of a rock-star dream on a bright and terrible day. "That sounds really good to me. I can't think of anything a hell of a lot better than that."

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