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In Defense, Randy Newman Has A Few Words

On Harps and Angels, Randy Newman is back with his wonderfully sharp tongue. His songs over the decades have skewered rednecks, kingpins and heartless politicians. Newman may be the most misunderstood songwriter ever: The narrators of his songs say things about the slave trade or short people that he would never say, but that doesn't stop people from being angry with him. How many?

Newman puts the figure at "26,438,982."

He can now add Korean-American parents to that list. On "Korean Parents," he sings: "Korean parents for sale / You say you need a little discipline / Someone to whip you into shape / They'll be strict, but they'll be fair."

Yet another group to add includes Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" addresses the loss of empire, setting up a cast of characters who seem to say, "If you think things are bad now, think about the Spanish Inquisition."

"It's digging deep to defend, saying that the leaders we have — they may be the worst we've had, but they aren't the worst the world has seen," Newman says.

"The New York Times printed 'A Few Words in Defense of Our Country' in its Op-Ed page," he says. "And they made cuts in it, which didn't surprise me at all. They have an editor, they edit. But they took out a verse about the Caesars where I say, you know, they were sleeping with their sisters, stashing little boys in swimming pools and burning down the city.... What are they protecting, Tiberius? It's like, these people have been dead 2,000 years. I mean, they're not going to — you know, Kevin Caesar isn't going to come out of the woodwork and sue 'em. I mean, what difference does it make?"

Even with the biting wit of his song lyrics, Newman has never really been one to offer his opinions to the press.

"But you know what? I've been giving my opinions too much," Newman says. "In interviews I've been doing, all of a sudden I've turned into, like, Warren Beatty, like an activist or something. I used to hate it when show-biz people would be commenting on issues, but the way things have gone with this administration, it's in your face all the time. It's so noisy that you almost can't avoid talking about it with people."

Newman says he's surprised by the change. He's spent his whole career writing about characters, not situations.

"You know the old saying, 'It's a curse to live in interesting times.' Well, in a way, that applies in this situation. It's much more interesting to me to examine an individual character or something."

Newman closes Harps and Angels — an album packed with sardonic lyrics — with a sweet, heartfelt song called "Feels Like Home." It's hard to imagine how Newman can make the switch.

"It doesn't have much to do with how I'm feeling, what I write. I'm always feeling like, 'Well, I hope I come up with something here.' But I chose ... at some point not to do what the general repertory does, and that is love songs. And I, for whatever reason, some shyness, some strange psychological reason, or just because I figured, 'Well, you can do more....' But a song like 'Feels Like Home' will end up being the most popular song throughout the years. Little Newmans will be earning something from it 30 years from now."

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of song, "Laugh and Be Happy")

Mr. RANDY NEWMAN (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) I know what's going on here.

BLOCK: Randy Newman is back.

(Soundbite of song, "Laugh and Be Happy")

Mr. NEWMAN: (Singing) Ain't no great mystery.

BLOCK: With his wonderfully sharp tongue.

(Soundbite of song, "Laugh and Be Happy")

Mr. NEWMAN: (Singing) Ya'll have lost faith in yourselves. It's clear as it can be.

BLOCK: It's been 40 years since Randy Newman's first album. His songs over the decades have skewered rednecks, kingpins, heartless politicians. Randy Newman may be the most misunderstood songwriter ever. The narrators of his songs say things about, oh, the slave trade or short people that he would never say. Take this song: "Laugh and Be Happy." Randy Newman is singing to immigrants, offering some advice. There's even what he calls a happy immigrant chorus.

(Soundbite of song, "Laugh and Be Happy")

Mr. NEWMAN: (Singing) Now the country that we're living in…

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Do you mean the great old USA?

Mr. NEWMAN: (Singing) That's right. Never been about keeping you out, but mind you, we're letting you play. So let them be happy, smile right in their face. Pretty soon you go and take their place.

BLOCK: Do you keep track, Randy Newman, of how many people you've made angry with your songs over the years?

Mr. NEWMAN: Yes - 26,438,982.

(Soundbite of song, "Laugh and Be Happy")

Mr. NEWMAN: (Singing) (unintelligible) old man trouble, (unintelligible).

BLOCK: Well, who do you figure you're adding to your list of angry listeners with this CD?

Mr. NEWMAN: Oh, man. Korean-American parents…

BLOCK: This is the song encouraging people to hire Korean parents if they want to get ahead.

Mr. NEWMAN: To buy them on the block.

BLOCK: Yeah, to buy them. Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Mr. NEWMAN: It says right here on the lot. So…

BLOCK: I was sugar-coating that a little bit, I guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWMAN: Yeah.

BLOCK: Well, let's add a few more people to the list here. And these are Antonin Scalia…

Mr. NEWMAN: Yeah.

BLOCK: …Samuel Alito…

Mr. NEWMAN: Yeah.

BLOCK: …and Clarence Thomas.

Mr. NEWMAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country")

Mr. NEWMAN: (Singing) I'd like to say a few words in defense of our country, whose people aren't bad, nor are they mean.

BLOCK: This song, "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," is all about - well, it's about the loss of empire. And it's also setting up a sort of a cast of characters of - you know, if you think things are bad now…

Mr. NEWMAN: Yeah.

BLOCK: You know, think about the Spanish Inquisition.

Mr. NEWMAN: It's digging deep. Yeah. It's digging deep to defend, saying that the leaders we have, they may be the worst we've had, but they're not the worst that this world has seen.

(Soundbite of song, "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country")

Mr. NEWMAN: (Singing) Take the Caesars, for example. Why, within the first few of them, they were sleeping with their sister, stashing little boys in swimming pools and burning down the city. And one of 'em, one of 'em appointed his own horse consul of the empire. That's like vice president or something. Oh, wait a minute. That's not a very good example. Here's one: the Spanish Inquisition, put people in terrible positions. I don't even like to think about it. Sometimes I like to think about it.

The New York Times printed "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" in its op-ed page, and they made cuts in it, which didn't surprise me at all. You know, they have an editor, they edit. But they took out a verse about the Caesars, where I say, you know, they were sleeping with their sisters. They were stashing little boys in swimming pools and burning down the city. What were they protecting? Tiberius?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWMAN: This is, like, people who've been dead 2,000 years. I mean, they're not going to - you know, Kevin Caesar isn't going to come out of the woodwork and sue them. I mean, what difference does it make? Then they cut the thing about the Supreme Court. They could have ditched the language, okay, at the beginning of it, but I could see where, you know, in it, the narrator of it, of the song, in defending America, says that these Italians are not like any Italians we've known. It's a characterization of Italians as what we know of, as the Mediterranean, open, happy kind of spirits. So they may have objected to that kind of broad stereotype, which is never right about anybody.

(Soundbite of song, "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country")

Mr. NEWMAN: (Singing) You know, it pisses me off that this Supreme Court's gonna outlive me. A couple young Italian fellas and a brother on the Court now, too. But I defy you anywhere in the world to find me two Italians as tight-ass as the two Italians we got. And as for the brother, well, Pluto's not a planet anymore, neither.

Thomas is a change in the cosmos of African-Americans as we've known them. He's an odd duck. But you know what?

BLOCK: Well, this song is - sorry, go ahead?

Mr. NEWMAN: I'm sorry, Melissa.

BLOCK: No, no, no. Please.

Mr. NEWMAN: I've been giving my opinions too much. In interviews that I've been doing, all of a sudden, I turned into, like, Warren Beatty - like an activist or something. Like, I used to hate it when showbiz people would be commenting on issues. But the way things have gone with this administration, it's in your face all the time. It's so noisy that you almost can't avoid talking about it with people.

BLOCK: And it sounds like you're surprised to find yourself here.

Mr. NEWMAN: Oh, yeah. I really am. I mean, I'm more interested in character. And on this album, mostly, I'm writing about character. That's way more interesting to me than - you know, the old saying about it's a curse to live in interesting times. Well, in a way, that applies in this situation. It's much more interesting to me to examine one individual character or someone.

(Soundbite of song, "Feels Like Home")

Mr. NEWMAN: (Singing) Something in your eye makes me want to lose myself, makes me want to lose myself.

BLOCK: You know, when you're listening to this CD, you go through these sort of huge swerves where you're listening to something that's very sardonic and, you know, the knife is sticking right in. And then there's a song of pure sweetness like "Feels Like Home," which ends the CD.

Mr. NEWMAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "Feels Like Home")

Mr. NEWMAN: (Singing) Did know how I wanted someone to come along and change my world the way you've done? Feels like home. Feels like home. Feels like I'm all the way back where I come from. Feels like home.

BLOCK: Do you find that as a writer, too, that you're making those turns and, you know, one day you'll wake up and, you know, I'm feeling sweet and loving today, and that's what's going to come out?

Mr. NEWMAN: It doesn't have much to do with how I'm feeling, what I write. I'm always feeling like, well, I hope I come up with something here. But I chose at some point not to do what the general repertory does, and that is love songs. And I, for whatever reason, some shyness, some strange psychological reason, or just because I figured, well, you can do more , but a song like "Feels Like Home" will end up being - it'll be the most popular song throughout the years. Little Newmans will be earning something on it, you know, 30 years from now.

BLOCK: Well, Randy Newman, it's been fun talking with you. Thanks so much.

Mr. NEWMAN: Yeah. I hope I let you talk. Not much, but, you know, I've become a - sort of a garrulous old coot now, I think.

BLOCK: Randy Newman's latest CD is "Harps and Angels." You can hear him in concert and catch his spin as a guest DJ on ALL SONGS CONSIDERED at npr.org. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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