Flipping around the channels the other night, I chanced upon Austin City Limits. Now, I like this show in theory, but I hardly ever watch it. Still, when I saw Randy Newman's shaggy gray head bent over the keyboard, I stopped flipping.
I've been a Newman fan since 1974 (Northampton, Mass., double bill with Ry Cooder), though not the sort of fan that travels the country and hangs around by the backstage door. (Does Randy Newman even have that kind of fan?) I do love his satiric songs like "Political Science" or "So Long Dad" or "Short People". (Not so sure that "I Love L.A." was meant as satire, but I love that too.) On vacation in Charleston this year, I kept catching myself singing "Sail Away" -- not just the wistful African slaves' refrain "we will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay," but ironical lines like "Won't have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet." Embarrassed my family no end.
I also love his songs from the Toy Story movies, 1, 2 and 3 -- "When He Loved Me" gets me every time. Because alongside the satirist Randy Newman there's the sentimentalist Randy Newman, the yang that keeps the yin in place.
Harps and Angels (2008) is a great album; if you don't know it, you should. Randy doesn't put them out so often anymore -- the one before that, Bad Love, was 1999 -- but when he does, they're pretty near perfect. You laugh, you cry. "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" is like the companion piece to "Political Science"; "Feels Like Home" is about as sweet a middle-aged love song as you'll ever hear. But the real gem on this album is "Losing You," and watching Randy Newman sing that on ACL the other night, I have to say, I was moved to tears.