I always thought it would be the Rolling Stones along with that inflatable woman from “Honky Tonk Woman.” Then, after his Portland concert last month, I would have chosen the impeccable Lyle Lovett and his perfect band.
Now, I think I would choose Randy Newman for the all-time, once-in-a-lifetime, lottery-winning party at Cobb Manor. I think the piano might be a problem, but we could always expand the deck. Needless to say, I am quite fickle and had my head turned by Newman’s rare concert appearance at Boston’s Berklee Performance Center last week.
Newman, 63, has been churning out songs since his debut album in 1968.
“Ran” as his biggest fans call him, is the consummate wise-ass. Many people know him now for his hit “Short People” (which was really a slam on racism) and for all his movie songs from “Toy Story,” “Monsters Inc.” and “Cars.”
But the real fans who showed up last week knew him for his earlier, dark, sarcastic and hilarious work. His “Rednecks” is another anti-racism tune inspired by Lester Maddox, of all people, which notes that Southerners may be “rednecks who don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground,” but they are little different from those enlightened northern liberals who allow blacks to live in “cages” in Watts, Harlem and Roxbury, a mere half mile away from the concert stage.
It is a bittersweet song for Boston which bussed so many high-minded college students, professors and clergy to the South in the 1960s only to have race riots explode at home when school integration was proposed for South Boston.
Newman chooses the strangest subjects for his tunes. Like the homage to the Cuyahoga River outside Cleveland which became so polluted that it actually caught fire.
“Burn on, big river, burn on. Now the Lord can make you tumble and the Lord can make you turn. And the Lord can make you overflow, but the Lord can’t make you burn.”
Or his hilarious take on “Foreign Policy” which suggests, (hopefully) sarcastically, that we might as well nuke the rest of the world into submission, since they all hate us, anyway.
“Well, boom goes London, and boom Paris / More room for you and more room for me / And every city the whole world round will just be another American town / Oh, how peaceful it’ll be, we’ll set everybody free / You’ll have Japanese kimonos, baby, there’ll be Italian shoes for me / They all hate us anyhow / So let’s drop the big one now.”
Of course, with the neocons running the White House, the lyrics might be taken too seriously today. At the concert, Newman damned the Bush administration as “the worst leaders we ever had.” He also noted that the song gets a lot more laughs in the U.S. than overseas.
Newman was dressed in perfect attire for the evening in a Hawaiian shirt and sneakers. His piano playing may not be of philharmonic quality, but his funky, bluesy style is perfect for his Southern drawl and sardonic lyrics.
The former Louisiana resident wisely closed the performance with “Louisiana ’27,” a report on an earlier flood in New Orleans. Apparently the natives were not impressed by the reaction from that White House, either.
“President Coolidge came down in a railroad train / with a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand / The President say, ‘Little fat man isn’t it a shame what the river has done/ To this poor cracker’s land.'”
He even got the audience to cheerfully sing a chorus of “He’s dead, He’s dead” to Newman’s “I’m dead,” a lament for endlessly touring 1970s rockers like himself.
“I always thought that I would know when it was time to quit / that when I lost a step or two or three or four or five I’d notice it / Now that I’ve arrived here safely I find my talent is gone.”
Audience: “He’s dead. He’s dead.”
His voice was so bad to start with that he really hasn’t lost a step. There was no step to lose. Newman is as good as he ever was, and I will be calling him for that Cobb Manor deck appearance … as soon as I win that pesky lottery.
Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at firstname.lastname@example.org.