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Randy Newman Bashes President Trump, Putin and Himself at Hilarious Radio Concert

Variety logo Variety 7/13/2017 Jem Aswad
© Provided by Variety

Anyone who’s seen Randy Newman perform knows that even though he’s one of the greatest songwriters of the past 50 years — a multiple Grammy, Emmy and Oscar winner, contributor of classic songs to films like the three “Toy Story” titles, “Seabiscuit,” “James and the Giant Peach” — the real gold is in his concerts is his hilarious commentary, an undistilled, often unfiltered version of the cutting, self-deprecating and side-splitting humor that appears in his lyrics.

And his performance Wednesday night at New York’s Electric Lady Studios — which will be broadcast on WFUV-FM/New York during the week of August 4, when “Dark Matter,” his first album of new material in nine years, is released — was certainly no exception. During the brief performance, which found him playing several songs — classics like “Sail Away” and “Feels Like Home” as well as selections from the new album, noodling on several more, and answering questions both from DJ Rita Houston and submitted by audience members. He spoke about his songwriting process, his admitted limitations as a singer and live performer, and not least, President Trump, Russian president Vladimir Putin — the subject of his 2016 song “Putin,” which is also on “Dark Matter” — and more. Several highlights from the evening are below, and we’ve omitted noting where the audience laughed because it laughed so often.

On hits — and not having them

[Plays a romantic-sounding passage on the piano] “So that’s a straight tune, a Scotch-Irish sorta thing. I coulda turned it into a love song — but I made it about death! It’s a strange instinct I have. You would think that I’ve been in this business for so long that hits would have fallen on me, just by being around — I mean, I know Don Henley and Paul Simon! But I’ve had one hit [‘Short People,’ which reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1978], and it’s like having a hit with [Sheb Wooley’s 1958 novelty hit] ‘Purple People Eater.’ But I’m not complaining — it’s unbelievable that I can still play ‘Sail Away’ after all these years and people like to hear it.”

On his use of humor in songs

“The thing about comedy — I do more of it than anybody who does this kind of music, because I love it and it lets you know you’re alright: If people are laughing, they’re getting what you’re doing… But it’s hard. I’m listening to these songs that I’m playing and I’m wondering, thinking about Bob Christgau [the legendary and unforgiving music critic, who was in the room, apparently unbeknownst to Newman], like, “Is this too choppy?”

On record companies

“I’m inclined to hate corporate executives, but I’ve gotta admit they’ve been pretty good to me over the years. All that garbage about the mythology of Warner [Bros. Records during the 1960s-1980s] being a great artists’ place and stuff, there’s some truth to it, y’know? We could do what we wanted — and apparently what I wanted to do was sell 4,000 records! They didn’t tell you what to do — which isn’t to say I couldn’t have used [the advice]!”

On Putin

“The thing about Putin and all that shirt-off stuff is — it’s not enough that he’s the richest and most powerful man in the world, it’s like he wanted to be Tom Cruise! It’s a very teenage, worrisome thing.”

On his 2008 song “In Defense of Our Country,” which bashes former President Bush

“This is a song I wrote for the world, a few words in defense of our country … although the guy who’s in there now makes Bush look like a statesman.”

On a fan question asking him to compare Donald Trump with Huey Long, the 1930s Louisiana Senator who is a subject of Newman’s 1974 album “Good Old Boys”

“Well, Long was smarter than this guy, and Long was probably corrupt in terms of money also. They’re different fellows. There’s vaguely that sort of populist thing … it’s just like Hitler’s campaign. Hitler opened playing clubs, much like I did — playing little rooms to 30 people. He started — you know, when I hear people in show business talking like this, I f—ing hate it and now I’m doing it! At any rate, he started playing little rooms, and his thing was he picked ‘the other,’ like this guy [Trump] has done, [Hitler] picked the Jews. He told people things were worse than they really were, which was hard to do in 1923 in Germany but he did, and he told them ‘We’re going to clean out the pigsty.’ It’s just like him [Trump]!”

On whether making music is something he enjoys

“I hate to do this doom-and-gloom every goddamn time I talk, but it’s always been a job to me, to some extent. It’s very important to me, like life or death, but it’s not what I do for fun. I wish I played in a band sometimes. When I did that — I got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and played with [Tom] Petty and Henley and whoever. We were playing, and I’m used to playing by myself, and things were speeding up. And I looked over at the drummer and he’s smiling, ‘How cool, he’s just fooling with us’ — except I didn’t know what the hell I was doing! I was like, ‘Is that me?’ ‘Well, yeah, it’s you.’ ‘Am I gonna get thrown out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because I can’t keep time?’

“It’s a funny look [the one on the drummer’s face]. The same thing happened to me when I was recording at Petty’s guitar player’s [Mike Campbell] house with [producer] Jeff Lynne and it was time for background voices. I sat in the corner and said ‘I can’t do it’ and Petty said, ‘No, you can, I never thought I could sing background either but with Jeff, you can do it.’ So I go ‘Okay’ and we were standing around the mic and and I went ‘Aaahhhh’ and it was the same look! ‘He’s really funny!’ I had to give it a pass. I do some things very well, I can write and I conduct not badly, but I cannot sing background vocals.”

On his favorite cover version of one of his songs by other artist

“Etta James: ‘God’s Song.’ It isn’t brave when I do it, but when she did it she must have been really pissed off at God! To do that song in the face of her community and whatever pressures there might have been? She really did a great version of it — it’s better than mine, and I wouldn’t say that about a lot of covers.”

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