My little band Vocalocity is doing really well (thanks for asking). We’ve just released a couple of live clips (Ariana Grande’s ‘Problem’, George Harrison’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’–that’s me in black). Now in our fourth year, we perform only custom-written arrangements, which we commission from the very best a cappella arrangers in the world.
Like Ed Randell, the very funky bass of The Swingles. Vocalocity is already enjoying one arrangement of his (Lianne La Havas’s ‘Is Your Love Big Enough?’), so we were negotiating a follow-up. “How about ‘Mrs Robinson’ in a slow funk treatment?” he asked. “Could you hum a few bars,” I asked in half-jest. Two hours later, he sent me a mouth-watering teaser of what’s to come.
After we picked ourselves up off the floor, we started thinking about how to present it to the group. We’re a serious group – they sit and squirm quietly while I explain the lyrics and background to what they’re going to interpret. They all know and love the song, but they’re millenials (it’s not their fault, I keep reminding myself), and I can’t take for granted that they know the song’s context.
And somehow Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’ has become more symbol than song. Its connotations outweigh its content. Ask any earthling over the age of 30 about ‘Mrs Robinson’, and they’ll answer, “Oh, yeah, sure, Benjamin, Dustin Hoffman, Joe DiMaggio, “The Graduate”, ‘Dee de dee dee dee dee…’.
And the song. Do you realize what a strange composition ‘Mrs R’ is? It goes like this:
Chorus (And here’s to you…)
Verse (We’d like to know…’)
Chorus (And here’s to you…)
Verse (‘Hide it in a hiding place…)
Verse (‘Sitting on a sofa…’)
Chorus (‘Where have you gone…’).
If you’ve ever thought about the structure of a pop song—it ain’t nothing like that.
And the music. It’s all rootless and shifting and discomfiting. So I went to my Genius-in-Residence, OG, and asked him to explain the song to me. I remember him saying “It’s in the Mixolydian mode.” Then there was something about the chorus being in A but ending on F#, because the tonic makes its way down by fifths to B, then E, then A. But I was snoring deeply by then.
And the lyrics? Paul Simon was the guy you’d bring into your high school English class to show the teacher that M-M-M-My Generation could write poetry. To tell the truth, the three verses are pretty choppy and unfocused. No one remembers them.
Where did the song come from? Well, S&G were flying high on the coattails of ‘Sounds of Silence’ and ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’. They were a little intellectual but yet accessible, seriously fun, the perfect meld of sweet folk with a dash of rock edginess. They were playing in the big leagues, right up there with The Beatles and Dylan.
Mike Nichols caught the S&G bug while he was filming “The Graduate”, a coming-of-age story about (just in case you grew up on Mars) a disaffected and confused college graduate seduced into a summer affair by his father’s partner’s wife, Mrs Robinson. Some went so far as to say it was the story of a Jewish kid with gentile parents.
Nichols (b. Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, fleeing Nazi Germany at seven with his three year-old brother) first made a name in the improvisational comedy duo Nichols and (Elaine) May, followed by success as a director on Broadway. “The Graduate” was his second Hollywood movie, following Burton/Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”.
Hollywood in 1967 was very much the provenance of white boxer shorts Republican America. You had your “Beach Blanket Bingo” teen exploitation movies. If you had an art theater in town you might catch an underground indie flick like “You’re a Big Boy Now” or the Maysles brothers or John Cassavetes. But the burgeoning counter-culture was off-limits.
So easy on the ear (and brain) were S&G that The Suits bought Mike Nichols the rights to three new Simon songs for his movie. Paul came up with ‘Punky’s Dilemma’ and ‘Overs’, but neither of them fit the bill. “What about that thing you were working on about Mrs Roosevelt?” Garfunkel asked. “What??” said Nichols. Simon played a scrap, Nichols said, “The song is now called ‘Mrs Robinson’, go finish it.”
The song was only released three months after the movie, and went to #1.
The song is today inextricably entwined with the movie in the minds of everyone familiar with the era. Together, they gave the most perfect expression to the youth revolution sweeping the US and the world. “Plastics.” Nouveau riche-ness. Hypocrisy. The Establishment and The Meaning(lessness) of Life. Initiation into the delicious, irresistible sins of the flesh. Convention and the deconstruction thereof.
But what the hell does the song mean?
It’s clearly excoriating Mrs Robinson, censuring her and reproving her in a way the film doesn’t. Anne Bancroft’s Mrs R is desperate and dislikable, but we’re never far from pitying her. The lyrics of the song, prima facie, have little to do with her. She doesn’t pray, has no spiritual pretentions whatsoever. She couldn’t care less about politics, and she no more belongs in an asylum than any other of the adults in the movie.
But then there’s that last verse, the DiMaggio one. Simon has mythicized America successfully elsewhere – in ‘America’ (from the “Bookends” album which was being composed at the time of “The Graduate”) and in ‘American Tune’ (several years later). [Speaking of which, here’s another fine Ed Randell arrangement for The Swingles.] In the former, he speaks in the voice of a diminutive, lost individual juxtaposed against the vastness of the country. In the latter, he attempts to don the mantle of a spokesman for The American People. With music by Johnny Bach, it borders on the pretentious. I’ll let you decide if it crosses the line.
Speaking of mantles, Paul Simon is a well-known fan of the New York Yankees baseball team. Simon (b. 1941) grew up idolizing Yankee icon Mickey Mantle (played 1951-1968), as did I. Mantle was portrayed as a sort of John F. Kennedy – copiously gifted, plagued by injuries, his talent struggling to perform in a pain-wracked body; while in reality, he was a dissolute farmboy. Nonetheless, he was The Golden Boy of the 1950s/early 60s. In his rookie year of 1951, Mantle replaced the great Joe DiMaggio (1936-1951) in centerfield, a truly mythic passing of – sorry, but that’s the word, folks – the mantle.
Joe DiMaggio began his major league career the year after Babe Ruth retired, and played alongside Lou Gehrig for four years. That alone gave him mythic stature, a flesh-and-bone hero who had stood with the ancients and was replaced by a man who retired the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
But Joe DiMaggio was so much more. He was the very essence of grace and dignity, a paragon of the nobility of restraint. Joe wasn’t taciturn. He had no more need to speak than does a mountain. Or a god.
Yet it was Mantle that Paul Simon grew up idolizing. Mantle asked Paul why he wasn’t mentioned in the song instead of DiMaggio. Simon replied, “It’s about syllables, Mick. It’s about how many beats there are.” And in Simon’s obituary for DiMaggio in the New York Times, he recounts his conversation with Joe about the song (“The only subject we had in common.) DiMaggio complained that he hadn’t gone away, he was still active. “I said that I didn’t mean the lines literally, that I thought of him as an American hero and that genuine heroes were in short supply..”) Implant video with caption
Well, literal or not, a Jewish kid from Queens standing in centerfield at Yankee Stadium, singing a pop song that has the depth and power of an ageless hymn – that’s mortals mixing with the gods, a page out of the book of Genesis or the Iliad. And then you see Alex Rodriguez – watching Simon singing his paean to a true hero, the Yankee Clipper himself – demeaning those same pinstripes. Ah, what’s become of the world? Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Longing for that time when the world valued morality, when the world made sense. How should I explain that to the millenials in my band? They’re so far removed from the 1950s (and everything that went before) that I might as well be speaking Akkadian. I guess you just had to be there. Dee de dee dee dee dee…
In the late 1990s I went through a musical transmogrification. Prior to it, I knew American/British pop/rock music pretty thoroughly, from 1956 on up into the 1980s and 1990s, when I found precious little new music of interest. I found myself haunting Used LP stores, lying on the musty carpet, crawling back under the stacks into the dusty bins of throwaways, looking for unfamiliar vinyl gems of oblique interest, such as Post-Peter Noone Herman’s Hermits or ‘The Fleetwoods Live at the Pink Lady’ or ‘Pete Best’s Greatest Hits Vol III or ‘Petula Clark Sings Robert Johnson’. I said to myself, “Perhaps this seam is mined out, Jeff, and it’s time to broaden your horizons.”
To tell the truth, I was going through some other mid-life bumps, changing jobs and a lot more. I needed an aural detoxification program. Who does one turn to? Johann Sebastian Bach (1665-1750), of course. I spent over a year listening almost solely to ‘Art of the Fugue‘, ‘Musical Offering’, the Cello Suites, the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, and the solo ‘piano’ repertoire: the English Suites, the French Suites, the Partitas, the Toccatas, the 2-Part Inventions and 3-Part Sinfonias, the Goldberg Variations, a great CD of atypical flashy virtuoso pieces called “Brendel Plays Bach”, and of course, ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’.
In Bach’s time, keyboard instruments (harpsichords and klavichords) were tuned to a specific scale (key)–C, F#, whatever. Theorists had come up with a scheme in which the keyboard would be tuned in equal intervals, a compromise solution which enabled playing in any key on a single instrument. Bach tried out such instruments, and composed two works to demonstrate their chops, “Das Wohltemperierte Klavier” Volumes I (1722) and II (1744). Each one consisted of a cycle of 24 pieces, each one with a prelude and fugue, written in ascending order, major/minor. Together, they’re known as “The 48” (2×24). In other words, each one is constructed thus: C major prelude and fugue, C minor prelude and fugue; C# major prelude and fugue, C# minor prelude and fugue, etc.
Sounds pretty dry, I admit, but artists have been employing artificial conventions as vessels for their inspiration since time immemorial (“Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net”–Robert Frost), and Bach is Bach, and The 48 is one of the greatest works of art made by man.
So back in the late 1990s I listened to The 48 several trillion times, and was duly moved and transported and spiritually consoled. I used to view Bach as imposing arbitrary order on a chaotic world, eliciting sense out of disorder. I still do, actually. And then one day I happened upon an homage to The 48 written in the early 1950s by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).
Shostakovich was a thoroughly modernist composer who maintained a rocky relationship with the oppressive Soviet regime under which he lived. He was Russia’s most prominent composer, too well-known and respected to be sent to the Gulag or to be disappeared, although a friend testified in 1948 that “he waited for his arrest at night out on the landing by the lift, so that at least his family wouldn’t be disturbed.” He was twice denounced for anti-Socialist ‘formalism’ (in 1936 and 1948). He sometimes wrote personal pieces he knew could not be performed, sought professional refuge in teaching or writing for films or politically proper venues. For example, in 1939, Leningrad Party Secretary Andrei Zhdanov commissioned from him a “Suite on Finnish Themes” to be performed by the marching bands of the Red Army as they entered the conquered Helsinki. Shostakovich never claimed the composition as his own.
Siege of Leningrad
This same Zhdanov, who decided during the siege of Leningrad to give food to the defending army rather than to the starving populace, became Minister of Culture, Stalin’s right-hand man, and masterminded the post-war cultural purge. In 1950 he rehabilitated Shostakovich in order to humiliate him by sending him abroad as official representative of the Soviet Union. The event was a festival in Leipzig marking the bicentennial of Bach’s death, where Dmitri was a judge for the first International Bach competition. One of the competitors was a 26-year old pianist Shostakovich had met in Moscow, Tatiana Nikolayeva. She performed pieces from the Well-Tempered Clavier (which Shostakovich had played as a young piano student, although they had nothing of the stature they were to gain from the 1950s onwards) and won the gold medal.
Back in the USSR (ouch!), Shostakovich was inspired to compose his own cycle of 24 preludes and fugues. These were dangerously personal pieces, but he was protected by the fact that Bach was perceived by the Evil Empire as a champion of the proletariat! According to the lengthy article on Bach published in 1973 in the Soviet Musical Encyclopedia, “The national and democratic tendencies of Bach’s creativity find their source in the protestant chorale. It was Friedrich Engels who described one of the most famous examples, Ein’ feste Burg is unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God) as ‘the Marseillaise of the 17th century.’”
Shostakovich worked quickly, averaging only three days for each piece. As each was completed he would invite Nikolayeva to his Moscow apartment to show off his work. The complete work was written between October 10, 1950 and February 25, 1951. He dedicated it to her, and she premiered it in Leningrad December 23, 1952.
On a formal level, Shostakovich’s Opus 87 (not to be confused from his ’24 Preludes’ Op. 34) has significant differences from Bach’s 48. The compositions don’t move upwards in chromatic steps, but rather in relative major/minor pairs around the circle of fifths: C major, A minor, G major, E minor, D major, B minor, and so on – the same organization as Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s set of 24 preludes (1815) and Chopin’s and Joseph Christoph Kessler’s sets (both 1839, apparently a very good year for such cycles).
“In his Preludes and Fugues, Shostakovich never loses sight of the Bach model that inspired him, but still employs all the harmonic and other possibilities available to a mid-20th-century composer. Many of the pieces in the cycle possess an improvisatory, unfettered character; they are aware of tradition without being paralyzed by it. Shostakovich does not make obvious direct references to the Bach cycle. The preludes and fugues in each pair are more closely linked thematically and harmonically than is the case in Bach, and there is no pause between them in performance.” (Harlow Robinson).
From the piece’s premiere till the 1990s–the same years I was listening to rock music–the only three recordings of real note were by Tatiana Nikolaeva, 1962 and 1987 (Melodiya) and 1991 (Hyperion). But since then the cycle has been widely recorded, perhaps two dozen versions, a very popular one by Keith Jarrett (which I feel lacks the gravitas of the Russian’s) and an audacious one by Finnish Olli Mustonen, who coupled Bach’s and Shostakovich’s pieces, interspersing them in order.
It’s Ms Nikolaeva’s 1987 version that I’ve listened to all the years, and the one that remains my point of reference. Our Song of The Week, then, is Prelude & Fugue No. 16 in B-flat minor.
Here’s Tatiana Nikolaeva’s 1987 version, prelude and fugue, playing along with the score. And here’s her 1992 version.
And here’s Keith Jarrett’s very legitimate take on the same piece.
Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues is not music for the light of heart, lazy of mind, or facile of spirit, and No 16 is one of the darker pieces in the cycle. But we do have the benefit of the composer, a fine pianist in his own right, offering us his own interpretation. Here’s the prelude and fugue.
Like Bach, like all great artists, like all great tennis players–the formal constraints provide rules and boundaries; but it is what is expressed in them–the living, breathing, personal, unique expression–that leaves its mark.
I’m still in a pretty dark place. An inconsolable place. Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues provide no facile answers. But they do formulate the questions in a way that makes my heart understand that it’s not alone in this universe in visiting the darker side of the human experience.
Life, as you may have noticed, can be quirky. For example, have you ever noticed that phenomenon where a small detail in your distant past becomes a crucial focal point many years on?
My wife and I figured out we were at the same local fair in the city where she lived, the day the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan – years before we met.
N.R. was a girl in my 8th grade home room class whom I never spoke to, never thought of speaking to. Years later, on the other side of the physical, mental and spiritual world, her older brother became my guru and close friend.
That lady I worked with for a year or two way back when? Thirty years later, in a whole different place, my son would house-sit for her and write his dissertation there.
They say “What goes around comes around”, which I’ve never really understood beyond “Watch out for pigeons shitting on you when you walk under a ladder to avoid being crossed by a black cat.”
I was once shat upon three times in a single day. Some say that’s very good luck. Some say I should have figured out more quickly not to sit under a ledge where pigeons were roosting.
But what I did figure out is that you’d better let that girl next to you go ahead of you to throw the baseball at the bowling pins, because you just might wind up married to her, and if you didn’t let her cut in, you’re going to hear about it from here to eternity.
I admit, those are fairly feeble phenomena for flouting the fickle finger of fate. But they’re taken from real life, where I’m always on shaky ground. I do much better within the confines of my record collection.
It’s the late 1960s, I’m a college student, and I’ve got the best record collection in the Midwest, I think. It started with me beg-borrow-and-stealing every nickel I could get my hands on as a tweenie to stockpile 45s, and then LPs from the cutout bin. If you looked hard enough, among the “101 Strings Plays Liberace” and “Lawrence Welk Goes All Bubbly” you could find an early Roy Orbison or “Bobby Rydell’s Greatest Hits Vol. 6”.
For four summers I worked in a Pepsi Cola factory. On Friday I’d get my paycheck ($35, a kingly sum for me) and head straight for this one K-Mart out in the boondocks that for some reason kept getting the most extensive stock of new records in the entire metropolitan area. There was no love among the stockboys for the LPs. They’d just stuff ‘em into whatever bin had room. Which necessitated me lying on the floor for half an hour every week to finger through the nether recesses of the back bins on the bottom (floor) level.
LPs cost $2.99 a piece back then. Most weeks I’d buy two or three or four, digging, dusting, exploring and piecing together shards of information. I should have become a musical archaeologist. Or maybe I did.
Then I started writing record reviews for the college paper. There were over 20,000 students, a record-buying public, and I soon learned that the record distributors were more than happy to ply me with their goods and their goodies (prime tickets for shows of visiting artists, interviews). So I accumulated one heck of a record collection. It took up about 20% of the floor space of my little pad and about 80% of my waking hours (hey, a guy’s got to eat, doesn’t he?).
I used to spend two to three rigorous hours a day reclining on my bed with headphones a-set, eyes a-closed, and mind a-focused, rotating my position between prone, prostrate, recumbent and supine. I didn’t believe in stacking records, so I would actually stand up once every twenty minutes or so to flip the disc or engage in some other necessary technical task.
At first glance, you (and my parents) might ask, “Exactly how did this prepare you for life, Jeff?”
Well, here we are, almost half a century later, mining that very same compressed coal seam. If I ran into my wife at that fair, I sure hope I was polite.
I ostensibly listened to rock, rock and roll. Certainly not jazz. Yet it happens that I occasionally trip over a piece of music that I knew from my record collection of back then, something so obscure, so off-my-beaten path, that I ask myself how in the world I had the fortune, prescience or just plain dumb blind circumstantiality to have gotten exposed to it.
The movie was a big hit in Brazil, and even made some impact in North America. But the big impact occurred with two bossa-inspired American jazz LPs. The first was “Jazz Samba” (1962) by saxophonist Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd. Its most famous tracks are ‘Desafinado’ (‘Slightly Out of Tune’) and ‘Samba de Uma Nota Só‘ (‘One Note Samba’). Then the LP that really took the world by storm, and still maintains a central role as progenitor of a legitimate, fruitful style half a century later, “Getz/Gilberto”. The music was Getz on sax, João Gilberto on guitar and vocals, and Tom Jobim (piano and composition of almost all the songs), with help on vocals on a couple of songs (‘The Girl from Ipanema’, ‘Corcovado’) by Gilberto’s wife Astrud, who wasn’t really a singer but was the only one of the Brazilians present who knew enough English to get through the songs. Her recording sold several trillion records, and inspired her to have an affair with Stan and divorce João. Boy, what goes on behind that laid-back music!
At the time I was of course aware of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and probably the whole “Getz/Gilberto” album. But the really quirky part was the Vince Guaraldi connection. Vince (1922-76) was a well-respected jazz pianist from San Francisco whose earliest claim to very modest fame was as a collaborator of vibraphonist Cal Tjader. His maternal uncle was whistler Muzzy Marcellino, just in case you were wondering. In 1962, Vince recorded one side of “jazz impressions of Black Orhpeus”, a very tasteful attempt to hop on the bossa bandwagon, contemporary with Mr Getz and everyone else in the world.
Those four cuts eventually made such a deep impression on me that I delved into the soundtrack the “Orpheu Negro” soundtrack when I was a mere lad of about 15. Sometimes I impress myself in retrospect.
But how did I get to that Vince Guaraldi album? you may ask (I am aware of the fact that you may not actually be asking that question, but I’m going to tell you anyway, just in case).
But Vince was still lacking a filler, so he composed “Cast Your Fate to the Wind”, released as the B-side of ‘Samba de Orpheus’, inexplicably becoming a jazz song on the pop charts (#10) and a Grammy winner as Best Original Jazz Composition, beating out stellar works that year by Art Blakey, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Andrew Hill, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk.
I admit it might not rightfully replace ‘Take the A-Train’ or ‘Giant Steps’ in the jazz pantheon, but it was a lovely tune back then, and still is today. Unlike many songwriters who grow weary of their biggest hits, Guaraldi never minded taking requests to play it when he appeared live. “It’s like signing the back of a check”.
Of course, Vince went on to sign a lot more checks from his Charlie Brown projects. They’re charming, inoffensive, but we’re going to be taking a road ‘less traveled by’, which of course makes all the difference.
I’d like to take this opportunity to note that my copy of “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus”/”Cast Your Fate to the Wind” was a transparent red vinyl LP, the only one in my record collection (I can’t remember where my passport is, but I do remember that). I’m not sure what the significance of that is, but if I every have that 0.9-second “my life flashed before my eyes” experience, that record may well have its very own frame there.
‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind’ has had a few covers—a diluted pop success by Sounds Orchestral, a clunky closer for Scorcese’s “Wolf of Wall Street” as covered by Allan Toussaint, a decent if uninspired one by Quincy Jones, and a vocal (with lyrics by Carel Werber) by Mel Torme with a pretty embarrassing arrangement by Marty Paich, who should have known better.
But there was one which made an indelible impression on me, that by We Five. They have been called the first electric group from San Francisco. They were five young folkies led by excellent vocalist Beverly Bivens and singer/guitarist/banjoist Mike Stewart, brother of Kingston Trio member John Stewart (‘Gold’, ‘Daydream Believer’ for the Monkees). We Five’s big hit, ‘You Were On My Mind’, was written by Sylvia Fricker of (husband and wife Canadians) Ian (Tyson) & Sylvia, early stalwarts of the folk movement of the early ‘60s. Here’s their original. And here’s We Five’s version.
We Five began to juice up folk music—precursors of what would become folk-rock – just like contemporaries The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas and the Papas, and Spanky and Our Gang.
They were cast in an electric, eclectic folk setting with a beat, with focus on the vocals. I’ve remembered the album fondly for many years. I recently took a relisten to it. What can I tell you? It hasn’t aged all that well; finer stuff was done by others (look no further than the Mamas and the Papas). But credit where credit is due—a mix of jazz and pop covers recast in a vocal setting, with a pinch of a rock sensibility—this became the sonic world from which my current passion of modern a cappella drew no little inspiration.
What’s the moral of this very strange narrative? Beats me. Cast your listening habits to the wind, because you never know who’s going to turn up decades later to bite you on the ankle. Or kiss you on the neck.
Randy Newman has had a really sterling career–20 nominations for Academy Awards and 15 for Grammies. Over the last 20 years he’s focused on composing for films and performing live, but before that he was primarily a singer-songwriter, with a string of nine albums from 1968 to 1988, some of them merely fine, some of them greatgreatgreat. I imagine he makes an awful lot of money writing scores for movies such as all three Toy Stories (in 2007, he became a Disney Legend – I’m not sure what that is, but it probably impresses a lot of people), and I’m not really in a position to diss them because I’ve never seen them.
The Randy Newman I’m so fond of is someone wholly other than the guy in the tux up there on the stage. In fact, as his career has developed, his stature and success have consistently grown – as is befitting, because he’s a really talented guy, and he deserves it. I’m pretty sure that there’s almost no one else in the world who views his career like I do, in absolute inverse relation to his success. But I’d like to tell you about the Randy Newman I most admire.
1966, I’m working summers in a Pepsi Cola factory during college. Factory work, good pay for a kid. Got the paycheck on Friday (around $80, if I remember correctly), and drove out to some Kmart-type faceless chain warehouse which for some bizarre bureaucratic reason stocked all the new record releases. So I’d go through the copious racks as methodically as an archaeologist, as focused as a brain surgeon, every Friday, and come home with three or four new albums, $2.99 a shot.
One of them was Judi Collins’ album “In My Life”, in which a pretty unimaginative folk songstress covered some really exciting new music: Richard Farina’s ‘Hard Loving Loser’, Dylan’s ‘Tom Thumb’s Blues’, Donavan’s ‘Sunny Goodge Street’, The Beatles ‘In My Life’ (a remarkably correct reading of the song which I discussed in SoTW 053, and especially ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ by someone named Randy Newman. It was the first time I’d heard his name, but the song knocked me out, and it was a name I watched out for. So when his first appeared in the netherstacks of Whatever-Mart, I was probably the first–maybe the only–person in the Midwest to buy it.
“Something New Under the Sun” Original Cover
Here’s the story I didn’t know at the time. Randy was born in 1943 and raised in LA, son of a local doctor and a mother from New Orleans (both locales would be formative in his musical landscape). Two of his uncles, Alfred and Lionel, were among the most successful Hollywood composers of the 1940s and 1950s. From the age of 17 he was writing pop songs recorded with a modicum of success by Gene Pitney, Jerry Butler, Jackie DeShannon, The O’Jays, Irma Thomas and especially Alan Price, formerly the organist of The Animals (yes, the guy who played on ‘House of the Rising Sun’). Price was an early (and fine) singer-songwriter, who recorded many Newman songs before anyone else, including Randy himself.
Randy’s boyhood friend Lenny Waronker got a job at Warner Brothers records as a producer. He brought in his friends pop/avant garde arranger/composer/pianist Van Dyke Parks, Leon Russell, and Newman. Randy was studying music at UCLA, but it seems that Waronker called and said: “Listen Rand, the record business is booming, the bigshots around here are going crazy looking for talent. They’ll throw a bundle at anyone with long hair and a guitar. Forget school, come over here, I’ll sign you to the Reprise subsidiary, we’ll make an album. Whatever you want. Van Dyke and I will produce it. Complete artistic freedom. No limits on budget! Spend whatever you want!! The best studio musicians in town, whoever you want. Bring in a whole goddam orchestra, for all I care.”
“Something New Under the Sun” Rerelease Cover
And that’s what they did. They made an album called either “Randy Newman” or “Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun.”
It was originally released in 1968 with a blue cover and sold numerous dozens of copies. It was such a flop that Warner Brothers announced that anyone who bought it could trade it in for a different album from their catalog. A couple of years later, after he developed a small following, they rereleased it with a brown cover. This time it actually sold several hundred copies. It was so far under the radar that even the critics missed it. The album was out of print for 15 years, when it was released as a CD in 1985. It remains almost unheard of even today, even among those who should know better.
Despite the fact that a number of the songs on “Randy Newman” have been covered by many major artists, and despite the fact that Randy continues to perform songs from it in concert, the album languishes in absolute obscurity.
I’ll tell you what I think of the album. I think it ranks with “The Band”, “Astral Weeks”, “John Wesley Harding”, “Rubber Soul”, “Pet Sounds”, “Eli & the 13th Confession” as one of the greatest works of art to arise from the ‘rock’ idiom.
It’s hard to think of it as having roots in rock, because there’s only one song that has anything like a rock backbeat. There’s a large, lush orchestra playing charts of such intelligence and beauty and complexity that it’s mindbending to think that this is the freshman work of a 25-year old. All his award-winning Hollywood scores down the road blanche in comparison.
But even more prominent here is his piano, and his voice, and his ‘songs’. They’re so much more than songs. They’re vignettes of the Newman world – irony, satire that cuts to the very bone, obscure Everymen living lives of quiet desperation; pain, grimaces, regret, angst, compassion, and more pain.
Take for example ‘Davy, The Fat Boy‘. Before they die, Davy’s parents entrust their freakishly fat son to the care of the narrator, ‘the only friend he ever will have’ – who promptly puts him on exhibit in a carnival freak show, to make a few quarters out of the deal.
The song is Art in its conception–melody, chord structure, scoring–George Gershwin being serious for once. The piano is somewhere between Fats Domino and Aaron Copland. The voice is Tom Waits from Beverly Hills.
Come on, Big Boy, come and save us.
Come and look at what we’ve done with what You gave us.
Now I’ve heard it said that our Big Boy’s dead, but I think he’s hiding.
But you have to hear the Neapolitan guitars with the raunchy slo-mo sliding bass and the out-of-tune nightmarish honky-tonk piano to get The Picture.
Or ‘The Beehive State‘, a thoroughly convincing paean to lobbyists for the Department of Tourism of the great state of Utah. You don’t believe me? Go listen to it.
There’s nary a song among the eleven that isn’t a masterpiece, and it’s causing me palpable anguish to present just one, and that one out of context. In 10 of the 11 songs–indeed, for virtually the entirety of his singer-songwriter career– Randy is acerbic, oblique, ironic, and funny. He doesn’t pull your leg. He amputates it.
Only in this one song does he play it straight. No indirection known. No wicked twinkle in the eye. He looks at you straight-faced and naked, and paints the bleakest, grayest, most desolate aural landscape you’ve ever heard.
There are many live versions of Randy Newman performing the song. It’s been covered by Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield, Peggy Lee, UB40, Joe Cocker, Norah Jones, Irma Thomas, Wynton Marsalis, Cleo Laine, Lyle Lovett, Peter Gabriel, Natalie Cole, Cass Eliot, and Bette Midler. That’s one very impressive list of singers, isn’t it? But to tell you the truth, I can’t even be bothered to go listen to their versions. It’s inconceivable to me that there could be a treatment more honest, direct, intense, precise, exhaustive, more harrowing than the original.
Broken windows, empty hallways,
Pale dead moon in a sky streaked with grey.
Human kindness is overflowing,
And I think it’s going to rain today.
Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles,
With frozen smiles to chase love away.
Human kindness is overflowing,
And I think it’s going to rain today.
Tin can at my feet,
Think I’ll kick it down the street.
That’s the way to treat a friend.
Bright before me the signs implore me:
Help the needy and show them the way.
Human kindness is overflowing,
And I think it’s going to rain today.
I hope to come back to this album someday, to introduce you to another masterpiece or two from it. In the meantime, I couldn’t recommend more highly that you listen to the entire album here, or even better, run out and buy as many copies as you can. Give them to your friends, to your enemies, put one under your pillow, one in your safety deposit box and one in a time capsule. This album really is, without hyperbole, something new under the sun.
A reader was kind enough to send me a knockout article by David Kamp in Vanity Fair. It covers much of the same ground, but much more extensively, with oodles of background tales. Mucho recommended.
Feel free to recommend Song of The Week to friends.
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