Randy Newman hates and adores his country, despises and revels in his characters’ awful behavior, and alternately celebrates himself and ventures into self-Schadenfreude over his own pursuit of the money and the flesh. He is a quintessential American. On Friday, dressed in a pin-striped suit and a blue shirt, Newman slouched at his Steinway in Carnegie Hall and sang about micro and macro American hypocrisy with more sharpness and poignancy than the combined works of Thomas Frank and Maureen Dowd. He’s been doing this for 40 years now, and the jarring fact is that his political songs still apply. He sang 1974’s “Rednecks,” a tune — nominally about segregationist governor Lester Maddox’s appearance on The Dick Cavett show — that still gives voice to working-class resentment at being preached to by urban elites daintily stepping around bums as they make their way to Michael’s for lunch. Substitute Sarah Palin’s American Firsters for Maddox and Arianna Huffington for Cavett, and little has changed.
About a half-hour into his performance, Newman sang a new political song: “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” a four-minute recap of the worst moments in Western civilization. Newman laments that our current leaders are discount-rack despots even when it comes to venality. (He settles on a comparison of George Bush to King Leopold of Belgium, a minor tyrant if you were not from the Congo.) He longs for the vivid color of bona fide terribleness:
Here’s one, the Spanish Inquisition
They put people in a terrible position
I don’t even like to think about it
Well, sometimes I like to think about it.
The reason Newman never descended into Jackson Browne–style self-parody is he makes no bones about being as craven as the rest of us. He has licensed songs to toothpaste commercials and seems to contribute a tune to every billion-dollar grossing Pixar film. He sang “My Life Is Good,” a self-explanatory track about a sun-soaked, cocaine-addled, Springsteen-befriending songwriter named “Rand” who berates the Beverly Hills teacher of his bully son with the line, “You don’t seem to realize my life is good, you old bag.” After playing the semi-comic, semi-erotic, “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” the nearly 65-year-old Newman mournfully announced that “I wrote this as a joke, now I take it seriously. It’s the saddest song I’ve ever written.”
But even America’s cynic has hope for better days. After admitting he’s made a lucrative living mocking his fellow citizens, Newman defended them. “This is the only [Western] country where a black man would have any chance of getting elected. That’s something.” Newman’s lined face then broke into a slight, hopeful smile.