TRANSCRIPT Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: The Legendary Randy Newman

We’re taking a look back at some of our favorite episodes of Bullseye and couldn’t let this one pass us by. We revisit our conversation with the great Randy Newman. He’s just been nominated for two Academy Awards, one for the score he composed for Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” and another for the original song he composed for “Toy Story 4.” It’s called “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away.” Randy’s songbook is a part of the fabric of modern pop culture. He writes pop songs, catchy tunes that can perfectly encapsulate a touching film moment. But he also writes songs that come from a place of darkness. Randy talks about writing songs that tap into his feelings, being inspired to get into writing music for film by his three uncles and meeting Frank Sinatra. Plus, Randy ponders why a guy with seven Grammy’s hasn’t had more hits.

Guests: Randy Newman

Transcript

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Gentle, trilling music with a steady drumbeat plays under the dialogue.

promo

Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

jesse thorn

I’m Jesse Thorn. It’s Bullseye.

music

“Huddle Formation” from the album Thunder, Lightning, Strike by The Go! Team plays. A fast, upbeat, peppy song. Music plays as Jesse speaks, then fades out.

jesse

It’s a cliché, but it’s also true: Randy Newman doesn’t really need an introduction. [Music begins to fade out to be replaced with “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”.] I mean, I can say Randy Newman to you and you’ll probably start thinking about this.

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“You’ve Got a Friend in Me” by Randy Newman from the movie Toy Story. Sweet, gentle music. You’ve got a friend in me You’ve got a friend in me When the road looks rough ahead And you’re miles and miles… [Music fades into “Short People”]

jesse

Or this.

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“Short People” by Randy Newman. Upbeat, fun music. Short people got no reason Short people got no reason Short people got no reason To live… [Music fades into “I Love L.A.”]

jesse

Or maybe this.

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“I Love L.A.” by Randy Newman. I love L.A. (we love it) I love L.A….

jesse

Or maybe you don’t even realize that he wrote this.

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“The Final Game/Take Me Out to the Ball Game” by Randy Newman from the movie The Natural.

jesse

But look a little deeper into his work. It won’t take that much. [Music fades out.] And you’ll find a songwriter and a singer who has produced some of the most complex, captivating, and hilarious pop music ever recorded. Like—you probably already know this already, but about every week on this show, I recommend something at the end, called the out-shot. And I don’t think there is a musician that I have recommended more times in the years that I’ve been doing that than Randy Newman. The songs are catchy. I mean, that’s part of it. He grew up around the birth of rock and roll in a musical family. His uncle, Alfred Newman, composed music for some of the greatest films of Hollywood’s golden age. And he’s funny! But he’s not like Weird Al or Spike Jones funny. There are laughs, but there’s also a little darkness. The laughs often come from characters, and he has a genuinely expert sense of comic timing. I remember, one time, going to see him in San Francisco—this was 15 or so years ago—and he played “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”, the Toy Story song. And it’s a great song. And he gets to the end of it and he pauses for second and he looks kind of quizzically at his piano. And he says, “Of course… it’s all bull[censored]. Isn’t it?”

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Music swells and fades.

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Randy Newman: I’m trying to think if the lyric is bull[censored], there. [A thoughtful noise.] No, not necessarily. No, it’s not. No. It’s alright.

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Music swells and fades.

jesse

And so, Randy Newman’s best work marries those three things together: a love of modern pop and soul music—which he got from listening to the radio—an intimate knowledge of classical music and The Great American Songbook—which he got from his uncles—and comedy—which he says he got from his dad, who was a doctor. But a funny doctor. He’s just been nominated for two Academy Awards: one for the score he composed for Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, and another for the original song he composed for Toy Story 4. It’s called “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away”. When I talked with Randy, it was 2018. He had recorded a brilliant album called Dark Matter. Here’s a song from it called “On the Beach”.

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“On the Beach” from the album Dark Matter by Randy Newman. It all began in grammar school And on the beach Everybody graduate, there we were Off we went to junior high, there we were [Music fades out as they begin to talk.]

jesse

Randy Newman, welcome to Bullseye! Thank you so much for coming on the show!

randy

It’s very good to be here. Thanks for having me.

jesse

I’m thrilled to have you on the show. You’ve been doing this a long time. Do you think that you do it differently, now, than you did when you were 25?

randy

Yeah. There’s different aspects of it. I think… uh, songwriting is slightly different, for me, in that—I don’t know it’s that I get as many ideas that I can see to the ending of it, right when I get the idea.

crosstalk

Randy: I think… Jesse: Like the—like the big rush. Randy: Yeah.

randy

The main—yeah! The big rush. [Makes a whooshing sound.] It doesn’t take me all the way through. It’ll drop me off at the bridge, or something. And I think… writing for orchestra, I’m sort of better than I was. ‘Cause I know more. And the notes are still there. Performing? Eh, not much different. You know. I don’t know whether I’m any better or worse. I don’t know what I—what you’d say.

jesse

Your dancing has suffered a little.

randy

Yeah. The dancing is not what it was, but you know.

jesse

Yeah, still, I mean it’s like—it’s like watching Baryshnikov, or something. You know. Even—

crosstalk

Randy: Well. Jesse: Even in middle age there’s still a certain elegance. Randy: That’s very nice of you.

randy

It’s nice of you to have that. Because I would say that at least 389 people are gonna think that I really do dance a bit.

jesse

Did you think that you were gonna be a professional musician, when you were growing up?

randy

I think so. After I was a certain age, you know. 11 or 12, I thought I’d maybe write music for motion pictures, like my uncles did. You know, you see it in the family. It looks like a possible job. It looked very difficult. It was sort of intimidating. But it looked like—you know, there it was. I could see how to get there, in a way.

jesse

What did you see of it, when you were a kid? Your father was a not a composer for film, but you had—

randy

No. He’s a doctor.

jesse

—one uncle who was an agent for composers and two uncles who were composers?

crosstalk

Jesse: Is that right? Randy: Three. Jesse: Three. Randy: So. Jesse: So, no shortage! But what did you see of what they did? I mean, I’m—I know that my uncle, Wayne, worked in the Defense Department somehow. Randy: Yeah. Jesse: But I don’t know anything—he was like some kind of engineer. That’s all— Randy: Yeah. Jesse: That’s my understanding of it.

randy

Well, it’s probably secret sort of—what he did, maybe.

jesse

I mean, he’s probably making [chuckles] medical devices.

randy

[Laughs.] I saw… I went and saw a few movies, on stage when I was recording, and Alfred—I remember seeing The King and I, and a movie, The Gunfighter, that he did.

jesse

On the soundstage, were they—

randy

Yeah, on the soundstage. And while they were recording. I’m trying to think of other stuff, because I saw—I saw The Yellow Sky. It was a western. I saw a bit of it, you know, when I was five, six years old. And see him at his house, working, and he was always—I mean, I was—he once asked me, “Do you like this melody?” And I was, like, ten years old. [Jesse chuckles.] And I said, “Oh, wow.” Then he asked me—maybe I was a little older, but he said, “Do you think people like countermelodies?” [Jesse bursts out laughing which causes Randy to laugh.] And I said, “Uuh—yeah! They can take that.” Well, my brother was seven, so he got the same questions. [They laugh.]

jesse

I mean, it certainly gives you an eye toward the—you know—the kind of preternatural certitude of the artistic disposition. [Randy agrees, laughing.] You’re checking in with a [laughs] 12-year-old.

randy

Whoever’s there! [Jesse laughs.] And I know I’ve done the same! I may have been overly impressed with how hard it was, because it—you know, I tend to agonize about things and think I’ll be found out at any time, that I can’t do this work and… what am I doing here? But I find, the more I read and the more people I’ve talked to, a lot of people feel that way: as if they’re no good at what they do, when they’ve proven over and over—at least, in their cases—that they are very good, you know.

jesse

You’re also, I mean, you’re part of the—

randy

[Interrupting.] Is this your favorite interview, yet?

jesse

[Decisively.] Yes.

randy

So, you’ve done 1/5th of it and it’s the best one 1/5th—opening 1/5th.

jesse

Literally, Randy—you should know, like, when—I’ve been doing this, now, for—I’m 37. [Randy agrees.] So, 17 or 18 years.

randy

[Articulating.] 24 years, yeah.

jesse

And… [Randy chuckles.] I—you know—I tell people, you know, that thing when people say, like, “Oh, who haven’t you interviewed that you’d like to interview?” [Randy agrees.] I would say, “Randy Newman.”

randy

Wow!

jesse

And it’s a disappointment, so far. [Randy cackles.] But it’s—it’s still, like—I mean, if you’re expecting five stars, you’re still getting four!

randy

Oh, that’s not bad!

jesse

So, it’s still a solid performance.

randy

That’s not bad! That’s—he’s an older party. Personable, but not real sharp. [They laugh.]

jesse

You’re—but you’re a part of the—you’re part of the rock and roll generation. [Randy agrees.] Like, you were—you were old enough to be paying attention and young enough to be excited, when—

randy

Old enough to be loaded in Long Beach at three in the morning. [Jesse laughs.] Wondering how I got there.

jesse

What’s the first rock music that you remember hearing?

randy

I remember hearing… “Sh Boom”, I think. We had a housekeeper who brought little scraps of humanity into the house. [Jesse laughs.] You know, what was going on. So, she would—she sung in a choir and she danced. She knew how to dance, and all. And she brought in… the first ones I remember were “Sh Boom” and um… oh, [singing] Gee Gee. Maybe “Gee”. [Singing] “Oh I love that girl, love that girl.” I think that’s the first I heard, in ’54, maybe.

jesse

What did you—what do you remember thinking about it?

randy

I liked it.

jesse

Were your parents serious?

randy

[Beat.] No. My father joked around quite a bit—all the time, really. But they were serious about some things. I don’t know how social they were. I mean he could have been, but I don’t know what—he saw a lot of people as patients and he didn’t wanna see anybody when he was home.

jesse

And your mom was ill for part of your childhood, right?

randy

Yeah, she was. Very nice, my mom. I mean, I… don’t talk about her, much. But I think—every time I did ask her for advice of some kind: “Gee, Mom, I’m dating this girl and she—you know…” Stuff, the stuff of life, to some extent. And she was very good on it. She got squashed by my father. He was a big personality. And she… didn’t have much room, I don’t think.

jesse

Did—was there room for you?

randy

[Beat.] No. Not much. My brother and I, in a way—my brother would say no, categorically. But he was sort of for us, you know? I believe he was rooting for us, to some extent. He was a little competitive with me about things. Sports and music, too. ‘Cause he wrote songs.

jesse

I was just thinking of—you know, I don’t know if you’re a sports fan or baseball fan, but—

randy

Yeah, I am.

jesse

Okay, well, you probably remember the first baseman Rafael Palmeiro.

randy

Yes, I—[chuckles] yeah, I heard about this. [Jesse agrees with a laugh.] His son!

jesse

Yeah, so he’s in his—he’s in his early 50s.

randy

53, yeah. [Randy agrees several times as Jesse speaks.]

jesse

And he’s playing—he’s playing in an independent league, but a pretty good independent, professional baseball league, with his son on the same team, and he’s hitting better than his son. And—now, he is a—he was, you know, at some point in his career—I can’t speak to what he’s up to these days, but there was a point in his career where he tested positive for steroids.

randy

Uh, maybe. There’s some question about that, but okay. It hardly matters.

jesse

Yeah. [Laughs.] I mean, it’s still a remarkable achievement! But I—it makes me think of how tough it must be for his son!

randy

Oh, terrible! Terrible. I wonder what [laughing] it would be like if he got caught for steroids again, in an independent league like that.

jesse

[Laughing.] But, I mean—I wonder what it was like for you, in a family of musicians, to have a father who—you know, your father was remarkable—remarkably successful. A successful doctor.

randy

Pretty much so. For a while, yeah.

jesse

But not a successful songwriter.

crosstalk

Randy: No, he wasn’t. Jesse: And your uncle was an extraordinarily successful film composer. Randy: Yeah. Jesse: You had two other uncles who were successful film composers.

jesse

You know, there is all this variance in level of success in the family business. Like, when the family business is show business, it must be awkward to have that situation. ‘Cause if, you know, everybody was a pharmacist… [Randy agrees.] There’s not a lot of gradations of pharmacists. There’s “gave somebody medicine that killed them” and there’s “good pharmacist”. You know?

randy

See, I do know the… thing about it wasn’t—my father worshipped his brother, Alfred. I mean, they all did. I mean, I think he was responsible for the family getting up out of poverty. He supported a number of them for a number of years. And he was really the only father they ever had. So, he was very much respected… It was not a one-on-one relationship, with him. I think he was a step up, they felt. Anyway. But with me—I mean, I always liked my father’s songs, lyrics. You know, there’s a whole trove of them which I remember—I try to remember them, because once that light goes out in me, the songs are gone. They’re not written down, most of them, or anything. But I remember, like, [singing] “Evergreen, my love for you will ever be. Evergreen, the winter snows may come and change the scene. Come what may, love will stay evergreen.” Boy, that’s hard to sing. Anyway, that’s—that’s good. You know. I mean, if you were born in 1872, [chuckling] then it could have been, you know. But he’s a old fashioned writer. But he was… had some facility with words. And no one else in the family showed any indication of that.

jesse

When you figured out that you might actually become a professional musician, did you think that you were going to be a composer? Or did you think that you were gonna go and write songs in The Brill Building, or whatever?

randy

Composer. Because that didn’t exist, really. You know. Oh, it existed. There were songwriters, and I’d see songwriters around Fox. You know, Jimmy McHugh or Matt Gordon. But I guess composing for film was what I saw, and it’s what I intended to do, I think. I never intended to write serious music, for wont of a better term. But that, it was—that was my intent until a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you try and write some songs? I mean, you like rock and roll and we listen to it, and all.” So, I did.

jesse

Were you surprised when your songwriting wasn’t… you know, when you weren’t writing hit songs?

randy

Sort of. I mean, I remember thinking, “Well, this is it. This is right down the middle of the—middle of the road.” I was doing my best, but I was trying to write songs that people would like. You know. I didn’t do otherwise. And then I’d be—they’d get a record of some kind, and then I’d really be let down with the record. And then I didn’t think that could be a hit—the record would be—when I heard them. That’s an excuse that you shouldn’t be able to use, you know. You should make a demo that tells people stuff, but I just never did. In a lot of ways, it’s like I was in a 200-yard dash and I was running a 40. I’d write the songs and I’d make a piano demo—this is for the most part of my life—and that was it. [Jesse chuckles.] And then I’d go to [laughing] school, or whatever I was doing! And Carole King, for instance, was making a demo and putting strings on the demo, conducting strings, and letting people know how she wanted the thing to go. I’m not sure I could have had some success, had I been more directive. But I don’t know. It is amazing, to me… that I’ve been around this business and in it for, [censored] almost 60 years. Jesus! And I haven’t had more hits just follow me, by accident! [Jesse laughs.] You know, you think, “Woah! Look at this! What—it’s in this movie and it’s—everybody likes it! No [censored]! Hey!” [Laughs.] It’s amazing, just by happenstance.

jesse

Can you think of what the first song that you wrote was that was your kind of song, written for you—rather than the kind of song that you thought people might like?

randy

Geez, I don’t know. Let me think. You know… when I wrote “Mama Told Me Not to Come”, for instance, I didn’t write it for me, necessarily. But I mean, I did the best I could with it. And… I didn’t think it was a hit, or anything. So, maybe I wrote that for myself, but not—as an artist? [Beat. Jesse starts to talk but Randy cuts him off.] But I think a song like “Davy the Fat Boy” I must have written for myself. I knew no one was gonna do it. “Cowboy”, even.

jesse

There’s a song that I really love called “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear”. [Randy agrees.] That’s one of those earlier ones.

randy

It is. That’s the first song I wrote that was like… my style.

crosstalk

Jesse: In what way? Randy: “Simon Smith” was.

randy

Well, it had humor in it and it, sort of—a narrator that wasn’t totally trustworthy, maybe. Or totally likeable. And it departed from the normal vocabulary of things that was used in songs. Slightly, not much. I never deviated that much, from it. ‘Cause I like it.

jesse

Let’s hear a—let’s hear a little bit of that song.

randy

Okay. [Singing] “I may go out tomo—” [They laugh.]

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“Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” by Randy Newman. Seen at the nicest places where Well-fed faces all stop to stare Making the grandest entrance is Simon Smith and his dancing bear They’ll love us, won’t they? They feed us, don’t they? Oh, who would think a boy and bear Could be well accepted everywhere It’s just amazing how fair people can be [Music fades out as Jesse begins to speak.]

jesse

I wrote a—I wrote a thing about this song for the show, a few years ago. And the thing that I think about a lot, when I’m listening to this song, is that—as I hear it, and I wonder if this is as you intended it, but—as I hear it, it’s kind of about this central tragedy of being a performer. Which is to say that… the narrator is a circus act, essentially. [Randy agrees several times as Jesse continues.] You know, the—a sweet but grotesque thing. And gets a pass into this world of high society or whatever it is, right? Like, gets into the world that he thinks he’s going to get into, via show business. And is not aware of, you know, the special way that he is being related to in this world: that he is being seen as a—as an act! Not as a human being.

randy

I’ve always felt that he was slightly contemptuous of the people to whom he aspired, you know, to be with. He says, “Who needs money when you’re funny? [singing] Who needs money if you’re—if—[stops singing]” When or if. When. Funny. Yeah. So, I always thought there was that, but basically you’re right, yeah.

jesse

[Randy mumbles in the background as though about to speak.] I mean, it’s possible that I’m actually—rather than psychoanalyzing this character, I may be psychoanalyzing the author of the song: one Randy Newman! [Laughs.]

randy

Yeah, that’s very possible! I mean, I would never think that just ‘cause I had a bear and got into nice places— [They both burst into laughter.]

jesse

And, I mean, your bear is amazing! I mean, for folks who can’t see it at home, it’s been quiet this whole time. But—

randy

It’s amazing bear. Got me where I am today, though! [Jesse honks with laughter, causing Randy to chuckle.] I don’t know, he’s got the bear! I don’t know. It’s probably ‘cause he— But it was a song I was writing for Frank Sinatra Jr. I had an assignment. [They laugh.]

jesse

Well, it’s an easy sell to Sinatra Jr., right?!

randy

Should have been. No, this one wouldn’t have been. But it was! It was, [singing] “Dada, Susie, dada, dada—” You know, they wanted to do teen things with it. Tell us about the instruction. So—but I couldn’t stand it, anymore. Not him, in the slightest, but I mean the… the lyrics I was writing, I had to say something. So, there and bear and that was—that was it.

jesse

I’m picturing you, like, in a hotel suite at the Four Seasons. Sinatra Jr. is there. Maybe the old man’s sitting—standing behind him with his arms crossed, and there’s a grand piano and you’re like, “Well, listen to his there-bear thing I worked on!” [They laugh.]

randy

No, [laughing] it was how—I don’t think I ever played it for anyone and said, “Hey, I got that Frank Sinatra Jr. thing, here it is.” [They laugh.] “It’s a dancing bear.” I did have a—exactly as you described, with his folded arms—a meeting with Sinatra.

jesse

Really?

randy

Yeah, play him some stuff. Yeah.

jesse

What did you play him?

crosstalk

Randy: I played him— Jesse: Well, first—first of all, how did you get that meeting? Randy: Reprise Record.

randy

We were on the same label. And Moe Austin, who is head of Reprise, knew him very well. You know. So, that was it. And he knew my family and stuff, but he said that, “Yeah, I know the family. Very nice.” [Music fades in.] But he, uh—I played “Lonely at the Top”.

music

“It’s Lonely at the Top” by Randy Newman I’ve been around the world Had my pick of any girl You’d think I’d be happy But I’m not Everybody knows my name But it’s just a crazy game Oh, it’s lonely at the top [Music fades out.]

randy

And he was back there, you know, folded arms, standing like this. And he says—I played it, and he said, “What else you got, kid?” [They chuckle.] So, I played “I Think It’s Gonna Rain”, which he sorta liked. [Music fades in.] And that was it.

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“I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” by Randy Newman. Broken windows and empty hallways A pale dead moon in the sky, streaked with gray Human kindness is overflowing And I think it’s going to rain today [Music fades out.]

jesse

It’s funny, I’ve heard you disparage “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” a few times.

randy

Yeah, it’s stupid.

jesse

Uh, you’re mistaken about that.

randy

Yeah, I know, I know. [Jesse laughs.] It’s, uh…

jesse

But it’s funny, because—like, “Lonely at the Top”, which is also a wonderful song, is a song that is more Randy Newman-y in that it is, like—I mean, I guess you must have had the idea that Frank Sinatra wanted to send himself up a little. [Chuckles.]

randy

Yeah! I did! I said, “This would really be hip, for him.” You know, to make fun of that leaning against the lamppost stuff. But he is [laughing] leaning against the lamppost stuff! He didn’t wanna make fun of it.

jesse

But, you know, it’s a—it’s a, you know, it’s a very emotional song, but it is—it is couched in a little bit of rhetorical irony, whereas “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” is a sad song about being sad. [Randy agrees.] And I wonder if you… if you have explained, to yourself, that it is less artful or less Randy Newman-y to just say a thing in the way that almost all popular songs do?

randy

No. I would love to do it. I may have inhibitions—psychological inhibitions or something that tilted me in another direction of not saying, “I love you. Do you love me? No, you don’t.” It interested me less, is what I say. Now maybe it’s that I couldn’t think of things to say… I have a low love-o-meter, or something. [Jesse chuckles.] But… “I Think It’s Gonna Rain” bothered me, slightly. I’ve stopped doing that, disparaging it. It’s ridiculous. It’s a very good song. I mean, I think. But it bothered me, because it felt like a slightly sophomorish kind of whining to it.

jesse

Popular song is for sophomores.

randy

[Thoughtfully.] Y-yeah, but… you don’t have to, uh… you should emulate their best stuff, or gear yourself to the best stuff. That babyish whining isn’t what—and I’ve done tons of babyish whining. [Jesse laughs through his nose.] Even now, when I’m hardly a sophomore. That’s what bothered me about it. But… it’s probably my best loved—or liked—song, I think.

jesse

I wanna play Barbra Streisand singing it. [Randy makes a sound of surprise.] And I think that this is you playing the piano, right?

randy

That’s right.

jesse

And this was recorded 45 years ago, or something, but came out just a few years ago.

randy

Yeah, it was.

music

“I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” by Barbra Streisand. Scarecrow’s 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 [Music fades out.]

jesse

Barba Streisand’s good at singing.

randy

She sure is. And when we did that, I didn’t think it was very good, really. Not that—not… I’m playing the piano there, and it’s—I’m being so sensitive that I’m not sounding half the notes that I’m playing, you know? It’s a little too sensitive. But when I heard it—when she did it again—it was really good. I thought it was not a good version of it—I had preconceptions about her that she really couldn’t sing to a backing… and while “I Think It’s Gonna Rain” is not a rock and roll song, [hums briefly] it sort of has a beat to it. But it’s a really good version of it. One of the best. [Randy agrees several times as Jesse speaks.]

jesse

I have another version of it that I wanna play. It’s by maybe my favorite singer of singers, Nina Simone. And, you know, Nina Simone was an artist who—in a funny way, was right in your wheelhouse, in that she straddled classical music, folk music, jazz, and R&B, all pretty—like, she was—she had one limb in each of those corners. And it’s funny to hear, like… the kind of direct emotionality that you’re not confident about in your own songs, that Barbra Streisand is so extraordinary at presenting, in her way. And to hear the way that Nina sings it.

music

“I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” by Nina Simone Broken windows and empty hallways A pale dead moon in the sky, streaked with gray Human kindness is overflowing And I think it’s gonna rain today [Music fades out.]

randy

Wow, that’s good.

jesse

That’s her playing the piano, as well.

randy

Yeah. That’s really good, harmonically. It’s great, even. Better than I gave her. That’s great. Boom, she feels her way right through the verse, the… melodic rhythm of it. Very good. Both entirely believable, I agree.

jesse

My interview with Randy Newman concludes after a short break. When we come back: what’s the deal with the song “I Love L.A.”? Is it a sincere song? Is it an ironic song? Sometimes it is hard to tell with Randy Newman. Stay tuned for the answer. It’s Bullseye, from MaximumFun.org and NPR.

music

Mellow, jazzy music.

jesse

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Music: Bright, cheerful music. Speaker: It’s Oscar time, and NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour has you covered. Grab your popcorn and binge-listen to all nine of our episodes covering the Best Picture nominees. Search now in Spotify for Oscars 2020, from Pop Culture Happy Hour. [Music fades out.]

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Music: Straightforward, thump-y electric bass guitar beat with light drums. Laurie: Hi. I am Laurie Kilmartin. Jackie: And I’m Jackie Kashian. Laurie: Together we host a podcast called: Jackie: The Jackie and Laurie Show. Laurie: Uh, we’re both stand-up comics. We recently met each other because women weren’t allowed to work together, uh—uh, on the road or in gigs for a long, long time, and so…our friendship has been unfolding on this podcast for a couple years. Jackie constantly works the road; I write for Conan and then I work the road in-between. Jackie: We do a lot of stand-up comedy, and so we celebrate stand-up— Laurie: Yes. Jackie: —and we also…bitch about it. Laurie: We keep it to an hour; we don’t have any guests. We somehow find enough to—to talk about every single week. So, find us—you can subscribe to The Jackie and Laurie show at MaximumFun.org, or wherever you get your podcasts. Jackie: [Nonplussed] K, bye. [Music ends.]

jesse

Welcome back to Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. We’re replay my 2018 conversation with Randy Newman—maybe my favorite singer, songwriter, and composer. He’s up for two Academy Awards, this year: Best Score and Best Original Song. Let’s get back to our interview. [Randy agrees several times as Jesse speaks.] When you started recording your own songs, you basically were performing a kind of two—a mix of [laughing] two outmoded styles of music. [Randy laughs.] Even in the, you know, even in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, when you started—when you started recording, like, you were playing half Fats Domino songs, half—like—full-on musical songs. Like Stephen Foster songs.

crosstalk

Randy: Orchestra, yeah. Jesse: Or something.

randy

Linda Ronstadt used to call it plantation music, I don’t know. [They laugh.]

jesse

And what did you think about the way that you—or did you think about the way that you fit into popular music when you were working—trying to be a recording artist? Or did you always just think, like, “Well, I can always make music for TV and film.”

randy

No. I was worried about making a living a lot of times. But I just… did what I think the song required. And I do like that Fats Domino rock and roll stuff. I didn’t exactly realize that it was not au courant you know? I mean, even now, I’ll have a song and I’ll think, “What is—this might—people might really like this.” And I think, “Well, what the fuck? They’re [laughing] not gonna really like it!” [Jesse laughs.] Like, it’s not rap! It’s not…

jesse

I mean, we should explain—

randy

But it seems irresistible, to me. [Singing and vocalizing beats.] I like it!

jesse

Did you listen to that music, growing up?

randy

Yes. To Fats Domino, I listened to some and to Ray Charles. I’ve listened to less music than anyone I’ve ever met that had access to western technology. [They chuckle.] [Randy agrees several times as Jesse speaks.]

jesse

I mean, it feels like your—you know, your tastes—at least as a songwriter, performer. Maybe a little bit less as a composer, but as a songwriter and performer, it seems like your tastes were pretty much set by some Ray Charles and Fats Domino songs, some all-American songs, some Stephen Foster or whatever it is. You know, The Great American Songbook type stuff and slightly before Great American Songbook type stuff. And, like, maybe some—especially on the more recent albums, there’s kind of a little bit of celebration of, like, jubilee singing. Like—like a gospel music.

randy

Oh. Ooh, I love that. I love gospel music as a—as a genre, I like it better than anything else. Classical music too, but… I think also… Gershwin and—I think someone who… Kurt Vile, maybe a little—someone who deals with the orchestra and songs, at the same time. Always have liked doing that.

jesse

I took a class, in college, from Tom Lehrer.

crosstalk

Jesse: The songwriter. Randy: Oh yeah!? Jesse: Yeah. Randy: Oh, wow. Jesse: It was—it was really fun and cool. As you would expect. [Laughs.] Randy: Yeah.

jesse

I actually did not know—he was not listed on the class schedule. I took it ‘cause it—you could get American Studies credits for it—

crosstalk

Randy: Wow! It wasn’t a math class, then? Jesse: —so, it’s an American Studies major—

jesse

It wasn’t his math class. It was—he was co-teaching and it was a—it was an American Musical Theatre class.

randy

Ooh.

jesse

And, you know, Tom Lehrer—very brilliant songwriter, very funny guy. Extremely grumpy, at least at the time.

crosstalk

Randy: Oh, I’m sorry. Jesse: He’s probably mellowed out, now, but—[laughs]. Randy: Yeah. Jesse: I don’t—very, but not in a bad way. In a very charming way. And at one point, I remember him saying, in class—he was talking about songwriters after… a, like, Jerome Kern, or something like that. Randy:  Yeah. Jesse: You know, something Kander and Ebb. You know, I—I don’t— Randy: 40—40 and 4—44. Yeah. Jesse: Something after—yeah, 19—well, let’s call it 1955. Randy: Yeah.

jesse

And he said, “Uh, there’s only two that I like.”

randy

Huh?

jesse

Stephen Sondheim and Randy Newman.

randy

[Shocked.] Wow—really?! He said that?!

jesse

Yeah, he sure did.

randy

Oh. Geez, I—I think I knew he had some of idea of me, you know, at… something. That’s really something. That makes me feel like—it’s sort of that what I did was comprehensible. [They laugh.] You know, that I did it… right. Sometimes putting it into a song, and it’s a comedic song, and people don’t laugh, you think, “I didn’t do it right.” But sometimes it’s maybe because they didn’t get it, you know. So.

jesse

And I wanna be clear that he—he was never the kind of guy who, and I presume still isn’t the kind of guy, who like complains about kids today, or whatever. It—he was really speaking—

randy

He’s too smart for that. [Randy agrees several times as Jesse speaks.]

jesse

—very deeply to his own personal taste—and too countercultural for that, I think. And he gets it. But, you know, as a guy who was maybe the greatest comic lyricist of the 20th century—the guy who could write a funny song that’s so dense and wonderful. Like, I think part of what he responded to is that there really aren’t a lot of songwriters who even try to do that.

randy

No. There’s no money in it. People don’t want it. It’s not a comedic medium. It isn’t employed that way. Sometimes, you know, they’ll ride them a little bit. You know, John Sebastian. I remember Paul Simon did some. Chrissie Hynde did a [inaudible]^. But mostly, it’s not done.

jesse

So, why did you do it?

randy

[Beat.] I say—my father… got through life by joking around, whenever… all the depth of psychological inquiry you could—shine on that’s the wrong word. I’m noticing that more, lately, where I’ll reach for a word and it’s not there. Uh.

jesse

Me too, Randy. I’m 37. [They laugh.]

randy

No, you’re still all there. But—oh, oh—the fact that he got through life by joking around, as did I. It’s a choice. I don’t—I don’t know whether it was to dodge anything, because you get enough of the real, alright? No matter what you do.

jesse

I wanna play one of… one of my favorite of your funny songs. [Randy agrees.] Maybe the one that makes me laugh the most.

crosstalk

Jesse: I probably, once a month or so, I sort of run it back inside my head. Randy: No! I’m glad. Jesse: And laugh about it a little bit, while I’m driving my car or something. Randy: Yeah.

jesse

It’s from your album, Trouble in Paradise, in 1983. It’s called “My Life is Good”.

randy

[Chuckling.] Oh, yeah.

jesse

So, this is a song where your character’s voice is like this all set version of Randy Newman. [Chuckles.]

randy

Yeah, he’s a fairly wealthy guy and his… kids are—he’s going to a parent-teacher meeting. [They chuckle. Jesse agrees.] To start it.

jesse

And I think that there’s a point—there’s a point in there where you have a chat with Bruce Springsteen, and he asks if you wanna be the boss for a while.

randy

[Laughing.] Yeah.

music

“My Life is Good” by Randy Newman. Just this morning My wife and I Went to this hotel in the hills That’s right The Bel-Air Hotel A very good friend of ours Happens to be staying And the name of this young man Is Mr. Bruce Springsteen That’s right, yeah We talked about this kind of Woodblock or something And this new guitar we like [Randy and Jesse laugh over the track.] And you know what he said to me? I’ll tell you what he said to me He said, “Rand, I’m tired. How would you like to be the Boss for a while?” Well, yeah! Blow, big man, blow! [Music fades out as they begin to talk.]

jesse

[Laughs.]

randy

It’s good—yeah, that’s funny.

crosstalk

Jesse: The woodblock is a particularly strong line. Randy: Hadn’t heard it in a while. Yeah. [Laughs.] Jesse: But the—you know— Randy: He’s so high, you know. He’s just talking about woodblocks. [Laughs.] [Randy agrees several times as Jesse continues.]

jesse

[Laughing.] It has this—it has this really pretty chorus. It’s just a gentle, kind of quiet—it’s a real dynamic change to the rest of it. You’re singing, “my life is good.” And—but the irony of it is you realize that this an insistence that your life is good in the face of emotional terror. [They laugh.]

randy

He—at the end of the verse, he sort of blows it. He goes, “My life is good, you old bag!” [They laugh.] [Randy agrees several times as Jesse speaks.]

jesse

He yells at the schoolteacher! [Beat.] But I mean, I think it speaks to, like—it’s funny, you were talking about your father and his siblings kind of coming out of poverty. Like, struggling to come out of poverty. And, you know, like you grew up in, you know, the west side of Los Angeles among, you know, fancy show business people, I imagine. And you’ve lived, to some extent, a life in show business. Like you’re—you know, whatever.

crosstalk

Jesse: You gotta go write a song while— Randy: I guess I have, yeah. Jesse: —while Tom Hanks tells you whether it’s good or not, or whatever. Randy: Yeah. [Randy agrees several times as Jesse continues.]

jesse

You know, there are plenty of folks who are in that situation who respond to it by being blithe. And it seems like it has given you a really intense sensitivity to that blitheness. Like, a, “Come on. Like, where—the—come on! Like, how can—the—this is—what an—what a privilege it is to have this!”

randy

Yeah. It’s—I wasn’t exactly a trust fund kid. It wasn’t all that. I mean, at a certain point I had to earn a living. It wasn’t that—my dad wasn’t rich by any means. And there was no glamor, particularly. You do music, you don’t—you don’t get to see Scarlett Johansson, or anything. You know. You get to see someone who picks up stuff that she forgot when she was making the movie. [They chuckle.] But… yeah. I—I once was in UCLA, where I went for eight years. And I was writing an essay in English class. And it was about—just write about your neighborhood. You know, where you are. And I’d already written songs and everything by this time. Didn’t feel like turning one of those in. So, I wrote about a neighborhood—the neighborhood my parents lived in. ‘Cause I still lived there. That’s right. And I wrote it and sent it in. About—you know—and he said—what he wrote on the thing was this, you know, “Are you ashamed of being sort of well-off? I mean, are these people [chuckling] really so awful?” You know? And I knew that. I know that. All poor people aren’t noble, and all rich people aren’t schmucks. It is harder for a rich man to crawl through [laughing] the eye of a needle. You know? But I never thought I was that—that I believed that this is good, and this is bad. It’s too complicated! So. The guy… I think he gave me a good grade, but he did remind me of that.

jesse

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. I’m talking with Randy Newman. He’s up for two awards, at this years Oscars: Best Original Song and Best Score. I have a question for you, as a transplanted Angelino. [Randy agrees.] You’re a native Angelino.

randy

Yes, pretty much so.

jesse

Your famous hit song, “I Love L.A.”— [Randy agrees.] To what extent is the message of the song literal and to what extent is the message of the song ironic? From your perspective, as the guy who wrote and recorded the song?

randy

That’s a difficult one. I’d say it’s pretty close to 50/50, but the emotional power is with the positive. I love L.A.—you know, all the little jokes about the bum and the big redhead and the Imperial Highway. Which, if you know—if you live here, you know the Imperial Highway. It’s not the Champs-Élysées. And I picked streets like that—except for 6th. So, I would say that it’s a very good question. It’s about half and half. [Randy agrees several times as Jesse talks.]

jesse

I mean, I had to—I have to say, as a—as a—when I didn’t live in Los Angeles, I would hear the song and think, “Oh yeah, Randy Newman’s really giving Los Angeles the business! And Los Angeles has earned it!” You know what I mean? Like, “He’s really taking—he’s really taking those big, blonde-haired so-and-sos down a peg.” Right?

randy

I—that’s fine! I would—I don’t mind riding along with the redhead at all!

crosstalk

Jesse: But, yeah, but I feel like— Randy: You’re right. Jesse: —as I’ve lived—as I’ve lived, and I’ve lived in Los Angeles for a decade, now— Randy: Yeah. Jesse: I feel that it is, rather than a take-down, it is a—sort of an acknowledgement of some of the inherent grotesquery of Los Angeles. Randy: And a celebration! Jesse: Yeah! Randy: Of lack of depth.

randy

You know. [Jesse laughs.] Of the simple pleasures. Simple stupid, even. Yeah. Definitely. It’s not—you can’t write a chamber of commerce song about an American city. What are you gonna do?

jesse

I mean, I like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

crosstalk

Randy: I do too! Jesse: I guess that’s a love song.

randy

And you could write that one, now. [Mumble singing.] “New York, New York, a hell of town.” You might be able to write that one, too. Maybe. Have to be for a show, though.

jesse

I mean, what the—Jay Z and Alicia Keys did a pretty good New York—

randy

That’s pretty good. You bet.

jesse

Okay, I’m glad to hear that. [Randy agrees.] Do you get—do you get pumped when they play at the end of the Dodger’s game or whatever?

randy

It’s nice! You know. It’s not bad, in a lot of… they have a lot of Latin fans and they—you know, they know who I am more than the Anglo fans, at the game, for some reason.

jesse

Do you enjoy the way that writing for hire asks you to kind of be an emotional craftsperson?

randy

And get out of yourself. [Jesse agrees.] Very much. I would never have written “You Got a Friend” or [singing] “when somebody loves me”—the thing from Toy Story 2. Or a ton of these. A song called “Love to See You Smile”—which I just never would have thought of. I’m glad that I get pulled out of the muck and mire to do something like that stuff. Assignment writing. I’m not necessarily confident that I can sit down and write a song. Or I can sit down and do a tune of movie music. But I am sure that if you give me an assignment and give me some words that you wanna convey—adjectives, also—I can write that. You know.

jesse

You just take a—you just take a list of three or four—

crosstalk

Randy: Adjectives, and uh— Jesse: Like, “Friendly.” Randy: What do you want? Friendly? Yeah.

jesse

Comforting.

randy

Dangerous. [They giggle.] Yeah. And I give it back. And then if they change their mind, I can do something else.

jesse

What are you most proud of, in your career?

randy

[Beat.] That I write well to assignment is one of them, actually. [Sighs.] I’m proud of instances, in both fields, where I push myself a bit, and taken some chance. I know I’m always taking chances, with what I do, but it’s a bit of a push. Like, “The Great Debate” on the first—whatever I called—I can’t—forgot what I called it—that, I think that’s it. On the last record.

jesse

It’s called “The Great Debate”.

randy

Yeah. And, at the time, “Davy the Fat Boy”—and some of the music from Monsters, where you had 45 minutes where you couldn’t do a consonance. You couldn’t write a straight vanilla chord; those chords I love, and Stephen Foster loved. So, I had to go and do dissonance. I had to enter, briefly, the 20th century. And I—it was hard, for me. You know. Reaching for notes to do it. But I did it! And I was proud of that and what I heard, years later.

jesse

Is your work standing between you and retirement? Or are—is retirement stand—the prospect of retirement standing between you and work?

randy

No, everyone I ask is standing between it. [Jesse chuckles.] I’ll say, you know, “I’d like to quit.” And if they’ve known me a long time, they say, “You said that when you were 20.” [They cackle.] But—and I did! And no one who knows me believes that it would be good for me. I don’t think I’d get in trouble, anymore, but that I’d be unhappy writing—watching reruns of the Tour de France all the time, or something. You know?

jesse

Is that the plan? Reruns of [laughing] the Tour de France?

randy

That and track meets. Just like, this [hums]. You know, you look and there it is again! And you see it again and again! I like those travel log feel of the Tour de France. Beautiful places, there. The race, I don’t care so much about. But I like their going through France and, “Oh! There’s a mountain!” [Chuckles.]

jesse

I like those aerodynamic helmets that they wear.

randy

Aw, it’s great. Yeah. [Jesse makes a whooshing sound.] Football players should wear them. Why not?! Those guys have bigger crackups than football players do. They should wear helmets like that. They’re too macho to do it.

jesse

Randy Newman, thank you for taking all this time to be on Bullseye.

crosstalk

Jesse: It was a—it was a real honor. Randy: Oh, you’re gonna stop me now, huh!?

jesse

[Amusedly.] Oh, right when we’re getting to the good material! [Randy laughs and agrees.] The helmet material!

randy

Helmet design!

jesse

I got—I got like 18 helmet questions, here. It’s just that we don’t have time, Randy!

randy

No, I’m fine with it.

jesse

[Chuckles.] Thank you so much, sincerely.

randy

Great pleasure.

jesse

Randy Newman! A true legend! His most recent album is Dark Matter. You can go listen to it. He’s also up for two awards at this year’s Oscars: Best Original Score, for his work on Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, and Best Song, for “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away”, from Toy Story 4. Let’s hear it.

music

“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” by Randy Newman, from the movie Toy Story 4. I can’t let you, I can’t let you I can’t let you throw yourself away I can’t let you (I can’t let you)… [Music continues quietly as Jesse speaks.]

jesse

That’s the end of another episode of Bullseye. Bullseye is produced at MaximumFun.org world headquarters, overlooking MacArthur Park in beautiful Los Angeles, California; where Kevin—our producer—and Christian Dueñas—a producer here in our office—were walking around, when they saw two squirrels holding a total of three peanuts. And they were unshelled. The show is produced by speaking into microphones. Our producer is Kevin Ferguson. Jesus Ambrosio is our associate producer. We got help from Casey O’Brien. Our production fellows are Jordan Kauwling and Melissa Dueñas. Our interstitial music is by Dan Wally, also known as DJW. Our theme song is by The Go! Team. Our thanks to them and their label, Memphis Industries, for letting us use it. If you liked our conversation with Randy Newman, we have decades of interviews available to you! Well, almost decades. A decade—1.8, 1.9 decades. Somewhere in there—on our website, at MaximumFun.org. It’s Oscar season. He just got nominated for an Oscar, and there are other Oscar nominees who’ve been on our show. Why not check our interview with Taika Waititi? Who’s nominated for an Oscar, this year, for Best Picture—for his film JoJo Rabbit. You can also check out my interview from earlier this year with Antonio Banderas, who’s nominated for Best Actor for his incredible performance in Pain and Glory. We talked a lot about that film and about Pedro Almodóvar and all kinds of other stuff. He’s an amazing dude. Anyway. Yeah. Check them out! MaximumFun.org, your favorite podcatcher. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter. Just search for Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. Like us there. Follow us there. And I think that’s about it. Just remember: all great radio hosts have a signature sign off.

music

“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” increases in volume. I can’t let you (I can’t let you) I can’t let you throw yourself away

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Promo: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music ends.]

About the show

Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.

Bullseye has been featured in Time, The New York Times, GQ and McSweeney’s, which called it “the kind of show people listen to in a more perfect world.” Since April 2013, the show has been distributed by NPR.

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