Josh Rutner

saxophonist, editor, indexer, etc.

Episode 4: Sail Away (Randy Newman, 1972)

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In the early 1970s, James Taylor introduced his song “Steamroller Blues” by invoking “so-called blues groups making a lot of noise” around Greenwich Village in the late ’60s. “They weren’t very good,” he recalled in one television performance, all the while looking down at his feet but grinning.

“They were mostly white kids in from the suburbs with electric guitars and amplifiers that their parents had bought them for Christmas and birthdays. Their idea of soul was volume… they just crank it up, you know. And they were singing all these heavy songs, like, ‘I’m a Man,’ or ‘I’m a Jackhammer,’ or ‘I’m a Ton o’ Bricks.’”

Taylor would jokingly confess that he’d wanted in on this action, so he’d written “the heaviest blues tune” he knew. Hence: “Steamroller Blues.” A churnin’ urn of burnin’ funk. When he reached the instrumental section, Taylor, who was playing solo, would comically egg himself on, saying, “Pick it, Jim,” And comment on his non-solo with a “mm mm mm, my my my,” and a purposefully stilted, “I don’t know nothing but the blues.”

Randy Newman, too, was a shrewd patter peddler, once shouting “Take it!” to his own non-existent accompanying band during a live solo performance of “Lonely at the Top”—explaining, “I have to do that because it gets kind of lonely up here.” But where Taylor’s performances of “Steamroller Blues” would, over the years, lose their contextualizing intro and slowly ossify into unironic white-boy-with-the-blues rockings-out—the very thing “Steamroller” had sought to take down—played before massive crowds of white suburbanites enjoying a real-live “heavy blues,” Randy Newman’s performances of his songs are as deeply and disconcertingly ironic as ever.

In the end, it’s probably best that Frank Sinatra never recorded “Lonely at the Top”—a song that Newman had written with him in mind to sing it. The song only works, or, at least works best and cuts deepest when sung by someone who is very much not at the top, who doesn’t have throngs professing their love for him. It’s a Randy Newman song, through and through.

After years of writing songs and arrangements for others, Newman was pushed to perform his own songs in part due to the frustration he felt hearing established artists completely miss the point. Of course, it’s always possible that these artists “got” the songs, but simply couldn’t inhabit the proper character, feeling the need to tweak the song’s message to suit their image—be it as a heart-throb, a hero, a winner—thus gutting the song of its resonance and power. For example, on Newman’s 1972 record, Sail Away—this week’s Album of the Week—the track “You Can Leave Your Hat On” trades on the idea that the narrator, a man instructing a woman to disrobe—first coat, then shoes (“Here, I’ll take your shoes”), then dress—is awkward—a self-conscious creep. In Newman’s words: “The guy is not a sexual guy and it’s not a sexy song, really, because what the guy has the girl doing is so lame. It’s really about a bully.” But to hear Tom Jones cover the song, it is twisted into a tale of a suave lover, sure-handedly directing a striptease, removing any internal conflict.

While “You Can Leave Your Hat On” is intentionally harmonically stunted and rhythmically stiff—like an awkward striptease ought to be—there are, throughout Sail Away, some of the more magical and moving arrangements that you’ll ever hear—all done by Newman himself, mind you—most pitted against lyrics that, to some degree or another, undercut the beauty of their accompaniment. His irony is as biting as it is thick.  

One of the songs that hit me the hardest, relistening this past week—given the current state of the 2016 presidential election—is the lead-off on the B side, called “Political Science.” It’s sung from the point of view of a xenophobic American leader whose solution to the world hating America is to “drop the big one” on any country that can be seen as even remotely transgressive against “us”—with a capital “U” and a capital “S.”

Asia’s crowded? Boom. Europe’s too old? Boom. South America stole our name! Boom. In pulverizing them—the “others”—we’ll create a world of born-again American towns the world over. “Oh how peaceful it will be, we’ll set everybody free,” Newman sings, surely not imagining back in the early ’70s that such a voice might actually crop up some day. Or, perhaps, he absolutely thought it was possible.

Turning from xenophobia to racism—heigh ho, heigh ho—let’s get into the title track, written, as Newman has said, “because the slave trade is our main imperialist crime, our insoluble problem.” When asked, in 2003, why he would pair such glorious and sparkling music with such a despicable tale of a slave trader’s sales pitch, Newman replied, “What am I supposed to say, ‘Slavery is bad’? It’s like falling out of an airplane and hitting the ground. It’s just too easy. And it has no effect.” That said, in the same conversation, Newman acknowledged—predictably, via broad sarcasm—that his song in fact had no real practical or lasting effect in itself, saying, “It worked out well. It ended racism in this country. Kids today don’t remember, now that it’s gone away.” The song, which begins the album, sells the idea of America to Africans as some sort of grotesque getaway, where “you get food to eat” and one needn’t run through the jungle and “scuff up your feet.” To listen to "Sail Away” with ears open is tough—the layers of morbidity and absurdity, denial and acceptance: it’s all there—and its strength as commentary relies on its not holding back.

One of Newman’s greatest influences growing up was Ray Charles: “I loved Charles’ music to excess,” he once said. I can certainly hear Charles in Newman’s phrasing and vocal delivery. In an article for the journal Popular Music, writer Peter Winkler notes:

“Many white singers are attracted to black blues and gospel styles because of the impression of authenticity, of heartfelt soulfulness that such styles can convey. Randy Newman seems to be appropriating black styles for precisely the opposite reason: to intensify a sense of alienation, to emphasize the gap between himself and the characters in his songs. He deliberately exploits the absurdity of a white, Jewish intellectual singing like a black from the deep South, mocking the conventions of a ‘white boy with the blues’ even as he appropriates them. He is laughing at his own blackface act.”

Charles would, in turn, cover “Sail Away” on his 1975 record, Renaissance (which also featured covers of Stevie Wonder’s powerful “Living for the City” and the less powerful “It’s Not Easy Being Green”). Despite Charles’ seemingly edge-softening version—even riffing on the “we will cross the mighty ocean” line of the narrator, turning it into a more straight-faced gospel “Lord, won’t you please help us cross this mighty ocean”—I’d like to imagine that at least Charles knew what he was doing and in fact was merely adding his own coat of irony.

Two years earlier, the same year Newman released Sail Away, Charles had released his first “message album,” which began with a kick-ass version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—often called “The Black National Anthem”—and ended—supposedly as a counterweight to the more controversial tracks on the record—with a take of “America the Beautiful” that is much more beautiful than perhaps the song deserves.

Interestingly—particularly for a musician who for the most part avoided political movements—in the liner notes to Charles’ 50th Anniversary Box Set, called Genius & Soul, he is quoted as saying about “America The Beautiful,” “Some of the verses were just too white for me, so I cut them out and sang the verses about the beauty of the country and the bravery of the soldiers.”

“I take from you your children, and you say, ‘How blessed are we!’”

As an aside, in that same box set, following “America The Beautiful”—which concludes the fourth disc—there is 15 seconds of silence and then a “hidden track” in the form of Charles’ Coca-Cola commercial, which, as it happens, was a gem that James Taylor—another “Rayophile”—loved to cover in live performances in the early 1970s.

Newman’s piano chops are in full effect on the fifth track, called “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear,” a story of a deluded young entertainer, who believes that the well-fed public he performs for actually likes him, rather than just consuming his dancing bear act as a laughable commodity. With lines like, “They’ll love us, won’t they? They feed us, don’t they?” the song is pretty much one big heartbreak.

It was also a breakthrough of sorts for Newman: “It’s the first song I wrote where I wasn’t trying to be Carole King,” he admits. “It was the first song I wrote that sounds like me.” The spare but full piano accompaniment is a great touch for the antique-sounding tune, which thrives on long strings of off-beats, never quite settling down. Newman’s juuuuust-about-making-it vocal performance leading up to that last high note brings the proper element of vulnerability and fragility to the song. “It’s just amazing how fair people can be.”

With an album so full of irony, it’s a welcome breather to have a song like “Old Man” in the program, concluding side A of the record, bringing a solid dose of sincerity. Of course, you won’t get off that easy. This ain’t the theme to Toy Story, after all. “Old Man” tells of a son watching over his dying father when no one else has shown up, comforting him with the near-nihilistic philosophies the father had passed on to him: “Won’t be no god to comfort you, y’taught me not to believe that lie.”

While the strings swell and contract into a slightly dissonant crunch, the son tells the father not to cry. The strings work their way to a resolution, but the bass note refuses to inch up far enough, and an otherwise glistening major triad sits atop its own minor third: a stain. I can almost see the son leaning over the hospice bed, with a tear in one eye and shoulders half-raised in a wry shrug. “Everybody dies.”

And an ironist, perhaps, is born.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.