by Russell Blatcher
Over the Christmas holidays, I was trawling through an old video-tape of assorted music. In the middle somewhere was a documentary about Randy Newman. I think it was the South Bank Show – it certainly had their deadly earnestness about the ‘popular’ arts.
I still don’t really know how familiar Newman’s oeuvre is (even among those hip enough to be Bob Dylan lovers). Apart from freak hits (Simon Smith, via Alan Price and Short People) Newman’s sales have always been poor. And yet, in my view, he is not only among the elite of American song writers (his name is not out of place along side Cole Porter, Irving Berlin or Harold Arlen) but is also one of the funniest men alive. In the course of the documentary we were treated to a selection from a live show. The song that struck me anew in the current climate is entitled Political Science, which featured on the greatest of Newman’s albums Sail Away (Reprise Records 2064-2, released May 1972).
First of all, let me say that written on the page the lyrics cannot convey the edgy dry delivery that Newman accords them. His forte as a singer is to render the point of view of the narrator so well that the listener can easily fall into the trap of believing that Newman speaks for himself. Indeed he got into trouble with this very issue for the song Short People, which had many of the Politically Correct breed of Americans accusing him of bigotry (“short people got no reason to live” – ha ha how true).
How well Newman understands his homeland. But just consider how well these lyrics (written over thirty years ago) address the current world ‘situation’ as seen by George Bush and Tony Blair. Here is the parochial xenophobia and paranoia of “No one likes us- I don’t know why”. Next comes the selfish and self-seeking foreign ‘aid’ (“we give them money, but are they grateful?”); then the surface-skimming mind-boggling ignorance of others lands (“Asia’s crowded and Europe’s too old”); and the cultural imperialism (“every city the whole world round will just be another American town”).
Finally follows the time-honoured response of the primitive to anything they don’t understand: random undirected violence (“let’s drop the big one now”). This harks back to that cold war strategy (much missed by Rumsfeld and his ilk) of ‘mutually assured destruction’ – the solipsist’s dream.
Very few in the U.S.A. with views that run counter to the currently dominant hawk persuasion (and I know there must be many) seem to have access to the organs of the mass media. You may find long conversations with Noam Chomsky on BBC Four, but this great iconoclast and freethinker’s voice is muted in his homeland. Randy Newman gets away with it I suppose because his sales are so poor. There can certainly be no doubt that his instincts still run counter to the American mainstream. Take a song called Roll With The Punches from the album Land of Dreams (Reprise Records 25773-2, released September 1988). It’s a vicious lampoon of the right wing attitude to welfare and social responsibility found both here and across the Atlantic:
How far in that direction have we moved in the United Kingdom? Strangely enough, we seem to have come closer to the American political middle ground (formerly our far right) in the years of Blair’s administration than we did in the Thatcher and Major years. We have more people who think like Newman’s narrator now, than we’ve had for over a hundred years. If you want a measure of the changes in the Labour party, just observe how, without changing his own views one iota, Roy Hattersley has moved from it’s right wing to it’s left. Read his regular attacks upon Blair in The Guardian (e.g. http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,5673,842293,00.html). Pundits have said that while Blair’s links with Clinton seemed natural they were surprised by his alliance with Bush. This, I feel, only reveals the success of Blair’s deception. He is much more a natural ally of Bush than of Clinton, both in economics and foreign ‘diplomacy’.
The tragedy of Britain aping the US current policy model is that it is such a distortion of that country’s original model. The title track from Sail Away displays Newman subtlest of ironies, for while he parodies his narrator’s patriotism:
He also clearly shares his aspirations and envies his innocence:
Ensuring that “every man is free to take care of his home and his family” is a clear summary of everything a state should hope to achieve. To preserve that freedom the state must, yes, protect its people from outside threats both military and economic. But how far should those concerns be extended beyond national boundaries? The current brouhaha over the England cricket team’s visit to Zimbabwe is a perfect example: should we be prepared to risk the lives of any of our citizens to put right any perceived wrongs done by that country’s government? Clearly not. Should we apply pressure on regimes of which we disapprove by refusing to trade with them? Yes, if we put morality before money. Is the government prepared to do this in the case of Zimbabwe, no – they prefer the cost free grandstanding of a sports ban. The American founding fathers and many succeeding generations of Americans may look isolationist to us today, but their disinterest in the rest of the world is commendable, compared to their descendants’ aspiration to be the World’s policeman and moral arbiter. Granted that advances in technology require greater vigilance against outside threats, there is no excuse for meddling either openly or covertly in the running of other sovereign states, either through political or economic subversion. “You’re all gonna be an American” is today a threat under which the world lives, whereas 100 years ago it was a promise of salvation and escape from oppression.
One other American artist who dares to dissent today is Steve Earle. He beautifully expressed his dilemma (how to preserve the ideals of his country in the modern world) on a no te with his latest album:
Earle has often put himself on the line with views strongly contrary to the public mood in the States. He once described himself as “a borderline Marxist…who utterly resists the American capitalist ethic that if you are not entrepreneurial, you deserve to starve”. That is exactly the sentiment of Newman’s narrator in Roll With The Punches (“I say we ain't gotta do nothin' for nobody 'Cause they won't work a lick, you know”).
Earle’s bravest stance is on capital punishment, which he has taken far beyond song writing into his involvement with Jonathan Nobles, whose execution he attended. American positions on this issue are so extreme that even Earle’s audiences in the States probably don’t support him here. On a bootleg of a performance in San Francisco (not the most right wing of towns), Earle’s introduction to Ellis Unit One (written for the movie Dead Man Walking) gets a distinctly quiet, if not frosty, reception from the crowd. I’d like to think that an average rock and roll audience over here would accord such sentiments a much warmer welcome. I can’t be sure, for there is a large grassroots support for hanging here as well, even if our politicians are not as afraid of the baser instincts of the electorate as their American counterparts.
One assumes or hopes that the other US artists that we view as profound and insightful would also oppose such barbarity. But then, which is worse, that they support the death penalty, or that they oppose it, but decline to speak out because they know they would be unpopular? Such pragmatism is widespread. Bill Clinton, as Arkansas Governor, was prepared to preside over the execution of a man who thought that he would be able to finish his last meal after the execution. Why? Clinton did not want to hurt his chance of becoming President. Why then should Springsteen or Dylan risk their audience to such perceptions? Maybe that’s why Dylan’s song about the execution of the Rosenbergs, Julius and Ethel didn’t make it onto Infidels, in case it was perceived as soft on capital punishment.
Earle, in his comments on “our new found ‘unity’” hopes that the current unanimity about Al Queida, Saddam and weapons of mass destruction will dissolve like the silent majority’s backing for the Vietnam War during the sixties and seventies. But that happened to coincide with a cultural upheaval which created an undirected turbulence across all walks of life. Can we really expect such a thing to happen again now? Even on the simple level of the music industry itself, I can’t see it. Even if modern equivalents of Dylan and the Byrds and the rest arose now, they would be absorbed and defeated easily by the much more sophisticated and cynical record companies we have today.
In John Walker’s Blues, on his latest album Jerusalem, Steve Earle shows his understanding of ‘political science’, i.e. pursuing that simple goal of enabling the citizen “To take care of his home and his family”. How can the U.S.A. reduce the chances of further terrorist attacks caused by the situation in the Middle East? One of the first things is to better understand the thinking of those who either plotted such an atrocity, or applauded it. Earle has, like Randy Newman, adopted a narrator from an alien point of view, to help himself and his audience understand that outlook better:
Not everyone around the world can not accept the MTV and soda pop lifestyle. They are forced to seek an alternative philosophy of life. There is much more to the perception of the west as ‘The Great Satan’ than its support of Israel. Just as crucial is our mindless pursuit of economic advantage and material goods.
Sadly Earle has been portrayed as a traitor or fellow traveller for writing and singing this song. For whatever reason, many prefer to scapegoat their perceived opponents rather than understand their position. The military-industrial complex needs new enemies now that the ‘evil’ Soviet Empire has retired from the field. It is becoming difficult to explain the size of the military budget to the taxpayers and voters. By characterising enemies or social scapegoats as ‘evil’, we can escape any consideration of their views. This has long been the propaganda weapon of states at war. If no real atrocities become apparent, they will be invented. Remember the intensive care units supposedly stolen by Iraq from a children’s ward in Kuwait during the Gulf War? It never happened. There is a whole raft of propaganda coming our way from Bush, Blair and their news “management” teams. We need to consider their motives very carefully before we believe any of it.