On Wednesday evening, on Radio 4’s Front Row, Mark Lawson introduced a short reading with these words: “This passage from the book contains offensive sectarian terms, although clearly they’re reported rather than endorsed by the author.” The offending words were ‘Fenian scum’ and the book, set in Northern Ireland, was a crime novel. Yes, a novel. So why the disclaimer?
Mark Lawson offered no further explanation, and I was left wondering if we have become so culturally inept, or so ready to take offence, that we need it pointed out to us on BBC Radio’s flagship arts programme that the sentiments of a fictional character are not necessarily those of the author.
My thoughts turned at once to Short People, the classic Randy Newman hit that caused so much offence among that great irony-free swathe of Americans (and others) who mistook the sentiments of an imaginary dwarf-hating lunatic for those of the songwriter. In Maryland they apparently went so far as to promote a bill banning the song from radio, though it failed to get through the state assembly.
Newman is a master of irony and a brilliant creator of left-field, often unreliable, narrators – from the proudly bigoted to the plain stupid, the sentimental to the sneering and sinister. Yuppies, slave traders, rednecks, factory hands, fascists, child-murderers, jilted lovers, dope-dealers, freemasons, prostitutes and petty criminals – his cast is inexhaustible.
His songs in fact are more than songs. They’re complete stories, each one a mini-opera. His real genius is in not only creating the voices, but also writing music so complimentary that his motley crew of misfits and misanthropes spring instantly and vividly alive in the imagination.
I confess to owning all his albums (except the film scores). His most ambitious is Randy Newman’s Faust, in which he offers his own idiosyncratic take on the story with James Taylor as God, Don Henley (the Eagle) as Faust, Elton John as an angel, and Newman himself as the Devil. Its cynicism and black humour still make me chuckle, but perhaps unsurprisingly it was a commercial flop.
His most affecting song, for my money, is Louisiana 1927 in which he describes the flooding of New Orleans, when the authorities deliberately and callously breached a levee after heavy rain, and which features an imaginary visit by a condescending President Coolidge. The song was taken up again after Hurricane Katrina and has become a kind of alternative anthem for New Orleans.
I’ve been looking for an excuse to write about Randy Newman for a long time because for forty years he has drawn me into his worlds, weird and warped as they often are, more completely than any other songwriter I can think of. And he does it with humanity. He makes us laugh at his characters – and they are real characters, not caricatures, which is no mean feat given the constraints of the three-minute pop song – but he also makes us laugh, and cry, with them.
Newman is a master not only of irony but also of empathy. If I had written just one of his songs I’d die happy.