By David Royko
Mike Royko was the Pulitzer Prize-winning equivalent of Grammy Award-winner Randy Newman. Or, if you prefer, Randy Newman is the songwriting version of Dad.
When this little epiphany arrived the other morning, I thought, “Why did it take 40 years?”
It came to me indirectly as I walked back from an early morning coffee trip listening to Newman's "Great Nations of Europe." It's typically brilliant Newman, singing with jocular abandon about the 17th Century European plunder of the "New Worlds." I realized my music-loving, justice-obsessed college-student son needed to hear it, and that he might become a Randy Newman fan. I drifted from there to thinking about his love for the similarly-barbed commentary by his late Grandpa Mike. Then it hit me -- Dad and Newman were two sides of the same coin.
Newman's songs never linger on a point. His muse delivers with both an economy shorn of the unnecessary and the magic of choosing the perfect word.
Just like Dad (who died in 1997 at age 64). Referring to this hard-earned gift, the late Studs Terkel quoted one of Dad's idols, Mark Twain: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word . . . is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."
The album for my post-coffee morning walk was The Randy Newman Songbook (Nonesuch), a collection of tunes stripped to their two essentials -- Newman's voice and piano, and as such they clock in at around three minutes each, or less. Everything I mention here appears in this set of Newman masterpieces in miniature. They aren’t necessarily “better" than his original recordings, with everything from rock band to full orchestra.
Newman is an expert arranger, from a long line of cinema composers, himself an award winning creator of many soundtracks -- The Natural (1989), for example, among his finest. But these fresh renderings of a wide range of his songs expose his lyrics as well or better than anything he has ever produced. If you are not already familiar with Newman's work beyond a few hits like "Short People" or the soundtracks to A Bugs Life or Toy Story -- and that's probably all Dad really knew -- you're in for a treat.
As for Dad, there’s no better way to enter his genius than the two posthumous collections, For The Love of Mike, and One More Time (both University of Chicago Press), or his best-selling book, Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, a classic that has been in print since it was first published in 1971.
For readability, I'll be using the present tense when referring to both Newman and my late Dad.
Newman and Dad use wit and satire to skewer, well, everybody they've considered deserving. They've each composed social commentary of breathtaking brilliance. They're funny as hell, sometimes with a higher purpose, other times only to elicit a belly laugh, and most often both. They are storytellers par excellence. They can apply their endless creativity in brutal attacks.
They also could write paeans of aching, profound beauty.
Newman’s "Love Story" follows a couple from courtship, through a long, full life, with wry touches like their kid becoming president “if things loosen up” (Newman’s Jewish), ending with, “When our kids are grown, with kids of their own, they’ll send us away, to a little home in Florida; We’ll play checkers all day,” and then, as only Newman would finish, “‘till we pass away.”
One of Dad’s most beloved columns is an autobiographical journey, from his and Mom's early married days to his mourning soon after her death, without ever identifying himself or her directly. Mom had died suddenly and unexpectedly two months prior, on Dad’s birthday. He wrote the column on what would’ve been her 45th birthday. I have never been able to get through “A November Farewell” without choking up. Others without the personal connection have said the same.
And my father (who was not Jewish, though I was often asked if he was) and Newman were white men who dared use the word "nigger."
I don't know the first time it appeared in Dad's columns, but it was no later than 1968, less than five years into his 34-year career. He did it to lance the boil of racism. Writing about LBJ after he announced he would not seek re-election: “The white racists, those profoundly ignorant broads who toss eggs at school buses, blamed him for the very existence of the Negro. To them he was a ‘nigger lover.’”
In his 1971 book, Boss, about Chicago’s first Mayor Daley, he again reported egg and rock throwing whites, singing, “Oh I wish I was an Alabama trooper, that is what I really like to bee-ee-ee. Cuz if I was an Alabama trooper, I could kill the niggers legally.”
Randy Newman used it in 1974. "Rednecks" skewers lily-white liberalism. In other words, they've both used the word, in part, to expose what we now call "white privilege." Both caught hell for it, especially Dad, but not from African-Americans. I remember white guys and local housewives carrying signs on the sidewalk and egging our house in the 1960s. They didn’t like being called out for words they thought were just fine.
Dad, again in Boss: “The only genuine difference between a southern white and a Chicago white was in their accent.”
I already knew about racism and its dangers. Those picketers smiled at me coming home from third grade as my mother raced down the stairs to get me past them into the house. A few minutes later, her father -- we lived with my grandparents -- was beet-red with rage as the eggs hit his meticulously-kept white wooden house. In the kitchen, my grandmother tried to calm my gentle-as-a-lamb Gramps as he yelled, with shaking voice, "I'll take a 2x4 to their heads!" Those people out there weren't so nice after all.
I discovered Randy Newman in 1975, via "Rednecks," in a high school class. Not a music class. A math class.
I'd been clowning with a fellow cut-up. My "style" was generic-goofball, but a big part of his shtick was adopting "black" mannerisms and slang.
Our teacher kicked us out for disrupting the class, and took advantage of it to make a deeper point about the stuff he didn't like about the overtones in my classmate's “humor." He brought a portable cassette player to the next class. He told everyone to review a couple of math formulas in our text books.
Then he walked over to my buddy's desk, set down the player and handed him headphones. He listened and started giggling. Three minutes later he was laughing outright. I was dying to hear the funny stuff.
Our teacher obliged. I also giggled -- it was amazing to hear a guy sing about Southerners "keeping the niggers down." I got it. Southerners are racist. But I wasn't laughing by the end.
Newman sets us up by describing the ways southerners discriminate, as opposed to us egalitarian Northerners, the redneck complaining that "the North has set the nigger free." Newman then twists the knife you hadn't even felt going in:
“He's free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City; he's free to be put in a cage in the South-Side of Chicago and the West-Side; he's free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland; he's free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis; he's free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco; he's free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston. They're gatherin' 'em up from miles around. Keepin' the niggers down. We’re rednecks . . . we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground . . . we’re keepin’ the niggers down.” From his desk, my teacher stared at me.
Of course, everyone else wanted to hear what was so funny, but he was done. My teacher hadn't brought this in to entertain his class. He brought it in to deliver a lesson to my friend and me that had nothing to do with math and everything to do with racism and hypocrisy. Dangerous hypocrisy.
Hello Randy Newman.
Dad and Newman pulled no punches, and they landed hard. Newman was an up-and-coming composer and Dad was the most widely read columnist in the land.
They went up against American nastiness like few could, or would. They had brains and guts. They would deliver their messages with a literal bite, or coated in humor like the spoonful of sugar that, when dissolved at the end, left a very different taste, leaving the reader or listener reconsidering their own views in new and sometimes disconcerting ways.
Dad's columns about race were among the most visible threads in the spool he spun for 34 years. When Harold Washington became Chicago's first black mayor in 1983, the following day, his column began, "So I told Uncle Chester: Don't worry, Harold Washington doesn't want to marry your sister." The last column he ever wrote, in 1997 before leaving for a vacation that ended with the aneurysm that killed him, was about the myth of the Chicago Cubs' legendary woes coming from a billy goat. The real curse, he said, was the Cubs' lethargy in hiring black players, post-Jackie Robinson.
Dad never quit. Just like Newman. "Rednecks" was the beginning of a chain unbroken right up through "I'm Dreaming," of a white president, an Obama endorsement veiled in white racist stereotyping.
Dad and I talked a lot about music, though most of the time our talks were less conversations and more lectures about what he considered great, from My Fair Lady through Beethoven symphonies and Frank Sinatra. I don't remember us ever discussing Randy Newman. To the best of my knowledge, he wasn’t a fan, maybe knowing him solely by his ditties from soundtracks to movies Dad watched with his kids from his second marriage, like A Bugs Life and Toy Story. But, we came close once. It was a Newman collaborator, Harry Nilsson, who recorded "Nilsson Sings Newman," an album applying his extraordinary voice to Newman’s piano accompaniment. Later, Nilsson had written a parody, “Joy,” which sends up a handful of country crooner clichés in its three-minute span, a bit Newman-like. Dad laughed like hell and asked me for the album. We never discussed it again, but it is a memory I cherish.
Dad's and Newman's humor are often similar, especially when applying satire at the service of the underdog up against the tyranny of power, ignorance and indifference -- as are their insights. They look deeper than most of us can see but when we do, things never look quite the same again, whether or not we agree with their visions.
Their work shows their guts. They piss people off, foes as well as friends who might not be as "correct" as they think they are. Newman's characters could be hypocrites or just plain bad. Dad's do-gooders could be “googoos” who have a tenuous grasp on reality, or are as judgmental as those they despise.
If you are already a fan of both of them, I'm preaching to the choir. If you know Dad but not Newman's best work, pick up Songbook. If you are already a Newman fan and don't know Dad, pick up a collection, or Boss.
I only wish I'd introduced Dad to the real Randy Newman. He would've loved him.
David Royko is a writer, clinical psychologist, and director of Family Mediation Services of Chicago's Circuit Court of Cook County. His work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Parents Magazine, The New York Times, The Chicago Reader, The Village Voice, The Chicago Sun Times, Bluegrass Unlimited, and No Depression Magazine, among other print and web publications. He has produced two books and an e-book: Voices of Children of Divorce (St. Martinís); Royko in Love (University of Chicago Press); and The Chronicles of Ben: Our Adventures in Autism (Smashwords). Dr. Royko has appeared on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, WGN, and WTTW television and radio news outlets on the topics of music, autism, divorce, and his father, the late columnist Mike Royko. Dr. Royko co-hosted the radio show, Royko's Shrink Radio, and wrote Hit Me With Your Best Shot, about his son's move into a residential setting, for the National Public Radio program, This American Life. He has adult twins, Jake and Ben, and lives in the Chicago area with his wife, Karen.