Monday, July 12, 1999

Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear

During my first few days at work at Cheapo the man who hired me, the great Bill Seeler, introduced me to one of his favorite rock albums, Randy Newman's Sail Away. Soon the album made my list of favorites too. There isn't a bad song among the dozen heartfelt and incredibly witty and well written tracks. Among the variety of topics covered and connected are a dancing bear, a striptease, a song written from God's perspective, father and son relationships, and the best damn song about immigration that has ever been written.

"When Karl Marx was a boy, he took a hard look around. He saw people were starving all over the place, while others were painting the town..."

Newman's first CD in eleven years, Bad Love, is like most of the music he is known for- often rewarding yet more than a little difficult to listen to at times. His less than conventional voice along with his caustic, sarcastic, sardonic, ironic, and more bitter than bittersweet lyrics don't always add up to the most pleasant music. Much of what attracts people to most popular music is it either: a) appeals to the heart; or b) appeals in some sexual way. Newman's music rarely does either but rather appeals to the stuff up above.

Bad Love is yet another example of this. The music is constantly challenging, continually clever and yet by the end of the CD it feels as if you have just endured the most grueling of mental workouts. The CD makes you smile at the same time you are cringing. There is one classic song among the eleven solid tracks, The World Isn't Fair, a cunning love song to Karl Marx. "He worked very hard and he read everything until he came up with a plan. There'll be no exploitation of the worker or his kin. No discrimination 'cause the color of your skin... No one could rise too high. No one could sink too low, or go under completely like some we all know." The song is Newman at his idiosyncratic best.

Unlike many of Newman's best songs The World Isn't Fair isn't sung from the point of view of a spiteful character. This time he sings from his own heart (albeit a rather sarcastic heart). As the song reveals itself it shows that it's not so much about political systems (the lyrics are just as much a commentary on Capitalism as Marxism) but about human nature. "Oh Karl the world isn't fair. It isn't and never will be. They tried out your plan, it brought misery instead. If you'd seen how they worked it you'd be glad you were dead. Just like I'm glad I'm living in the land of the free where the rich just get richer and the poor you don't ever have to see. It would depress us, Karl because we care that the world still isn't fair."

The other ten tracks alternate between being about sorrow as much as bad love. The music reminds me of whenever I used to ask the girl from my past from Chicago if she hated something, she would inevitably say, "Hate is such a strong word." Much of the music on Bad Love seems to be about showing how love gone bad is as closely related to hate as it is to how sad love can leave us. "Forget your foolish dreams and schemes that things will work out in the end. Put some real mileage between yourself and the object of your love my friend or become what you see. Yes, a loser like me. Someone who'd be better off dead..." Self pity and scorn gives way to genuine regret and tough tenderness. "Sometimes late at night I close my eyes and pretend that you're here with me. But every time it rains I realize just how lonely my life is going to be."

For all the critical acclaim over his career Newman has never really found a large audience. One might suspect that being such a unique voice in rock music consistently producing quality work that largely goes unnoticed could be frustrating and lead to more than a bit of bitterness. That's unlikely in Newman's case. He seemed to have a head start in that area all along. It can't be of any more comfort that the music of his that does get accepted is the lush Hollywood soundtrack scores he has written (a modern day F. Scott Fitzgerald?). Yet there isn't another writer who so consistently challenges his listeners.

He concludes Bad Love with a song that would be an appropriate coda for his entire career. I Want Everyone To Like Me at first seems like another ironic song. "Some friends to call my own, God knows, a family and a home. A couple kiddies at my side to keep me fat and satisfied." Is he serious? Does being well liked really mean that much to the writer of songs that has mocked short people, born again Christians, rednecks, nuclear bombs, along with just about every other target? I want everyone to like me that's one thing I know for sure. I want everyone to like me 'cause I'm a little insecure." Maybe behind all the wry (and sometimes mean spirited) dark sense of humor is a sensitive soul after all.

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