On ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 2008, Randy Newman said that two things would be written on his gravestone: ‘He won an Oscar, and he wrote “Short People”’.
‘Short People’, from the LA-born songwriter’s 1977 album ‘Little Criminals’, made absurdly hilarious fun of its subject. ‘They stand so low/You gotta pick ’em up/Just to say hello.’ Furious protests ensued. But not from me, even though I am a short person. The song is obviously not about short people but about bigoted people. Newman attacks prejudice by speaking in the persona of someone whose prejudice is particularly moronic.
Writing in character is one of Newman’s hallmarks. He’s given voice to a Southern racist (‘Rednecks’), a slave trader (‘Sail Away’) and, in ‘God’s Song’, the big man himself: ‘You all must be crazy/To put your faith in me.’ Well-read and politically aware, he’s written about pollution, genocide and urban decline among other subjects. But he has also written nakedly agonised love songs (‘Every Time It Rains’, ‘I Miss You’) and a wrenching picture of depression (‘I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today’).
Newman has concentrated mostly on film work since the early 1980s: he’s done over a dozen projects, including all the ‘Toy Story’ movies. In the last 20 years he’s put out just two albums. One of them, ‘Bad Love’ (1999) may well be his best. The song ‘I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)’ tears strips off ageing rockers: ‘I’ve got nothing left to say/But I’m gonna say it anyway.’ If you’re a newbie, start with ‘Sail Away’ (1972).
Newman did indeed win an Oscar – twice. But his greatness doesn’t end there, or with ‘Short People’. Now aged 71, he’s one of the most original American songwriters of the last 50 years, and one of my artistic heroes. That’s why, on October 26, I’ll stand up and cheer my guts out when he walks on stage at the Royal Festival Hall. He won’t see me, of course. The tall people will block his view.
Previously: Why I love Cadogan Hall