Singer-songwriter Randy Newman has always mixed his wry with some ginger. In the interest of ridiculing bigotry, he has taken on such repellent personae as Southern demagogue (“I’m a cracker/And you are too/But don’t I take good care of you?”), redneck racist (“We’re too dumb to make it in no Northern town/And we’re keepin’ the niggers down”) and nuke-waving xenophobe (“They all hate us anyhow/So let’s drop the big one now”). Oddly, there was little fuss. But with the first cut on Newman’s latest album, Little Criminals, the needle finally stuck and hurt. “Crass,” fumed the lobby group Little People of America. “Vicious,” agreed the founder of Shorties Are Smarter. Observes Newman with a shrug: “I don’t expect the song to be a big commercial success in Japan.”
The work in question is Short People, a happy-beat putdown of folks of substandard size: “Short people got no reason/To live…They got grubby little fingers/And dirty little minds…” “The narrator is a little nuts, like in all my songs,” Newman tries to explain, but the song he meant to be a tongue-in-cheek lashing of discrimination has brought a clamorous backlash against his own alleged sizeism. Dozens of radio stations around the country have banned Short People, and the Shorties organization is asking honorary member Paul (5’5″) Anka to record a rebuttal. “We’re geared to a bigger-is-better society,” argues Gerald Rasa of Little People, “and this song reinforces that concept.” Newman finds the argument, well, shortsighted. “I don’t get why people are so offended by it,” says the 5’11” composer, whose advanced myopia has forced him to wear headlight-thick glasses since the age of 10. “I wouldn’t mind songs about ‘four-eyes.’ ”
The furor rankles all the more because it has overshadowed the fact that the iconoclastic Newman has finally released an album after three dry years. In that hiatus of career-risking length, Randy looked for himself (“under the bed”), played with his sons Amos, 9, and Eric, 7, and fed his addiction to the tube. “I told the kids they were watching too much TV,” he says, “and then realized I was the one watching cartoons—anything.” Holing up on his two-and-a-half-acre Pacific Palisades, Calif. estate, he endured his two kids’ passion for Kiss (“They’re animals; they won’t listen to the Rolling Stones”), helped his German-born wife, Roswitha, get ready for their third child (due March 1), and avoided the rock-concert scene (“They’re all too loud”). Above all, he wondered what he was doing there—apart from listening to the stream that gurgles across his property. “I just didn’t feel like` working,” he says. “I don’t know whether it was laziness or the fear of not being able to do it anymore. But it was just too easy to stay at home.”
Composer’s block, however, is not included in Newman’s musical legacy. The son of a physician, Randy haunted Hollywood sound stages as a kid, picking up musicianship from uncles Alfred, Lionel and Emil Newman, all Oscar-contending composers of movie scores. “I never thought about any career but music,” says the prodigal nephew. “What I do now didn’t exist then, so naturally I thought in terms of what my uncles did.” UCLA enjoyed the pleasure of his attendance only when there was a parking place, he says; otherwise he busied himself spinning out musical wallpaper for pop vocalists.
Songs come harder now, says Newman—”I’m just not interested in that I’ve Gotta Be Me crap”—so getting back in tune after his flirtation with indolence meant dramatically rearranging his life. Convinced that working at home was impossible, he rented an office in Santa Monica, got there by 9 every morning and broke for lunch when his concentration was shot. “I became part of the community,” he says. “I had never before in my life had a daily routine or an organized way of working. I kind of enjoyed it.”
Because of Short People, Newman has his best-selling album to date, his first ever to go gold. A supporting tour last fall was his first since the one for Good Old Boys in 1974 and currently—”driven by greed,” he cracks—he is challenging the snows of the East and Midwest. Then comes Europe in the spring, and the U.S. outdoor circuit next summer. “I’ve always liked performing,” he says. “I never believed all those complaints about ‘life on the road.’ To me, it’s like collecting for the hard work of writing.” And Newman is not above admitting that nobody does him better—not even Streisand, who has recorded his I’ll Be Home. “Her voice is amazing,” he admits, “a freak, very accurate. But she isn’t comfortable singing with a backbeat, which you need with my songs.”
More critical when it comes to his writing (” ‘I’ll be home, I’ll be home’—so what?”), he offers no apologies for Short People, his first gold single now bulleting to the top of the charts. “I just thought it was a funny idea,” he says. “Of course no joke is worth hurting people’s feelings, and some people are pretty angry about it. But,” he adds slyly, “I think it’s only a tiny minority.”