Randy Newman, Rocked by Illness and a Troubled Marriage, Seeks Comfort in His Land of Dreams
You’d expect him to be deriding it in song, not caught in the trendy act. But here comes Randy Newman, rounding the bend of his white stone driveway, dressed in light-blue jogging shorts. The long, hairy legs move quickly, the elbows jab out resolutely, the thick-lensed tortoiseshell glasses slip down to the tip of his nose. Punching in his security code, Newman opens the door of his Pacific Palisades home only to flop down on the carpet and pull his knees to his chest. “I hope you don’t mind, I’m just going to finish exercising.”
Not to worry. The sardonic singer-songwriter, whose new single, “It’s Money That Matters,” takes characteristically well-aimed jabs at all things bright and fashionable, isn’t out to build the biceps of Stallone. “I hurt my back,” he explains, “and I want to get stronger.” And a year ago, that race-walk down the drive wouldn’t have been possible. Newman has only recently begun to recover from Epstein-Barr, a virus that leaves its victims depressed and chronically fatigued.
Fatigue and worry are nothing new to Newman, who turns 45 this week. All things considered, he has often said, he’d rather be lying down. And his songs often seem fed by anxiety—about racism (in “Rednecks”), about the bomb (in “Political Science”), about suffering in the sunshine (in “I Love L.A.”). But the five years since his last album of pop songs have also brought a rupture in his 18-year marriage and the death of his mother.
On his new Land of Dreams LP, the artist, who is notoriously contemptuous of self-revelation, goes so far as to hint at personal feelings. “I found a way to write about myself that I don’t object to,” he says. “I lied.”
He’s lying about not telling the truth. The emotional hardships of his childhood are rawly evident in “Dixie Flyer,” “New Orleans Wins the War” and “Four Eyes,” the Land of Dreams trilogy that covers his life until age 5, when his father, Irving, an internist, returned from World War II service to move his family from New Orleans to Los Angeles. The songs offer rare glimpses of the alienation that Newman felt as a Jew in the Deep South and the trauma he experienced viewing the world hazily. “It was tough for him having the problem with bad eyes,” says Newman’s longtime friend and frequent producer, Lenny Waronker. “It wasn’t just that he had to wear glasses, he also had to have surgery.” It took four operations, the first at age 5, to correct the severely crossed eyes that left him shunned by his peers. “School was painful,” Newman says frankly. “It was not the best time of my life, like they said it was going to be. Life got harder later, but it got more interesting too.”
At least one early problem has never been resolved. “I’ve had a low opinion of myself since childhood,” he admits. “I’m hard on myself.” He makes it even tougher on himself, his father believes, by refusing to share those opinions. “It’s so hard to get him to talk about himself,” says Irving, who traces his son’s very survival to song-writing. “I think he would have flipped his cork if he didn’t have his own words to sing back.”
The words he’s singing most frequently these days may be from “Bad News from Home,” a haunting slice of romantic betrayal. Says Mark Knopfler, who both co-produced and performed on the new LP: “That song is written from the heart. The song is so right that it couldn’t be any other way.”
Ask Newman about his 1985 separation from wife Roswitha and he snaps, “I don’t know why we broke apart. Things like that happen.” He adds, more gently, “I will always be her friend and she will always be mine.” German-born Roswitha, 44, long credited with keeping Newman on a productive creative track, seems equally puzzled about the reasons for the split. “When you get to be 40 things can suddenly change,” she says. “I think Randy had to prove to himself that he could make it on his own.” Roswitha, who runs a successful Pacific Palisades clothing boutique, is still in his rooting section: “I guess he did it. He is doing very well. This is one hell of an album.”
Their primary concern, both Newmans emphasize, is the effect their separation has had on sons Amos, 20, Eric, 17, and John, 10. “He’s very connected to his boys,” says Knopfler. “When Amos broke up with his girlfriend, Randy was on the phone comforting him.” Recalls Irving: “Once, we came out of a restaurant, and Roswitha was with us. Two of the boys got into Randy’s car and the little one looked up and said, ‘Daddy, which house do I go to?’ That broke Randy’s heart. He’s not around enough and he knows it.” He also knows, better than many, the depth of childhood pain. “It’s so easy for kids, since they’re so egocentric, to blame themselves,” Newman says. “There’s a goddam earthquake and they think it’s their fault.”
The same might be said of Newman, whose inherently negative view of life (“I’m not that f——— grumpy,” he snarls) was heightened by Epstein-Barr. “I couldn’t get up a couple of steps without getting out of breath,” he remembers. “But the worst part is in your brain. You just can’t think of anything that you look forward to doing. Nothing looks good.” Newman finally became so discouraged that he broke from the treatments prescribed by his father’s colleagues to try homeopathic medicine. “You know, the guys with towels on their heads,” he cracks. Still, nothing worked. Time has proved a healing factor, though Randy has also changed his diet (no fats, oils, sugar, salt, alcohol, caffeine) and started exercising. He says he’s beginning to get stronger and have a more positive outlook.
Pollyanna, however, he’ll never be. One of the songs on Land of Dreams is called “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do.” Ostensibly the bitter saga of a man who deserts his family, Newman likes to apply the sentiment to international relations—and beyond. “I’d enjoy seeing it done as a big anthem,” he has said, “just like ‘We Are the World.’ ” As far as more intimate hurting and healing go, he claims, “Dating is not a priority.” What joy he finds comes from his music, an important, lifelong source of solace, and his sons. “It’s hard to say what’s the most important thing,” he muses. “If it came down to a wish, I could either have my children be guaranteed they will live out their full span and be happy or guaranteed that I would continue to do quality work that I love for the rest of my life, I would take the kid thing.” He hesitates, then adds, “But it’s close.”
—Susan Toepfer, and Vicki Sheff in Los Angeles