By Arthur Lubow
May 02, 1983 12:00 PM

Through the picture window of his airy, book-lined living room, Randy Newman can see a hillside plastic-wrapped like a Christo package to ward off California mudslides. For Newman, whose current album is called Trouble in Paradise, the view is made to order. Admired as a master pop songwriter, Newman lives in this Pacific Palisades dream house with his charming wife, Roswitha, and their three sons. It’s all as mellow as Father Knows Best, but Newman’s piercing vision tears off suburban pleasures like Christmas wrapping. What’s left to enjoy is the trouble.

It irks Newman that few radio stations play his single, I Love L.A., and that Trouble in Paradise hasn’t risen above 64 on the Billboard chart. He relishes critical raves, but by now he hungers for something meatier. “I’d like to have a big commercial success, an unequivocal victory,” he says. “This album has been reviewed like it was one of Beethoven’s late quartets, but that does no good. I want something different. I’d like to be able to play Kansas City without having to sneak into town, apologize to the promoter and give money back.” While Bob Seger ranks Randy with Bruce Springsteen as an artist “you can depend on to make interesting records with lots of integrity,” and Christopher Cross has found him “an inspiration for 10 years,” Newman remains a specialty item. “To sell a lot, you have to have a record that people can have in the background and eat potato chips to,” he says. “You can’t do that with mine.”

Newman, 39, writes pop songs for grown-ups. In three minutes he can tell a poignant or hilarious story. Unlike more conventional singer-songwriters who spout confessionally about their problems and romances (Jackson Browne or James Taylor, for example), Newman writes songs narrated by characters with fictional identities. On one Trouble in Paradise song, a South African racist tongue-lashes his English girlfriend for criticizing apartheid, and on another, a pimp tenderly serenades a junk-addicted hooker. One of Newman’s classics, Sail Away, is a slave trader’s seductive sales pitch to African natives:

In America you’ll get food to eat

Won’t have to run through the jungle

And scuff up your feet

You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day

It’s great to be an American

Ain’t no lions or tigers—Ain’t no mamba snake

Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake

Ev’rybody is as happy as a man can be

Climb aboard little wog—Sail away with me.*

Minds tuned to Top 40 radio can’t pick up such subtle signals.

In 15 years of recording, Newman has had only one hit, Short People, and that came about through a misunderstanding. A parody of bigotry, the lyric of Short People (“They got grubby little fingers and dirty little minds/They gonna get you every time”) infuriated many undersized listeners who, missing the joke, pressured several radio stations into banning the song and helped make it a controversial hit in 1977. “I had no idea that anything that silly would be taken seriously,” says Newman. “It was a fad, like goldfish swallowing, and I couldn’t get away from it. I was glad when it ended.”

On second thought, Newman admits that commercial success probably wouldn’t buy him happiness. When he attended a Linda Ronstadt concert last year, the whooping and whistling reminded him how much he likes performing for attentive audiences. “I might be getting something I didn’t want if I had a lot of success,” he reflects. But the next time his manager reports disappointing sales figures, Randy’s equanimity will capsize again.

He is a virtuoso worrier. “I worry about the kids [Amos, 14, Eric, 12, and John, 5] and my work,” he says. “That’s it. People are really complicated. And if somebody’s got time to worry about nukes and all that stuff, I’m very grateful. But I’ve got enough trouble figuring out the boys and Roswitha.” Eliminating most kinds of worrying doesn’t seriously limit Newman, any more than Isaac Bashevis Singer is restricted by not writing about Wasps. In fatherhood alone, Newman has more than enough material for worry. As punishment for the bad grades brought home by Amos, a punk rocker who sports an earring and a nappy crewcut, Newman issued a proclamation that stunned them both: He forbade Amos to get a haircut. “I couldn’t believe it came out of me,” Randy recalls. “It took me a couple of hours. I had to walk around and think about what had happened, how I’d gotten into this position.”

Convinced that his natural position is horizontal, Newman struggles to be an upright father and breadwinner. “You’ve got to fight selfishness,” he says. “I’ll eat too much dinner and the baby will say, ‘Will you play with me now, Daddy?’ and my instincts are that I want to eat, lie down, read. My tendency is to want to be by myself, even within my family.” On tour with his manager, Elliot Abbott, Newman is happy to sit alone in the hotel, eating room-service meals and reading everything from John Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich to Fernand Braudel’s The Structures of Everyday Life. Newman enjoys performing. It’s songwriting, his true vocation, that terrifies him. “After I write one song, I’m not always sure I’ll write another one, since I don’t know how to do it exactly,” he says. “I’ve done it enough now to where I feel I can do it. But I waver occasionally.”

To foster good work habits Newman rents a room with a piano and no telephone in nearby Los Angeles. When he is writing songs, he will go there every weekday morning and work until the early afternoon. “He’s learned how to write an album,” says Lenny Waronker, president of Warner Bros. Records and Randy’s producer and lifelong friend. “Before, he’d write a couple of songs and wait till he got inspired. That’s a mistake. Hard work is one way of getting inspired.” During an exceptionally fallow three-year stretch, Newman did little but lie around the house or by the pool, reading, eating cookies and watching TV. “The gardener had contempt for me—he had to water around me,” Newman says. “But what really made me feel bad in those days is the kids would go off to school in the morning, and I’d say, ‘So long kids, you know, work hard and stuff,’ and I just didn’t do anything. Eric didn’t know what I did. He thought I got paid for my tan.” Fortunately for Newman’s fans, he eventually ran out of money and wrote a new album—Little Criminals (featuring Short People), his only gold record so far.

Newman’s work phobia is more than simple laziness. He dreads writing or recording songs because with each effort, he inevitably falls short of his perfectionist standards. At the piano, he says, “I’m too aware of my technical shortcomings, of not having studied hard enough.” Writing songs, he is reminded that he should have worked more on counterpoint in college. And once the songs are written, he faces the pitfalls of the recording studio. Originally 9 songwriter for a music company owned by Waronker’s father, Randy began recording his own compositions in 1968 because he was disgusted by other artists’ versions of them. “The records were terrible,” Lenny notes. “They didn’t get the tunes right. They didn’t even copy them down right.” Even when Newman began recording his own music, he couldn’t get the session musicians to play the way he wanted. In recent years, though, the credit sheets on his albums read like a Social Register of the pop music scene. Trouble in Paradise and the previous record, Born Again, sound good enough for Newman to grant a rare dispensation: He permits Roswitha to play them when he’s home.

Like the Romanovs’ hemophilia, Randy’s musical perfectionism is an inherited trait. The Newmans are the grand dynasty of the Hollywood music world. Randy’s Uncle Lionel is senior vice-president for music at 20th Century-Fox, Uncle Emil conducted the music for most of John Wayne’s movies, and Uncle Alfred, winner of nine Academy Awards before he died in 1970, was perhaps the greatest movie-score composer ever. Randy’s father, Irving, is a prominent internist and a frustrated songwriter who, says Lionel, “would rather write a hit song than find a cure for cancer.” At family gatherings, the favorite sport was one-upmanship. Says one of Randy’s cousins: “In the family there is a feeling that only the best is tolerated.”

As a boy, Randy loved to play basketball and read baseball statistics. He also listened to lots of rhythm-and-blues music: From his voice, one might suspect that he was raised by Ray Charles, not a Jewish doctor in Los Angeles. Until his college years he was cross-eyed, and while the condition was surgically corrected, he still sees double and avoids direct eye contact. “It’s always been difficult for me to look people in the face, because when I was a kid, they’d wonder where I was looking,” he explains. Says his best friend, lawyer Allen Adashek: “It was a big deal only in high school, when coolness was such a big deal.” Perhaps to compensate, Randy was a high school cutup, skipping classes, drinking beer and getting good grades with little work. Things didn’t change much when he majored in music at UCLA. “Just finding the classroom would be a big thing for him,” Adashek recalls. “He’d get there late, drive around unable to find a parking space, and then say ‘To hell with it’ and go back home.”

In retrospect, Randy was apprenticing as a singer-songwriter since childhood. On his first album, in 1968, his lush string arrangements evoked the orchestras he’d seen his uncles conduct on the 20th Century-Fox sound stage, and his later records, even when performed by rock bands, still carry on the family tradition. “Randy’s songs are like mini-movie scores,” says his physician brother, Alan. “They’re dramatic settings that underline mood, not action. That’s something he grew up with.” When he tried his hand at the family trade, writing the score for Ragtime in 1981, Randy proved his bloodlines by picking up an Oscar nomination (the award went to Chariots of Fire). “There was a little extra pressure,” Randy admits. “Standards are high in the family.” He still finds conducting an orchestra “the scariest thing in the world.” Before one orchestra date, he recalls, “Roswitha woke me up in the middle of the night—I was trying to crawl under her back to hide.”

Roswitha, 39, says that Randy has “developed a lot more confidence” (“a little more,” he corrects her). Their 15-year marriage anchors him. Randy met the German-born Roswitha Schmale at the pool of a friend’s apartment complex in 1964. “Randy and Roswitha complement each other perfectly,” says Adashek. “He wouldn’t know where the phone is, and she can get everything done.” Randy is happiest at home. When the Newmans go to a party, they’re the first to arrive and the first to leave. “It’s tough on Roswitha,” Randy says, with a grin as wide as a sunbaked lizard’s. “She’s friends with lots of people in the neighborhood. They must think I’m a little strange. It’s like Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s a presence in the house.”

Rock is traditionally a young man’s game, but Newman, approaching 40, has no plans to retire. “I’ll quit when I think I’m slipping,” he says. “Everyone was saying 15 years ago, when they were 25, ‘Oh, I’ll never be doing this when I’m 40. There’s no chance.’ Well, no one’s leaving the stage.” Randy might compose another film score, and he is writing a musical comedy based on Goethe’s Faust “with every trace of profundity taken out.” But he remains chiefly a singer-songwriter. The record industry may never figure out how to make his albums go gold, but Newman’s hard-edged, multifaceted songs will keep on coming. Gems have always been a specialty item.