Tuesday, February 18, 2014


"Marie" / Randy Newman

You say you know Randy Newman's music. But which Randy Newman stuff do you know? Is it the snarky MTV-era hits "Short People" and "I Love L.A."? The chirpy Toy Story theme "You've Got a Friend In Me"?  The wicked satires like "Political Science" or "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country"? The Three Dog Night party song "Mama Told Me Not to Come"? The whimsical "Simon Smith and His Dancing Bear" (covered by BOTH Alan Price and Harry Nilsson, two major Newman aficionados)?

Ah, but now let me present to you another side of Randy Newman -- the tender romantic with a sentimental heart of gold.

This is track three of 1974's Good Old Boys -- Newman's first hit album, his second-highest charting LP ever (after 1979's Little Criminals), and still perhaps his biggest critical success, ranked #393 on Rolling Stones' top 500 albums of all time (for what that's worth).

It's a sleeper, tucked away after "Rednecks" and "Birmingham." Randy Newman's not known for his love songs, and yet here's one of the sweetest love songs ever recorded. Though it's not autobiographical -- Randy Newman does not do autobiography, he always speaks through a character -- when he decides to lay irony and snark aside, he can discover tenderness in surprising places. Yes, it's true the singer is a drinking man of limited sophistication, but when it comes to love, he's as true as an arrow. 

Dig that old-fashioned waltz tempo, and the lush string intro -- the movie soundtrack composer inside Randy Newman was already yearning to break out.   But once it hushes down for the vocals, here's Randy's imperfect voice -- scratchy, husky, pitchy, just like the ordinary joe who's telling us his story, one elbow propped on the bar. 

Marie makes her entrance right away, a vision of loveliness in a dreamy upward sweeping melody. "You looked like a princess the night we met /  With your hair piled up high / I will never forget." That beehive/bouffant detail is so right, yet told just as he'd tell it. I can just imagine his vague hand gesture, sketching her hairstyle.

Next he huddles sheepishly down into minor and 7th chords, the melody circling around a few notes: "I'm drunk right now, baby," he confesses in a hangdog croak, "But I've got to be / Or I never could tell you / What you mean to me." In vino veritas, indeed. 

But his heart is full, and he gruffly lifts his voice into a higher register to proclaim the chorus: " I loved you the first time I saw you / And I always will love you, Marie." So simple, so heartfelt. 

By verse two, the liquor has made him wax poetic: "You're the song that the trees sing when the wind blows / You're a flower, you're a river, you're a rainbow." With that divine waltzing melody, it's so extravagant and lyrical, yet I still buy the guy's voice, spouting a string of clichés as he swings his arms around, tottering on his barstool.

Then, with a rueful chuckle, he brings himself back to earth: "Sometimes I'm crazy / But I guess you know." I'll bet she does. And now that he's switched to honesty mode again, he doesn't cut himself any slack: "And I'm weak and I'm lazy / And I've hurt you so / And I don't listen to a word you say / When you're in trouble I turn away." His head is hanging low, he's staring bleakly into his half-empty glass. He knows he doesn't deserve her. There's a lifetime of marriage in those lines.

And then, simply, he rises back into the chorus: "I love you, I loved you the first time I saw you / And I always will love you, Marie." And with those heart-melting strings underneath . . . well, despite everything, this is why Marie stays.

35 DOWN, 17 TO GO 


Jack said...

Great post Holly. I sometimes get choked up listening to this song - not the kind of reaction one expects from Randy Newman songs. But they are spinkled throughout his catalogue. Falling in Love from Land of Dreams is another gem in that category. Thanks for the great writing on music - a joy to read. Plus, anyone who is a fan of both Ron Sexsmith and Marshall Crenshaw demonstrates some impeccable taste! haven't seen your write about Paul Kelly, austrailan artist who in my view is one of the greats of our generation - well worth checking out.

All the best, Jim

Holly A Hughes said...

Now that is an intriguing song. I'll have to check out Kelly further -- thanks for the tip!

NickS said...

I should listen to more Randy Newman. I very much like his music, but I have to admit that his albums don't tend to last that long in the stack of CDs on my desk that I'm listening to at any given time.

In some ways the songs are too good and too particular -- rather than flowing into the next song it they make me want to stop and just process each song after listening to it.

One other though: When you were doing you "best of 2013" series it reminded me to go back and re-listen to Madeline Peyroux's album The Blue Room and her version of "Guilty" is one of the best tracks on the album.

It occurs to me that there's more than a little overlap in the characters from "Marie" and "Guilty." In particular the similar, disarming, confessions -- the line beginning with "I'm drunk right now" in "Marie" and "It takes a whole lot of medicine for me to pretend that I’m somebody else" in "Guilty."

Jack said...

Nick S, Actually the Good Old Boys album is one where all the songs are connected, including Marie, Guilty, Rednecks, Birmingham, Kingfish - all stories told from the perspective of the south - easily my all time favorite Randy Newman album. That's a reocrd that I love to listen to in order from start to finish.

Holly, Paul Kelly is definitely worth some investigation. He's been a prolific songwriter and performer since the mid 80's, is an icon in Australia, but sadly, only a cult following here in the states. For me, he's the best storyteller in song I've yet heard. The Words and Music album from which the Gravy song is taken is a great place to start (Kelly likes to point out that it is the only song he knows that has a recipie included!), but the whole catalogue is impressive. He should be a world wide star, but so goes the music business...

Jack said...

Forgot to leave this live clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02XQ_Ttln9c

NickS said...

I was thinking about Randy Newman last night and I was thinking that he has an unusual approach to choruses. He's written songs that have a traditional chorus "Sail Away", "Rednecks" and he's written a fair number of songs that don't have choruses. "Guilty," "Old Man," "Political Science."

And then, on a song like "Marie" or, "Louisiana 1927", there is a chorus, but it has as much weight and emotional texture as the verses.

I was just thinking about this because of my comment that listening to an album of Randy Newman songs can start to feel overwhelming. I feel like on a lot of traditional pop songs the chorus serves to reset and relocate the listener in the song -- it offers a chance to get your bearings, particularly for a song that you haven't heard before. But, for me at least, that isn't what the chorus on "Marie" or "Louisiana 1927" do.

That isn't a complaint -- I think among the many things you might praise Randy Newman for, one of them is that he can write songs with more complexity and fewer words than almost anybody else (again, "Old Man" comes to mind) but it is distinctive.

Kelly likes to point out that it is the only song he knows that has a recipie included!

Probably (does "Homegrown Tomatoes" count as a recipe?) but I can think of a song that prominently features a grocery list :)


Uncle E said...

Randy gets a bad rap for sounding too formulaic nowadays, but I absolutely love the guy, and particularly this album and Sail Away.
On a different note, Holly, check out this blog, if you would. I'm totally hooked on this latest 7 part series regarding the Kinks!


Holly A Hughes said...

Oh, that's tasty, Unc! I'll let my fellow Kinksters in on this as well. Thanks!!!