Flipping around the channels the other night, I chanced upon Austin City Limits. Now, I like this show in theory, but I hardly ever watch it. Still, when I saw Randy Newman's shaggy gray head bent over the keyboard, I stopped flipping.
I've been a Newman fan since 1974 (Northampton, Mass., double bill with Ry Cooder), though not the sort of fan that travels the country and hangs around by the backstage door. (Does Randy Newman even have that kind of fan?) I do love his satiric songs like "Political Science" or "So Long Dad" or "Short People". (Not so sure that "I Love L.A." was meant as satire, but I love that too.) On vacation in Charleston this year, I kept catching myself singing "Sail Away" -- not just the wistful African slaves' refrain "we will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay," but ironical lines like "Won't have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet." Embarrassed my family no end.
I also love his songs from the Toy Story movies, 1, 2 and 3 -- "When He Loved Me" gets me every time. Because alongside the satirist Randy Newman there's the sentimentalist Randy Newman, the yang that keeps the yin in place.
Harps and Angels (2008) is a great album; if you don't know it, you should. Randy doesn't put them out so often anymore -- the one before that, Bad Love, was 1999 -- but when he does, they're pretty near perfect. You laugh, you cry. "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" is like the companion piece to "Political Science"; "Feels Like Home" is about as sweet a middle-aged love song as you'll ever hear. But the real gem on this album is "Losing You," and watching Randy Newman sing that on ACL the other night, I have to say, I was moved to tears.
Okay, so the lush string intro sounds like movie theme music. Get over it. Randy Newman had three uncles who wrote music for the movies, including the great Alfred Newman (How to Marry a Millionaire, How the West Was Won, The Greatest Story Ever Told); it comes in the DNA to love a good lush string intro. And that gorgeously poignant musical hook -- well, why not tee it up with a full orchestra?
But after that, it's mostly just Randy and the piano. And that's right too, because this is a song about a person struggling to come to grips with his emotions, and naked honesty is what makes it work.
Again, we're in middle-aged territory. (Music for Grown-Ups alert!) In verse one he ruminates philosophically about long-ago financial setbacks ("Was a fool with my money / And I lost every dime"); in verse two, it's clear how far behind him those worries are: "I've been cold / I've been hungry / But not for awhile / I guess most of my dreams have come true."
He's not a whiner, in other words. He's been through stuff; he's a survivor. But that's what gives extra punch to that stubborn refrain: "But I'll never get over losing you." It's clear that the person he loved was too unique to be replaced, and that his love was too strong to simply fade away. Notice that he never describes the person one bit; all we know about him/her is how much he/she was loved. But that's all we need to know.
And there's a time factor, too, as he develops in the bridge: "When you're young / And there's time / To forget the past / You don't think that you will / But you do." Now, however? "But I know that I don't have time enough / And I'll never get over losing you." That just breaks my heart.
The lyrics are a little ambiguous; it's easy to hear this song as a lament for a old girlfriend. When I first heard it, I thought it was like his earlier "I Miss You," a regretful message to an ex-wife. But Randy himself has explained that "Losing You" was inspired by a story he heard from his brother, an oncologist, about a family losing their 20-something son to brain cancer -- that sense that they were too old, too far down life's highway to recover from such a major loss. Not enough time left.
Wow. I know how that feels.
So even if Randy did jigger the lyrics to make it more widely applicable -- cueing our knee-jerk assumptions that pop songs are about romantic relationships -- the melancholy that animates this song springs from a deeper well.
The yearning sweetness of the melody tells us that love is still there; it hasn't curdled to bitterness or ebbed into acceptance. Yet there's a telling numbness to that repeated phrase "I'll never get over losing you." Sure, I know the formula, it's a refrain; got it. But in this particular case, the dogged repetition of this inalienable fact is one of the greatest things about this song. He doesn't embroider it; he can't embroider it. It just is. It just sits there, a dull lump of pain in his heart that's not going anywhere.
But he'll be okay. He's not jumping off a building, not screaming into the wind. He's just hurting -- and that's life.
Randy Newman? A national treasure, I tell you. A national treasure.