To Rain Today" /
Believe it or not, I started this blog a little more than 10 years ago -- my first post was on October 26, 2006, to be exact. (The song: "Learning How to Love You" by my hometown hero John Hiatt.) I had some high hopes that I could hit the 1,000-post mark on October 26, 2016, but life got in the way, as it so often does.
I don't post as often now as I used to, but while the internet is littered with abandoned blogs, here I still am, writing about the artists I love.
Some of whom are no longer with us. In the past year alone, we've said goodbye to David Bowie, Guy Clark, Allen Toussaint, Greg Trooper, and Beatles producer George Martin. You all were here with me to mourn when my older brother died, and when I went through my soul-shaking discovery of the late great Harry Nilsson.
I started this blog as a card-carrying Kinks and Beatles fan, but my Nick Lowe obsession happened right here, followed by my Robyn Hitchcock craze, my rediscovery of the Zombies, my reignited connection to the great Marshall Crenshaw, and -- perhaps most memorable of all -- the heads-over-heels epiphany that led me to become a Graham Parker fan for life.
Oh, and there were many others along the way -- fascinating artists whose names you can find in the sound cloud to the right. Old artists, new artists, women and men, of all genres -- I do love to mix it up.
For the 1,000th post, I wanted something momentous, a track I had never written about before, and something that perhaps sums up my outlook on life. In the flurry of social media these days, with the increasingly bizarre turn of events in the United States at the moment, nothing superficial would do.
And then it came to me.
This is how good Randy Newman was right from the get-go -- it appears on his debut album, Randy Newman, released way back in 1968. The list of artists who've covered this song is simply mind-boggling -- Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, Neil Diamond, Dave Van Ronk, Cass Elliot, Francoise Hardy, Ricky Nelson, Joe Cocker, Cleo Laine, Bette Midler, Barbara Streisand, UB40, Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Irma Thomas, Paul Carrack, Peter Gabriel, even Leonard Nimoy. I myself first heard it on Judy Collins' 1966 LP In My Life, back in my Earnest Folkie Phase -- that was the first I ever heard of Randy Newman. But it led me to buy his 1971 LP Randy Newman Live, and to see him in concert in 1974 in Northampton, Massachusetts (on a double bill with Ry Cooder, no less). And to become a Fan For Life.
For all the covers, Randy's own stripped-down, plangent, wistfully bemused rendering will forever be my favorite.
You want poetic imagery? He's got it. He leads off verse one with evocative scene-setting: "Broken windows and empty hallways / A pale dead moon in the sky streaked with gray." And in verse two, a rueful stroke of social satire: "Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles / With frozen smiles to chase love away."
But it's that refrain I keep coming back to -- that despairing, deeply ironic refrain: "Human kindness is overflowing / And I think it's going to rain today." It's heartbreaking how the melodic line rises on "human kindness" and then wilts disappointedly downward on "overflowing," to move into the regretful cadence of "And I think it's going to rain today."
In verse three, he offers a fleeting glimpse of social action: "Bright before me the signs implore me / To help the needy and show them the way." Oh, those do-gooders. But Randy doesn't place much faith in them; knee-jerk liberals can write a check one minute and forget the dispossessed the next. The rain will still fall.
The bridge is absolutely haunting: "Lonely, / Lonely. / Tin can at my feet / Think I'll kick it down the street / That's the way to treat a friend." Those broken, almost disconnected phrases, the fatalistic shrug of "Think I'll kick it down the street" -- there's more than a shot of Leonard Cohen world-weariness there.
Whether or not this is explicitly about homelessness, or alienation, or -- who knows? -- refugees and immigrants, I 'll leave to you to decide. In the 50 years since, I've pored over a lot of Randy Newman songs, and I know that his satire is complex and elusive. Every one of his songs is written from a character's viewpoint, and it's not always clear how much he means us to identify with the character. (Check out, for example, his devastating song "Political Science," which terrifyingly feels more true today than ever.)
But it's not just about the lyrics; it's also about the heart-breaking melody. It's no surprise to me that Randy Newman has blossomed into one of our great film composers; there's something in his melodic sense that hits all the emotional buttons. Which is why I'd always rather hear Randy himself sing the songs, in his deceptively unshowy, croaky, real-guy voice. No pyrotechnics; just the real thing.
And truer now than ever.