I attribute my earliest memory of Randy Newman–a hodgepodge of Pixar soundtracks, chief among them Toy Story–to the fact that I am a child of the nineties. I attribute every subsequent memory of Randy Newman to the fact that I am a child of my father.
I talk about popular music the way conservatories teach their students to talk about classical music. My analyses of songs and albums and artists are true analyses, detailed and critical and assertive, if not at times aggressive. I engage in debate with a fierceness that usually places me in male company. Given the household I grew up in, raised by two opinionated aficionados of everything from Verdi to Sinatra, I rather think I was bound to turn out like this.
The auditioned choir at my elementary school, which I joined at age seven, rehearsed before and after school throughout the week. My dad taught literature (and would go on to teach a study of Newman’s songs) at the university. Both these places were across town from home. Thus began the grand tradition of the scored journey: the drive back and forth, roughly fifteen minutes each direction, defined by whichever CD occupied the slot. At first he would hold court, lecturing in his enthusiastic way on the history or significance of a piece of music, the spiritual state of the songwriter, the personal connection he felt. But I paid attention, and imitated him, and learned to craft my own commentary.
Those drives exposed me to an eclectic mix. Paul Simon’s eponymous songbook, recorded in London before he got famous. Avril Lavigne’s Let Go. R.E.M.’s Out of Time. The greatest hits of the Lovin’ Spoonful. Cast recordings from Broadway and movie musicals. Men with singular voices–Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Newman–although for all my advanced vocabulary I could only call them “weird.”
It was in this context that, somewhere along the line, I heard Land of Dreams for the first time. I must have been eight or nine. I don’t recall when I began to think of it as the twelve-song autobiography it is. I certainly didn’t appreciate what an outlier it is in his catalogue, how disoriented his fans must have been in 1988 to hear the master of narrative duplicity lay his own experience bare. To my mind, the listening was a relatively uncomplicated pleasure. The artist traces a formative period divided between Los Angeles and New Orleans, a bittersweet cycle of relationships, and a discovery of life’s most disillusioning forces. In my young adulthood, I’ve come to share my father’s interest in Newman’s songwriting sensibility and to consider this album a twisted sort of compass by which to navigate the world.
But all that was a bit much for the slight eight- or nine-year-old in the backseat of a white 2002 Subaru Outback. At this point I just needed some common ground. I was Catholic, not Jewish; I was a Northerner, not a Southerner–my world included New England and the areas of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic inhabited by extended family; I had never fallen in love, at least not according to the symptoms enumerated in “Falling in Love,” although I did enjoy the song. And I could not yet intuit the full meaning of the statements that it was money that mattered or that some people abandoned their families merely for the sake of watching them suffer. What was there in this fresh-sounding album to remind me of me?
As it turned out, I found my common ground in the unloveliest song, a distorted ditty called “Four Eyes.” It appears third on the chronological album. After a vivid portrait of an infancy in L.A. and a toddlerhood in New Orleans, it signals the young hero’s first major transition: from the isolation of family to the quasi-independence of kindergarten. The situation is fraught with conflict for the five-year-old subject, initially in the form of his matter-of-fact father, who takes him “further than [he’s] ever been away from home,” and then in the form of his disembodied classmates, who taunt him with the titular age-old schoolyard name.
Lyrically, the song bears the Newman stamp of equal parts hilarity and poignancy, and the vocal delivery–the Newman sprechstimme–concurs. From the beginning the hero is slow to register and take up his responsibilities: upon being roused by his father, he thinks, “‘I must be dreaming / It’s still dark outside!’” but his father insists, “Son, if you fall behind, you’ll never get ahead.” The father continues his barrage of orders, and when he says, “Here’s your little brown shoes / Can you tie them yourself?” it sounds less like paternal encouragement and more like a dare. The hero’s mother, the benevolent guide of the album’s first two songs, is absent here; it is now his father who will shape his worldview, beginning with the ride to school. At the moment of arrival, the moment of truth, their exchange reaches an apex of universal anxiety:
My daddy stopped the car and he turned to me
He said, “Son, it’s time to make us proud of you
It’s time to do what’s right
Gonna have to learn to work hard”
I said, “Work? What are you talking about?
You’re not gonna leave me here, are you?”
He said, “Yes I am!”
And drove off into the morning light
The hero is left to come to grips with his own impending transition, frozen “on the sidewalk / a Roy Rogers lunch pail in [his] hand.” The lunch pail, combined with his “little brown cowboy” outfit, demonstrates his attachment to the beloved, mythical, fearless Western figure and his desire to attain that bravery through mimicry. But his appearance exposes him to the ridicule of a host of “sweet children’s voices,” whose remarks decidedly lack sweetness. Faced with this hostility, he says, “I began to understand”–this is the first of many epiphanies he will have over time regarding human cruelty and disappointment.
Sonically, the hero’s apprehension is reflected with unsettling shrewdness. It’s one of the first songs I can remember making me truly uncomfortable. A harsh downbeat jolts the listener out of the lull created by two rather wholesome-sounding, piano-led tracks–this track is artificial by comparison, its arrangement shot through with electric keyboards, drum loops, and glaring guitar lines. The chords are hollow, separated by intervals of fourths or fifths, moving together in syncopation (mostly in a vi-IV-V-vi progression), sliding up to their resolutions at the end of every line. There is a feeling of flashy ‘80s resonance, highlighting the irony of the scene and the warped perspective of the narrator; in the instrumental interlude, Newman blows the car ride to school entirely out of proportion by lacing it with synthesizer blasts and echoey percussion. The final pre-chorus features a choir of children, perhaps boy sopranos, singing open vowels in soaring harmonies before descending into the climactic chant of “four eyes.” Meanwhile, the outro, a repetition of the syncopated intro, is ornamented by a quotation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in a different key. I recall laughing at the bitonality, if only to mask how off-kilter I felt there in the car. The whole three minutes and thirty-eight seconds resembled a demented, demonic playground tune. Cold comfort as my dad pulled into the drop-off lane and I pondered what lay in wait for me among my peers.
I myself was (and remain) a bespectacled child, and accustomed to a daily dose of contemporary contempt as part of a balanced elementary education. But it had little to do with the glasses themselves. My generation used “four eyes” rarely, if ever, substituting more fashionable variants of verbal abuse–though I recognized it as the ancestor of what I heard in the schoolyard and the halls, directed at me and other easy targets. Anyway, in my case it was the reason behind the glasses, the tortuous, torturous ocular history, marked by scars from treatments I did not remember, that inclined me to vulnerability and incited certain classmates to violence.
None of us had the language to articulate it then, the way trauma begets trauma. Developing that language will likely last me the rest of my life and will perhaps never happen at all for some of the individuals who tormented me. In the interim, I took refuge in music, made it my strength and my passion. Whether we–the bullied and bullies of suburban America–ever put our finger on why we did it to each other and to ourselves in the first place, Newman already has. His finger is on the pulse here, as in every song he has ever penned. A decade and a half after its release, this odd little track gave voice to my defenselessness and told me I was not without company. If that is the common ground between me and Randy Newman, I’ll take it.