Randy Newman is chary of interviewers by reflex, bless his level sense, but bent even more unbendingly in that direction since the critical shitstorm mounted in the pop-squeak press against his fifth album of art songs, Good Old Boys. Six months after the record’s notoriety-nagged release in late 1974, the jowly, bespectacled composer/pianist/singer mumbles a wan hello and drops to a feral crouch on a leather sofa in a posh little parlor adjacent to his agent’s office, high up in one of those high-rise megabucks towers in Beverly Hills. Newman doesn’t look anything at all like a bourbon-gargling, no-necked redneck bent on “keepin’ the niggers down.” He looks more like a stand-in for Woody Allen or a brainy young English major parsing the Pearl Poet at the University of Kansas.
Newman is seated opposite a visiting writer, but he is not necessarily looking his way. He is looking instead at the parlor’s yum-yum appointments. Tasty—very tasty, indeed. Flocked blond walls and an overhead Casablanca fan. Paintings of something brown and something mostly green. An antique English dartboard and a framed map of Poland. A burnished-oak table with claw legs, surrounded by a flotilla of Eamesish chairs. A Depression-era gum machine cleverly disguised as a lamp. Various bowers of growing things that doubtless bear the fruits of megabucks….
Newman sips cola from a Carpenters Fan Club mug, fires up an unfiltered cigarette and leans forward with an agitated semaphoring of the arms. “Look,” he blurts, “anything I say will probably be just bullshit. I’ve been out on the road touring for months and … What is it you want to know?”
The writer reflects. He considers Newman the best American songwriter of the decade. You can shake your ass to Newman’s music and you can be stirred to thought by it, and if you’re reasonably well coordinated, you can do both. What the writer wants to know, he says, is the story of Newman’s life and all his opinions.
“A lot of my songs are like compressed short stories.”
Newman flashes a dropsical smile and lolls back against the leather cushions. “Oh, yeah? Hmn. Well, let me think. Sure, that’s not hard. Short and uneventful.
“Really, that’s it—nothing significant ever happened to me. I went to public schools in West Los Angeles and I spent summers down around New Orleans as a boy. My mother’s from the South and my father was stationed there when he was an Army doctor. I took piano lessons from the age of seven, I’d guess, until I was about 14. Then I knew everything and I quit. Started writing songs when I was 16, 17. Worked for a publisher. They signed me up and—oh, I’d write songs for various people. I started recording in ’68, I believe it was, and then started performing a couple of years after that. I’m 31 now. And here I am. Short, you see. Uneventful.
“Uh, well, yeah … I’m known as a kind of closet racist in some quarters because of Good Old Boys. Mostly because of the song ‘Rednecks.’ It was banned from airplay in Boston, you know—that busing situation there. I understood that completely. I kind of concurred, in a way. I mean, why bother? Why stir up ripples in the shit?
“The fuss over that album was … was ludicrous to me, pointless. I didn’t really keep up with all the things that were written about it. A lot of pop-music criticism is … it’s like hitting the ground when you fall out of an airplane. I remember somebody compared me to a certain Heydrich, who was, I believe, a real obscure Nazi. Killed in the purge of ’34 or something. My brother told me about that. My brother’s a doctor, like my father. Today’s his birthday. The day Stalin died. I’ll have to remember to give him a call.
“Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that I went to college. UCLA … Didn’t graduate, though. Came very close. What I’m lacking is a performance requirement. I was a music major and you had to be in a chorus or some kind of performing group to qualify for a degree. I tried to get out of it, but they wouldn’t let me. I tried to tell them that, you know, I was already a professional musician, blah-blah-blah, but they—they insisted. Probably rightly so.
“And I’m married. Got two boys, six and three. No, I didn’t marry a childhood sweetheart. My wife’s from Germany. She’s, uh … Heydrich’s daughter.”
Newman grins fleetingly, chain-lights a fresh cigarette and rumples a hand through his Jacuzzi-spray tangle of curly hair.
“The people who’ve helped me musically are, I guess … well, I’m grateful to my father in some ways. When I started writing songs, I didn’t like to do the lyrics, and he had always written songs as a kind of hobby. I still remember ’em all—I think I remember ’em better than he does. I mean, like, there’re two people in the world who know his songs and I’m half of the set. Anyway, he always maintained that anyone who is at all lyrical can write lyrics. That’s not even a prerequisite anymore. If it ever was. It never was. But, I mean, he encouraged me and he helped me with my early songs. He was really fast. I’d be stuck for words and stuff—I was writing a lot of ‘moon, spoon,’ old-fashioned stuff—and he’d come up with things, fast. I should’ve given him credit on some of those songs, probably. But when I departed from, uh, the mainstream, he, he, uh, phased himself out as a collaborator.
“Lennie Waronker, my producer, helped me some, too. See, it’s a difficult thing. Maybe you’ve heard about all the moaning I do, all the bitching about how lazy I am and how hard it is for me to get to work, but it’s—it’s just a fact. And, because of that, I don’t know what would’ve happened without Lennie or somebody like him pushing me. When I was 16, 17, Lennie asked me to try and write some songs, and I did. Then he wanted me to record, and when I didn’t cut a record for two or three years, he was kind of on me all the time. Yeah, I guess I owe him something. I definitely would if I were happy at what I do. No, that doesn’t sound quite right. I’m indebted to Lennie for caring what happened at the times when I haven’t. That’s been often. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I didn’t want to write songs. Or I thought I didn’t—I don’t know. I tried to be fairly serious. Most of the time.
“Oh, yeah, sure—I was pretty positive most of the time that I didn’t want to continue. I never enjoyed writing. It’s always been an effort to shut myself up in a room, go off by myself … I mean, I can shut myself up in a room and read all day. With great pleasure. But writing is—well, I don’t know, it’s an agony to me. I’m always amazed by people like Hayden, who just loved it all, who lived for it. I guess I have to write in some kind of way, but I do not like it. I do not like the process at all.
“A lot of my songs are like compressed short stories, that’s correct. From time to time, I’ve thought of trying some prose, but I don’t know … I get defeated before I start. You know—I’ll think of a whole bunch of reasons why I shouldn’t even try. I like to read a lot more than I like to listen to music. I often think maybe it would spoil reading for me if I started reading that way—as a sort of potential contestant in the race. And, too, I think, why short stories? I’ve never even liked short stories all that much.
“No, let me think—I read a really fine one of Dostoevsky’s recently. ‘The Gambler’ was good. But it wasn’t ‘The Gambler’ … no. This was a Henry James one—‘The Master and the Man.’ A powerhouse story about a writer who’s advising this other young writer, and it’s so tricky that … I just wonder whether James meant all that stuff, whether his intent was as complex as it looks to be. Whether it’s all so careful as it reads. Hmn.
“That’s one of the things that annoy me about Dick Cavett. He says he’s read everything by Henry James—100 volumes, or something like that. You can’t come out of that … whole.”
Newman slides down on his spine and pokes around in the bottom of his Carpenters mug for a bite-sized chunk of ice.
“What I’ve been reading and liking lately are these science books for dummies. Like, if you have no science—like, that Arthur Koestler book about astronomy or this 10,000-page biography of Einstein I ran across a while back. I keep looking for a relativity explanation I can kind of tie in this curve in my mind and all that stuff. Caught one on that Ascent of Man TV series, but it wasn’t that good. Too much slow-motion glass breaking and not enough facts.
“I don’t watch a great deal of TV anymore. Mostly educational stuff—Hollywood Squares, $10,000 Pyramid … No, actually, when you’re on the road, you don’t get a chance to watch anything, so the last few months I just fell out of the habit. I mean, can you imagine making an effort to watch Columbo to get back into it all?
“I generally prefer to read. Yeah, I’m acquainted with some of the Southern writers … not an inordinate amount. Flannery O’Connor, Dan Jenkins … some Faulkner, a few of his things. The Wild Palms wasn’t bad. The Sound and the Fury and The Bear, the parts I could understand … I’d like to be able to say that serious literary things like that were my roots, but I don’t know—I don’t think it’s true. I haven’t read that much of Faulkner. Or anybody else, really. It wasn’t writing that made the impression on me about the South.
“The Southern thing, it’s hard to say … That song on Good Old Boys, ‘A Wedding in Cherokee County’—that’s … only peripherally Southern. What I originally had in mind—what I started out to do with that was to write an Albanian anthem. Sure, I’m serious. The Albanians are crazy as a nation, and that interested me, and I was going to write ‘White moon shines on the goat herd,’ and so forth, about the workers and everybody, and I finally couldn’t do it. It sounded like ‘Back Home Again in Indiana.’ It didn’t work out as an Albanian love call, so I switched it around some and set it in rural Alabama.
“I’ve followed the Albanians, I guess, like some people follow the Dodgers. There they are, right next door to Russia, and they’re always potshotting at everybody, right, left and center. I watched their reaction when the U.S. made friends with China and I think now Albania has no ally in the world—not a single one. There are 2,230,000 people there, and they have a real crazy history, and a real crazy music, and—Listen, I once got hold of some Albanian newspapers, and they were rabid—really nuts. Everyone was an ‘imperialist running dog,’ including both Russia and China.
“I recognized that the song I’d written would fit if I shifted it to the South, but that wasn’t originally part of the plan. I had some real obscure Southern stuff that I didn’t put on Good Old Boys—things that didn’t hold up as songs. One was sort of about Dixie Howell. Dixie Howell was a football player at the University of Alabama in the Thirties. He played there when Don Hutson did, and it was a real strange song, but in the end it was just too obscure. Maybe pointless, too.
“I still like an orchestra a great deal. And know it better than I know guitars.”
“I don’t have many of those, no. About two. What I write nowadays, I do. All told, I’ve written maybe close to 100 songs. Let me think. Somewhere under 100. Most of them have been recorded by somebody. Somewhere. Somehow.”
Newman’s paternal uncles are the filmscoring Newmans—Lionel, Alfred and Emil. The writer mentions this. Newman shrugs unsentimentally.
“Encouragement I always got from my father. I think he likes music better than the rest of them do. No discouragement, though. My uncles and I were doing basically different things and, uh, you know, discouragement might have bothered me. I mean, I’d go and see them conducting or doing some movie or something when I was little, but there was no active participation.
“I did a couple of movies myself—neither one very satisfying. Performance—I just conducted that. What there was to conduct. And I did a movie for Norman Lear called Cold Turkey. Wrote a song and the music for it. I don’t plan to do anything like that again unless I really like the picture or unless it gives me a chance to write for a real big orchestra. Some kind of interesting music … Like, I’d have done Love Story, even though I hated the picture, because I’d have liked to have written that kind of music. Big dramatic stuff. I’m kind of drifting away from it, but I still like an orchestra a great deal. And know it better than I know guitars, for instance. The technology of guitars is pretty much getting away from me—I’m not equipped to deal with it as well as I ought to be.
“Performance was … I didn’t like it. I saw it about 80 times while we were doing it and it just held no interest for me. I never understood what the hell was going on—who was who—but then, I didn’t care, either. I enjoyed the work, though, part of the time. Because I had no responsibility—I was just a piano player sitting there next to the coffee machine. What was going on wasn’t my problem.
“Cold Turkey invites some kind of snide pun, I guess, but I don’t want to knock something they paid me well for. I wrote some pretty fair music for it, or I thought so at the time. Actually, I don’t know whether it quite fit. If you do a conscientious job of scoring a picture and you don’t just sprinkle tunes through it, it’s tremendously hard—I don’t know whether I’ve got the psychological stamina to deal with that. Probably not. But, let me think, I’d been turning down movies and I figured I was doing it because I was afraid, so I decided to risk that one. It’s hard to be objective about a comedy after you’ve seen it the way I had to see it, but I wasn’t particularly proud to have been associated with it, finally. Part of it’s my own fault, because I didn’t follow through on the music the way I should have. I had an orchestrator and I was too paralyzed by fear to really take hold. He’d say, ‘What about this?’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, yeah. Perfect. Do that.’
“Movie people have been … disillusioning to me. I don’t know a lot of them, but I was let down in that I thought they would be more intelligent than record people. It didn’t turn out that way with the ones I’ve met. But God knows who I’ve met—Samuel Z. Arkoff at the Hamburger Hamlet.
“Nah, that’s an exaggeration. Jack Nicholson is nice. He came to see me a few times at the Troubadour a couple of years back and he was talking about us doing something together. He had some idea for a picture, but it never—never really materialized. Last time I talked to him was about The King of Marvin Gardens. I wanted to tell him how much I liked it, even if no one else did. Nobody liked that picture. Hmn. I thought it was vastly better than Five Easy Pieces.
“But with actors … I haven’t been around that many, but I’m not sure that their talent correlates to any form of recognizable intelligence you can make out in conversation with them. Ringo Starr, for instance, is the best actor among the Beatles, but he’s not the most intelligent guy of the four. Nicholson … I don’t know—he’s a genius as an actor, but … Brando, too—I mean, he’s no mental giant, as anybody can tell. He’s also getting this kind of pouty, Truman Capote-like mouth, I’ve noticed. Acting must be … I don’t know. It might hurt you to get too cerebral about it all.
“I was never much lured by Hollywood, never awed, you know, or impressed. I was really impressed one time, though. I saw O.J. Simpson on an airplane. Flying down from Oregon. Everybody spotted him and whispered about it for the whole flight.
“It’s interesting to be around someone who gets recognized all the time. You know—someone who can’t go anywhere without being recognized. I was with Streisand once in this Greek restaurant, and our party was the only one in the whole place. A huge empty room, and they put on this extravaganza dance show for us … That would be a very peculiar way to live.
“Streisand is—she’s a little hard to figure. You forget that she’s as young as she is—younger than Dylan. I think I read somewhere. It’s like she was surrounded by old people all her life and she’s sneaked out on a vacation. Something like that. At the time, we were making that pseudo-pop album of hers called Stoney End, and I didn’t think it would be very successful. It was, though—I was wrong. Streisand’s very, very tough—strong as nails about what she wants.”
Newman rises from the sofa and crosses the room. He looks wonderingly at the framed map of Poland. “Is this—? My God, it is. Whew, these agency people are bent.”
Laughing and shaking his head, Newman flops back down onto the sofa and seines for another piece of ice. “I like maps. I was looking through a volume of maps in a bookstore with my little boy this morning. All he was interested in was things about skindiving. He wanted me to buy him an $8000 Jacques Cousteau under-the-sea book.
“If a song is only a joke, as a few of mine are, that song isn’t worth as much as if something else was going on in it, too.”
“Hmn, let me think … I’ve got the feeling I’m too negative today, and I want to mention some things I’ve liked … I liked The King of Marvin Gardens and—oh, yeah, I liked that picture Straw Dogs. A lot of intelligent people hated it, but I thought it was fairly good. It even had a kind of scientific basis—the territorial imperative and all that stuff. But it was interesting to me, because it was about physical courage, which is something I rarely think to think about.
“In music, I don’t pay all that much attention … Oh, I like to hear what Joni Mitchell is doing and what Dylan is doing, and I listen to Elton John sometimes. I hear him on the radio. I admire him for his—what’s that word?—prolificity. Good stuff, fast stuff—nothing to sneeze at, really.
“But there’s so much crap and garbage and bullshit around … Like that Tom Snyder on the Tomorrow show—what can you do with that guy? He twinkles those cute eyes and turns everything into smarm. One night not long back, he had on the Mouseketeers, and he was talking to Annette Funicello about her tits. My God, I mean, who cares? She was too nice to know that he was getting off whenever he made some snickering reference to her tits. Jesus, I couldn’t believe I was seeing it.
“And Dick Cavett has enraged me to the point where I just refuse to watch anything he does anymore. He was so bad to Lester Maddox that time, it was sickening. I mean, he was absolutely rude. Not that Maddox doesn’t deserve it, but it made a really poisonous impression on me. That’s when I wrote Rednecks.
“I mean, Maddox was the governor of Georgia at the time—a state of 6,000,000 people. OK, if you happen to be one of those Georgians, here’s your governor up there on the tube in New York—like it or not, he’s your governor—and Cavett and all those other effete slobs didn’t even give the guy a chance to make an idiot of himself. Sat him next to Jim Brown, and the whole thing immediately turned into a freak show. The audience turned out to be nastier than Cavett, if that was possible. Maddox didn’t even have a chance to do or say anything, as I remember. It embarrassed me, it was that rank.
“The notion that the North is morally superior to the South is just … uh, dumb, I think, if I were black, I’m not sure I’d want to live anywhere, but it’s probably no more unhappy in North Carolina or Alabama than it is in New York or Chicago. At least you see black people talking to white people in the South. But in the big cities—boy!—nobody jumps that gulf.
“Hmn, I’m tuned to negative again … Probably because one part of my mind is thinking about getting back to writing. For the moment, I’m past my peak performing—I’ve had enough. I’ll grit my teeth and try and write, I think. Pretty soon, yeah. I see people in this business who just love it, you know. They carry around notebooks and get ideas for songs from everything, but I, uh, I … It used to bother me all the time. I’d feel guilty about not writing, but just the same, I wouldn’t do anything for a really long time. Over a year. The year before ’73, I didn’t do anything. Things were crumbling around me. I had no money. The bank attached this thing and that, and it didn’t bother me a bit. I was … really … kind of happy watching Let’s Make a Deal.
“My wife was worried—Lennie was worried. I even began to get a little worried that it wasn’t bothering me. I just couldn’t stand to work. I don’t know whether it was fear or what. Fear of failure or fear of getting worse. I don’t think I’m all that neurotic, usually—ordinarily, I think I’m just fine. But I get kind of neurotic when I’m writing. I can’t think about anything else at the time, and it’s unpleasant. I find it hard. And nasty. And I’d rather not do it. Someday, I won’t. I just won’t be able to put up with it anymore. Because I’m pretty happy otherwise. Everything’s perfect except for that. Well, not perfect, but I mean … dull enough to suit me. Lots of books to get through.”
Newman forms a periscope with his fingers and peeks through the cross hairs warily. Distressed by what he pictures, he sighs and lets his hands collapse in his lap.
“I don’t know what I’ll do next—I don’t have a fresh idea in my head. Maybe it’ll be something simpler than Good Old Boys. Without all those different personae—personi?—whatever the word is. But I always write that way, so I guess I can’t help it.
“Lately, when I’m performing sometimes, I’ve noticed that my songs are kind of … unusual. They’re about strange stuff in a lot of ways. Maybe it’s just the way I’ve been thinking lately—I don’t know. Sometimes I think I’d like to write just nice, straight-ahead—I’ve never thought my stuff was all that complicated, really, but I guess it’s fairly complicated, compared with some of the stuff I hear on the radio. I always thought people could understand it … but lately, I’m not so sure that’s true. I don’t think it’s widely infectious. It isn’t the type of thing that someone could put on and cut potato chips to. It isn’t … it isn’t easy, you know, the way you can put Cream on for an hour and then put on—even Joni Mitchell…. It demands a little attention.
“If you’re going to write words, then I believe the words might as well try and say something, be interesting. If a song is only a joke, as a few of mine are, that song isn’t worth as much as if something else was going on in it, too. Like that piece ‘God’s Song’—I doubt if it would make much sense over the crunch of potato chips. It’s about—let me think—it’s about a California God. The yucca tree, you know—the California desert is the only place where the yucca tree grows. It’s a pretty harsh God out there … that’s the way I see it. Well, I mean, I don’t see it at all, really. I don’t believe in those things. Like a lot of people in this country, I don’t have any religious faith.
“Why did I say that—‘in this country’? Oh, because I’ve been to Germany. Went to meet my wife’s family in Düsseldorf, and I played in Hamburg, and I did a TV show in Bremen, and I—I could not reach ’em. Could not do it. It’s kind of cold up there in the north of Germany, see, and they were correct. Who-o-o. It was worse than Glassberg, New Jersey.”
Newman rises to take another look at the map of Poland, mutters something about Cold War partitions, then half-turns to regard the writer. After a long instant, he grins wryly and extends his pack of cigarettes. “Look, why don’t you come out to the house tomorrow? I live near this photographer who’s always taking pictures of naked girls. One day he had the Playmate of the Year bare-assed out in my yard. I’m looking out the window, you know, and … Drop out around two and maybe we’ll catch some feelthy poses. It’s … uh, let me think. You take Sunset toward the ocean….”
“Get away, Rocky,” Newman snaps at his dog the next afternoon. “Why are you in the house all the time? Get down!”
The house sits at the end of a dirt lane in Santa Monica Canyon, one of those fieldstone-and-glass bungalows in the $98,000-$100,000 range. Newman sits perched edgily on the edge of a velvet divan in his pleasant, book-lined den, sipping German beer from a crock stein. From time to time, he darts a pained glance over his shoulder at The Room. The door to The Room is, of course, closed. The Room is where Newman works when he can muster the will to work—a torture chamber, to hear him tell it. Outside, the rush of the khaki-colored creek that spills into the Pacific a mile away competes with the Mongol whoops of little boys chasing Frisbees on the lawn.
“I don’t trust anything nowadays,” Newman broods darkly to the writer. “I don’t know how to find things out anymore. I mean, who can you listen to? Pauline Kael raved on and on about Shampoo, and I thought it was terrible—nothing. And restaurants … We got some more of those restaurant guides today. I want everything reviewed for me. Then I can judge how the reviewer writes and I can figure it out so I don’t have to make any mistakes. Hmn … like with Las Vegas. I haven’t been there in a long time, but it’s—I knew this woman whose father died in Vegas, and she had to go up there and pick up his body. Wouldn’t that be awful?
“Gambling, oh, Christ … At one time I was betting on the horses through a bookie, and I couldn’t stop. And I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. It was when I was a kid running a Thermo-Fax machine, and I was betting and sometimes losing more than I was making, and I was actually amused that this horrible movie cliché had me by the throat. That I couldn’t stop. Eventually, I did, and the day I stopped I had a really big day and broke even, almost. But, anyway, I quit.
“Everything gets lamer, I do believe.”
“And I had that compulsiveness about a lot of things. Drugs—in the Sixties, I took drugs in fairly frightening amounts. Same with alcohol. Like, when I was in high school, I was never interested in social drinking—nuts and potato chips and all that gunk. I mean, I was headed straight for oblivion at all times. Now I do nothing. Now I’ll go to the track occasionally, but not like I used to. I guess there was a kind of heat about it, an excitement I craved. I barely remember it now—it was quite a while back. Do you ever get the impression you’re talking to someone who’s 84 years old?”
Newman laughs sepulchrally and mock-genuflects over his stein.
“I barely remember the Sixties—can’t recall many details. I didn’t actively participate in the protests or anything that went on back then. I was never conscious of the Government’s being any part of my life, except for taxes. I was interested but … uninvolved. I saw it all, but I wasn’t really a part of it. Or anything else.
“And that hasn’t changed much. I hang around with my family, and that’s it. You don’t go out to clubs or places like that in L.A. unless you’re collecting venereal diseases. Today, let me think, I went to the market and to a bookstore. And we all went out to eat at the Pancake House. A pretty relaxed life, yeah … almost dead.
“I’ll have to start writing soon, though. It’d be nice to have a new album ready, but whether I will or not, hmn…. There’s no real deadline, no big Halloween release planned. Ah, fuck it. I’ve done the best I can. It’s just that sometimes I can’t even whip myself up to try. I can’t force myself to go in there and agonize. In The Room down there. I haven’t been in there in a long while now….
“But I’ll do it sooner or later—lock myself in there and crank. Maybe I’ll do another … some kind of concept thing. It doesn’t really matter. What troubles me so much is that I don’t think I’m getting any better. For example, I don’t think the songs on Good Old Boys were any better than the ones on Sail Away. I can’t see that there was any genuine progression, whereas I think that Sail Away was better, maybe, than what went before it. But nothing on the last album was better than, say, ‘God’s Song’ or ‘Old Man.’ Better records, maybe, but not better songs.”
Newman dips a finger into his beer stein and swizzles distractedly.
“Out on the road, I listened to a lot of Top 40 radio. Fairly often, I can figure out why things are successful—you can just hear it in there—but some of that stuff the stations were playing in Cleveland and Phoenix confounded me completely. Olivia Newton-John, for instance. Good Christ, what is that all about? For the life of me, I can’t understand the vast appeal of a song like ‘I Honestly Love You.’ I mean, it’s boring, even.
“Hmn, hmn … Listen, I’ve searched my mind and I’ve come up with nothing but a bunch of shit. I always look like an idiot to myself in interviews. Don’t let me insult anyone too badly. Samuel Z. Arkoff or anybody important.
“The first interview I ever did was in England and the guy was some slammer who kept pushing me and pushing me about Paul Simon. ‘What are your views of Simon?’ Blah-blah-blah. And I said, ‘Look, he’s fine. I like everybody.’ But he kept after me and kept after me, and eventually I got restless and I said, ‘I think Simon writes sophomoric-type garbage.’ And that was the headline that appeared in one of those rags they have over there—‘NEWMAN CALLS SIMON’S SONGS GARBAGE.’ Holy shit, I thought, Simon’s gonna buy me and have me mounted or something. So, uh, uh, after that I learned to be a little more discreet, a trifle more guarded….”
Newman’s wife, Roswitha, brings in a fresh tray of drinks from the kitchen. A chunky, sun-freckled blonde with Teutonic muscle in her umlaut, she joins Newman on the divan, feints a playful elbow at his ribs. Newman grins and points toward the glass doors that slide open onto the garden. “Right out there’s where that photographer had the Playmate—”
Roswitha wrinkles her nose. “Just the other side of the elephant ears, yes.”
“Some big-titted girl in a leopardskin bikini—”
“And one of the men was holding a huge fern over her head. It was supposed to be in the tropics. She was standing in mud up to her ankles. Gets mushy out there when it rains.”
“Yeah, it’d been storming, I think.”
“And Randy, of course, was lurking behind the window and wouldn’t budge, and I said, ‘What are you waiting for—the rest to come off?’”
“Well, honey, there it was, smack in my yard. I could tell all my friends, if I had any.” Newman belly-laughs and turns toward the writer. “Everything gets lamer, I do believe. Discothèques are really big now, did you realize that? Record companies are breaking singles in discothèques. They have discothèque charts in all the trade magazines. I had no idea it was going on—I just found out about it. That’s really depressing, isn’t it?”
Newman turns back to his wife. “We were at a psychedelic place in Germany, remember? A bunch of correct Germans sitting around, watching test patterns. Christ Almighty, that’s all we need—to give the Germans acid.”
“Come on, be kind.”
“Oh, I liked Düsseldorf. Had to show your parents I was normal. Almost succeeded, too. They asked me why I read all the time. Hadn’t been out of the house since I got there.”
“What did my brother say to you?”
“‘Alvays reading—alvays reading.’”
“Well, I mean, all you did was read.”
“That’s just when I was getting over jet-lag withdrawal. Once I was OK again, I was out and about. Went to the zoo. Petted the goat. I did everything. Saw the Rhine. Saw the goddamned soccer stadium.”
“Come, come, now … ‘goddamned soccer stadium’ was where the world championships were played, so please, a little respect.”
Newman titters. “A lot of people asked me about American business techniques.”
“Only Klaus asked you.”
“I guess they spotted me as an American businessman. Maybe they took me for Samuel Z. Arkoff.”
Newman takes a long swallow of beer, then another. When he lowers his stein, he has a foam mustache that he doesn’t immediately notice. He leans toward the writer with a conspiratorial wink. “Go easy on Samuel Arkoff,” he says. “You never know when we may need him.”
[Photo Credit: Hans van Dijl c/o Wikipedia Commons]