Randy Newman is minding his own business in a Beverly Hills coffee shop, when up steps a young woman in a mini-skirt and neck brace. "I love your new album," she says, and walks away.
"Write this down," says the 39-year-old composer. " 'Newman recognized by girl with bad neck.' If I ever write an autobiography, I might call it 'Escape from Celebrity: How to Do Stuff to Avoid Success.' I've never been the kind of guy who they had to announce, 'Tickets go on sale at 10 o'clock Monday morning' (although Newman has sold out an 8 p.m. show and all but 100 tickets for an 11 p.m. show at the Bayou tonight). My last record sold 100,000 copies. It's tough going on stage and singing 'Lonely at the Top' in front of six people.
"I've sort of given up hoping for mass acceptance. I'm not happy about it. I'm not crushed. I have a career. A lot of people don't. When I'm up on stage, I only look uncomfortable. I'm not. I love it. I'm shallow enough to enjoy the applause."
But not as much as he enjoys animal crackers.
"You know," says Newman, holding up a box of the standard Nabisco variety by its little shoelace handle, "as a child I loved decapitating these things, just biting their heads off, particularly the gorilla. I can tell you something else about cookies. When I was a kid, one of my uncles used to love to eat Lorna Doones. I didn't want them near my mouth! It was like eating sawdust. But now, as I approach my middle years, I find eating Lorna Doones very comforting. I must be maturing."
Which may account for Newman's most recent endeavor: "I've been working on an opera. A modern-day Faust. I love opera. It's just that the stories are usually so dumb, or too long. Take Wagner, 'Die Walku re.' I'd cut it at the Ride of the Valkyries, and Wotan sure takes a long time to get friendly with Bru nnhilde. In my opera Faust is a kid going to college at Notre Dame. The Devil cuts a ridiculous deal with him, gets the kid to sell his soul for a look at Raquel Welch nude. There's a scene where the Devil goes to a Jerry Lewis film festival in Paris."
Newman is eating a hot turkey sandwich and mashed potatoes so fast that he's having trouble getting the words out. When he finishes a gigantic mouthful, he explains that when he was a child, his family would sit down at six and "eat tremendously fast so my father could get back to work" as an internist--once the physician to Howard Hughes, who used to wake Dr. Newman in the middle of the night and deliver to his door women whose absolute health Hughes wanted certified before he would sleep with them.
Old habits die hard. "I'm still that way about eating. My wife and I go to a dinner party and I sit down and eat like this his fork becomes a blur between his plate and his mouth for five minutes and then I sit there and go like this moving his hand in a circular, come-on motion trying to get them to hurry up and eat. I don't know why anybody invites me out."
This is not to imply that Randy Newman has made a career of acting like a boorish misfit. He is a shy though charming character who uses humor that is often self-deprecating to put himself at ease around others. When a waitress tells a bearded companion of Newman's that she has always found facial hair incredibly sexy, Newman says, "Hey, I used to have a mustache. Does that count?"
These sorts of parenthetical expressions have helped make Randy Newman's music personal and enduring over the past decade and a half. His new album, "Trouble in Paradise," uses them on several songs. There's one about a "Real Emotional Girl" who "even cries in her sleep," and to really carry the point home, Newman adds, in the next line, "I've heard her." There's a song about a party where Newman fixates on a "little blond-haired girl" and the next thing you know, he's screaming, "Hey Bobby, get the rope!" There's "Mikey's," set in an old beer joint that has become a new wave club, and Newman is conversing with his best friend:
Didn't used to be this ugly music playing all the time.
Where are we, on the moon?
Whatever happened to the old songs, Mikey? Like the Duke of Earl.
"My 14-year-old son, Amos, hates that song," Newman says. "He has a punk band called 'Armed Response.' He's an anarchist, my 14-year-old son! I think he really wants to blow things up. He listens to this music that nobody has ever heard of here. I was in London a month ago and I managed to find some of it on cassettes. You can't even find records by these bands." Then he diffuses his own alarm: "Just like mine."
It is a fact that Randy Newman has not been the most successful recording artist in history, although the critics have always loved him. "They don't buy records," he says. "I've always been a shaky economic proposition." Of the eight albums and two sound tracks he has made over a 14-year period, only one has been a gold record: 1977's "Little Criminals," which contained the hit "Short People":
. . .they got baby little legs
and they stand so low
You got to pick 'em up
Just to say hello . . .
It's conceivable that "Little Criminals" sold as well as it did because of the controversy it generated: Short people all over the country tried very hard to get the song banned. And since this was a song about prejudice, it puzzled Newman and eventually prompted him to say, "Maybe I was right about the little pukes all along."
He has never been one to mince words. His 1974 album, "Good Old Boys," is one of the classic works of popular music, a song cycle about the South that begins with the much banned "Rednecks":
Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show . . .
Well he may be a fool but he's our fool . . .
This sarcastic spirit recurs on "Trouble in Paradise," with Newman's world view now moved to southern California. In "My Life Is Good" Newman sings about taking a trip to Mexico with his wife, bringing back a girl to clean house, taking the kids to school, even writing his songs. Eventually he's railing at a teacher in "the private school our oldest child attends (many famous people send their children there)," and telling her that this very morning he went off to an incredibly swanky hotel for a meeting with his old friend Bruce Springsteen:
And you know what he said to me?
I'll tell you what he said to me, "Rand, I'm tired
"How would you like to be the Boss for a while?"
"I guess I really am a nasty person," Newman says. "Well, I've never attacked anyone viciously. Springsteen saw me play in New Orleans. He came backstage and told me he thought I was great. And this is how I thank him.
"I don't really know where my songs come from. I live a very boring life. Music is work for me. Maybe that's from being around my uncles Lionel, Emil and Alfred Newman, all composers of movie soundtracks so much. When I was a kid and taking piano lessons, sometimes I'd have to play at family get-togethers on Sunday and I always knew that these guys were tolerating me. Their idea of music was not to sit there and listen to some 9-year-old kid playing Liszt.
"Even today, I can't just sit down and listen to music for fun. I have to lock myself up and force myself to write. I'm particularly happy about this record because I'm getting older and I've found out that I can still write. There's not much longevity in this business. I mean, Mick Jagger sort of looks like a Miami Beach matron now, still doing what he was doing 15 years ago. I find that I get most of my pleasure now from reading. You read somebody like Updike and you say, 'Yeah, you can get older and get better.'
"I did a tour of Europe last month. The weirdest part for me was finding out that they like me better in, say, Stuttgart than in Kansas City. My stuff is American; they understand that in Kansas City too well; in Germany, there's something literary about my work. They even sell translations to my songs outside the concert hall.
"I was sitting in my hotel room in Germany one night before a show and this three-hour special came on the radio: 'Newmans aus Hollywood.' They played 45 minutes of my uncles' music. I turned the radio off. I turned it on a half hour later and they were playing my music. I was pinching myself to make sure I wasn't dead."
Newman is walking down Rodeo Drive now, on his way to Hunter's Books to look for a copy of Berlioz's "Evenings With the Orchestra." "I'll bet you they won't have it," he says. "Nobody reads here. Well, they read the labels inside of clothes."
He walks up to the storefront window of a shop called Caritta. There are two brown surrealistic mannequins in the window, garbed in black and white jumpsuits that have at least six sets of zippers in them.
"I'll tell you the trouble with this place," says Randy Newman, as if he just landed on Mars. "I get the feeling when I get too close to one of these windows, I'm just going to get sucked inside and turned into one of them."