“A Few Words in Defense of Our Country”
Randy Newman has written many great songs, but never one we needed more than this.
“Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” That’s George S. Kaufman speaking back in the days of the Algonquin Round Table. Had he lived to see Randy Newman thrive over the course of about six decades, he might’ve made an exception. “Old Ran’,” as he refers to himself on occasion, is a rare talent, one who seems to have never written a bad song, excluding some treacly Pixar themes. But a man has to pay his bills and, lucky for us, he still has the same sharp wit and sardonic humor when we need him.
I was surprised to learn he wrote the tart, ironic arrangement and conducted the band on Peggy Lee’s anthem to ennui, “Is That All There Is?” I shouldn’t have been — his bona fides are real. He grew up in a family with famous movie scoring uncles who took him on visits to sound stages for orchestral recordings. He was a Hollywood whiz kid who knew his way around the business and an early friend was Lenny Waronker, the producer and future prez of Warner Bros. Records. No one asks a musical question as well as Newman. His chords often seem to have dozens of meanings, and occasionally he’ll deploy one that is minor at the bottom and major at the top. You don’t hear that chord so much as suddenly experience a queasiness in your tummy.
Around that time he was making a living as a kind of musical odd-jobber, his songs were growing increasingly strange — but not so strange that they couldn’t be used by discerning artists. He penned two of the songs on Dusty in Memphis, (a real keeper, that one) and had a big hit with “Mama Told Me Not To Come” by Three Dog Night. (Newman’s version smokes theirs, by the way.) There was little that was mainstream about him and when he released the album 12 Songs, his stock rose to an all time high. Called a “song-cyle” by people who love terms like that, it includes the masterpiece, “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today.” With his gruff, whiny voice, and concise lyrics, he had fenced off a little corner of pop that could be imitated, but never stolen. He had achieved singularity.
Then he topped himself. Sail Away is an album that sticks and any sensible futurist would tag it as the one to study for those interested in the late 20th Century. This is Newman’s calling card and by the time it arrived, Harry Nilsson was recording a whole album of his songs and he was, if not at the top, about as high as someone with such a dark and funny view of humankind can hope to get. His music isn’t for everyone… the conscious decision to employ himself as the untrustworthy narrator allowed him to inhabit some pretty terrible characters, and also alienated the less imaginative. The title song, Sail Away, is sung by a slave captain from the bow of his ship. He is selling the unsuspecting crowd on the endless charms of the New World in a riff stolen directly from Madison Ave. It is blindingly sharp and, unfortunately, not that much of a stretch.
Newman’s albums continued like this every couple years and then slowed to a trickle as he gravitated to the family business and took on more movie work. The releases were never as consistently great as Sail Away, but each had its share of gems. Then came 2007 with a tired, chastised president ripe for the full Newman treatment. George W. Bush got the war he wanted, even though it would turn into one he didn’t much care for, lingering way beyond it’s “Mission Accomplished” moment. As bad as he was for the country (and the world), that’s how great he was for comedy and the one songwriter up to the task of taking him down a notch. The song he got, delivered in a relaxed drawl located halfway between the Borscht Belt and Chitlin Circuit is “A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country.”
The words “brilliant” and “satire” are always linked — is there one that isn’t both? This one certainly qualifies, with one of the funniest lines ever written. Referring to the Supreme Court, Newman defies anyone to find a couple Italians “as tight-assed as the ones we got,” then, calling out the one “brother” on the bench he offers this, “Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore.” Very few lyrics read as good as they sound, but this one is polished and perfect:
I’d like to say a few words
In defense of our country
Whose people aren’t bad
Nor are they mean
Now the leaders we have
While they’re the worst that we’ve had
Are hardly the worst
This poor world has seen
Take the Caesars for example
Within the first few of them
They were sleeping with their sister,
Stashing little boys in swimming pools
And burning down the city
And one of ’em, one of ’em
Appointed his own horse to be Consul of the Empire
That’s like vice president or something
Wait a minute, that’s not a very good example is it?
But wait, here’s one,
The Spanish Inquisition
It put people in a terrible position
I don’t even like to think about it
Well sometimes I like to think about it
Just a few words in defense of our country
Whose time at the top
Could be coming to an end
We don’t want your love
And respect at this point is pretty much out of the question
But times like these
We sure could use a friend
Men who need no introduction
King Leopold of Belgium, that’s right
Everyone thinks he’s so great
Well he owned The Congo and he tore it up too
He took the diamonds
He took the silver
He took the gold
You know what he left them with?
A President once said,
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”
Now, we’re supposed to be afraid
It’s patriotic in fact and color-coded
And what are we supposed to be afraid of?
Why of being afraid
That’s what terror means, doesn’t it?
That’s what it used to mean
You know it kind of pisses me off
That this Supreme Court is going to outlive me
A couple of young Italian fellas and a brother on the Court now, too
But I defy you, anywhere in the world,
To find me two Italians as tightassed as the two Italians we got
And as for the brother, well
Pluto’s not a planet anymore either
The end of an Empire is messy at best
And this Empire is ending
Like all the rest
Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea
We’re adrift in the land of the brave and the home of the free
I love the video where he seems to sitting at home and performs the song. He plays simply and delivers this classic bit like a pro. With all the things that happened in the early part of the last decade, you would have thought someone would have stepped up with a song that nailed it. But all the reliable anthem writers gave us bombast. McCartney and Springsteen produced especially egregious examples. Anyway, who needs anthems? Aren’t those song you march off to war to? And, while we waited for at least one religious leader to say the right thing the vacuum got grew bigger every day. Why was the response to 9-11 so lame? We’ll never know, but, when this song finally appeared, it felt so refreshing and honest, you couldn’t help but get down on your knees and thank the universe for Randy Newman.
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