There is a wonderful yarn that Randy Newman spins on his underrated 1999 album, Bad Love, about celebrities, such as himself, who have spent a veritable lifetime in the pop music arena.
The song's title: I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It). The story line deals with a rock 'n' roller whose career is in creative purgatory.
"I've nothing further to report," Newman sings, taking on the persona of the doomed, clueless star. "Time you spend with me is time you lose."
"Nobody's retiring," said the Grammy-, Emmy- and Oscar-winning songsmith, who performs in Lexington on Wednesday for the first time in nearly 33 years. "And I mean nobody. Artists have said when they turned 30, 'I'm not going to be doing this when I'm 40.' And they're still doing it when they're 70. That's a good thing, I guess, unless you're a young guy in a band."
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The song, thankfully, is not autobiographical. Few of Newman's extraordinary, character-driven tunes are. His songs might present the viewpoints of bigots, murderers, hapless lovers and political dupes, but Newman is simply the translator, the artist who tells a wild tale with often frightening human clarity.
Still, at age 67, with a career celebrated as much for film-score compositions as for his expert songs, Newman would seem ripe for the very kind of pop tailspin that I'm Dead addresses. Luckily, retirement isn't in the offing.
"I think there is a sort of prolonged decline that comes with long careers," Newman said. "I think I might allow myself an experimental type of album or something. I probably need to do that. But if I thought I was getting measurably worse at it, or if the music just sounded old to me, I might just stick to writing for movies exclusively. But that would be a shame."
Songsmith and film scorer
Indeed. Newman has been a champion songwriter since his debut album was released in 1968. Over the years, his songs have been covered by a diverse range of artists: Peter Gabriel, Wilson Pickett, Joe Cocker, Tom Jones, UB40, Manfred Mann, Three Dog Night, Harry Nilssen and Peggy Lee.
But no one performs a Newman song with more distinction than the artist himself. Recordings by Newman, whose singing voice often sounds like a sleepy moan, have long been artfully orchestrated. The symphonic touches reached the first of many zeniths on 1974's Southern scrapbook Good Old Boys.
"I've always tried to do that," Newman said. "I wanted people — and myself, for that matter — to see what my songs were about. Even on my first album, I was thinking that way."
With his score for the 1981 film adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Newman's musical fancy spread to the screen in beautiful, waltzlike melodies that still reflected the playfulness of his pop songs. From there, Hollywood beckoned. In the decades to come, Newman would score more than two dozen movies.
Last weekend, he won a Grammy for his 2010 score to Toy Story 3. He will perform one of the soundtrack's key songs, We Belong Together, later this month at the Academy Awards, where it is nominated for an Oscar. He has been nominated for the award 20 times but won only once, for best song in 2002 for If I Didn't Have You from Monsters, Inc.
"When I read Doctorow's book of Ragtime, I knew how musical it could be," he said. "It was just one of those great jobs that really needed music. And the period it covered, from the 1890s up to about World War I, was such a great time for music. That whole project was such a great opportunity. And you're absolutely right. Ragtime was what started things off in getting me noticed for film work."
A return to solo work
Newman's recording career leans toward the symphonic, but his performance career leads a bit of a double life. He regularly performs with orchestras. But Newman also remains faithful to the concert setting that he has favored since the '60s: solo shows where he accompanies himself on piano.
To that end, his next recording will be the second in a series of studio r eflections of his solo concerts. The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2 revamps songs from throughout his career — from 1968's Cowboys to 2008's Losing You — for piano and vocals. But whereas Vol. 1 (released in 2003) sported some of Newman's best-known compositions (Sail Away, Louisiana 1927 and I Think It's Going to Rain Today), Vol. 2 favors less obvious material, including 1989's Dixie Flyer, which emphasizes one of Newman's most beautifully bittersweet piano melodies; a de-synthesized revision of 1983's My Life Is Good; and three neglected works from 1970's 12 Songs album (Yellow Man, Suzanne and Lucinda).
"By working with these songs for so long, I tend to see them a little differently at times," Newman said. "On the new album, they are presented in the way I wrote them. (Producer) Mitchell Froom was incredibly helpful. Being a producer means being part psychologist, you know. He was great for morale."
Sometimes morale, even for such an honored songwriter and composer, dips. Confidence sags. For that, Newman is unapologetic. He sees his career, which has been marked by periods of "not working," as part of a rich and ultimately satisfying life in music.
In short, Newman knows this much for sure: He's not dead.
"My problem is that I've been harder on myself than I ought to have been," he said. "You really don't have to suffer to produce good work. And I wouldn't want anyone to ever think that I did.
"I've agonized about my work, hanging in there with a lyric trying to get a word right. But I don't begrudge myself any of that, even though some musicians would have probably just slapped me and told me to get on with it."