Tomorrow’s birthday boy is Randy Newman, winner of Emmys and Oscars, best-known these latter years for songs that appear in animated films like Toy Story. But before all that Newman was known, to some of us at least, as one of the most acerbic songwriters ever. A truly quirky take on things in his lyrics and simple but effective melodies, sometimes a bit grand, sometimes a bit funky, sometimes very low-key and casual. Newman is one of those singers gifted with charm, an ability to be both sly and sincere at once. He’s often “just kidding,” but his kidding is sometimes a real dig in the ribs.
I’ve chosen today’s song to celebrate this most family-based of all holidays. It’s the one that, if any does, tends to force people out onto the roadways to meet up with people they grew up with, or whom their spouses or partners grew up with. It’s the holiday to be “among.” It’s also the holiday to be stuffed, to indulge, to pack on the pounds to get you through another winter that looms ever closer.
Turn back the hands of time. Newman’s “My Country” doesn’t celebrate T-day per se, but it does capture something essential in my sense of the people I grew up among, not only at the household level, but also at the level of the nation as a whole. Newman, who turns 71 tomorrow, has 16 years on me, but we both date “back to yesterday when a phone call cost a dime.” And that’s the opening gambit. Let’s go back in the time machine to an earlier moment in our country’s history.
What Newman takes us to is a situation that is redolent of my childhood, certainly, and which pertains very much to this family-gathering holiday: kids and wife sitting around with the patriarch stretched on the couch and all eyes glued to the television: “If we had something to say / We bounced it off the screen / We were watching and we couldn’t look away.” So much of early life, as I recall it, was based on communal watching, and Newman recalls it too. “This is my country, those were my people.” With that gesture of owning this as fundamental experience, Newman puts it out there: we all grew up watching TV. We all experienced life in its shared glow. “Watching other people living / Seeing other people play / Having other people’s voices fill our minds / Thank you, Jesus!”
The vicariousness of that kind of life is made emphatic but it isn’t exactly satirized. It’s owned. Sure, the “thank you, Jesus” seems ironic, and the piling up of the fact that “other people” (those lucky ones on TV) are having all the fun while all we get to do is watch may seem to undermine any kind of achievement here. But don’t be too fast on that score. Watching—bearing witness, together—counts. It’s something we share, something we all can claim, in something like a democratic way. I just had this experience of watching, last night, a movie with 7 other people, all related, the ages—myself included—69, 55, 43, 42, 33, 15, 13, 9, and everyone participated in the viewing to some degree, making their “watching” felt. It’s been some time since I’ve engaged in that kind of activity but it only underscores all the more what Newman’s getting at. Then he comments:
Feelings might go unexpressed / Think that’s probably for the best / Dig too deep, who knows what you will find
That captures an aspect of the viewing—its aura, we might say—that’s hard to categorize. It’s not therapeutic, it’s not compensatory, it may be part of an avoidance or defense mechanism, but that would be to suggest that there is something, some definite issue or topic, that is being avoided or skirted. But it’s also, simply, a saving grace. It gives us something to react to so we don’t have to react to each other, directly. It puts us “on the same page,” to some degree, and it gives us a reflector. Sure, it’s “bread and circuses,” but then, what else is there?
When I first heard “My Country” on Bad Love—a great “return to form” album for Newman, up there with his early greats like Sail Away (1972) and Good Old Boys (1974) and Little Criminals (1977)—in the fall of 1999, it was less than 3 years after my father’s death and this song was, in some odd way, an elegy for “our dad.” That guy we all grew up with in the blue light of the TV. The lines in which Newman suddenly ventriloquizes the patriarch’s attitude seemed to me so wryly right, so deft, I’ve prized this song ever since:
Now your children are your children
Even when they’re grown
When they speak to you, you have to listen
To what they have to say
They all live alone now, they have TVs of their own
But keep on coming over anyway
And, much as I love them,
I’m always kind of glad when they go away
This expresses so well that turn away from the communal experience into “personal space” where we each watch the program of our choice—made even more the case now that we’ve all got personal gadgets and earbuds and the rest—and it makes the “journey back home” to be a matter of seeking that communal viewing again, though with, perhaps, more “feelings to express.” Which makes the dad “kind of glad when they go away,” taking with them all their earnest efforts to differentiate themselves and distinguish themselves and make a point and so on. Leave us each to our monadic viewing, maybe with only a faithful pet for company.
I felt I bonded, as they say, with my dad, hearing this song, though I don’t know that he would’ve recognized himself in it. Would others in my family, his children? That’s up to them. Part of the communal viewing was always private and personal, and even more so is my listening (as I suppose many of these posts show), but Newman’s song extends beyond that to a truly communal space—a very American space—called “watching TV.” And he nails what I see as a collective tendency to accept the spectacle as simply that: something to watch. There are many who look at things as they are and ask why, right? And there are many who look at things as they are and say, so?
This is the world I understand