I said, “Please don’t talk to strangers, baby,” but she always do.

June 4, 2009

Earlier this year, the Huffington Post ran an extensive interview with Bob Dylan in advance of his latest album, and got him to open up about some of his favorite songwriters. A beatific smile spread across my face when Bob dropped Randy Newman’s name.

“What can you say? I like his early songs, “Sail Away,” “Burn Down the Cornfield,” “Louisiana,” where he kept it simple. Bordello songs. I think of him as the Crown Prince, the heir apparent to Jelly Roll Morton. His style is deceiving. He’s so laid back that you kind of forget he’s saying important things. Randy’s sort of tied to a different era like I am.”
-Bob Dylan

Newman’s been a favorite of mine for years. I love the humor and social commentary in songs like “Sail Away” and “Political Science.” I love the heartbreaking sentimentality in stuff like “Louisiana 1927” and “Dayton, Ohio – 1903.” But more recently, I’ve just really grown to love his smartass comments about love and women in songs like “Shame,” “The Girls In My Life, Pt. 1” and the song that I’ve basically adopted as my own gospel, “Lover’s Prayer.”

I suppose it makes sense in that even with songwriters like Dylan and Billy Bragg who have a lot of things to say about society, the working class and politics, I always gravitate to their songs dealing with love. It’s not that I can’t identify with songs about workers or politics. I just find it a lot easier to identify with songs about relationships.

And both unmarried and continuing to age, I find it very easy to identify with the songs about failed or tumultuous relationships.

All of this leads us into the month’s edition of “Vs.” wherein we look at one of Randy’s better-known laments, “Have You Seen My Baby?”

The interesting thing about Newman as opposed to Dylan is that although a lot of people like to cover his songs (think momentarily about the many stabs at “Feels Like Home” or “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”), few artists tend to better Randy’s versions. Not blessed with the most golden of vocal cords, Newman’s voice is unique in a Dylan-esque way, but that uniqueness highlights what he’s singing almost like nobody else can. The range is limited and it sounds like a cynical guy talking at you who’s either winding you up for the enjoyment of everyone else at the bar or a simpleton that might or ready to give a hearty “…and f*ck you” to you and everyone else in there.

So I guess it’s either very funny or very appropriate the Ringo Starr was able to interpret some of Randy Newman’s lyrics better than almost everyone in the course of history that’s tried (a list which includes Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, Dusty Springfield and Harry Nilsson, mind you).

Ringo’s personality — even today with the “Stop writing me letters” BS — has never been one of cynicism. It’s been one of charm, aloofness and almost painful affability that makes you want to be his best friend for the stories and jokes. And maybe it’s that kind of personality that makes “Have You Seen My Baby?” even more effective in his hands than it does in Newman’s own.

The song was originally part of Newman’s 1970 album, 12 Songs (solid album, but worth checking out for “Lover’s Prayer” alone) and explains the anxiety of a man somewhat attached to a female muse that cavorts with gypsies, milkmen and any number of strangers. Newman’s delivery gives it that grumbly “motherf*cker…” undertone, which is not without its merits and I think is relatable for the countless men now and forevermore who will sooner or later find themselves in a comparable position.

But when Ringo covered it on his 1973 album, Ringo (more famous for being the first post-breakup album to include all four Beatles), he came at it with his genuine Ringo-ness. The thing about this is that instead of conjuring up the “I know the feeling” sympathies, Newman’s does, it conjures up actual “Oh, poor thing. I want to take care of you” sympathies. And it does this despite the fact that Ringo’s backing band is a lot tighter and willing to rock on the song than Newman’s was.

As big of a Newman fan as I am, I actually think Ringo delivers a much more effective version of the song. Maybe the key to a good Randy Newman cover, then, is a general inability to sing?

That’s just me. What says you?


Randy Newman Vs. Ringo Starr
“Have You Seen My Baby?”

Randy Newman – Have You Seen My Baby?

Ringo Starr – Have You Seen My Baby?

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