Sunday, February 12, 2006

Nilsson, Newman, Coptic, and other stuff like that

Although Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman have always been heroes of mine, I only just got "Nilsson Sings Newman," the album where (surprise) Harry Nilsson sings Randy Newman songs. It's typical of Nilsson -- he's an amazing songwriter in his own proverbial right. Indeed, in a 1968 Beatles press conference, both Lennon and McCartney named him as their favorite American musician. At the time he was working at a bank. As a former bank employee myself I can only imagine the Monday morning office talk: "So, how was your weekend?" "Oh, pretty good. The Beatles told the press I was their favorite musician. And Ifinally cleaned out the fridge." Yet in spite ofhis formidable songwriting ability he was always eager to record other people's material, with the effect that now he is now known mostly for singing other people's songs, (like Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" and Badfinger's "Without You"). But for an accomplished and rising songwriter to dedicate an entire album to another songwriter's songs speaks both to the quality of the material and the discernment of the performer. I've been listening to this album so much that it's given me severe insomnia, exacerbated by a looming conference paper, which, incidentally, is reducing the frequency of my postings. Overall, though, I've had a small epiphany about the album, which has made me rethink Newman's entire oeuvre, although it hasn't diminished my considerable regard for it.

All the Newman songs Nilsson records can be compared against Newman's own (hey, how 'bout that) versions. I tend to prefer the Nilsson versions, but only slightly. Why? Well, they aren't as nasty. Randy Newman has a way of singing a song that makes it sound almost diabolic in its cynicism. That's why many fans are so alienated by his Disney soundtrack stuff; if "You've Got A Friend In Me" were in "12 Songs" or "Sail Away" it would sound like a stinging denunciation of the institution of Friendship Itself, as opposed to cute Disney stuff. But Newman songs, though his sings them ironically, are decidedly sweet, and Nilsson's sweet voice brings this out. Nilsson's recording of "Love Story" is an idyllic portrait of the simple joys of life, whereas Newman's version exposes the sad hopelessness of those who hope for even humble pleasures. The lyrics, mind you, are the same. It's just Newman's voice that makes everything he sings sound, well, nasty. Nilsson's innovation was to peel back the nasty layer and reveal the sweetness underneath. Newman collaborated on the album; it's basically a duet between Nilsson, who sings, and Newman, who plays piano. As such I think that Newman must not have objected to having his ironic songs sung unironically. It makes me wonder, then, whether I've misunderstood Newman all these years; if he couldn't help sounding biting even when he wanted to sound earnest. It's a definite possibility. Me, I've got the opposite problem; everything I sing sounds earnest, even when I don't want it to. Once I sang Newman's song "Sail Away," and someone said, "That's such a hopeful song!" In fact, it's in the voice of a slaver cynically extolling the virtues of American slavery to Africans. But somehow I made it sound hopeful. Go figure.

In a decent New Yorker article on the figure of Mary Magdalene, Joan Acocella makes an odd mistake. Discussing a cache of texts found in the desert in Egypt, she describes Coptic as "an early form of Egyptian." It is, in fact, the absolute latest form of Egyptian. I'm not hear to rail against Acocella or the copyeditors at the New Yorker; everyone makes mistakes. I mention it because it is hard to imagine how this particular mistake happened. Perhaps it is due to ignorance of the fact that the modern inhabitants of Egypt do not speak Egyptian. Of course the texts, being Christian texts, are from the Common Era, and that the history of Egypt goes a wee bit back from there. Though I never underestimate the amount of ignorance in the world, I have trouble believing that Joan Acocella doesn't know that they speak Arabic in Egypt and also has never heard of the pyramids or hieroglyphics. Here's how I imagine, instead, that this mistake came about, and I'm proud of the theory, which is why I share it now.

She originally had written "late form of Egyptian," and some editor down the pipeline thought, "That'll just confuse readers; how could it be late if it's ancient?" and changed "late" to "early." This makes more sense to me. So I'm not going to foam at the mouth or rail against declining standards, although you can, if you want.

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