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Friday Mixtape

Randy Newman, Hall of Famer

by Rob Trucks

Randy Newman, Hall of Famer

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"Before our 1989 anniversary tour," writes Pete Townshend in his memoir, Who I Am, "we had pledged $500,000 towards the ground-breaking of the proposed building of an actual Hall of Fame, which would be a museum in -- of all places -- Cleveland." Townshend's band, The Who, was inducted into that same Hall of Fame in January 1990. In the real world, that's called a conflict of interest, but of course rock 'n' roll isn't the real world, even if its trophy room does reside in the Rust Belt.

Randy Newman, the second-least well-known member of the Rock Hall's Class of 2013, once wrote a song about Cleveland. It's called "Burn On," and it's about the Cuyahoga River catching on fire. He has also written songs about Birmingham, Ala., and Baltimore, Md., the latter sans flames but not without "a beat-up seagull" and a hooker. Newman is also the "Short People" guy and the "I Love L.A." guy. For some of a certain age, he is the musical voice of Disney Pixar movies, specifically Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, along with Monsters, Inc. and Cars. And while we're in Hollywood, add Ragtime, The Natural, Seabiscuit, Parenthood, Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers, among others. He has received an astounding 20 Oscar nominations. And the songs he writes for himself are better.

In the 44 years since Randy Newman's eponymous debut (a good 19 years past the Hall's "25 years in the business" minimum), the 69-year-old has written from the point of view of rock 'n' roll bands past their prime (at least twice); dirty old men and racists (many times); the emotionally stunted and terminally stupid (more times that you have fingers to count). And though he has also written love songs so sweet you could serve them for dessert, the oft-covered songwriter has made a career of continually calling attention to the relative nakedness of countless institutional emperors. Like a government run by self-interest. Like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Randy Newman's talent is singular and awe-inspiring. His musical accomplishments are more than deserving of recognition. But there is Cleveland, and then there is Cleveland. And so while his career will soon be interred within an I.M. Pei pyramid on Lake Erie, the songwriter himself will remain on the shore of a burning river, on the outside looking in.