Bob Dylan has never been afraid to shine a light on the luminaries who have inspired him across the years. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that he resides in such an untouchable realm of songwriting that complimenting a contemporary is a bit like Lewis Hamilton tipping his hat to your parallel parking. He is such a unique talent that there is no risk that shining a light on an influence would reveal an imitation as it does in some cases.
There are some songwriters out there, however, who obviously attract his attention. Great swathes of his memoir, Bob Dylan: Chronicles One, are devoted to adulation for the likes of Woody Guthrie who got him started; then his Greenwich Village cohorts like Odetta and Dave Van Ronk, and all of the cotemporaries he acknowledges thereafter once he hit the big time, as they say.
However, one songwriter, in particular, is a craftsman that Dylan is in awe of. “To me, someone who writes really good songs is Randy Newman,” Dylan told Paul Zollo in 1991.
Adding: “There’s a lot of people who write good songs. As songs. Now Randy might not go out on stage and knock you out, or knock your socks off. And he’s not going to get people thrilled in the front row. He ain’t gonna do that. But he’s gonna write a better song than most people who can do it. You know, he’s got that down to an art. Now Randy knows music. He knows music. But it doesn’t get any better than ‘Louisiana’ or [‘Sail Away’]. It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s like a classically heroic anthem theme. He did it. There’s quite a few people who did it. Not that many people in Randy’s class.”
Dylan has even pointed out his favourite Newman period in the past, stating: “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.”
It is this imparting of a serious subject with the light touch or laid-back humour that has earned Randy Newman the title of The Dean of Satire when he’s not busy scoring Pixar classics (although even then he has been able to squeeze a few inexplicably deep philosophical songs past unscrupulous producers).
For Newman’s part in the matter, he remains eternally self-effacing shrugging off the praise that even the greatest living songwriters would dream to dine out on. And interestingly, when the praise was first brought to his attention in a Guardian interview, he seemed to hark back to the notion that Dylan touted that perhaps they’re both songwriters tied to a different era.
When Newman was asked whether it frustrates him that the esteem in which he is held by fellow songwriters hasn’t translated to commercial success, he batted it off and said that he only gets “briefly angry at the veneration accorded some writers, who the generation decides to give a free ride.”
Adding: “Dylan knows he doesn’t write like he did on those first two records. The tremendous praise that the last two have gotten, I’m not so sure [that would have happened] if they didn’t have his name on it.” (This was back in 2008 when Dylan’s last two releases Modern Times and Love and Theft were dubbed as returns to form).
Thereafter, when the interviewer brought Dylan’s comments to his attention, Newman jokingly replied, “Well I didn’t know that, otherwise I wouldn’t have said what I just said. But he’s a bright guy.”
For those who are perhaps unaware of Newman’s work beyond the soundtracks then you can catch our introductory guide here. And you can check out Dylan’s favourite track below.