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Newman charms with bluntness

Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.
Harvard University senior Jeffrey Winer had been eager to see pop composer Randy Newman -- and he wasn't disappointed. "I was amazed by how candid he was," Winer said of Tuesday night's unorthodox program billed as "A Conversation (and a Bit of Music) with Randy Newman." Newman, 60, held nothing back. He talked bluntly about the many characters in his songs (from Southern rednecks to politicians to God), about his many film scores (30 of them), and about how "I'd sell my soul for a song. Both of my wives have known that." He also shocked the surprisingly filled Sanders Theatre by admitting that "since I was 16 years old, I never liked to write. . . . And it's still like that. Basically, every step I've taken, I've had to be pulled into it."

One suspects that Newman wasn't pulled into being an Oscar and Grammy winner, but that's beside the point. Happily, Newman didn't come to Harvard (he was invited by the Office for the Arts's "Learning From Performers" series) to gloat or display any of the ego problems that other artists might show in a similar setting. Newman came across as an easygoing, non-huckstering genius, and the audience loved him for it.

"He was very generous with his time," said Catherine Hunt, who works in Harvard Square.

"It's as interesting to hear him talk as it is to hear his music. I knew coming here that I'd spend a lot of time laughing," added local photographer Barry Savenor.

The conversation was moderated by Jack Megan, director of Harvard's Office for the Arts. "I used to play piano bars when I was younger and I'd sing some Randy Newman songs," Megan said after the nearly two-hour program. Megan asked numerous questions, but Newman also popped up frequently to sit at a piano and play nearly a dozen songs to illustrate his points. He sang "Political Science," "God's Song," "Baltimore," and "Davy the Fat Boy," among others. He discussed his earliest musical influences -- Ray Charles, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, and Carole King -- and noted that he mostly listens to classical music now, yet he also likes some rap by Eminem and OutKast.

Film clips were shown from "The Natural" and "Toy Story 2," featuring Newman's scores. He said they represented "a chance for me to write hero music, which was good, even though it's antithetical to my thinking."

In discussing movie music, he joked, "I talk about it like it matters!" He added that "my IQ is going to drop 60 points" when the subject is broached.

But he was also quick to talk about how difficult it is to work with film directors and special effects editors who may bury some of his music. Asked afterward if he might talk this same way in Hollywood, he said, "Yeah, I'm not shy. I've lived this way my whole life."

Newman clearly had fun at the event. "It wasn't intimidating. I didn't feel they were going to bash me over the head with Kierkegaard or anything," he said. "It was a very pleasant experience."

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