You know how it works. An entertainer completes whatever they had planned for their concert, and at the end of the show, they ask the audience for requests. Audience members shout out suggestions, and the entertainer performs them.
I never shout requests. It’s an ironclad rule. Just like, when a magician asks for a volunteer, I never raise my hand. Other people shout requests, volunteer to be sawed in half, that’s their style. I sit quietly in my seat. Why take chances? Chances of what? I don’t know. I just don’t take them.
It’s back in the seventies. I’m on a date. Not a first date, it was more like our third. Things were moving ahead. There was a possibility something could happen.
The plan was dinner and a show, the show being a concert featuring my far-and-away favorite singer-songwriter, Randy Newman, who was appearing at a Toronto coffee house called Grumbles. My date was enthusiastic. It looked like clear sailing.
Dinner was fine. We head off to Grumbles. Randy Newman’s opening act was Jim Croce, which was funny, because, at the time, Croce had three songs in Billboard’s Top Ten, and, as Randy sardonically declared later, his most popular tune ranked “a hundred and forty-ninth.”
The show’s going great, Randy gliding through his repertoire. “Cowboy.” “I Think It’s Going to Rain (Today)." “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong.” (This was before “Short People”, “Rednecks” and “I Love L.A.”) I’m eatin’ it up. My date’s happy. Everything’s going perfectly.
Randy finishes his show. He gets up from the piano, walks offstage – applause-applause-applause – back he comes for the “encores.”
“Anything you wanna hear?” he inquires, to a rapt and adoring audience.
Okay. This was my time, my moment to shine. Nobody knows the Randy Newman oeuvre better than I do. Tonight, I would break my ironclad rule. I would shout out an inspired and unexpected request. Randy would smile subtly at my suggestion, and perform the heck out of it. The audience would go wild. And then buzz.
“I’ve never even heard of that song. That guy who requested it? He must be really special.”
My date couldn’t help but be impressed. There was a possibility something could happen? Well, this could…well, whatever.
What flashed in my mind was the deeply moving though lesser known “Old Man”, which Randy had neglected to perform that night. “Old Man” chronicles a son’s efforts to connect with his dying father. It is brilliant, simple, and sad. Everything I like in a song.
“Everyone has gone away
Can you hear me? Can you hear me?
No one cared enough to stay
Can you hear me? Can you hear me?
You must remember me, Old Man,
I know that you can if you try
So just open up your eyes, Old Man,
Look who’s come to say ‘Good-bye.’”
Randy had barely gotten out “Anything you wanna hear?” when a voice I recognized as my own, though it was speaking with an uncharacteristic authority, called out,
Randy heard my request – he couldn’t help it; it blasted noisily over all the others – and he politely replied,
He then went on to play the suggestions requested by everybody else.
My confidence, and the rest of the evening, spiraled downhill from there.
Years later in L.A., I was at a party whose guests included Lorne Michaels. At the time, Lorne was writing The Three Amigos with Steve Martin and Randy Newman. (The party was at Steve’s house.) Randy Newman was also in attendance.
I asked Lorne to introduce us. He did. After telling Randy what a huge fan I was, I immediately followed with, “You ruined my date.” Such behavior is probably why I’m rarely invited to any parties.
Randy remembered playing Grumbles. I filled him in on the part that was more memorable to me, the part where he refused to perform my request.
“What was the song?” he asked.
“Old Man”, I replied, adding, to compound the inexplicability of his transgression: “It’s a really good song.”
Randy agreed. He then went on to explain why he couldn’t perform it. “Old Man” was too big of a “downer” for the audience.
“I could never get them back.”
It was a totally credible explanation, and I immediately accepted it.
Realistically, the slight, now more than three decades old, had never been deliberate. Hearing my story, Randy Newman had been gracious, sensitive and kind. Isn’t it long past time to bury the hatchet and forget the whole thing?
You would think so, wouldn’t you.