When you hear the name Randy Newman, what do you think? Family Guy? “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and Toy Story? “I Love L.A” and his shamanic performance of the song at Staples Arena?
Or, maybe, nothing at all?
Well, I’m here to tell you that this guy – Randy Newman – is one of America’s greatest living songwriters. Forget the Disney soundtracks, and even the Monk theme song. Give Good Old Boys or Sail Away a spin instead. You’ll realize he’s not just an excellent musician. He’s a critic and chronicler of our times, an unwanted bard and an exiled sage.
Good Old Boys is, for my money, the most vivid depiction of the Deep South in any medium. The instruments paint pictures, tell stories, express emotions. Newman’s narratives are complex and life-like. It’s a masterpiece.
But this isn’t about Good Old Boys. It’s about “Burn On” from Sail Away, one of the songs that set the stage and created the template for Newman’s greatest album. Except “Burn On” takes place in Cleveland around 1969.
That was the year the Cuyahoga River caught fire for the last time, when the sparks from a passing train ignited the muck floating on the water’s surface. Oh, sure, similar fires had happened before. Thirteen times to be precise. A blaze in 1952 caused over $1 million in damages (that’s roughly $9 million in today’s dollars). The Plain Dealer wrote a few stories about that one, and then it was forgotten.
But this go around, a writer for Time hit the scene and used it as a springboard for a big article on the beleaguered Cuyahoga, figuring the environmentalist hippie crowd would eat it up. Turned out that hunch was right on the money.
The story was an overnight hit. Cleveland was shamed. The 1969 fire had been brief, the damage in the tens of thousands of dollars. The year before, the city had pledged millions to fix up the industrialized river. So why was everyone kicking Cleveland now? They were trying, really trying. The Cuyahoga wasn’t the only river on fire, y’know!
So the river was brown. So you could count the fish on your fingers and toes. So it was dappled with oil patches, and the shore dotted with factories. That was the price you paid for big industry. The final stretch of Cuyahoga isn’t exactly pretty in the best of circumstances, anyway. This is a river where mass fish die-offs are considered a good sign. Hey, at least there’s fish, and this is what fish do here, is the understanding.
The Cuyahoga was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. By the late ’60s, we were a sick nation. Sick of success, marriage, pollution, traffic, and the constant demands of commerce and industry. Big oil and big steel – Cleveland’s lifeblood – were closing shop in America and eying foreign shores. The end of Cuyahoga’s era as the great bowel of the Rust Belt was drawing near.
But didn’t they know we were angry, damn it? The fire had us grabbing up our torches to get a light.
The drunken horns and off-kilter swagger of “Burn On” captures Cleveland as it was by then, a wobbly, bruised prizefighter down but not out. Newman’s glib nicknames for Cleveland, “city of light, city of magic“, have a sarcastic edge, yet you could imagine it as a tag line for the Great Lakes Exposition held in the ’30s to celebrate the city’s centennial. The cinematic string arrangement certainly recalls happier times.
Now the Lord can make you tumble,
And the Lord can make you turn,
And the Lord can make you overflow,
But the Lord can’t make you burn
The view of the fire from the observation deck of the Terminal Tower that fateful day in 1969 was oddly beautiful. The thick, black smoke against the bright sky, the colorful cranes and conveyors and trucks doing their strange dance along the stagnant, muddy channel…
Too bad nobody had a camera.