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Music Reviews

Randy's Buttons

December 6, 1995

Dr. Faustus, I Presume

FaustRandy Newman's Faust (Warner 1995) - Talk about an exciting concept. Randy Newman writes a new rock opera based on Goethe's Dr. Faust and casts himself as the devil, James Taylor as the Lord, Don Henley as Faust, Elton John as an angel, and Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt as the two love interests. How could it go wrong?

Well, here's the problem. Faust doesn't feel complete, because the songs don't develop a unified storyline. Unlike Pink Floyd's The Wall, Randy Newman's Faust lacks a central character who tells the story throughout. Rock operas (see also Tommy) work best when the story is told primarily through a single character's eyes. And that doesn't happen on Faust.

Not that I dislike the disc. In fact, there are parts of it that I like alot. However, it lacks the coherent sense of development that we've come to expect from Randy Newman (one of America's best songwriters. Ever.)

Newman's version differs in some respects from Goethe's version. Newman summarizes his storyline as "the Lord and the Devil make a bet. The Devil can return to heaven if he can corrupt Faust. The Devil says that in creating man, the Lord made a mistake, and the Lord says, 'No, man is good. I don't make mistakes.'"

In Goethe's version, Faust is the most intelligent man in the world. By contrast, Newman casts Faust as a freshman at Notre Dame. Adds Newman, "In my version, Faust, is played by Don Henley, is an insensitive and self-absorbed kid (whom the devil dislikes)."

Randy NewmanAccording to Newman, "Things have gotten too easy for the Devil -- he says men think of things to do to each other that even he wouldn't think of. And the Lord just misses the old days. So here they are, playing the game again, except now the people just don't cooperate."

Newman adds that "James Taylor plays the Lord. He knows everything, but sort of misses the old days when the Red Sea used to part and there was all that kind of action. He knows that heaven has gotten soft, and He really hasn't been watching earth too closely since about World War I. It's just too much trouble for Him, and He prefers to deal with more cosmic concerns."

Continues Newman, "I discovered that I really liked the idea of these two old guys, God and the Devil, playing this game like they did in the 12th, 14th and 18th century, and all of the angels up there watching them, and they do this every once in awhile because they're bored."

Newman says he first became interested in casting Faust as a rock opera after reading Goethe's version 12 years ago. Newman worked intermittently on the project during the last decade, and spent the last two years coordinating the bi-coastal recording of the album. Newman is also staging Faust at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego (unfortunately, without any of the singers that appear on this album). Furthermore, Newman produced the soundtrack to Toy Story, a wonderfully entertaining film that, in a bit of perfect irony, may give Newman the acclaim that has escaped the more ambitious Faust.

While I complain that the album lacks a unifying whole (for example, I don't understand how Elton John's angel, who sings about the effect of World War 1 on Britain, fits into the story), there are still amazingly good songs. James Taylor's opening "Glory Train" is a perfect, easy-going kind of number for Taylor, and Linda Ronstadt's two contributions ("My Hero" and "Feels Like Home") are both lovely.

Linda RonstadtIn fact, "Feels Like Home" should get lots of top-40/adult contemporary airplay (though fans who buy the album expecting to find more of the same will be sorely disappointed).

The highlight of the album is "The Man," in which the Devil finally convinces Faust that he (Faust) has "absolute control." The interplay between Newman and Handley is perfect (though the language is a little coarse at times), and the result is a great rock number in which the sardonic Henley croons "I need power, power, power!"

Warner Records recently announced that it will be releasing an extended CD-Rom version of the album later this year, with dialogue excerpts. Warner also says that purchasers of the first album can exchange it for the new album (which will also be playable on a standard audio machine).

Faust is a classic story, and Randy Newman made an admirable effort to modernize it. Though Randy Newman's Faust is ultimately a failure, it's a noble effort. And worth exploring.

All Day ThumbsuckerAll Day Thumbsucker -- Blue Note Records, one of the best independent record labels of the 70s, has recently been reborn by GRP Records (primarily a jazz label). One of the label's first new releases is All Day Thumbsucker, a double-disc compilation of Blue Note's original recordings.

The 32 selections are all over the board, ranging from Dave Mason's easy-flowing "Only You Know and I Know" to Sun Ra's "Images" to "Ride a White Swan" from Tyrannosaurus Rex. Also featured are Captain Beefheart, Gerry Rafferty, and Leon Russell.

For my tastes, the collection is too eclectic; there's just too many different kinds of music. But the remastering is terrific, and the packaging sets a standard for everyone. If you remember the label that used to press the releases from National Lampoon, then you remember Blue Note. And this collection will bring back fond memories.

-- Randy Krbechek

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