Thursday, July 1, 2010

Song of the Day: Short People, Randy Newman

Randy Newman’s Short People was released in 1977, when there was still the possibility that the song wouldn’t refer to me.

It inspired much backlash from people who I’m ashamed to have anything in common with, even if it’s something as superficial as height. (Short) people burned copies of Newman’s albums in protest and the Maryland Legislature even considered passing a law that would prohibit the playing of the song on the state’s radio stations. I can't imagine how the same folks would have reacted to some of Newman's other songs. Some of them, I'm sure, would embrace this as solid foreign policy.

In addition to prompting protests, Short People also inspired what was perhaps the greatest presentation in a senior-level religion class in the history of my high school, Joliet Catholic Academy.

The task (as well as I can remember it): find a classmate to be your partner, put your heads together to identify some sort of injustice and make a 7- to 10-minute presentation about said injustice. The instructor for the class, a relatively young guy named Brother Raphael, highly encouraged incorporating an audio visual component into your presentation.

My group’s presentation somehow involved the trough-style urinals at Wrigley Field. We held them up as an example of open mindedness because it required people of all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds to stand uncomfortably close, usually on both sides, to men who were drunk and peeing. In a crowded Wrigley Field bathroom we were all equals. Or something like that.

Not only was our presentation shallower than one of those troughs, but it also wasn’t anywhere near as creative as the one done by my classmates Shawn Trusty and Bob Muhich. Shawn had long ago established his bona fides for creative scholarship, frequently inventing outlandish stories and people to help push along the narratives in any class in which we had a) a gullible teacher and b) a written assignment.

“Fortunately for me,” Shawn told me recently, “JCA had an abundance of both.”

He was Jayson Blair before Jayson Blair could even read the New York Times. The more preposterous the stories, the better. In one of our classes Shawn submitted a paper that suggested that a drug addict named Butch Book ingested a pound of acid daily. Usually, the names of his protagonists were more unpronounceable than alliterative.

“I had names of people with 33 letters, 29 of which were consonants,” he said.

His crowning achievement came when he submitted a paper in our psychology class on porn star John Holmes. The paper suggested that at the height of his popularity Holmes appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and stood behind a silk screen, pulled down his pants and revealed his 13-inch penis. He was the porn equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock. Instead of being incredulous, the psychology teacher seemed genuinely shocked that he missed the broadcast.

“Fascinating!” he wrote in the margin.

Perhaps emboldened by his Holmes experience, Shawn convinced Bob that they should do their presentation in the religion class on discrimination. It wasn’t going to be about run of the mill discrimination, however. There was nary a mention of woman’s suffrage or the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in their work. Rather, they chose to focus on some more obscure types of discrimination. Things like height discrimination, for instance, which they claimed was most readily apparent when folks who were 7-foot-tall were confronted with the choice of either bending down to get through a doorway or smash their head into the overhang. There also was the discrimination against people who had gigantic feet who were regularly forced to try to navigate their way down stairs that weren’t big enough to accommodate overgrown phalanges, often resulting in awkward falls down the stairs.

These obviously weren’t the sort of folks Congress had in mind when they passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Nor, for that matter, were the examples of discrimination in the least bit truthful. But when Shawn and Bob delved into their greatest example of size-based discrimination they used what was likely the only legitimate part of their entire presentation: Newman’s “Short People.” Of course they held the song up as perhaps the most egregious example in the long, sordid history of size discrimination. And then they played it.

There wasn’t much meat on the bones of this presentation, as you might imagine. You can only make up so many stories, it turns out, about discrimination against tall people and those with feet too big to make their way down stairs. Short People, at 2 minutes and 55 seconds, wasn’t helping flesh things out.

“Short People,” Shawn said, with a hint of regret in his voice. “Short song.”

When you added the nearly-three minute song to their presented material it still left them about a minute short of the seven minutes the assignment required. So, rather than bulk up the presentation with some actual research or invent another aggrieved group of people, Shawn and Bob did the next most logical thing: they tacked on to the end of Short People a portion of the Fleetwood Mac song “Tusk.”

This wasn’t a seamless mashup on par with Danger Mouse’s work with Jay-Z’s The Black Album and the Beatles white album. Short People is a sparse little song with piano and little additional instrumentation and Tusk is a drum-heavy song that was recorded with the USC marching band.
About the only thing the songs had in common is that they were both released in the 1970s, which, in retrospect, couldn’t have been worse for Shawn and Bob.

“We probably shouldn’t have picked songs that were extremely popular when our teacher was 20 years old,” Shawn said.

Still, he said, they might have gotten away with it had they not been laughing during the entire presentation, especially during the musical portion.

“(Brother Raphael) was not pleased that we did not take the assignment seriously,” said Shawn, who remembered somehow getting a “C” on the project. “He wasn’t as amused about it as we were.”

Every time I hear Short People (or Tusk, for that matter, although it happens much less frequently) I can’t help but be amused. I love the story so much that I shared it with my friend and bandmate, Bill Gillis. Almost 20 years after Shawn and Bob ingeniously combined Short People and Tusk in a presentation on discrimination, Bill immortalized their work when he recorded the song “Short People --> Tusk.”

The chorus says it better than Randy Newman ever could: “Some things just go together/Like Short People and Tusk.”

Running Update:

Tuesday: 8 miles at 67:40
Yesterday: 5 mile recovery in 47:27
Today: 10 (very rough) miles in 88:27
Tomorrow: OFF

1 comment:

  1. Je vais avoir une crise cardiaque.