#322: Randy Newman, "Sail Away" (1972)

I woke up in the middle of a song. I woke up in the midst of a sea of sleeping bags, Randy Newman in my earbuds drowning out the snores of my middle school students—all boys. It was the early morning after a lock-in and my iPod had been shuffling as I'd been drifting in and out of sleep, feeling simultaneously sort of off-duty yet still on edge. Resting, but still responsible.

Working at a school, you are often reminded of how unconcerned adults can become about other adults, only because we're all supposed to be self-sufficient now. We went through the wringer and have passed the phase when we get to be inherently fussed over or worried about. I knew that for a few more minutes all the boys would be motionless, but then there would come unbridled chaos with no transition period between. The music was so beautiful, but reminded me that I'm an authority now, no matter what I feel or don't feel like. I'm forever one of the ones they'd turn to if things got hard or things got weird or things went wrong, as they very often always do.


I sat with this one for so long that this piece has already nearly-been and not-been a thousand things. It was going to be a snarky skewering of Randy Newman predicated on the idea that his Pixar songs and the caricature of him I saw once in a Family Guy episode (red-headed lady / reaches for an apple / gonna take a bite / nope, she gonna breathe on it first / wipes it on her blouse...) are the totality of what the dude is about. It was going to be a short story about an older divorced man indulging in his wild side with a younger, alcoholic woman just jam-packed with ill-advised tattoos and equally rife with nautical addiction metaphors. It was going to be a glowing paean to the genius that Randy Newman/Good Old Boys/Sail Away Randy Newman was and (possibly?) is. It was going to be a list of my favorite weird-voiced singers (Joanna Newsom and John Darnielle coming in way before Randy or even Dylan). It was going to be an essay in which I convinced myself to quit my job and an essay in which I convinced myself to keep my job and now if anybody out there can send word back and let me know what, in the end, it is, I'd take that feedback gratefully.


The best part of Sail Away is that it features the best fictional representation of God—with apologies to Alanis Morissette in Dogma—that I've ever encountered. “God's Song” is narrated by God. It's a monologue, as its subtitle suggests, on why he loves mankind. The ending is the most incredible part. Its beauty and strangeness are what startled me awake, in a few different ways, that morning.

Speaking in the first person, God points out that we are stupid to trust him. I burn down your cities, he says. I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we. A fair point. It's one made quite often and one that has been wrestled with for centuries. It even has its own branch of theology: theodicy. But it's rarely God who points out how much suffering he puts us through and how stupid we are to just sit there and take it. Spoiler alert: the reason that God loves mankind is not because we trust him; our trust makes us seem crazy, actually. But he does like that we're helpless. God claims he loves us because we're crazy, but that's not accurate. In between the final few lines of the song is tucked an incredible little plaintive-yet-satisfied truth: You really need me. The neeeed is stretched out just a touch and he sounds wondering, in awe of his own power.

God as sociopath. God as poor-decision-maker who needs some needing so purely. God as good guy wandering off the path and doing some real, real bad things—whoops!—and getting away with it. God as a thirsty fiend for unconditional love. God as middle school boy, messing up, fessing up, and fearing the day it won't all reset so easily.


My iPod shuffled and another song, one I'd never heard before, came on. A boy stirred, went to see if donuts had manifested themselves yet. A boy rolled off the side of his air mattress. A boy barefooted over into the corner to play Magic: the Gathering by himself because his best friends were still sleeping sweetly.

The night before, as kids were being dropped off for the lock-in, I'd hung around and talked to a pair of parents and the head of school, instead of sprinting off to play sports with the boys. My boss shared an anecdote—a story about why not to walk away. A former teacher had sent an email about how little his jobs since teaching have mattered at all. He'd told a story about regret and about weeping in his car after one last, deceitful See ya next year to the students on his last last day. And I cried just a little over the stranger's regret.

My boss said, I'm a big believer in the universe giving you exactly what you need at just the right time and I remember thinking, That's exactly how I don't feel.


But that's been bullshit my whole life. Because for as long as I've rejected the idea of fate I have delightfully embraced the idea of synchronicity. Things happen and seem like miracles to me all the time. For a few years I gave God credit, and then one day I just didn't make those tally marks so easily. Why do we need to keep a box score?

I thought that I got my first girlfriend because she appeared on the sidewalk visible from my bedroom window at the exact moment I was yowling along loudly to the Bush song “Communicator.” Wonder if I've met my wife, I sang as she and a friend came into frame. Forget the fact that I was banking on the universe meaning Theresa when it turned out it had meant Jane. Forget the fact that three weeks later (after a popular girl forced our heads together like Barbie dolls to orchestrate our only kiss), it turned out the universe definitely hadn't meant Jane either. Forget the fact that every time I've thought I figured out what the universe meant and why it had decided to give me something I was hilariously mistaken—wrong like the kind of wrong people are only in broad romantic comedies.

It's kind of scary to believe in the universe instead of a god, because the universe doesn't need me at all. I could stay here, I could go. God, if he is out there messing with me, sending along suffering or relief thoughtlessly, like spam emails at the touch of a button—well, he needs me bad. And the question occurs to me, what do I become now if I go back to being someone without the terrifying power to change the way people feel about their lives? What do I become if I go run away to some place that gives me more of my life to myself but makes me more irrelevant? That's the kind of question you just walk around with for a while. The kind of question you just whisper inaudibly over and over as a song sits in your ears.


The night of the lock-in, we played soccer in the dark for over an hour. We had an actual pillow fight and we watched at least six episodes of ThunderCats projected on the wall. At one point, this happened: crouched at the ready, about to start a game of gaga ball, I turned to my boss and said, I think I sprained my butt. And maybe that was a thing that the universe wanted me to say at that particular time, because it certainly wasn't a sentence that I'd thought out and carefully planned in advance. I don't imagine I'll say that or anything like it to another boss again as long as I live. I don't imagine I'll ever cry as much about how awful a job is or cry as much about how wonderful one is. This will certainly turn out to be wrong, but as of now I don't imagine that ever again in my life anyone will need me as much as these boys do.

I guess, if I'm a firm believer in something, I'm a firm believer that the universe occasionally tells us things we need to know. Maybe it's not an elaborate and fated delivery system, but I do think it pays to pay attention. Whether you take your miracles as miracles or as funny little coincidences, I guess sometimes it's simple enough to say that we should listen.


Where are we sailing to, by the way? Away to where? Away from what? What is the preferred destination in any given life? I’ve been trying to figure that out for a while now, Randy, and I'm still navigating, tacking around drunkenly in the dark, probably midway through a long, coincidental, transcendent and boring journey through the universe back to where I already was and am. But I hold out hope that in a few hours or days the calm will give way to chaos or vice versa. In a few hours or days I'll hear a song that will make me feel or remember or fear or decide something. I'll lie on my back or walk through the park and sing a soundtrack to this, whatever this is. If somebody or something gives me that I think I have just enough.

—Eric Thompson