Rock these days seems to be retreating from the sound barrier. The mind-blasting chaos of California-bred acid is still to be heard, and almost everywhere the unmistakable beat goes on. At the same time, though, rock has become more personal, curious and deep, largely through the work of a new breed of solo troubadours who write their own stuff and occasionally deliver it in person. The handy and somewhat disparaging label for this new style of defused, intimate and literate pop is "salon rock." No one in the business, however, puts down the genuine talents of two of its finest practitioners: Composer-Singers Harry Nilsson, 29, and Randy Newman, 26.
Nilsson's pale blond hair and even paler complexion have earned him the nickname of the White Rabbit. From a musical viewpoint, he is really Tweedledum to Newman's Tweedledee. Both men are married and live in Los Angeles; both are basically recluses whose principal social activity, until recently, was playing pingpong together. They are also equally red-hot songwriters who have turned out hits for such diverse talents as Peggy Lee, Judy Collins, Ella Fitzgerald and the West Coast rock group called Three Dog Night (which moves up to No. 1 on the Billboard chart this week with a single of Newman's, Mama Told Me). Newman and Nilsson much prefer to sing their own material. Self-involvement, however, did not prevent Harry from devoting his latest RCA album (Nilsson Sings Newman) to Randy's songs.
Painful Accuracy. Nilsson himself speaks of a "certain indefinable something" that he and Newman have in common. But it is really where they differ that tells the most. One of the many ironies about Newman is that, although he sings in a raspy, soul-based blues style, his chief concern as a lyricist is Middle America. In Love Story, which he sang on NBC's Liza Minnelli Special last week, Newman sums up middle-age with painful accuracy: "Some nights we'll go out dancin'/ If I am not too tired/ And some nights we'll sit romancin'/ Watchin' the Late Show by the fire." In So Long Dad, he captures the turned-around relationship of a grown son and his father: "Come and see us, Papa, when you can/There'll always be a place for my ol' man/Just drop by when it's convenient to/Be sure and call before you do." The nephew of Hollywood Composer-Conductors Alfred and Lionel Newman, Randy the arranger is also a match for Randy the balladeer. In Cowboy, for example ("Cold gray buildings where a hill should be/Steel and concrete closin' in on me"), he evokes lonely saddles and scattered dust with craggy orchestral brush strokes that show a familiarity with Aaron Copland's Rodeo and Billy the Kid.
There is a sadness in Nilsson's work too, but, like the great tragic clowns, he feels that he may as well put on a cheerful front until proved wrong. His specialty is the melancholy ballad delivered with an upbeat melody. Mr. Tinker, for example, is about a tailor whose life has passed him by. "It isn't easy for a tailor/When there's nothing left to sew" goes one of its lines. The lyrics may be sorrowful, but the music is pure devil-may-care.