Everything has to be real for it to have any meaning. You can see this in criticism over the last 20 years, where over and over again critics are writing about anybody’s songs as if they’re autobiographical, as if they’re not fictions, as if they’re not even professional attempts to get hits. To write songs that other people will want to hear and other people will want to sing; the craven, contrived, market-driven attempts at writing a song that will be popular. It’s all ‘What does this tell us about this real person?’ You know, here’s Rihanna, and she gets beat up by her boyfriend, and all of her songs are interpreted through that scrim. That isn’t really how anybody writes a good song. Somebody might start off writing a song because they broke up with somebody, but if the song is any good at all, becomes something else. It becomes a story. And the character in it becomes fictional.
But audiences want to believe what they’re hearing. They want to be convinced that it’s true. And so, for someone to get up and say “This is just what comes out of my imagination…” But you’re cheating me! I remember having conversations with John Irving, the novelist, and Graham Parker, the singer, both of whom are quite short. And I remember both of them saying to me, “It must have taken a lot of nerve for a short person like Randy Newman to write [‘Short People’].” And I said “I hate to tell you this, but Randy Newman is six feet tall.” And they were both, “What!? A tall person wrote that song about me?” Oh, they were upset. You know, Randy Newman always said this was a joke. It was supposed to be a satire on bigotry, how could anybody take this seriously?
Ultimately when a songwriter is telling you about himself or herself – “this happened to me, this is my story” – ultimately you, as a listener, are frozen out. But when a songwriter’s creating a fictional situation that lets you in because that allows you to become a fictional character in your own mind. That to me is how art works, and that’s what I was always looking for in Mystery Train. Whether Elvis wrote his own songs or not, he created the situations in which those songs became real.