Book Review: The Life & Music Of Randy Newman

Randy’s music hooked me sometime in the late 1980s. Lying ill in bed, I heard a lyric wafting upstairs from the living room where my dad was playing some music by an American guy who sounded world-weary, beaten-down: ‘There she is sitting there/Out behind the smoke-house in her rocking chair/She don’t say nothin’/She don’t do nothin’/She don’t feel nothin’/She don’t know nothin’/Maybe she’s crazy, I don’t know/Maybe that’s why I love her so‘ (later discovered to be ‘A Wedding In Cherokee County’ from Good Old Boys).

I’ve been a major fan since then, studying interviews and always checking out  the new albums, and yet the ‘real’ Newman remains elusive. ‘The Life & Music of Randy Newman’, written by husband-and-wife team David and Caroline Stafford, has a damn good crack at revealing the enigma and it’s also the first extensive biography of the singer/songwriter.

There are some great anecdotes. Don Henley reports that Randy’s only direction to him when singing background vocals on Good Old Boys was to ‘sound like a water buffalo’ – i.e. like Randy. When Newman premiered that same album with a concert at the very swish Atlanta Symphony Hall backed by an 87-piece orchestra, he decided to preface the title track by announcing: ‘Here’s a song that’s guaranteed to be offensive to black and white, Jew and gentile…’

The book is exhaustively researched; as befitting a songwriter so interested in historical and biographical detail, the authors do a fine job placing Newman’s songs in context. Tens of published Randy interviews are also mined to produce a great commentary on all the albums. But unfortunately there are no new interviews with Newman, his collaborators or friends, so real insight is scant. There are also occasionally ‘style’ issues too, jarringly flippant phrases that sometimes take one out of the narrative.

But ‘The Life & Music Of Randy Newman’ is an enjoyable read, a fitting tribute to a modern American master. And if one comes away without any concrete sense of the protagonist, in this case it’s hardly the fault of the authors – and probably just the way Newman likes it.

‘The Life & Music Of Randy Newman’ is published by Omnibus Press.

The authors discuss writing the book in this Word podcast.

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Book Review: Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor by Tim Lawrence

No less a pop personage than Brian Eno called the early 1980s ‘the most exciting era of New York music’, and he should know a thing or two about the subject. Tim Lawrence’s excellent ‘Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor 1980-1983’ makes a good case for Eno’s claim.

The book traces the many musical and cultural strands of the early ’80s NYC scene, from the ‘Disco Sucks’ movement which briefly blossomed at the beginning of the decade through to the end-of-an-era AIDS panic of late ’83.

Lawrence vividly brings to life a scene where musicians, DJs, dancers, artists and club owners fused new-wave, no-wave, punk, dub, pop-art, Afro-funk, kitsch, S&M, psychedelia, disco, gospel, electro and hip-hop to create an exciting, vibrant, anything-goes aesthetic. Along the way, the book also looks at the making of some of the key NYC records of the era – ‘The Message‘, ‘Rapture‘, ‘Moody‘, ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Planet Rock’.

Pretty much all the key players of the scene make memorable appearances, a fascinating roll call including Larry Levan, David Byrne, Madonna, Afrika Bambaataa, Fab 5 Freddy, Sylvia Robinson, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kool Herc, Arthur Baker, Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash, Francois Kevorkian, Don Was and James Chance.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

Lawrence also paints a vivid picture of the diverse dancefloors of The Roxy, Danceteria, Paradise Garage, Mudd Club and Canal Zone, where on any given night you could see people doing martial arts moves, magic tricks or even aerobics (yes, apparently early ’80s NY also foresaw that cultural boom which hit big later in the decade). Many rare and previously unpublished photos are included, and Lawrence also gets his hands on many interesting artefacts from the era such as Kraftwerk and Bambaataa full DJ setlists from The Ritz in 1981.

But all good things must come to an end, and ‘Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor’ doesn’t scrimp on the full details of how Reaganomics, gentrification, corporate intrusion and the spread of AIDS decimated the scene. The book is a great achievement by Lawrence, with a level of detail and seriousness befitting a Professor of Cultural Studies but also large doses of fun and gossip befitting a good-time era and its fascinating protagonists.

‘Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor 1980-1983’ is published by Duke University Press.