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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Good Lyrics Of The 1980s

Joni_Mitchell_2004It has to be said, it was a bit easier coming up with good ’80s lyrics than it was to come up with crap ones. I could probably have chosen three or four crackers from many of the artists featured below, but space permits only one.

Maybe it’s not surprising that it was a great decade for lyricists when it was surely one of the most ‘literary’ musical decades to date – it would have to be with people like Bob Dylan, Morrissey, Paddy McAloon, Andy Partridge, Green Gartside, Tracey Thorn, Lloyd Cole, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel and Springsteen around.

So here’s just a sprinkling of my favourites from the ’80s. Let me know yours.

I love you/You pay my rent‘.

PET SHOP BOYS: ‘Rent’

An ’80s manifesto?

 

‘If you ever feel the time/To drop me a loving line/Maybe you should just think twice/I don’t wait around on your advice’.

EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: ‘Each And Every One’

How’s that for a statement to kick off a recording career?

 

I believe in love/I’ll believe in anything/That’s gonna get me what I want/And get me off my knees’.

LLOYD COLE AND THE COMMOTIONS: ‘Forest Fire’

Less famous than Lloyd’s rhyming of ‘Mailer’ and ‘tailor’, but gains a lot from his passionate singing of the lines.

 

I want you/It’s the stupid details that my heart is breaking for/It’s the way your shoulders shake and what they’re shaking for’.

ELVIS COSTELLO: ‘I Want You’

Anyone who’s ever been in love (or lust) knows exactly what Mr MacManus means.

 

Hey Mikey/Whatever happened to the f***in’ “Duke Of Earl”?’

RANDY NEWMAN: ‘Mikey’s’

A few years before ‘Money For Nothing’, our protagonist is a bit ‘disillusioned’ with the state of modern music…

 

If you had that house, car, bottle, jar/Your lovers would look like movie stars’.

JONI MITCHELL: ‘The Reoccurring Dream’

Nails the rabid ’80s advertising industry pretty succinctly.

 

‘Lost my shape/Trying to act casual/Can’t stop/I might end up in the hospital’.

TALKING HEADS: ‘Crosseyed And Painless’

One of many brilliant David Byrne first-liners.

 

‘Once there was an angel/An angel and some friends/Who flew around from song to song/Making up the ends’.

DANNY WILSON: ‘Never Gonna Be The Same’

What a beautiful way of describing the songwriting process.

 

Burn down the disco/Hang the blessed DJ’.

THE SMITHS: ‘Panic’

One of many from Mr Morrissey, but I just love the fact that he could smuggle this into the charts.

 

‘Now the moon’s gone to hell/And the sun’s riding high/I must bid you farewell/Every man has to die/But it’s written in the starlight/And every line in your palm/We are fools to make war/On our brothers in arms’.

DIRE STRAITS: ‘Brothers In Arms’

Well, it’s a lot better than Culture Club’s ‘War Song’, isn’t it?

 

Out on the road today/I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac/A little voice inside my head said/Don’t look back, you can never look back…’

DON HENLEY: ‘Boys Of Summer’

The ultimate ’80s baby boomer lyric.

 

‘Hello Johnson/Your mother once gave me a lift back from school/There’s no reason to get so excited/I’d been playing football with the youngsters/Johnson says don’t dramatise/And you can’t even spell salacious’.

PREFAB SPROUT: ‘Horsechimes’

If JD Salinger had been born in County Durham…

 

‘I repeat myself when under stress/I repeat myself when under stress/I repeat…’

KING CRIMSON: ‘Indiscipline’

Adrian Belew almost outdoes Byrne in the ‘neurosis’ department.

 

‘Come back Mum and Dad/You’re growing apart/You know that I’m growing up sad/I need some attention/I shoot into the light’.

PETER GABRIEL: ‘Family Snapshot’

The flashback of a political assassin, daring the listener to sympathise, followed by his final, catastrophic action.

 

‘People say that I’m no good/Painting pictures and carving wood/Be a rich man if I could/But the only job I do well is here on the farm/And it’s breaking my back’.

XTC: ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’

What to say to the parents when they tell you to get a ‘real’ job…

 

So long, child/It’s awful dark’.

DAVID BOWIE: ‘When The Wind Blows’

Dickensian dread from the Dame.

 

I could have been someone/Well, so could anyone’.

THE POGUES/KIRSTY MACCOLL: ‘Fairytale Of New York’

The ultimate put-down. Kirsty is much missed.