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.

Baby Boomer’s Story: Randy Newman’s Trouble In Paradise 33 Years On

randy newman

Warner Bros. Records, released January 1983

8/10

One of the recurring themes of Randy Newman’s interviews seems to be the question of how long songwriters can maintain high-quality work. He frequently compares himself to Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Don Henley and Paul Simon, wondering if he’s keeping pace. Trouble In Paradise proved that he was certainly keeping up in the ’80s,  if not outstripping all of them.

After somewhat of a commercial breakthrough with 1977’s Little Criminals, Randy came seriously unstuck with the 1979 follow-up, Born Again. It featured a few minor classics but seemed rushed and controversial for controversy’s sake. So a lot was riding on 1983’s Trouble In Paradise, and it certainly delivered; song for song, it equals Sail Away or Little Criminals.

I have loved Randy’s music since I was in my teens. My dad would regularly play a track which had a lyric about a strange woman sitting in a rocking chair (‘A Wedding In Cherokee County‘). Once I had identified who was singing this brilliant and beguiling song, I went back and found as much music as I could, as you do.

Trouble In Paradise was the first one that really bent my ear. Randy unleashes a parade of shucksters, hucksters, bigots, junkies and unreliable narrators that would be right at home in a David Mamet play or Coen Brothers movie. In a neat irony, he also used the cream of the LA session elite (Jeff Porcaro, Jerry Hey, Nathan East, Steve Lukather, various Eagles and Fleetwood Macs) to sugar-coat his short stories; Trouble is one of the best-sounding bad-vibes albums in rock history, alongside Frank Zappa‘s Sheik Yerbouti and Steely Dan’s Gaucho.

Randy almost had a second hit single with the deceptively cheery ‘I Love LA’. I love the Cole Porter-style intro which leads into an ironic, ambivalent comment on the American Dream and some of its discontents. ‘Christmas In Cape Town’ is a disturbing portrait of Apartheid-era South Africa apparently written under the influence of Nadine Gordimer’s books. This song has haunted me for many years mainly because its images are unforgettable but also because I’ve never quite understood the perspective (or location) of the narrator.

‘The Blues’ is a wry, sprightly duet with Paul Simon which pokes fun at the plight of the oversensitive singer-songwriter, though Newman has claimed in interviews that he regrets writing the song. ‘Mikey’s’ is another amusing portrait of a racist, reactionary douchebag, with our narrator sounding off over a robotic synth-rock backing which seems to be Randy’s pastiche of new-wave rock. I love the way the narrator comments on the music, bellowing: ‘Didn’t used to be all this ugly music playing all time… Where are we, on the moon? Whatever happened to the old songs? Mikey, whatever happened to the fucking “Duke Of Earl“?’!

The hectoring continues on the hilarious ‘My Life Is Good’, a self-mocking vignette which eavesdrops on the life of an arrogant, rich and famous rock star. Springsteen gets a namecheck and Ernie Watts’ booming impersonation of Clarence Clemons is accompanied by Randy screaming, ‘Blow, big man, blow!’ Pretty weird and pretty funny.

Newman then proves that he’s a master of the gear shift with the inclusion of two devastating ballads, ‘Same Girl’ and ‘Real Emotional Girl’. The former, described by its author as a song about ‘two junkies in love’, is a heartbreaking portrait of lost innocence with a sumptuous string arrangement, indelible melody and sometimes dissonant harmonies. He’s just way ahead of his contemporaries here. The latter is an uncharacteristically tender portrait of a sensitive, gentle young woman who can’t help but get her heart broken. The middle eight is just sublime. Linda Ronstadt has performed this song from time to time.

‘Miami’, which kicks off side two, is the most musically expansive track on Trouble, featuring a delicious performance from Randy’s favourite drummer Jeff Porcaro, some intricate stop-start arrangements and eerie mandolins by Dean Parks. The two filler tracks on Trouble, ‘Take Me Back’ and ‘There’s A Party At My House’, are buried in the middle of side two, while ‘I’m Different’ is a self-mocking swinger with some lovely close-harmony backing vocals by Jennifer Warnes and Ronstadt. The closing ‘Song For The Dead’ is a devastating Vietnam War allegory features a mythological (dead?) colonel who has been left behind to say a prayer for his fallen comrades. The song bravely dares to send up a certain kind of American heroism, but still carries a hefty emotional punch.

Trouble In Paradise was not a commercial success, reaching only number 69 on the US album chart. That is a pretty shocking showing from such a major artist and one of the greatest songwriters. The failure seemed to chasten Newman – he jumped back into the world of movies, scoring 1984’s ‘The Natural’ and co-writing the screenplay for the Steve Martin/Chevy Chase vehicle ‘The Three Amigos’. Like his friend and frequent collaborator Ry Cooder, it seemed that film work was now funding an increasingly unpopular solo career.

Randy returned as a solo artist in 1987 to make Land Of Dreams, perhaps the only album of his that hasn’t dated well (though he told Paul Zollo in the brilliant book ‘Songwriters On Songwriting‘ that it’s his personal favourite). Then, over a decade later and against all the odds, he released one more near-classic, 1999’s Bad Love, crowning 30 years of songwriting consistency. He once told the writer Jon Ronson, tongue placed firmly in cheek: ‘My career has been a disappointment to me. I always hoped I’d sell millions of records. There are 40,000 people out there who just love me. But they may be surprised to hear I’ve been aiming beyond them.’ We probably shouldn’t feel too sorry for him.