The Beauty of Bacharach
"1998: The Year Burt Broke."
By Charles Taylor
FEBRUARY 16, 1998: "Miraculously the music changed and some Bacharach-David songs came on. They moved closer. He obviously felt her relax, because he whispered, 'I like this kind of music too. I have most of these records at home.' " That scene, from the Jacqueline Susann potboiler Once Is Not Enough, presents one version of Burt Bacharach's music: as seduction aid and guilty pleasure, the type of thing you enjoy in private but don't acknowledge in public if you want to keep your hip credentials.
A truer version was the Late Night with David Letterman appearance that Elvis Costello made with Bacharach himself last February to perform "God Give Me Strength," the song they wrote for the Grace of My Heart soundtrack. It was fitting that these two should finally be on the same stage. Early in Costello's career, about the same time he contributed a dark and dramatic version of the Bacharach/Hal David "I Just Don't Know What To Do with Myself" to the Stiffs Live compilation, one writer described Costello's voice as "Dionne Warwick with fangs." Twenty years later, on Letterman, possessed of a voice that had matured into probably the finest in rock and roll, Costello looked nervous. Behind him, Bacharach sat at the piano, dressed in a sporty blue blazer, chinos, and white oxfords, supremely relaxed, swaying to some weird private rhythm.
Performing the number on his solo tour a few months earlier, Costello had dared himself to keep taking it to a higher dramatic peak. When the song finally climaxed, there was an overwhelming sense of relief. The performance with Bacharach (included on the Live on Letterman CD) was just as stunning, though in a completely different way. Costello felt out the contours of the song as it progressed. He began quietly, gathered the strength the song begs for, and then soared, before ending in a voice just above a whisper. He sang as if nothing mattered more to him at that moment than to be worthy of performing a song by Burt Bacharach.
Even if "God Give Me Strength" is the only Bacharach composition in nearly 30 years that can hold a candle to the work he did with lyricist Hal David before their acrimonious break-up, this is the wrong time to call Burt Bacharach a relic. Three Bacharach tribute albums have been released in the last year: Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach (Tzadik), What the World Needs Now . . . (Big Deal), and a McCoy Tyner album on Verve. Two compilations are due out shortly on Varèse: The Burt Bacharach Songbook and Broadway Sings Burt Bacharach). MCA has reissued the '60s staple Burt Bacharach Plays His Hits; a Broadway-bound musical based on Bacharach/David songs is about to debut in San Diego. There's the long-rumored box set of Bacharach hits done by the original artists. And he and Costello are collaborating on an album that should be released in the fall. He even gets a mention in the liner notes to Mary Lou Lord's Got No Shadow, where Lord thanks her parents for blasting Bacharach music whenever the family cleaned house.
1998: The Year Burt Broke.
It's unlikely any of this would be happening if Bacharach weren't part of the subterranean influences that are causing all sorts of unexpected things to bubble to the surface in popular music right now. There's no denying that much of the craze for lounge music and exotica is nothing more than a sort of camp superiority. But in the hands of people who genuinely care for them, soundtrack music, French pop, ambient music, space-age instrumentals, and all the other things that have been incorporated into pop and dance music can function as the opposite of cool disengagement.
Rock and roll is usually at its most interesting when artists and audiences aren't ashamed of what they like -- when they're willing to combine those influences, all their quirky niches of taste, and see what results. Going back to music you heard and liked on the radio when you were a kid -- maybe songs that your friends considered dorky but you always listened to when you were alone, maybe albums you filched from your folks -- becomes a sort of test. What can that music yield up now? What can it be stretched to include?
I loved the sound of Dionne Warwick singing "I Say a Little Prayer" when I was a kid. And I know there was no way I could have picked up on its meaning -- the ordinary dignity of someone trying to hold on to something of herself in the workaday world, the lift that comes from feeling you have something in your life that separates you from the crowd -- until I was out in that world. That's what I hear now in Warwick's polished vocal, a natural determination to conduct yourself with some sort of grace in the midst of what life throws at you. If that doesn't qualify as rock and roll, then the term has no use.
The songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David made the rock charts, though the two didn't write "rock and roll" per se. Most of the hits the duo charted through the '60s were fully orchestrated, and though they were often championed as the antidote to the "noise" of rock and roll, they clearly didn't belong to the Porter/Gershwin school of popular songwriting. The difference, I think, was sophistication. That's not to say that Bacharach/David numbers were crude, only that the two were consciously writing in a more ordinary vernacular.
Think of some of the people in these songs: the office girl in "I Say a Little Prayer," the failed actor of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose," the estranged spouse in "A House Is Not a Home." There's no reason to like David's attempt at "relevant" songwriting in "The Windows of the World" (it's awful), but does any other Top 40 song from the late '60s even allude to the women whose boyfriends and husbands and fathers and sons were in Vietnam? These people aren't the clever sophisticates of Porter or Gershwin songs. Try as you might, you can't imagine the woman in "Trains and Boats and Planes," who's pining for her lover to return from overseas, making the journey herself. She's anyone whose world is momentarily transformed into a romantic wonderland and who's left behind in dimmed familiar surroundings when the spell wears off. That familiarity runs through these songs: "I walk along the city streets you used to walk along with me"; "Trains and boats and planes/Are passing by/They mean a trip/to Paris or Rome/For someone else/But not for me"; "I run for the bus, dear/While riding I think of us, dear."
The sources of joy and heartache in these songs are the most ordinary things. Think of the way, in the Shirelles' "Baby, It's You" (written with Hal David's older brother Mack), Shirley Owens's lead vocal always begins a beat later than you expect, and how her first line is as direct as if she were sitting next to you: "It's not the way you smile that touched my heart." (A word on Hal David's lyrics: he can be faulted for bad rhymes -- "pneumonia" with "phone ya" -- and perhaps tortured syntax, but nobody should be judged solely by his worst work. A lyricist capable of the dark terseness of "Walk On By" or the everyday epiphanies of "I Say a Little Prayer" deserves respect.)
But if the lyrical settings were ordinary, the musical settings were always both lush and gorgeously understated. Bacharach was the arranger and he and David the producers on many of the hit versions of their songs, a unique opportunity for a composer to determine how the public hears his compositions. The trademarks of Bacharach's sound were those muted horns and string arrangements that emerged unobtrusively from the bottom of the mix. The effect, on dozens of mid-tempo ballads, was both haunting and lighter than air.
Dionne Warwick was the perfect singer for so many of these songs because of the melancholy ethereality of her voice. When Aretha sang "I Say a Little Prayer," she wrestled it to earth, turned it into pop gospel. Warwick's prayers seemed to be floating up to the vapors as soon as they left her mouth. Her collaboration with Bacharach is the sound of romantic resignation. There's no melodrama in these songs (with the exception of the proto-feminist "Don't Make Me Over" and "A House Is Not a Home") and because of that, no catharsis. The emotion is all implicit; the singer doesn't even reveal herself fully to us: "If you see me walking down the street/And I start to cry/Each time we meet/Walk on by." Heartache doesn't pour out in these numbers as it does in soul music. Rather, it settles over the singer like an overcoat broken into the contours of wearer. It becomes part of the singer's social disguise, what hovers around her as she's riding the bus or window-shopping on her lunch hour.
In one scene in Moscow on the Hudson, Robin Williams, playing a Russian immigrant in New York, tells a friend about his former life in Russia, "I loved my misery because it was mine. I could hold it, touch it." That suggests something of the almost private nature of these performances.
It may also explain why the recent music that best captures the spirit of Burt Bacharach isn't on any of the tribute albums but on those of artists still assimilating his influence, like Mono's upcoming Formica Blues (Mercury; due February 24) and, most of all, Ivy's Apartment Life (Atlantic). Just as the music on Apartment Life keeps unfolding the more you listen, so its title seems to me as succinct, eloquent, and allusive as any in recent memory. To those of us captivated by Bacharach's music as a kid, Apartment Life might have stood for the chic city life we saw ourselves living when we listened to his songs. As adults it could stand for reality that didn't meet expectations, the texture of lives still lived like students years after leaving school, the struggle between romantic hope and diminished expectations. It's an album in love with the promise of pop, wary of the price you pay for falling for it.
Apartment Life is a direct descendant of Bacharach's lush pop
symphonies of regular people and familiar places. Listening to Bacharach, I
sometimes hear his music as both a demonstration of what Noël Coward meant
by "the potency of cheap music" and a refutation of the snottiness in those
words. The meaning of Bacharach's music is that the most ordinary lives can be
capable of the most aching emotions. He knew there was no happiness, no misery,
as unique and lush as your own. And he realized that it was one of the
functions of pop music to make sure there was always something there to remind
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