Brian Wilson, in the present tense

You’re probably familiar with that annoying cliché job interview question where an unimaginative examiner asks you, “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult situation.” Speaking of interview questions, I was well aware that although Brian Wilson has a most impressive body of work behind him as a composer and arranger, answering such questions from journalists isn’t exactly his strong suit; in fact, he’s notorious for terse, sparsely worded responses and an air of disconnectedness when apart from a piano (I trust I don’t have to give a medical summary and capsule history of his many struggles throughout his life). Dealing with a fair way to treat this interview subject would be a good final-exam question in my line of work, but I did my best. I also knew that I’d want to interview another band member to get his perspective on Wilson, suspecting that he’d be able to explain the pop-music legend far better than the man himself. As for the result, you, as always, can be the judge. As originally published in the Austin American-Statesman on June 17, 2015.

Brian Wilson, in the present tense

As he turns 73, the former Beach Boy is still writing and performing, but is he being overshadowed by his own story?

Summer has come around again; so, for another season, has Brian Wilson. The legendary pop composer has long outlived his two younger brothers and fellow Beach Boys — Carl by 17 years, Dennis by more than 30. He’s survived the splintering of his old band, now led by his cousin/ex-collaborator/frenemy Mike Love; save for a well-received 50th anniversary reunion tour in 2012, the group’s endless summer has seen more endless bickering and lawsuits than harmony among the players. Last but certainly not least, Wilson has survived decades of crises due to mental illness, as documented in innumerable newspaper and magazine accounts and, compellingly, in the current biopic “Love & Mercy,” starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as his 1960s and ’80s selves.

What, then, should one make of the actual Brian Wilson in 2015? Seemingly against all odds, Wilson not only abides but appears to be thriving. Unlike most of us, the aging icon’s inner child gets to come out nearly constantly, on film, on record and in real life. Those close to him — family, friends, fellow musicians — have long learned to make allowances. Diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder, he’s endured auditory hallucinations since the ’60s yet now functions well enough in the place he feels most comfortable — the recording studio — and even in a place that long terrified him — the stage. On Tuesday, three days after his 73rd birthday, he’ll be with his band at Bass Concert Hall, not only basking in the “Love & Mercy” attention but touring behind a new album, “No Pier Pressure.” It’s Wilson’s 11th solo record, but rest assured: plenty of the set list consists of the songs fans expect to hear. Wilson is still crafting minisymphonies. They may not all be great art, but the common thread is a longing for a perfect love and a perfect world that never really existed. You listen to get your recommended dose of nostalgic, wistful optimism in spite of everything. And, of course, those harmonies.

“Love & Mercy,” though filled with compassion for Wilson’s troubles, inevitably rehashes them for the old fan and newbie alike: the breakdowns, the drugs, the years in bed, the years under the thumb of quack therapist Eugene Landy. To its credit, it delves deeply into the reason we’re interested in this story in the first place: Wilson’s singular talents as a composer, producer and arranger. The film lingers on the nuts and bolts of the recording process as young Brian directs the Wrecking Crew, a group of seasoned session musicians, in the forging of the Beach Boys’ influential ’60s masterpiece, “Pet Sounds.” From that time, in every possible way, Brian Wilson’s head would be a long way from surfin’ safaris and hamburger stands.

Has any pop or rock musician been as well known for mental struggles as Brian Wilson? (Kurt Cobain may come in at a distant second, with apologies to local candidates Roky Erickson and Daniel Johnston.) Admit it: The difference between the ethereal harmony Wilson pursues in his songs and the well-known discord and tumult in his personal life is captivating stuff. The story of the tortured artist who spends his life creating lasting works of great beauty but suffers greatly for it may have become a cliché, but sometimes it happens.

Most artists, when interviewed, are happy, or at least willing, to talk about themselves and their work; not this guy. For years, one reporter after another assigned to interview Wilson has suffered through awkward silences and minimalist responses. That’s much my experience too. Spending 10 minutes with Wilson on the phone recently, as he zooms down the road fresh from an outdoor daytime concert in Philadelphia to the next venue in north Jersey, he comes off as largely detached; not hostile, just not completely present. After a few minutes of this, the last thing you want to do is keep barking questions into his one good ear. You just want to leave him alone.

Q: “No Pier Pressure” is your 11th solo album, quite an accomplishment for any musician, never mind all your work with the Beach Boys. In your mind, have you finally put the Beach Boys behind you?

A: Yeah, because the Beach Boys wanted to go on tour, y’know, without me, but I’m going to go on tour in June.

Q: When you look back on your life, what were the times that you were happiest?

A: When I was in the studio with the Beach Boys.

The oft-told tale of Wilson’s personal travails, often framed within a California-dream-vs.-dark-reality context, has often overshadowed the actual music he was making, even when that music was by and large extraordinary, like the refabricated “Smile,” abandoned in 1967, then completed and triumphantly taken on the road in 2004. One shouldn’t have to pretend that “No Pier Pressure” ranks with “Pet Sounds” or “Smile” — it has its moments, but also too much sugary adult contemporary schmaltz and a few too many guest artists — but then, one doesn’t listen to Brian Wilson for edginess and acerbic putdowns. When asked what he wanted to express with the new album, he responds, “Mellowness and happiness.”

“Love & Mercy” was made with the cooperation of Wilson and his wife, Melinda, and Wilson calls the movie “very factual and very well-portrayed.” Asked if it bothers him to have his personal life and past troubles so publicly out there and whether it frustrates him when people focus on that rather than his music, he answers, “It does not bother me, because that movie spoke for itself. That movie is a good movie.”

Paul Von Mertens, Wilson’s longtime musical director on tour, does confess some frustration, though. “For me,” he says, “the real story is who he is as a person and as a musician, and the (focus on the) somewhat lurid history really has very little to do with the music and also with Brian’s own heart and soul. He’s a gentle spirit; he had some real painful times in his life, and it would be nice if he could just live in the present and make music and enjoy doing it, because that’s who I know him to be: a guy who’s really gentle, incapable of being mean or sarcastic. That’s the guy that I know and that I love. The other stuff, that’s old news to me.”

Von Mertens (who also plays with Poi Dog Pondering) says the friction reported in the press when the 50th reunion tour ended was misinterpreted. “The tour was always intended to be a finite thing. From the beginning, they said, ‘OK, we’re going to do 50 shows, and that’s it.’ They ended up extending it and doing 75 shows, so everybody went beyond their original commitment because it was going really well and everybody was having a good time. But the agreement was always that everybody would go back to doing what they were doing.”

Von Mertens says the Wilson and Love camps got along reasonably well in 2012. “It was like being at a Thanksgiving dinner with a slightly dysfunctional family every day for six months,” he says. “For some reason, people are fascinated by discord. Mike was kind and gracious to Brian, and I must say, some of the shows were epic, like the most stunning experiences I’ve had on stage. There’s an inherent friction in the Beach Boys’ music that makes it interesting, and this is just my point of view, but Mike is ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ and Brian is ‘In My Room.’ And you can’t separate the two. And the tension that’s built into that was part of the chemistry that has always made the band interesting, and it sparked a lot of vitality for the music.”

Even in our brief phone chat, Wilson struck me as someone who lives very much in the present; Von Mertens, who has worked with him for around 17 years, confirms the man doesn’t like to dwell on the past. “Absolutely. Or the future. It’s what’s happening now — what time do we eat, when is sound check, what time’s the show, when are we going back to the hotel — that is what’s usually on his mind.”

That’s been the case, Von Mertens adds, ever since he’s known Wilson. “Always, yeah. Not a whole lot of examination of the past and motivations and personalities and conflict. It’s just not something that he talks about. At all. Ever. It’s really, like, what’s happening right now. ‘How do you feel? How’s your wife? How’s your kids?’ Those are the kinds of things that he asks me. ‘What kind of music are you working on? Don’t waste your time learning to type, you should be working on music!’ I mean, that’s who Brian is to me.”

Who is the real Brian Wilson? And should it matter to anyone except the man himself, and those close to him? In the end, it might be reasonable to conclude that this survivor, as he ushers in yet another summer filled with his ethereal, eternal harmonies, has already given us more than enough of himself.


Here’s a link to my concert review, to which I took my 10-year-old son; it was his first “adult” concert. Coincidentally, my first “adult” concert was a Beach Boys show at Boston Garden, which I attended soon after arriving at college at age 17. There’s the circle game for you.

What would the opposite of the ‘Cheers’ theme sound like?

Apropos of nothing special, I was amusing my brain recently with reverse-engineering the Cheers TV theme song to express the exact opposite of the original’s sentiments — the Bizarro World Cheers theme, if you like. I stuck to the version heard over the opening credits, although there’s a complete version that was only heard on an anniversary show. Probably best to stick with the short version.

Making your way in the world today

It’s really not that hard.

Taking a break from all your worries

Is a thought you should discard.

So, you don’t need to get away.

Sometimes you want to go

Where nobody knows your name,

Where they don’t care that you came;

You want to be where you can’t see

All troubles are not the same.

You want to go where nobody knows your name.

Thanks a lot, you guys have been great. I’ll be here all week.

Well, how DO you know?

Every once in a while I like to touch base with the ’80s-era Boston rock scene, which generally means playing a few tracks on my iPod, popping in a CD or playing a few videos on YouTube. (My accompanying memories load automatically.) Lately I’ve been driving around to the Lyres. I’m not going to go into a big rock-historian jag here, but for the uninitiated, they were and for all I know, still are known as “the kings of the Boston garage-rock scene” which sparked the daydreams and shaped the nights of a sizable cohort of fevered strivers and party hounds beginning more than three decades ago. I’ve written previously in this blog about the Boston scene, so I won’t repeat myself here; I’ll just talk about the Lyres a bit and call it a day, since it’s only Tuesday night and both of us (I’ll just assume) have other things to attend to.

I’ve long considered “How Do You Know,” which the Lyres first recorded in 1979, the unofficial regional anthem of the old Boston rock scene. (Here’s a link to the reverb-happy recorded version, which, despite the statement of the YouTube video-posting guy that it’s the original single, at least one commenter pegs as the album version from 1986’s Lyres Lyres.)

For all the pessimism, grit and hard times experienced in life and expressed in song — Boston was a hard town in a lot of ways — hope had a funny way of springing eternal on the streets and in the clubs. This could be the year for the Sox, for our love, for our band. This could be the year it all pays off.

Thus, head Lyre Jeff “Monoman” Conolly sings, as much as I can understand him, of doing various things in Boston “for 14 years” — living, drinking, being stuck in the same room, dreaming of making it big, being dug by the girls — and still not giving up, because, after all, how do you know? (One of the great lost opportunities for an ’80s video was a duet between Monoman and James Brown, with subtitles for both, of course. Crossover appeal!) In the end, he decides to stick it out for yet another year, because, well, you know.

Conolly apparently got his nickname because of his major obsession with collecting recordings in mono sound, but it’s just as apt to ascribe it to a monomaniacal vision of garage-rock purity. In the live video, the unrelenting, all-conquering organ echoes that vision to a  T — just check out Conolly’s almost disturbingly determined delivery of the anthem above, opening a live concert at New York’s Coney Island High back in 1998. I never got to know Monoman personally, which is probably just as well; for a considerably more one-on-one view of the guy, I’d refer you to this blog post by my friend Julie.

Me, I remember, years ago, the Lyres coming back to the Rat after a long hiatus in California, and opening with, what else, “How Do You Know.” It had the desired effect on everyone in that dark, dank room, the HQ of the Boston underground.

You never know.

This could be the year.

Chrissie Hynde: Still going down the middle of the road

[As published in the Austin American-Statesman, Nov. 15, 2014.]

I was looking forward to interviewing Chrissie Hynde but couldn’t help wondering about the mood in which I’d find the 63-year-old rock legend when she phoned from London at the appointed hour. Surely Hynde, about to embark on her first tour without the Pretenders label, though still with a backing quartet, had nothing left to prove after millions of album sales and decades of searing, honest, original music. Would she be in the habit of eating journalists alive as if they were so many veggie burritos? Would she answer my questions in bored monosyllables before cutting the interview short to give equally bored answers to my counterparts in Boston, Chicago, Denver and Dallas?

Well, no and no. After a free-flowing conversation on topics ranging from the current state of South by Southwest (her mood: curious) to audiences’ current mass obsession with smartphones and selfies (dislikes in the extreme) to the comeback of vinyl records (likes) to Amy Winehouse (admired her individuality and her unique take on a retro sound) to the state of music on the radio (great in the ’50s and ’60s, not so great from the ’80s onward, but could be getting good again), I’ve concluded that Hynde is either the most self-effacing, unpretentious major rock star of all time or missed her true calling as an actress. Does she really not think of herself as anything special, just another rock singer and guitarist in a touring band?

Pun intended, I don’t think she was pretending.

This was Hynde’s response when I asked whether she’d rather be known as a performer or a songwriter:

“I don’t really care how I’m known, y’know? As long as I can write songs, I’ll make records. The only thing I don’t want to be known as is a celebrity. Anything but that.”

Since Hynde possesses such a distinctive, expressive singing voice, I ask if she’d ever had any formal vocal training.

“Well, y’know, this is rock ‘n’ roll,” she says. “You can’t learn this stuff in school. It’s not a technical thing — you just listen to the radio and then copy it. I suppose if you were in theater or opera and you have to project certain ways, obviously there are technical abilities that some singers have to have, but not if you’re a rock singer.”

Well, OK, then.

Despite being a Londoner since the ’70s, Hynde retains the accent and rapid-fire speaking style of a gum-chewing waitress in an Akron diner, which, she implies, could have very well been her fate if not for sheer chance and good timing. When I ask if she’s enjoying her life, she retorts, “Hey, I get to play guitar in a rock band! Are you kidding me? Can you think of anything better? I’m even a (expletive meaning “terrible”) guitar player! On top of that, thank God for punk, I found a way to slip through the net. But I’m not very ambitious. All I wanted was to play guitar in a band, so I lucked out, man.”

After heading various incarnations of the Pretenders for three decades, Hynde released the album “Stockholm” under her own name last June. She co-wrote most of the tracks with Bjorn Yttling, of the Swedish group Peter Bjorn and John, using mainly Swedish musicians. Though Yttling’s production is on the commercial side and it lacks the song-to-song hairpin turns of the brilliant early Pretenders albums, it’s decent enough, and Hynde’s patented tender/tough vocals land their intended effect.

It’s good, I note, to change things up every now and then.

“Yeah, every 40 years or so.”

Her penchant for wisecracks aside, Hynde has a few things to say about what it takes for a performer to have a sustained career. Just one decade in the spotlight, let alone three, now seems like an eternity in a world stuck on fast-forward.

“I guess I am an optimist,” she says. “I just sense that at the moment it feels quite good in music. I don’t know much about the technology, because to be perfectly honest, as soon as they brought in pushbutton radios I got lost. Let alone going on the Internet.”

For Hynde, “Middle of the Road” is more than just one of her old songs. “My personal discipline has been to try to stay in the middle, always, no matter what I’m doing,” she says. “If I buy a jacket and it comes in three sizes, I want a medium. You have to learn how to temper yourself and hold back till you get to the end.”

Hynde will always take a club over a stadium, and she praises the importance of local music scenes. “What could be better than to be in your town, and you know five or six other guys that are in bands? I mean, that’s where it’s at. And then all your girlfriends pile into a car and go out to your local club and see your favorite band. Isn’t that better than to go see a bunch of has-beens on stage in a stadium? Wouldn’t you rather see what’s going on right now in your local community, somebody that speaks to you, that talks about the air that you breathe and the water that you drink? That’s more relevant, and that’s got to be more fun, because it’s there, and it’s yours.”

Despite being active in various causes (most visibly, PETA), Hynde’s not into preaching from the stage. “I’m only there for people to enjoy themselves, really,” she says. “I’m certainly not trying to be controversial, or even thought-provoking. I have things to say if they’re interested, but you have to ask me for it. I found something out a long time ago: If someone doesn’t ask for advice and you give it to them, they’ll hate you for it.

“And as far as when we’re onstage, all I want is for at least one person to go home that night and say, ‘Wow, that was the best guitar player I ever saw.’ I mean, it won’t be me, it’ll be James Walbourne, but you know what I mean. I just want one person to go and say, ‘Wow, that was a rock ‘n’ roll band.’”

Hynde won’t be hitting up Franklin’s or La Barbecue, but she looks forward to stopping by nonetheless. “We love Austin,” she says. “Austin’s like rock central. Drag Willie Nelson along, but tell him to leave his vaporizer at home.”

When I tell her there’s actually a statue of Willie outside ACL Live, Hynde, after a beat, says, “A-MAZE-ing. Yeah. I was on his bus once and it took me three days to recover. I was only on the bus for 12 minutes, so, y’know, do the math.”

Burt Bacharach is Still Pretty Damn Cool


The following post is a revised and substantially expanded version of an article that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman/ on Nov. 21, 2014.

Inevitable preface: I don’t usually do these kinds of jazz improvisations on a journalism theme, so to speak, but  this particular subject seemed to demand a longer treatment, even if only for a blog post.

It’s a sad commentary on recent times that I’ve been thinking lately about whether I need to justify writing so much about such “trivial” things as art and music; I read the news like everyone else and am as disheartened as so many others that things lately seem to be sliding from bad to worse. Of course, if you pay attention that’s the way things always seem, but especially lately, and it’s hard to fight battles against such an overwhelming amount of stupidity, venality, selfishness and shortsightedness that you see demonstrated by people everywhere. (Not from everyone, of course, but it seems to be increasing steadily every year along with the population.)

When faced with the horrible things one watches and reads about every day — some of them very real, some of them phantoms ginned up by the less reliable elements of antisocial media — you might well ask yourself, what good does music and art do? For many, it’s just a detail, something in the background. For others, including me, it’s such a key element of life that doing without it seems unthinkable, whether you’re fortunate enough to create it or just enjoy consuming it, losing yourself in it. Music, literature and other art forms are the way we explain life to ourselves, come for lessons, come to feel, even so briefly, that we’re not alone in this mystery. And so, I don’t apologize for what I do — I greatly value these conversations, which in the best of worlds, run both ways, and I couldn’t imagine not wanting to contribute.


Some years — OK, decades — ago, when I was in high school on Long Island, the school administrators called an assembly to listen to a songwriter give a speech about his work.

The songwriter was a nondescript-looking middle-aged man named Hal David, who lived in Roslyn, a few towns over in Nassau County. David was a lyricist who had written the words to scads of hit songs composed by Burt Bacharach.

I listened raptly to Hal David’s tales of how he wrote “Alfie” and other songs. I don’t remember a lot of details, but he was amusing in a plainspoken, low-key way, and in the end he received a standing ovation from me and my fellow students.

A couple of years ago, when I mentioned this assembly to the classmates I’m still in touch with on Facebook, nobody else remembered the day we sat and listened to Hal David. But I know it happened, and when, many years later — after, in fact, Hal David had died — I got the chance to speak with the other half of the songwriting team, I told him how much of a pleasure it was for me to get the chance to do so. And it was.


Take a day trip out to the LBJ Ranch in Johnson City, Texas – properly, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park – and get on the tour bus. Towards the end of the tour, guides will play a recording of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” written in 1969 for the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and a number-one hit for singer B.J. Thomas, and inform you that it was Johnson’s favorite song.

When I tell him this, the song’s composer, Burt Bacharach, says, “Oh, that’s great. I’d never heard that. That always is terrific when you hear something like that. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, he was a good president, he really was. He got things done.”
Bacharach, who stops by the Long Center Sunday night with his seven-piece band and a trio of singers, has gotten a few things done himself. “Raindrops” was just one of a remarkable run of songs – “Walk On By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Trains and Boats and Planes,” and on and on – composed in the ′60s by Bacharach and his lyricist, the late Hal David, and sung mainly by Dionne Warwick, a vocalist born to handle the duo’s unusual use of syncopation and time signatures.

The result was music two or three degrees of sophistication beyond nearly anything else on commercial radio at the time.

Bacharach hasn’t played Austin since an October 2006 visit to the Paramount (“I remember the bats,” he says), so make no mistake: an opportunity to see the master playing his immodest amount of hits in person with 2015 knocking at the door is a special event, indeed.

Over the phone from his home in LA, the composer charms you with his earnest, deliberate manner, old-school courtesy and unpretentiousness (don’t call him Mr. Bacharach; “It’s Burt,” he insists). Listening to him talk about Hal, Dionne, and Jerry Orbach, you sometimes feel transported into an article in Esquire magazine from 1966, and involuntarily adjust an imaginary tuxedo.

He’s also the busiest 86-year-old you’ll ever encounter, and probably has more plans for the coming year than you do. If his voice is raspier than it used to be and his step maybe — maybe — a bit slower, his mind remains sharp and he doesn’t live in the past. Last January, for example, he wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal urging revisions of the antiquated regulations allowing online streaming services like Pandora and Spotify to get away with paying next to nothing in royalties to performers and songwriters, even for songs getting plays in the tens of millions. “Nobody’s thinking of how people get paid,” he says. “There’s so much free music to be had.”

When I ask, “Do you think there’s still a place for sophisticated, literate songs in today’s pop music landscape?” Bacharach laughs heartily and says, “Nope! Well, do you?

“I think there is a place, I think the songs just don’t get heard,” he clarifies. “Radio has kind of just corrupted that whole possibility, because the playlist is so short. Sting’s new musical (“The Last Ship”) is rich with music, it’s beautiful; now, will it be heard on radio? NPR, maybe. I don’t know.”

In the ′60s Bacharach seemed to bestride the world, a dashing international playboy of a songwriter. But he was also something of a late bloomer. He began his career as a pianist for various singers, notably Marlene Dietrich (for whom he also arranged and conducted), didn’t have his first hit record until he was 29 and didn’t really hit his stride until well into his 30s.

Compared with most of the other songwriting teams clustered around New York’s Brill Building, Bacharach and David, who was seven years his senior, were the adults in the room by both age and musical preference. The simple chords of early rock ′n’ roll didn’t impress Bacharach, who had cut his teeth on the bebop jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and modern classical works by Ravel, Stravinsky and others; he was also influenced by Brazilian music from the likes of Ivan Lins and Milton Nascimento.

(Snippet of interview follows)

Me: Does working with different lyricists or singers affect how you compose a song?

Bacharach: Yeah, absolutely.

Do you hear them in your head performing the work first, or…?

Yeah. We started with Dionne with “Don’t Make Me Over,” and the more I saw that she could do, the more the possibilities became musically, and I guess for Hal lyrically too, because we could stretch – all you have to do, Wes, is look at a song and say, like “Promises, Promises,” in the Broadway show it was very intense and very trying for the singer; the singer had many words and many notes. Jerry Orbach used to say, “God, why’d you have to make it so tough?” Well, I made it so tough because it has to work (out) the anger – “Promises, promises, I’m all through with promises now,” y’know, and showing him pissed off and showing him able to actually go and free himself…I have no regrets that I made it (with) that many notes and that many words. You listen to Dionne’s record, it’s so fluid and fluent, she floats through it. Effortless.

It’s like, “Syncopation? No problem.”

Yeah, and effortless. You know, in one breath, taken this way, that way, no labor, no stress doing it.

That – is the syncopation, the rush of words, the taking people in unexpected places melodically…

In principle.

That’s something that comes naturally to you –



He was a perfectionist in the studio but tripped up away from it, with an often messy private life marred by bad decisions — if you’re interested in more background on both, including his four marriages and the tragic suicide of his daughter Nikki, read his candid-to-a-fault 2013 autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart. (I didn’t elect to talk to Bacharach about his private life. I’m more interested in his music.)

If Bacharach descended into schmaltz – if commercially successful schmaltz – in the ’80s, he became hipper than ever in the ′90s, working with Elvis Costello and seeing his songs covered by appreciative rockers like Chrissie Hynde, Oasis, Sheryl Crow and Ben Folds Five.

In recent years he’s been working on not one but two stage musicals with Costello, with whom he collaborated on the remarkable 1998 comeback CD “Painted From Memory.” Bacharach and Costello have long been noted as one of music’s odder couples, but there’s no denying the chemistry of their complementary sensibilities; aside from Hal David, has Bacharach ever had a more productive pairing with a writing partner?

One musical, currently on hold, is based on the “Austin Powers” movies (in which Bacharach appeared in cameos as a talisman of ’60s cool). What kind of tunes, one wonders, did they end up crafting for this. “Some are funny, but they’re not like run-of-the-mill songs,” he says. “Because I don’t write that way. But they’re good.”

The other work, based on “Painted From Memory,” is a creative alliance between Bacharach, Costello and Chuck Lorre, the TV writer and producer behind “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory” and a songwriter and musician himself. Bacharach calls it “a serious, dark drama musical.”

On top of this, he’ll soon be collaborating with a couple of country songwriters – Bacharach scholars might note here that his first hit, “The Story Of My Life,” reached number one on the country charts for Marty Robbins in 1957.

“Not that I know how to write a country song,” he notes. “I don’t know what a country song is, really. Right now the country market is so male-dominated, ‘I love my pickup truck and a bottle of beer.’ But good songs still have a chance there. I start the day after Thanksgiving with Tim Nichols, who’s coming out here, and he’s a very good country writer. We’ll see what we come up with. Harmonically, I don’t think guitar-wise. I’m more keyboard-oriented, and (don’t think in) simple, plain three-note chord songs or basic chords with no sevenths, no seconds or anything like that.”

Bacharach has always enjoyed performing live, which is why he still does it.

“When you are playing for people, it’s a great kind of a contact,” he says. “I don’t like it when the room is dark, ′cause you’re just playing in a sea of blackness — I like to see people, I like to see their reactions. If there’s a tear shed, I like to see that. If they’re moved, it makes it all worthwhile. If they’re touched, if they feel good, if you can make somebody feel good for a couple of minutes in their day, that’s a big reward.”


At the Long Center that Sunday night, November 23, he walked out from the wings, casual but impeccable as usual in a blue blazer, neatly pressed dark jeans, and a tieless blue shirt, to tremendous applause from the mostly older crowd. Burt hadn’t only shown up, he was in command, a maestro seated center stage at his Steinway Grand, confident and in his element as he directed the players with quick, minimal arm movements, and relayed brief anecdotes about the songs throughout the concert. As noted, Bacharach is a raspy-voiced singer of limited range, but when he took on “The Look of Love” and “Alfie,” you held your breath as time stopped and just appreciated what he was giving us. Even his minimalist reading of “Wives and Lovers” – a pop song saddled with some of the most sexist lyrics of all time – was a revelation, more of a plea than an breezy anthem.

The seven-piece band — including, naturally, a flugelhorn player (“the sound of the ’60s,” as Mrs. Pogoer put it), Bacharach’s 21-year-old son Oliver on occasional piano, and a trio of three versatile singers, John Pagano, Donna Taylor and  Josie James — moved seamlessly from one hit to the next in a seemingly endless stream (see the set list below, which I scribbled down while I listened in a semi-trance).  I couldn’t find another review of the Austin show online, but for comparison, here’s a review of the show he did two days before in Kansas City and here’s a video of “I Say A Little Prayer” in concert in Ravello, Italy last summer that shows the same basic stage setup.

Call it easy-listening or elevator music if you like; to me, it was two solid hours of classy, superb pop, and it felt like coming home. Believe it or not, Bacharach, at 86, still seemed to be at the top of his game.


Reasonably accurate set list at Burt Bacharach’s concert at the Long Center, Austin, Nov. 23, 2014 (includes medleys):

What The World Needs Now

Don’t Make Me Over

Walk On By

This Guy’s In Love With You

I Say a Little Prayer

Trains and Boats and Planes

Wishin’ and Hopin’

Always Something There to Remind Me

One Less Bell to Answer

I’ll Never Fall in Love Again

Only Love can Break a Heart

Do You Know the Way to San Jose

Anyone Who Had a Heart

God Give Me Strength

Waiting for Charlie to Come Home (Etta James, b-side of “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” recorded 1962, lyrics by Bob Hilliard)

Love Theme from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

My Little Red Book (“My only attempt at writing a rock ‘n’ roll song”)_

Windows of the World

Baby It’s You

Message to Michael

Make It Easy on Yourself

On My Own

Close To You

The Look of Love (sung by Burt)

Arthur’s Theme

What’s New Pussycat

The World Is A Circle

The April Fools

Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Wives and Lovers (sung by Burt, very minimalist, quiet version)


A House is Not a Home


Two new-ish songs whose titles I don’t know, but they were good (from Some Lovers, a 2011 musical Bacharach wrote with lyricist Steven Sater and the composer’s first musical since Promises, Promises)

Any Day Now

That’s What Friends Are For

Second Encore: Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (audience singalong)

The secret history of ‘Dirty Dancing’ and why it’s still topical

[As published in the Austin American-Statesman, Nov. 9, 2014.]

More often than not, movies that not only become massive hits, but endure through the decades as iconic cultural snapshots of their era — think “Star Wars,” “Rocky,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” — begin their lives as small projects with limited, or even nonexistent, expectations. So it was with a low-budget romantic drama released in the summer of 1987, set in a resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains in the summer of ’63, with a cast short on big names and a director who had previously only filmed documentaries. Upon viewing the movie, one of the producers spouted, “Burn the negative and take the insurance.”

Hundreds of millions in box office and home-video sales and a multi-platinum soundtrack album later, the movie spawned a stage musical that’s toured Australia, Europe and North America in the past decade and hits Bass Concert Hall on Tuesday. And if you’ve read this far, face it: You know you want to go.

We speak, of course, of “Dirty Dancing.” No, it’s not the greatest movie ever made. Call it a cheesy, guilty-pleasure chick flick if you like; anachronisms and plot holes abound if you look closely, and some of the acting doesn’t exactly call to mind Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis. But none of that matters when you’ve got Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in their career-defining roles as working-class dance instructor Johnny Castle and idealistic, sheltered 17-year-old doctor’s daughter Frances “Baby” Houseman, and those steamy dance scenes where the fumes from actors playing hormone-soaked adolescents and twentysomethings practically come off the screen. (Spoiler alert: If you don’t know the story, plot points are discussed ahead.)

But keep looking closely and you’ll notice real social commentary sneaking in amid all the grinding and secret trysts. Few movies have used a hazardous illegal abortion as a central plot point, or depict class distinctions in the USA with such matter-of-fact astringency. Take Robbie, the self-serving young waiter about to enter med school who got Johnny’s dance partner Penny pregnant but doesn’t care, dismissing her as he flashes an Ayn Rand novel in Baby’s face (he doesn’t fare well).

Meant to evoke an end-of-an-era feel — for America’s innocence before JFK’s assassination, even for childhood itself — 27 years after its release, “Dirty Dancing” now delivers a heady dose of ’80s nostalgia to boot. We recently spoke by phone with the ultimate “Dirty Dancing” insider: Eleanor Bergstein, the screenwriter and co-producer behind the original movie and creator of the stage production.

Bergstein, a doctor’s daughter who grew up in Brooklyn, was called “Baby” until she was 21 and vacationed in the Catskills with her family, where she participated in spicy mambo competitions from age 13 on. While in college, she became an instructor in an Arthur Murray dance studio. But don’t ask her if “Dirty Dancing” is autobiographical: She’s a novelist and screenwriter, after all.

“You use something from every part of your life,” she says. “That’s why I say when people think I’m Baby, there’s as much Johnny in me as Baby.”

Bergstein says that before the film was released, “We expected nothing but total disgrace and humiliation. Partly because when it was finished, everybody hated it. Nobody had any hope for this movie at all.”

Just as Grey wasn’t a typical leading lady, “Dirty Dancing” differed from previous popular movies fueled by dance rhythms, particularly “Flashdance” and “Footloose,” which Bergstein calls “crazy fantasies which had no reality base in mind.”

The movie undoubtedly has a huge female fan base and appeals so much to preteens that it’s sometimes called “’Star Wars’ for girls.” Mention this to Bergstein, though, and she’ll bristle a bit and relate one anecdote after another to prove that “Dancing” has a sizable male following. She’ll talk about the field hands in Tuscany who joyfully tossed their hats into the air when Baby’s father snatched the money away from Robbie at the end, and the scores of Australian truck drivers who apparently travel with a copy of the movie in a portable DVD player and watch it at every rest stop.

Because the stage show is longer than the movie, Bergstein added new material, some about the ’60s civil rights movement and some about the illegal abortion. She notes how few movies since “Dirty Dancing” have dealt with the topic at all.

“In the last 25 years,” she says, “most of the movies, even the cutting-edge things like ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Juno’ and ‘Knocked Up,’ always end up with the girl not having the abortion, but having her baby. And she doesn’t end up, of course, in a shelter or with the baby in some terrible shape. She gets married and lives on Central Park West, and it’s all very nice. Somehow, in some very subtle way, it stopped being in the national conversation.

“So many things happened then: Young men going across the world to fight in a war that they didn’t believe in, young blacks going down to a Freedom March being thrown into swamps and killed in the street, so many things. Believe me, I have no joy in saying, ‘Look at that, it’s a topical show.’ I just feel, ‘Oh my God, I thought some of these battles had been fought, and here they are back again.’ That’s very sad.”

We’re a long way from “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

Enough with the links: Original Content Monday on Facebook

Facebook annoys me. I know, I’m not the only one. The constant data mining, the behind-the-scenes manipulation, the mass delusion of the users that they have some say in how they use the site (in reality, they have not much more say than sausage has in how it’s getting stuffed at the Jimmy Dean factory).

Modest proposal for a palace revolt? Let’s start with a small blow for creativity. Henceforth, devote Mondays to original content on FB. No links to Salon or Slate, unless it’s to posts you wrote your own self. No Upworthy, no Huffington Post, no NY Times or Mother Jones or MSNBC or Fox or even the local paper.

Just. Original. Content. Stuff you did yourself. Your own opinions, whether published anywhere else or just for your Friends. Books, magazine articles, blog posts, poems, whatever, as long as it’s yours. You can link to anything you created yourself — music videos, photos (professional or not), portfolios of your sculptures or paintings or dress designs or even, help us all, ad campaigns.

No links to editorials with a short note from you saying “Worth the Read.” No YouTube videos. No stories about that couple married 62 years who died within 22 minutes of each other (only women seem to like posting that one). No photos of puppies, unless they happen to be yours. Deal?

Call it Original Content Monday, which will be universally abbreviated within nine days to #OCM.

Let’s go.