Burt Bacharach is Still Pretty Damn Cool

Burt_B_conductingBurt_Bacharach_2014

The following post is a revised and substantially expanded version of an article that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman/austin360.com 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.

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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.

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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 –

Exactly.

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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.”

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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.

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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)

Alfie

A House is Not a Home

Encore:

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)

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