Baby, It's Him

Burt Bacharach isn't making a comeback -- he never left

In person, Burt Bacharach seems smaller than he does when you see him on television or in old photos, standing next to ex-wives Angie Dickinson or Carole Bayer Sager. His arms are twig thin, and his face is a little more gaunt than it was back when he was pop's leading man. And when he wears jeans and running shoes and an Austin Powers T-shirt (as he does on this night), he seems a bit more ... mortal than his myth would seem to allow. Even his handshake is slight, like a whisper.

But when you are as big as Bacharach -- when you have contributed so much to pop music, when you created so much of the language we now take for granted -- even the smallest things seem enormous.

Take, for example, this evening's performance -- an intimate, small-scale concert in front of no more than 30 people, who are piled into SIR Studios on Sunset and Vine in Los Angeles. It's early September of last year, and the 69-year-old Bacharach is putting the finishing touches on a career-retrospective concert that will include not only the ritual hits but some forgotten gems dating back 40 years, when people still bought Perry Como records. For this retrospective, Bacharach has eschewed the orchestras with which he has surrounded himself for decades; he has ditched the voice of so many of his songs, Dionne Warwick. Instead, he has gathered a dozen or so performers and three singers -- two female, one male -- who help polish the tarnished gold and make it shine as though brand new.

He has also gathered a few family members, some friends and business associates and a handful of fortunate journalists, all of whom are treated to a repertoire of songs that are so timeless, so affecting, so absolutely perfect as to seem plucked straight from the brain's pleasure center. Every piece Bacharach and his band perform this night -- and there are dozens, dating all the way to "Magic Moments," one of the first songs Bacharach and lyricist Hal David wrote together -- was once a hit. They're songs filled with melodies and lyrics you've memorized without even trying. Behind the keyboards, Bacharach moves with every note and mouths every word. He stands on the pedals like a runner in the starting blocks. He's mesmerizing to watch, a kaleidoscope of movement and noise always seeking perfection.

"The attractive thing about that show is [we were] doing songs I've never done live -- well, almost never," he says a few weeks later, sitting now in a majestic I.M. Pei-designed Dallas concert hall, preparing to perform the familiar old songs with a familiar old partner, Dionne Warwick. (He's currently playing select dates, alternating larger, safer shows with the intimate retrospective he rehearsed at SIR.) "Some of those songs I haven't thought about in years. I mean, 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'? 'The World Is a Circle'? 'Magic Moments'? " He pauses and grins, then speaks again in that Chablis-and-cigarette voice. "Jesus. It's fun."

Those fool enough to speak of a Bacharach renaissance -- on the heels of a John Zorn-produced tribute album that's no homage; a McCoy Tyner homage that's more water than wine; his work with Elvis Costello, which will soon result in a collaborative album; his music's appearance in such films as Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and My Best Friend's Wedding; a couple of commercials using his music; and dozens of magazine articles trumpeting his comeback -- miss the point. You can't come back from here.

To recite the list of songs written by Bacharach and David and to catalog the roster of artists who have covered them is to recount the history of modern pop music; few other composers can claim to have been performed by Perry Como, the Drifters, Elvis Presley, Andy Williams, Benny Goodman, Elvis Costello, Isaac Hayes, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Stranglers, the Bay City Rollers and Bomb the Bass. To have withstood Ethyl Meatplow's take on "(They Long to Be) Close to You" alone is to prove one's invincibility. Bacharach's songs from the 1960s and early 1970s are more than golden oldies; they're indestructible, complex, dense pieces of pleasure that eat you up the first or millionth time you hear them. Bacharach gave the lyrics of Hal David -- sad, wonderful words, three-dimensional falling-in-and-out-of-love songs that sought the middle ground between sadness and satisfaction -- a heartbeat. Bacharach, who came of age working for Marlene Dietrich and hanging around bebop clubs in New York, brought the lyrics to life with tangled arrangements and time signatures and voicings, by making the song less about what the words meant and more about how they felt. The tunes are perfect creations, where intangible emotion meets tender flesh. Only a handful of pop songwriters have managed to create such music, such men as Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. And only Bacharach and a few contemporaries, including Jimmy Webb and Randy Newman, belong among their Tin Pan Alley ranks.

"But I never could stand back and smell the roses very much or have any kind of historical sense of what was going on," Bacharach says of the songs he and David wrote during their days spent in the Brill Building, New York City's storied songwriting factory. "I was going so fast and working so much I was hard-pressed to even take a vacation.

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