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Baby, It's Him

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.

"Part of you always feels not so special, not so good, not such a great writer. You steal a little bit, you don't need to work so hard, something's derivative. But then you meet somebody like Miles Davis who says, 'I like that,' or he looks to hang out with you, and then you start to say, 'Miles Davis? Maybe he's not that wrong, maybe I really got something.' But back then, I had a chance to write material that had a chance to survive, to make standards."

Yet only two of Bacharach's original A&M releases remain in print -- the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid soundtrack and 1987's horrible, hooked-on-Muzak Greatest Hits, which sounds as if it were recorded in a dentist's waiting room. The soundtrack to Casino Royale, the James Bond parody that featured Herb Alpert and Dusty Springfield's immortal takes on "The Look of Love," now sells for hundreds of dollars on vinyl; it has long since disappeared from record-store shelves, and it doesn't exist on CD.

Such poor caretaking does not well serve a legacy only now being appreciated and understood. Imagine the reaction of a kid who goes to the CD shop after hearing that Noel Gallagher leapt on stage with Bacharach to sing "This Guy's in Love with You," only to find that the only version available is one not even a parent could love. The most important pop songwriter of the 1960s, a man whose resume reads like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame entrance exam, can only exist for so long off the royalties of reverence; his work must be heard to be treasured, examined to be respected. Rhino Records has long promised a boxed set, but it's nowhere near completion.

Bacharach once seemed a thing of the past -- a vestige of a time when pop music was opulent and untold, when cotton-candy strings swelled with teary-eyed grandeur and women named Dionne and Cilla and Dusty turned stark lyrics about heartbreak and hurt into the stuff of adult poetry. But lately he has been lionized by virtually everyone, starting with the lounge crowd, the swingers who take their Bacharach with a little Martini & Rossi on ice. Somewhere between the hit parade and royalty-rate retirement -- between "The Look of Love" greatness and "That's What Friends Are For" detritus -- Bacharach became the missing link, the long-lost influence, the hero cited by the alternative crowd when its members seek to wrap themselves in the credibility of cool. But don't be fooled by the Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Stipe and Oasis endorsements; you don't need John Grisham to tell you William Faulkner was a good writer.

And you don't need John Zorn to remind you that Burt Bacharach is a great composer either, no matter how heartfelt the sentiments may be. It's sadly ironic that many of the songs on Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach -- a "tribute" released on Zorn's own Tzadik label as part of his ongoing Radical Jewish Culture project -- have chosen to celebrate Bacharach's immortal music by so completely fucking with it that you can't recognize the results without looking at the song list. What, after all, is the point of paying homage to one of the greatest melody writers and arrangers of all time by allowing Joey Baron to reduce "Alfie," among the most complex and heartbreaking melodies Bacharach ever penned, to nothing more than a drum solo?

Bacharach, for his part, doesn't listen to others' interpretations of his music. He's flattered by McCoy Tyner's recent album of his compositions, What the World Needs Now, but uninterested in the idea of actually playing it.

"I just saw the sheet music someone sent me from Australia of 'I Say a Little Prayer' by Diana King [from My Best Friend's Wedding]," Bacharach says. "I'm glad the record is a hit, and I was curious about the sheet music. And sure enough, they had changed the piano bar and time signature on the chorus to match with how Diana King does it on the record. If you ask me do I like it better than what I wrote originally, the answer is no -- it doesn't make any sense. But it made sense to them.

 

"It's funny -- I can't go in for listening to my material. I have a hard time with it. You know, it's not even that I'm going to feel uncomfortable hearing it. I'm very happy they did it. But maybe it's partially that I don't want to be disappointed. And another part is that I want to think ahead."

Indeed, Bacharach spent the better part of last year writing songs with Elvis Costello for an album they hoped to begin recording in December; at the time of the interview, Bacharach figured he and Costello were up to ten songs. Their partnership -- which began with "God Give Me Strength" from the film Grace of My Heart, a fictional account of the Brill Building's heyday -- is hardly an unexpected one; Costello recorded Bacharach's "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself" two decades ago on Live Stiffs. But it's too simple to say that Costello is Bacharach's new Hal David, just as it was too easy to describe Elvis as this year's John Lennon when he collaborated with Paul McCartney in the late 1980s. After all, Costello isn't just a lyricist; he's an obsessive melody writer as well, apt to call Bacharach in the middle of the night with not just a handful of lyrics, but also a new bridge or chorus.

"He's a good risk-taker, a serious risk-taker," Bacharach says of Costello. "He takes his chances, like with the Brodsky Quartet. He's got a group of hard-core people who are his fans, and they're going to say, 'Dammit, Burt Bacharach? The king of the middle-of-the-road writing with Elvis?' But it's an interesting thing ... He's a brilliant lyricist -- I won't even suggest a word to him, because he's one of the great, great writers -- and musically, he brings to certain songs, more than others, a distinctly Elvis core.

"Hal basically did his work with the lyrics. With Elvis, things spill over into the music. I think that the possibility of a tour is really intriguing with Elvis. We've talked about it, and it's going to be a hell of a tour once the album is out. Elvis will do his chunk of what people expect him to, then I do my chunk, then we wind up doing an hour together."

Bacharach might well have disappeared during the late 1970s and 1980s; save for a few soundtrack contributions, including "Arthur's Theme," he seemed to stumble without Hal David, who had an acrimonious split with his partner. Bacharach's output, once so complex, turned into Muzak; the grand orchestras gave way to tinny keyboards, and the depth felt suddenly very shallow.

The album with Costello could change all that; "Grace of My Heart," which also appears on Live on Letterman: Music from the Late Show (the new album of music from The Late Show with David Letterman), is not a flawless gem, but it does more than simply remind us of what once was. The Elvis-Burt record could herald the Bacharach renaissance we only read about last year -- instead of paying tribute to the past, we might be able to celebrate a bright present.

Not that Bacharach isn't above a little homage: In April, he will gather a dozen singers -- the likely roster so far includes Costello, Warwick, Oasis's Noel Gallagher and Luther Vandross -- for a special to be taped in New York City and broadcast on TNT. They will recite all the sacred texts one more time, and Bacharach will make sure they get it right.

"I like performing these songs," he says, smiling. "It's not like I walk down the streets in Santa Monica and get a standing ovation, you know? A composer always has contact with his audience, but it's not like performing. The fact that I'm recognizable to people, that they come up in airports and on planes and say, 'I really like your music' -- what more could you want?


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