Sunday, July 21, 2013

Back To Bacharach

I just read Burt Bacharach's memoir Anyone Who Had A Heart.  Bacharach has a curious place in American music--he came of age pre-rock and roll, and never fit in that world, yet had his greatest success alongside the glory days of rock.  So he's got this distinctive sound that conjures up the 60s like no other, yet is unlike anything else from that age.

Bacharach was born in 1928 and grew up in Forest Hills, New York.  His family was Jewish, but that doesn't seem to be a central part of his identity.  His dad was Bert Bacharach, famous columnist, but Burt was a quiet, shy type who studied music and went in his own direction, eventually eclipsing his father's fame.

Burt studied music at McGill University and after a stint in the army worked as a pianist, conductor and arranger for various acts, most notably Marlene Dietrich's.  They had a close but not sexual relationship, and she was a big supporter in his early songwriting efforts.  From her he learned professionalism--she'd take as long as necessry to get it right, and go on even when hurt.

Burt married--and divorced--young to a beautiful woman named Paula Stewart. Burt himself was devilishly handsome, in a world where most songwriters (as he notes) look like dentists. So he never had trouble finding women.  He later married and divorced Angie Dickinson and Carole Bayer Sager before settling down in his 60s with Jane Hansen, a ski instructor half his age.  The daughter he had with Dickinson, Nikki, was a troubled child and the couple, before and after their split, had trouble with her.  As an adult, she'd commit suicide.

There's plenty in the book about his personal life (and personal failings) but it's the music we care about.  He worked as a songwriter in the Brill Building starting in the 50s, and worked with several lyricists before settling on his greatest partner, Hal David (who looked like a dentist).  David's lyrics may not always be the most inspiring, but he knew how to come up with a phrase ("LA is a great big freeway/ put a hundred down and buy a car") and he knew how to make the words sit right on the music. Later the two became associated with singer Dionne Warwick, who became the best-known exponent of their songs.

Burt not only composed, but worked in the studio, trying to control every aspect of his songs.  He has too many hits to list, but just a few might give an indication of his style and range: "Baby It's You," "(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance" (not used in the film), "A House Is Not A Home," (There's) Always Something There To Remind Me" (love the parenthetical "there's"), "Alfie" (maybe his personal favorite though it's never done it for me), "What The World Needs Now Is Love," "24 Hours From Tulsa," "What's New Pussycat?," "The Look Of Love," "(They Long To Be) Close To You," "Wives And Lovers," "My Little Red Book," "Do You Know The Way To San Jose," "This Guy's In Love With You" and "I Say A Little Prayer."

His music tends to be more jazz-inflected than the rock of his day, using, generally, more sophisticated harmonies.  He also lets the lines run as long as he thinks they need to be--he won't force a line to be four or eight bars if seven or nine or thirteen feels better, and if he wants to change the time signature throughout the song, or use a lot of syncopation, that's fine, too.  He's also notable for his imaginative orchestrations.

He was occasionally asked to write songs for movies, and was nominated for several Academy Awards, finally winning on his fourth try for "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head." Years later he got another Oscar for "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)."  He was also asked to write the score for a Broadway show, Promises Promises, which turned out to be a huge success and produced three hits--the title tune, "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" and "Knowing When To Leave."  Yet he never really wanted to be on Broadway and didn't enjoy the experience.

Bacharach also became a popular recording artist himself and spent more and more time performing.  But the 60s were his height, and he never reached that level of success--or quality, I'd say--again.  The turning point may have been his score for the 1973 film Lost Horizon.  It was a notorious flop, and not only humiliated him and hurt his credibility, but also led to him breaking up with his collaborators David and Warwick. He'd continue to have the occasional hit--sometimes writing with his new love and lyricist Carole Bayer Sager--but it hasn't been the same since.

Still, his music is alive. In fact, he keeps getting rediscovered.  He and Elvis Costello collaborated on a song and then an album  He appeared in the first two Austin Powers films.  His music was featured in My Best Friend's Wedding.  And so on.

To this day, he's working on new projects.  Maybe we'll hear from him again.


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