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Burt Bacharach Comes Back

The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection

compilation produced by Patrick Milligan
Rhino, $49.98, three compact discs

Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach

executive producer, John Zorn
Tzadik, $22.97, two compact discs,

1.

This is what a cultural resurrection looks like nowadays when the system is really working. The machinery is oiled and the gears properly lined up as a body of once-discarded material is inserted again and permitted to work its way, at first randomly (as a test) and then with increasing calculation, through the layers of the marketing universe, to issue as a collection of shrinkwrapped products to be duly catalogued and appraised in a range of magazines and television shows.

The case in point is that of the music of Burt Bacharach, the songwriter, film composer, arranger, and producer (and sometime performer) who enjoyed a remarkable run of hit records throughout the 1960s and then largely disappeared from view, after a disastrous 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon and the breakup of his long collaboration with the lyricist Hal David. In the twelve years or so of unbroken success preceding the Shangri-La debacle, he had come to be viewed not only as a last bastion of the Tin Pan Alley tradition of the well-crafted song—hitting the Top 40 again and again with songs that even Tony Bennett could love—but as an involuntary emblem of whatever notion of luxurious glamour the beleaguered epoch could cling to. If discussions of his music tended to revolve around the complexity of its meters or the novelty of its instrumentation, discussions of Bacharach himself focused on things like his marriage (one of four) in 1965 to Angie Dickinson, the casual elegance of his clothes, the relaxed, almost bashful grace with which he appeared to enjoy the comfortable trappings of his life, his movie-star looks (he was, in the words of Sammy Cahn, “the only songwriter who doesn’t look like a dentist”).

The brilliance of his music seemed to bestow on him the rare fate of being able to enjoy his good fortune without the slightest twinge of guilt: he was simply the luckiest of guys. Then, having achieved this apotheosis, he proceeded to fade slowly into a Southern Californian haze. Not that he ever stopped working, or indeed altogether stopped having hits; he won an Oscar for the main title theme from the 1981 movie Arthur; he married the songwriter Carole Bayer Sager and collaborated with her extensively; with Sager and a number of others he wrote the 1985 song “That’s What Friends Are For,” whose profits were donated to help fund AIDS research. These however were little more than after-echoes of the stream of songs he wrote for Dionne Warwick and other singers during the period that generated now-standard tunes such as “Wives and Lovers” (1963), “Walk On By” (1964), “What the World Needs Now Is Love” (1965), “Alfie,” and “I Say a Little Prayer” (both 1967), to cite only some of those that have been most hackneyed through repetition.

Perhaps the worst enemy of Bacharach’s reputation was the numbing effect of hearing his five or six most familiar songs trotted out on oldies stations or transmuted into appropriate background music for the waiting room at the clinic or the lull before the in-flight movie starts. After a decade or so of “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” its once-novel melody seemed no more adventurous a prospect than a promenade on a treadmill. It became difficult to hear the orchestral textures and structural intricacies that had once made Bacharach’s music seem an exploration of interesting and unknown territory. Far from being an emblem of what was most exciting about popular music in the 1960s, Bacharach was on his way to becoming a symbol of the sort of scientifically crafted, antiseptically perfect romantic balladry that ends up being sold as fodder for nostalgia to insomniacs—“this collection is not available in stores”—on late-night television.

Bacharach’s reemergence became noticeable when younger musicians such as Elvis Costello, Eric Matthews, the Cranberries, Oasis, Yo La Tengo, Stereolab, and the Pizzicato Five began to pay tribute through “cover versions” (reinterpretations), imitations, and allusions, or gave interviews making much of Bacharach’s influence on their work. The revamping, or more precisely reversal, of Bacharach’s reputation evolved further under the guidance of the composer John Zorn, who oversaw performances of Bacharach’s music (newly arranged or disarranged) at the Knitting Factory and elsewhere by a variety of downtown New York avant-gardists inspired by what Zorn described as “advanced harmonies and chord changes with unexpected turnarounds and modulations, unusual changing time signatures and rhythmic twists, often in uneven numbers of bars.” This extended project culminated in a number of concerts uptown at the Kaufman Cultural Center in 1997, and the simultaneous release (under the provocatively puzzling rubric of Great Jewish Music) of a double-CD set featuring such postmodern all-arounders as the guitarist Marc Ribot, the trumpet player Dave Douglas, and the cellist Erik Friedlander.

While such approval bestowed a kind of hipness by association, a more mainstream recycling was achieved through the interpolation of Bacharach’s old songs into the soundtracks of movies such as The First Wives Club, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Since movie soundtracks now are often simply compilations of pre-existing recordings, they serve to introduce younger audiences to the hits of previous generations, a purpose once served by television variety shows of a sort that no longer exists. The expanding Internet, in the meantime, revealed an international corps of Bacharach aficionados, Nils of Sweden and Roberto of Italy and Ian of Australia and the fan who declared “I am Japanese Bacharachmania,” tirelessly swapping factoids and lists of favorite songs. The revival had gathered sufficient steam by 1997 to prompt a campy guest appearance in the retro-Sixties comedy Austin Powers, in which Bacharach came dangerously close to figuring as a sort of Liberace of the Pop Art era.

Bacharach naturally participated in the revival, staging a highly successful tour with the singer of his greatest hits, Dionne Warwick, with whom he also appeared on a luxurious New Year’s Eve special calculated to suggest the return of an elegance lost since, say, Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians; collaborating successfully with Elvis Costello on the song “God Give Me Strength” (from the movie Grace of My Heart), and following it up with Painted From Memory, a heavily promoted album of new songs co-written with Costello. (The album turned out to be something of a return to form, despite the limitations of Costello’s singing.) Another television special, “One Amazing Night,” featured Bacharach in company with contemporary stars such as Sheryl Crow, All Saints, and Barenaked Ladies, and was subsequently released in CD and video form. In the meantime, a flood of CD reissues of earlier recordings has culminated in an ambitious box set from Rhino (The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection) which surveys Bacharach’s progress in the years since his first hit, the 1957 Marty Robbins record “The Story of My Life.”

In such a process, the myth of the original career is amplified by the myth of the return, each step of the comeback charted as part of a legendary progression: years of glory, years in limbo, years of triumphant rebirth. The past is symbolically brought into the present, so that through the contemplation of Bacharach and his music—not as museum exhibit but as living presence—latter-day devotees can gain access to a realm of lost bliss. By a back-derivation typical of pop revivals, the fantasy glamour of the original songs is translated into a description of the era in which they originated, as if life in the early Sixties had been a live-action Dionne Warwick song, with deft periodic accentuation by oboe, xylophone, or celeste. For those who were there the first time around—including those of us who were Bacharach enthusiasts, for whom, before Pet Sounds or Revolver, the 1964 Kapp release Burt Bacharach—Hit Maker! was the cult album of choice—it all has the predictable eeriness of seeing experience transmuted into its movie-of-the-week version, as one moment’s dawning sensibility becomes another’s irresistible marketing opportunity.

Bacharach of course always had as many detractors as admirers. That Rhino’s new box set has been received with contempt in some quarters—Robert Christgau in The Village Voice spoke of “fancy hackwork,” while Neil Strauss of The New York Times announced that “the Burt Bacharach revival stops here”—may reflect an ancient antipathy among those who preferred their rock-and-roll untainted by association with string sections, nightclubs, television specials, or the likes of such “plastic” middle-of-the-road pop singers as Tony Orlando, Tom Jones, or the Carpenters. On the other hand, as the critic Francis Davis observed in a remarkable essay on the history of Bacharach’s reputation, “he is a cultural signifier…pressed into service by pop-record reviewers to commend groups that at least recognize the value of good songs, even if they haven’t figured out how to write any yet.”1 Bacharach was often enough invoked in the Sixties as a rejoinder to the musically illiterate, virtually as a remnant of higher culture holding his own against the onslaught of untutored garage bands. The singer Anthony Newley was quoted to that effect on the back of Hit Maker!2 : “Burt Bacharach has revolutionized the world of commercial recording in the most unlikely way—he has replaced noise with creative music.”

In the event, Bacharach’s revolution was to be drowned out by layers of noise that would have been unimaginable to Newley, who presumably was reacting against nothing more threatening to his sense of musical decorum than the Rolling Stones’ “I Wanna Be Your Man” or perhaps “Surfin’ Bird,” by the Trashmen, instead of anticipating further decades of psychedelic jams, heavy metal three-chord anthems, punk abrasions, and rumbling chasms of trance-inducing amplified bass patterns.

2.

The question remains how much the renewed appeal of Bacharach’s work owes to the fortuitous kitschiness of the associations it can evoke, to what extent he endures as an artifact of the martini-and-cigar subculture, a mere strand in the gaudy tapestry of Lounge: the music track for a lost dream of adulthood set in an alternative Kennedy Era, in which the man who reads Playboy meets the Cosmopolitan girl on a spring evening in Central Park and discovers that Romance really exists.

The wider backdrop to Bacharach’s comeback was the lounge music revival, a phenomenon involving the recycling of Hawaiian exotica and spy movie soundtracks, surf instrumentals, bachelor-pad classics of the stereophonic revolution by easy-listening maestros such as Juan Garcia Esquivel and Ferrante & Teicher, bouncy main title themes from Italian sex comedies, “smooth jazz” (as the current nomenclature has it) in the manner of the vibraphonist Cal Tjader and the pianist Vince Guaraldi, big-band adaptations of pop tunes and TV detective themes, the back catalogs of forgotten torch singers and second-tier nightclub crooners, perhaps at the outer limit Dean Martin singing Christmas favorites: a permissive range extending almost (but not quite) as far as garage-sale standbys like Andre Kostelanetz and Mantovani.

Permissiveness is the key here. The listener is encouraged to surrender to music that not so long ago might have been defined as the Other, the enemy, the counter-counterculture, but at the same time he is left free to distort or reimagine it in any way that suits. History in this sense amounts to little more than a crowded closet from which, with a bit of scrounging, useable bits of fabric or costume jewelry can be salvaged.

Lounge music” is a deliberately unhistorical term designed to allow customers to recombine disparate bits of the past into whatever musical world they want. A capacious reference book, MusicHound Lounge: The Essential Album Guide to Martini Music and Easy Listening,3 proposes a category encompassing Coleman Hawkins, Gordon Lightfoot, Nino Rota, The Four Preps, Jimmy Durante, Tito Puente, Carmen McRae, the 101 Strings, the Swingle Singers, Erik Satie, and Rodgers and Hart, not to mention the good-for-a-laugh albums released by such “singers” as Leonard Nimoy and Robert Mitchum. (No one has yet reissued the album where Yvette Mimieux read the poetry of Baudelaire accompanied by Ali Akhbar Khan on sarod, but the moment cannot be too far distant.) “Lounge music” has a definition whose purpose is to undermine the notion of definition as such, appropriately for a mix’n’match music cobbled out of any elements that grab you: Marimba? Theremin? Bossa nova beat? Cheesy echo effects? Hammond organ? Surf guitar? Close harmony background singers? Mariachi trumpet? Cowbells? Tuned bongos? Wind chimes? Press the buttons for the fantasy combo of your choice and a mix tape will be generated automatically.

Partly lounge music represents a generational shift conspiring to admit a range of musical effects that rock had excluded in order to preserve the purity of its identity. If one posits (as a worst-case scenario) a sonic consciousness restricted to heavy metal, punk, and grunge, and then imagines the sudden infusion of, say, the instrumental “exotica” of the bandleader Martin Denny, it becomes possible to grasp the revolutionary possibilities of tracks like “Stone God” or “Jungle River Boat.” A new sensuous universe opens. Glissandos, bird calls, the undulation of waves and steel guitars: the massage music works its way into pressure points that grunge had failed to reach. Irony quickly becomes a dead issue: finally you are left alone with your ears. Either you get pleasure from listening to Martin Denny or the Hollyridge Strings, or you don’t; the only variations are on the order of how much pleasure, repeated how many times. Irony meets its double, banality, as the alienated contemplation of schmaltz merges with the unrepentant enjoyment of it; or doesn’t quite merge, the mind clinging to a detachment in which unironic enjoyment is almost successfully simulated. You get all the pleasurable abandon of sincerity with none of the heartbreak.

There is a certain appropriateness in the soundtrack of fin-de-siècle America shaping up as a potpourri of decades-old mood music, movie music, elevator-and-supermarket music. Having long since got used to hearing canned versions of Bob Marley and Talking Heads en route to the dairy-products aisle, we will not find it so hard to accept the ersatz as ultimate authenticity. The point is not roots but connections, the more far-fetched the better. How far from its point of origin can an artifact wash up? How wildly can its original intent be distorted while remaining tantalizingly recognizable? It becomes part of listening to chart the migration of materials, to note, for instance, how the Bacharach-David number “Me Japanese Boy I Love You,” a sleekly efficient Orientalist confection originally sung by Bobby Goldsboro in 1964, is eventually woven by the Japanese group the Pizzicato Five into their methodically hip pop-art collages of an imaginary 1960s in which James Bond and Twiggy figure as benign, lighter-than-air demigods. In the world of lounge music, collage is indispensable, if only because there is so much music to be listened to—a whole world of buried recordings—that only by mixing it up as rapidly and heterogeneously as possible can one even begin to sample all the different genres and subgenres.

It was sampling (the extrapolation of fragments of preexisting recordings into repeated figures, or their insertion as isolated sound effects, a practice that has transformed pop music) that was doubtless responsible for the dredging up of much of this material in the first place. That aura of fragmentation—the sense that music can be appreciated just as well out of order, in pieces, juxtaposed inappropriately with other fragments—is perhaps the only atmosphere in which one can sanely approach a potentially infinite canon. Yet the manifest need for editing is balanced against a simmering desire to hear everything, to accept the late-night television offer (featured in one of Robert Klein’s comic monologues) of “every record ever made since recording began.” Listening to all the records substitutes for leading all the lives, being in all the places. The deliberately all-encompassing category of lounge music signals a relaxation that permits an endless series of brightly lit dream sequences set in imaginary epochs: no identity, no history, no reason to regret anything ever again.

3.

The catch is that, even for someone who was there at the time, the original experience has by now become almost as much a fantasy. The question of what exactly we remember when we listen to old recordings, or whether it can be called remembering at all, becomes less and less answerable over a lifetime. In that commonest of fetishistic practices—the repeated listening to the same song, year after year and decade after decade—does one reenact an original experience, or shut out memory by substituting a fixed pattern of sounds tied to an equally fixed pattern of associations? Can one hope to hear new and different things over the course of time, or would that interfere with the need to be reassured by an unvarying response?

Every listener’s personal history can be stitched together from recollections of first encounters, recollections that in due course become private legends. There is some piece of vinyl that is forever March 23, 1962. It is the peculiar faculty of music to make each such first encounter, in retrospect, a snapshot of what the world was at that moment, as if sound were the most absorbent medium of all, soaking up histories and philosophical systems and physical surroundings and encoding them in something so slight as a single vocal quaver or harpsichord interjection. The listener wants not merely to hear the beloved record again, but to hear it always for the first time. The shock of coming up against music that sounds new—whether the encounter is with a Caruso 78 of “Santa Lucia” or the Basie band broadcasting live from the Famous Door or the flip side of the new Zombies single—involves the apprehension, or the invention, of an unsuspected reality, an emotional shade not defined until then, the revelation (tenuous or overpowering) of an alternate future. If music promised anything less than entry into a new world, how account for its hold on the many for whom it can stand in, if need be, for a belief system or a way of life?

In pursuit of an archaeology of memory, it is sometimes possible to reconstruct the encounter: you enter a room just as an unknown song is beginning to play and have an impression that the room changes, the weather of the day is imprinted for future recollection. You had been warned, perhaps: “You’ve got to hear this one.” The song is, for instance, “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” a newly released Imperial single by Jackie DeShannon, with words by Hal David and music by Burt Bacharach. It is an April afternoon in 1965, and this year, in the world beyond high school, the usual urgencies of the season seem to converge with a broader impatience in the whole culture, as if things were going to have to move just a little faster to get on with all the necessary impending changes.

The song’s impact has a great deal to do with its emphatic deployment of the word “now”: the eternal imperatives of lyric warmth are being enlisted into a program of worldwide empathy under the momentary leadership of Jackie DeShannon, whose stunning promotional photograph is a sort of poster for youth itself as imagined in 1965, the perfect Southern California flower girl, with her miniskirt and straight blond hair, radiating sincerity and spontaneity and the dissolution of hidebound social forms. Yet the defiantly fragile sentiment embodied in her singing exists at the center of the most sophisticated imaginable orchestral setting, in a harmonious wedding of feeling and production machinery. No question of counterculture: the culture itself appears to be changing at its core. In the space of under three minutes you construct a story about the way the world is going, even if your outward registration of this experience may be only to venture the knowing opinion that “this record is going to be huge.” Every subsequent playback plays back as well a compressed version of the original circumstances; and that was only one such record out of thousands.

The age of recording is necessarily an age of nostalgia—when was the past so hauntingly accessible?—but its bitterest insight is the incapacity of even the most perfectly captured sound to restore the moment of its first inscribing. That world is no longer there—on closer listening, probably never was for longer than the instant during which unfamiliar music ripped open spaces equally and drastically unfamiliar. The listener seeking more such encounters may resort to wide-ranging searches for the unheard, anything from Uzbeki wedding music to unreleased garage bands of southern Wisconsin, anything that might spring the unimaginable surprise. Yet the laboriously sought musical epiphany can never compare to the unsought, even unwanted tune whose ambush is violent and sudden: the song the cab driver was tuned to, the song rumbling from the speaker wedged against the fire-escape railing, the song tingling from the transistor on the beach blanket. To locate those songs again can become, with age, something like a religious quest, as suggested by the frequent use of the phrase “Holy Grail” to describe hard-to-find tracks. The collector is haunted by the knowledge that somewhere on the planet an intact chunk of his past still exists, uncorrupted by time or circumstance.

4.

It was a devotional impulse of sorts that from the outset gave that music such power over its listeners. Where some lit candles, others listened to the Shirelles. To fully reconstruct how one came to be haunted by the memory of endlessly playing both sides of Lou Johnson’s 45 of “Kentucky Bluebird” backed with “The Last One To Be Loved” in the fall of 1964, or, a few months earlier (it was the moment when Burt Bacharach’s name first meant something), registering the impact of Dionne Warwick singing “Walk On By,” it is perhaps necessary to recollect the way the 45-rpm record once provided the basis for something like a religion, or at any rate a religion of art. For a youth culture that had not yet discovered its destiny to change the world, cultural life was often a matter of keeping up with the Top 40 countdown when it was released each Sunday, to culminate in the apotheosis of: “And this week’s Hot 100 Billboard number one record is…’Game of Love’ by Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders!” The transistor radio at minimal volume, listened to well after midnight, could seem like a direct line to the Godhead: in the heart of emptiness and darkness, music continued to pour out.

Functionally, the 45 was something of a detour from that forward sweep of technological progress by which the long-playing record had liberated popular music from the temporal constraints of the 78. The LP allowed a symphony to be heard straight through without messing around with three or four fragile shellac discs, and permitted Duke Ellington, for example, to create extended suites; listeners could go about their housework or their homework or their lovemaking for as long as half an hour without having to turn the record over. The 45, by contrast, perpetuated the time limits of the 78, although in an admittedly greatly improved form: miniaturized, lightweight, and unbreakable, it could be held in the palm of the hand yet contained immeasurable depths and reaches, a perfect mystical object made of cheap plastic.

Its virtues were not limited to cheapness. Pop LPs tended to be diffuse affairs in which one or two hits were surrounded by filler of varying quality; the 45 by contrast focused attention unwaveringly on a solitary object of desire. If the B side turned out to be worthy of attention, that was merely a gratuitous extra fillip. (In the faith defined by 45s, the cultivation of brilliant and obscure B-sides represented the occult or esoteric branch.) Listening to a 45 was a separate act, preceded by careful selection and given reverently close attention. Each was judged by how completely and unpredictably it mapped a reality in its allotted playing time: the best seemed to carve vast stretches out of that limited duration, while the worst seemed endless even at a minute and a half.

The density of pop music in the Sixties was such that any week might yield two or three or more of these life-changing experiences, whether emanating from Detroit or London or Memphis or Los Angeles. The impact of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Motown and Stax-Volt, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown and Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan, did not register successively but more or less simultaneously. Many scores of secondary figures contributed records equally impressive: Billy Stewart (“Sitting in the Park”) or the Castaways (“Liar Liar”), the Left Banke (“Walk Away Renee”) or Barbara Lewis (“Hello Stranger”) or Fontella Bass (“Rescue Me”) would crop up with the unexpected force of a prophetic visitation, explosions of feeling amid a ground bass provided by reliable rhythm machines ranging from “Louie, Louie” to “Boogaloo Down Broadway.”

The songs that Burt Bacharach and Hal David were writing in those years were not marginal but central to all that, and it is a little disconcerting to find Bacharach treated after all these years as a quaint anachronism in whom, after all, some remarkable qualities can be found. Bacharach’s music became a victim of the Balkanizing tendency of a latter-day pop music industry happiest when “niche-marketing” one subdivision or another of a pop universe that in the mid-1960s was briefly and weirdly convergent.

It made perfect sense for Sam Cooke, a gospel singer metamorphosized into pop idol, to sing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” on his Live at the Copa album, for Motown headliner Marvin Gaye to pay album-length tribute to Nat King Cole, for Otis Redding to adapt the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” for the Who to record the theme from the TV series Batman, for both Bobby Darin and Jim Morrison to sing Kurt Weill, or for the Beatles to record material by the Shirelles, Buck Owens and His Buckaroos, and Buddy Holly, not to mention a song from The Music Man. Genre-bending and marketing crossovers were becoming the norm, and the Top 40 sound of any given moment was likely to be a curious amalgam of disparate elements, “Stranger in the Night” followed immediately by “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” the Troggs in regular rotation with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. A hit was a hit.

5.

In biographical notes Bacharach tends to sound like the sum of his training and influences: a songwriter who cites both Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe and the late Forties work of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis as pivotal in his musical development; who studied with Henry Cowell, Bohuslav Martinu, and Darius Milhaud; and who took his skills into the heart of what was then still a thriving “adult popular” market, as accompanist-arranger for Vic Damone, Polly Bergen, and Steve Lawrence, and as musical director in the late 1950s for Marlene Dietrich’s international tours. Yet all that might have counted for nothing had he not collided with the songwriting culture symbolized by the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, where in the early 1960s hit songs were being concocted with something approaching industrial precision by teams like Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Bacharach’s earliest hits were very much part of that wider musical scene, and many feel that for melodic invention he never really surpassed early songs like “Any Day Now” or “Make It Easy on Yourself” or “It’s Love That Really Counts.” Bacharach never evolved into a rock-and-roller (his song for Manfred Mann, “My Little Red Book,” is a fascinatingly stylized approximation of rock-and-roll, or perhaps a veiled commentary on its limitations), but pop music as defined in the Brill Building (and its Southern California equivalents) still had plenty of room for records that were neither dance music nor exclusively youth music. It is impossible to imagine how Bacharach’s art might have evolved had he not had the good fortune to connect with the emotional directness of ballads like Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector’s “Spanish Harlem” and King and Goffin’s “Oh No, Not My Baby.” In his later songs he seems torn between an almost disdainfully virtuosic elaborateness (the relatively unpopular masterpiece “Looking with My Eyes”) and a knowing command of the simplistic (the hugely successful jingle “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”); the earlier compositions suggest no such conflict.

The Rhino box set—well selected and densely and usefully annotated—turns out to be something of a eulogy for an era that can be characterized simply by citing some of the artists, familiar or mostly forgotten, for whom Bacharach and David tailored their songs: Chuck Jackson, Gene Pitney, the Shirelles, Jerry Butler, Bobby Vinton, Brook Benton, Jack Jones, and of course Dionne Warwick, who first showed up as part of a trio of backup singers and went on to record over sixty Bacharach-David songs. (It would be significant event if only for making available four of the singer Lou Johnson’s great and weirdly unsuccessful first recordings of some of Bacharach’s best songs, most notably “The Last One to Be Loved.”)

Later would come the British contingent (not all represented here)—Tom Jones, Cilla Black, the Walker Brothers, and the sublime Dusty Springfield—to fill out the picture of a music industry still functioning something like the old Hollywood, obeying notions of classic songwriting form and respecting a sharp division of labor between singers and songwriters, with the indispensable “A&R” (artists and repertoire) men working out the mystical equations to determine who should sing what. It was a world that became more intensely interesting just as it was being hit with the external convulsions that would compel it to ditch much of the old-timers’ wisdom and radically regroup.

What finally had to be ditched was the idea of music made, by definition, by professionals, studio guys, real pros with not a trace of amateurism even if they sometimes had to put up with clearly amateurish front-liners that the kids went for. The music’s identifying mark was a combination of perfectionism and commercialism, both unquestioned: not just slick sounds and the finest engineering, but the real poetry that could sense the underground current that made all the difference between Top 40 and nothing.

The records bore wherever necessary the reassuring touch of the studio professional who could do anything on demand: cowboys and Indians, dawn in the tropics, sea chanty, snake charmer oboe solo, doo-wop under the overpass. A single chord, a single smear or deftly warped echo could put you at the county fair or in lover’s lane or on the fringes of the Outer Limits. The idea was to make the perfect record—perfection being certified by grosses—and admiration for the calculation and control that went into it was part of the listener’s response as well. The ultimate miracles of expression could not be planned, of course, but they sounded a lot better when all that backup was in place.

Fans listened to the new releases as if they were assessing new machines, checking out how smoothly the gears worked and what effect they produced from different angles, in different settings. Every element was up for examination: how the singing compared with the competition, the lyrics of the second verse, the peculiar organ break, the breathless spoken interjection toward the end. There was no assumption—as there would be in the wake of hits like the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie”—that the listeners could produce such a record themselves. It really was like the movies, with a wide screen and a cast of thousands: a superb technical feat created solely for the pleasure of the fans, as they could verify if they cared to by reading the copy in magazines like Hit Parader and Song Hits, or by sampling liner notes that tended to posit a relentlessly productive show business, driven by nothing more than the optimistic energies of seasoned veterans and youthful go-getters.

What no one who cared ever doubted was that they were in the presence, often enough, of deliberate beauty; there were no accidents here. Least of all in the Bacharach records (not originally billed as such, but increasingly recognizable) which had no need for echo effects or other electronic distortion to make their point. The musical elements were clearly exposed, so that even the most casual listener would notice how every note contributed. These were total compositions, to be appreciated like a series of paintings: “Baby It’s You” (its spareness allowing abysses to open between its lines, the “sha la la” chorus washing mournfully like chill surf over rock) or “Any Day Now” (the limits of its landscape of feeling laid out almost sternly by strings, organ, and drums, leaving the words—“then the blue shadows will fall all over town”—free to go about their work of suggestion). If many pop records (Phil Spector’s, for instance) sought to recede into a curtain of indeterminate sound, the Bacharach songs were placed against a backdrop of silence: everything of which the record consisted was audible and distinguishable. The little cowboy symphony “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (with Gene Pitney singing Hal David’s deft synopsis of the John Ford movie) seemed, right from its annunciatory fiddle line, a synthesis of songs that were already synthetic, even farther from any conceivable prairie than the Hollywood themes of Dimitri Tiomkin and Elmer Bernstein and Jerome Moross: a pocket West, scrimshawed into two and a half minutes.

Bacharach, by his own account, “was thinking in terms of miniature movies…with peak moments and not one intensity level the whole way through…. You can tell a story and be able to be explosive one minute, then get quiet as kind of a satisfying resolution.” In these movies the singer was only one of the actors, enacting a drama in which the instruments had just as integral a part to play; the hooks, those key phrases with which a record has to make itself memorable to the one-time listener, were as likely to be played as sung. Here there was no such thing as background; every sound participated in articulating the narrative.

6.

When people talk about Bacharach they generally have in mind his intersection with the lyrics of Hal David and the singing of Dionne Warwick. The three produced a body of work whose richness is barely sketched by the Rhino box set; Warwick’s early albums consist of almost nothing but Bacharach-David songs, all of them interesting to listen to and many still not widely known. What the three apparently shared, aside from anything else, was a relishing of difficulty, whether of pitch or meter or rhyme or narrative compression; their records make no appeal to special effects or topical allusions. Bacharach would come to be identified almost exclusively with the products of this three-way collaboration, whose dissolution brought to an end his long run of extraordinary productivity.

By the same token, the associations called up by Bacharach’s music become inextricably entangled with David’s peculiar blend of sophisticated versification and heartfelt emotional statement, a blend in which the encroachments of the maudlin are generally kept at bay by the dexterity of rhymes, the syntactical clarity that anchors Bacharach’s profuse melody lines, and the elliptical elegance of his storytelling. The bridge from “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” overfamiliar thought it may be, is a striking demonstration of his skill:

L.A. is a great big freeway,
Put a hundred down and buy a car;
In a week, maybe two, they’ll make you a star.
Weeks turn into years, how quick they pass,
And all the stars that never were
Are parking cars and pumping gas.

It is impossible to measure how much Warwick adds to the tone of the songs, since so many of them were written for the benefit of her interpretation. The persona created by her vocal art reveals her to be as much actor as singer; and around her laconic pleadings, interrupted gasps, and almost successfully suppressed cries of anger an implied dramatic universe begins to form.

By borrowing stray elements from the surrounding air, the listener could fill in the implications of these arias without operas. Here was adult romance, born under the same astrological signs that presided over Sex and the Single Girl (book and movie) and the novels of Jacqueline Susann (in one of them the characters even talk about Bacharach), the Pill, and the perfume ads that instructed: “Want him to be more of a man? Try being more of a woman.” The romantic dream-world of Manhattan rain covering up tears on the mascara cohabited uneasily with the leering ambience of Sixties sex comedies—old men’s movies, born antiquated—like Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed and Sunday in New York, movies that seemed to emanate from the Esquire cartoon world of goggle-eyed, overweight execs chasing voluptuously stacked secretaries around the desk in private offices; movies like Made in Paris and Promise Her Anything and Wives and Lovers, remembered now mostly because Burt Bacharach wrote tie-in songs for them.

Hal David’s lyrics lightly sketched in a world of rainy days and breakups and telephones, airports and doorbells, makeup and taxis, “an empty tube of toothpaste and a half-filled cup of coffee”: and, unmentioned, booze and Valium and cigarettes, therapists and exercise programs, broken glass, hours of silence and immobility, crowded bars and dates gone sour: a woman’s world, most of the time, the world as it might be imagined by the one who didn’t go to the disco, who stayed home watching some old Olivia de Havilland movie—the one with the nice girl undermined and nearly destroyed by her murderous schizophrenic sister, perhaps—and who would despite all be obliged to show up Monday morning and somehow shuffle through the monthly billing. Billy Wilder’s movie The Apartment, with its themes of wage slavery and sexual harassment, was the perfect source material for Bacharach and David’s only Broadway musical, Promises, Promises.

In the heart of the record was a cry from inside a box. A song like “In Between the Heartaches” evokes a hidden universe of pain, a love song for a distant or abusive lover sometimes kind enough to make things nice for a while. But the crackups are private, under control as long as anyone is watching: this is a well-bred melancholia, the hidden side of a Kennedy-era effervescence personified outwardly by Burt himself, casual in knit turtleneck and loafers, flanked by his glamorous wife Angie Dickinson and his close associates Marlene Dietrich and Dionne Warwick, the inhabitants of a world where nothing is likely to go seriously wrong.

Kennedy died in November 1963, but songs like “A House Is Not a Home” and “Wives and Lovers” and “Land of Make Believe” just kept on coming: future souvenirs of the awareness that once upon a time one was fooled by appearances, got conned for a moment by the delusions of glamour and celebrity, actually believed that the people in those photographs were having fun. The disco scene in What’s New Pussycat?, with Peter O’Toole and Romy Schneider frugging insouciantly under red lights to the music of Manfred Mann, incarnated with appropriate randomness the frothy evanescence of a scene already over by the time any public ever caught its afterglimmer. The Kennedy Sixties could be like that, were like that for most of the audience: a succession of parties that one hadn’t attended, leaving in their wake, through the medium of film clips and candid shots and songs, a detritus of feathers and glitter.

As the decade moved forward or downward, these ballads inevitably became emblems of the part of the Sixties that was not about youth, of those listeners who still aspired toward some kind of sleek adulthood, modern and liberated but never sloppy; who coveted nice suits, hairdos with architectonic grace rather than the free flow of the “natural,” all the artifices of comfort, the rituals of air travel, whatever evoked the big dream of the modern, as if the twentieth century were a reverie best indulged “while you’re lounging in your leather chair.” (The words are from a song, “Paper Maché,” whose satirical commentary on the materialism of consumer culture was far too gracefully muted even to register in the atmosphere of 1970.)

It might be an unreal world but the cravings that defined it would keep coming back, like one of those hooks to which Bacharach’s songs were finally reduced in memory; the fragments of tunes rise to the surface at three in the morning, the hour when melodic progression can become a torture implement. Somehow the tunes began to pall; the mood was perhaps a little too upbeat to believe, the charts too anxiously busy; the Seventies had arrived, and it no longer seemed at all likely that the music business would change the world. Unfairly, the Bacharach songs would be perceived to melt into that larger repertoire of sweetened, plaintive, self-pitying ballads to which for the better part of a decade office workers were condemned to listen for eight hours at a stretch. They appeared to be songs for a world that had turned out not to exist.

7.

It’s hard not to wonder what sort of songs Bacharach might have written with a different collaborator than Hal David. (Bertolt Brecht, perhaps: think what Promises, Promises could have been with its full cynical potential realized.) But in some sense the lyrics hardly mattered to Bacharach’s music; he could adapt to anything. All those love scenarios, were they anything more than an occasion to let him play with shapes, textures, pauses, intervals, varieties of harmonic spaces? The tension that singled out Bacharach’s songs from the goop in which they sometimes threatened to dissolve came from the sense of a detached intelligence working not against the mood of the songs but outside it.

These intricate compositions are about their own virtuosity, a virtuosity that delights in difficulty and intricacy, and delights even more in disguising them as just another pop tune. At his most characteristic Bacharach exudes a dry constructivist energy: a given song might evoke Stravinsky’s Agon gone pop, or a fragment of Schönberg deftly sweetened and cajoled, in extremis, back into conventional harmonic resolution. The drama—or the game—of a Bacharach melody is the risk that it might not circle back acceptably, might simply extend outward in a series of increasingly far-flung spirals. How far can he swim from shore before losing all hope of getting back? The melody branches at angles so abrupt that it threatens unbridgeable gaps, unacceptable dissonances: until, with the aplomb of Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro, Bacharach abruptly brings it home by one deft shortcut or another. One can imagine him as a connoisseur of emotional precision, whose own feelings would be irrelevant, the embodiment of a dandyism capable all the same of appreciating the expression of true feeling. In that light the music would be all surface, but the most beautiful surface imaginable.

There was always a temptation to remove the words from the songs, remove any layers of the arrangement that were mere ornamentation, the sonic furniture enabling them to “pass” as acceptable AM product. Set free from their context and commercial purpose—no longer in the business of selling a particular three-minute emotional drama—those changes and textures could then be reassembled as parts of some symphonic suite, the sort of extended composition that Bacharach evidently had no interest in pursuing. The nostalgia that is so often the theme of Hal David’s lyrics might suggest by extension the listener’s inchoate yearning for another song hidden within the actual song, a wild kernel of shape-making.

In the early soundtracks What’s New Pussycat?, After the Fox, and Casino Royale, a hidden aspect of Bacharach’s talent emerges: not the romantic wholeheartedness one might have expected from a composer known for his love songs, but rather a parodistic collage of styles, the Charleston rearranged for harpsichord, a Neapolitan street song metamorphosing into strip-joint fanfare and again into a pastiche of L’Histoire du Soldat. “Here I Am” and “The Look of Love” are employed in comic movie settings calculated to undercut the effect of two of Bacharach’s most beautiful ballads. Nobody will notice, it’s only a silly movie, so he can play games with structure and instrumentation and mood, games that predict a good many more solemn exercises in postmodern patchwork.

By reinterpretation musicians might of course try to tease out those unsounded implications, yet Bacharach’s songs prove curiously recalcitrant to improvisers; they were designed to work roughly the same way no matter who sings or plays them. Whether by Cilla Black, Dionne Warwick, the Delfonics, or Stevie Wonder, “Alfie” stubbornly remains “Alfie.” The televised tribute “One Amazing Night” ended up sounding more like Karaoke Night, so little did the younger performers add to earlier versions of Bacharach-David standards. As a vehicle for jazz musicians, Bacharach’s music seems too tightly constructed to permit much fruitful alteration; Sonny Rollins chose wisely to play “A House Is Not a Home” pretty much note for note.

In jazz albums devoted to Bacharach tunes, the jazz component tends to be more or less tacked on to songs that stubbornly resist being bent out of shape. When the concept works, as on Stan Getz’s 1968 album What the World Needs Now, it’s because Getz contents himself with virtually singing the songs on sax, while McCoy Tyner’s elaborations on the similarly titled 1996 outing What the World Needs Now: The Music of Burt Bacharach seem superfluous ornamentations of tunes that come pre-ornamented. (A more interesting approach was taken by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in their composition “Rapunzel,” a bop tune based on the chords of “Land of Make Believe”4 : here the hooklike aspects of Bacharach’s writing are undercut, the melody made essentially unrecognizable so that its inner structure can be turned inside out.)

Of all the recent variations, John Zorn’s Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach collection is finally the most satisfying and, oddly, the most faithful. It lends credence to the notion that the way to recapture the past is to tear it apart. At its best it is something like the Burt Bacharach album of one’s dreams: not adding further decoration to the tunes, but stripping away textures and trappings to find the song’s skeleton. Bacharach lends himself to austere treatments because what counts in his music is fundamentally austere. The hard core of that music has always been curiously at odds with his image as diffident aristocrat given to breeding race horses, or strolling along that pristine stretch of Southern California beachfront that one imagines as his natural habitat. The period colorings of nostalgia, the mythology that would make him a kind of walking advertisement for the Good Life, are finally irrelevant; he is a maker of patterns whose stark durable structures can give endless pleasure without having to be about something, as if to confirm Stravinsky’s dictum that “music itself does not signify anything.” 5

  1. 1

    Francis Davis, “The Man from Heaven,” Atlantic Monthly, June 1997.

  2. 2

    Hit Maker! has recently been reissued under the title Burt Bacharach Plays His Hits, by MCA Records (MCAD-11681).

  3. 3

    Edited by Steve Knopper (Visible Ink, 1998). The field has also been surveyed in Dylan Jones, Ultra Lounge: The Lexicon of Easy Listening (Universe/St. Martin’s, 1997).

  4. 4

    It is performed by the Pete Christlieb- Warne Marsh Quintet on their 1978 album Apogee.

  5. 5

    In Stravinsky in Conversation with Robert Craft (Doubleday, 1959).

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