To Burt with love

A valentine to Burt Bacharach, the greatest love-song writer of the pop era.

Published February 12, 1997 8:07PM (EST)

to appreciate just how much Burt Bacharach and Hal David contributed to the canon of pop love songs, imagine a radio station's Valentine's Day playlist without their input. This is what you would not hear: "Wishin' & Hopin'," "Reach Out for Me," "Only Love Can Break a Heart," "Make It Easy On Yourself," "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself," "The Look of Love," "This Guy's in Love with You," "What the World Needs Now Is Love," "Walk on By," "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me," "Anyone Who Had a Heart," "I Say a Little Prayer," "(They Long to Be) Close to You" and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." To name a few.

Bacharach and David are the greatest love-song writers of the pop era (although they did occasionally turn out the odd -- sometimes very odd -- movie theme, like "Raindrops Are Fallin' On My Head," and the stray protest song, like the anti-war ballad "The Windows of the World"). Bacharach and David were a symbiotic, if unlikely, pair. David's simple yet emotionally rich lyrics were influenced by old masters like Oscar Hammerstein and Johnny Mercer, while Bacharach, who studied modern composition theory under Darius Milhaud, specialized in intricately shifting time signatures and eclectic arrangements that were often more out-there than what the Beatles and George Martin were cooking up.

Bacharach's orchestrations on the numerous hits the pair produced for Dionne Warwick during the '60s mixed nods to his idols -- Debussy and Ravel, Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker -- with then-novel Brazilian pop tinges. Bacharach was big on marimbas and vibraphones. But he also favored timpani, glockenspiels, muted trumpets, alto flutes and English horns, and his vocal arrangements shot back and forth between sober restraint and operatic venting. Sometimes, Bacharach blended Warwick's creamy voice, at once sophisticated and accessible, in with the woodwinds and brass (on the instrumental break of "I Say a Little Prayer," she mimics an alto flute); other times, Warwick asserted herself with gospel-trained ferocity amid the tumult. A couple of years earlier, Phil Spector had set his girl group operettas in a downtown world of tenement stoops; Bacharach brought his Everygirl Warwick uptown and put her in a high-rise elevator to the stars.

Bacharach and David's songs have been admired by producers and songwriters of widely differing sensibilities (Brian Wilson and the late Frank Zappa were just two of their fans) and sung by singers of widely differing styles -- a partial list includes Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Gene Pitney, Jerry Butler, the Beatles, Isaac Hayes, Chrissie Hynde, Jack Jones, Noel Gallagher of Oasis (who joined Bacharach onstage in London last year to sing "This Guy's in Love with You"), Stevie Wonder, Green Day (they've been known to cover "Do You Know the Way to San Jose"), Albert Lee's Love and Elvis Costello.

As unique as Bacharach's rhythms and melodies may have been, they were also remarkably elastic, lending themselves to all sorts of treatments. And David's plainspoken lyrics gave artists room for interpretation, room to make them their own. Aretha puts a shimmering gospel kick into the last "Forever, forever, you'll stay in my heart" of "I Say a Little Prayer" (for my money, the superior version); the Box Tops' Alex Chilton, the proto-Cobain, sounds like a lost boy/man pouring his heart out on a surprisingly muscled-up "Trains and Boats and Planes"; there's a world of experience between Dusty's torchy "Close to You" and The Carpenters' chaste one. A Bacharach and David song is a challenge for a singer and a treasure hunt for a fan.

Now in his 60s, Bacharach has had a personal resurgence lately, thanks to his collaboration with Elvis Costello on the song "God Give Me Strength" from director Allison Anders' Brill Building love story, "Grace of My Heart." (Costello's version, with Bacharach playing piano and conducting, appears on the soundtrack album.) And a long-awaited three-disc Bacharach set containing his solo work as well as Bacharach/David covers is scheduled to be released by Rhino Records this October. But, then, Bacharach always overshadowed his partner. Boyishly handsome despite his prematurely gray hair, Bacharach milked his gravelly voiced sensitive-dude-at-the-piano image for all it was worth; with then-wife Angie "Police Woman" Dickinson on his arm, he was a Swinging '60s icon, a Malibu Eros.

Still, it seems odd to talk of a Bacharach "resurgence." Despite Bacharach and David's estrangement throughout the '70s and '80s, and despite Bacharach's Muzak-y collaborations ("Arthur's Theme," "That's What Friends Are For") with others during that time, the duo never really went out of style, and that's because their songs were part of the fabric of growing up in the '60s and '70s, the pop single/AM radio era. For many baby boomers, they were a first thrilling brush with a mysterious world of sophisticated adult romance. Ironically, though, when you listen to those old records now, you realize that Bacharach and David's protagonists were almost always in an oddly adolescent state of vulnerability, poised on the cusp of anxiety and perfect happiness, at the mercy of the piquant uncertainties of love.

Every Valentine's Day, the computerized easy-listening radio station playlists lump Bacharach and David's songs in with all those other tunes that have "love" in the title, all that canned schmaltz from Celine and Julio and Michael Bolton. But anyone who had a heart would tell you that Bacharach and David's songs are more often about people out of love. In song after song, lovers fail to connect, while Bacharach's orchestrations mirror the swirl of life that continues to go on around them, magnifying their loneliness. It was the '60s, and people were seeking freedom and doing their own thing, and so Bacharach and David wrote love songs for one-night stands (there are plenty of them in their Broadway musical "Promises, Promises"). And they wrote love songs for lovers separated by all that freedom ("Message to Martha/Michael," "Trains and Boats and Planes," "Do You Know the Way to San Jose") and separated by something else, too -- when I was a kid, I thought "I Say a Little Prayer" was about a woman whose boyfriend was in Vietnam and to this day I can't hear the song any other way.

David's lyrics are the words of ordinary people startled into eloquence by the intensity of their feelings. Love hurts, but it's a blessing -- you can hear it in David's recurring spiritual imagery, from "Love requires faith/I've got a lot of faith" in "Are You There (with Another Girl)" to "You'll never get to heaven if you break my heart" to "I say a little prayer for you." Elvis Costello faithfully continues David's spiritual theme in his lyrics for "God Give Me Strength," a betrayed lover's prayer that wavers between the impulse to forgive and the desire for revenge. At the song's shattering emotional climax, with Costello howling for the blood of the guy who stole his lover, Bacharach collapses his orchestra into a stunning whoosh of dissonance that is the aural equivalent of someone getting the rug pulled out from under them.

Written with Costello via fax machine and telephone, "God Give Me Strength" is easily the boldest and finest work Bacharach has done in nearly 30 years, its first downcast blurts of muted trumpet erasing all that time between. If you didn't know otherwise, you'd think that the course of pop has run seamless and straight, from Bacharach to Costello, from the AM dial to the CD jukebox.

So plush and melodic they made your heart sing, a Bacharach and David song personified the glory of love, the whole messy story of love, one perfect little circle of vinyl at a time. Can you put your arms around a melody? Almost, almost.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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