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Without True Love We Just Exist: Burt Bacharach (1928-2023)

Over the years I’ve seen contestants on singing shows try a Burt Bacharach–Hal David song—"Walk on By," “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” etc. But the big rule of reality shows of “make an impression” means that even when they were mentored by Bacharach himself, the singers tended to go for a big, steady build to an even bigger finish. No, that isn’t the way. It isn’t how Aretha Franklin, one of the mightiest voices of them all, ends her cover of “I Say a Little Prayer.” Nor is it how Dionne Warwick approached “Don’t Make Me Over,” which demands a range of emotions and an even greater range of notes on the way to its explosive finish. Warwick makes it sound easy, sure, that’s why Bacharach spent years composing for her in the first place. And I definitely don’t want to hear a straight-up rousing finish with the naked emotion of “A House Is Not a Home,” one of Bacharach’s saddest songs, one of the saddest songs, period, which Luther Vandross recorded in a way that can make someone announce they'll be stepping away from the bar for just a minute. Honey, I understand. Go have a cigarette. Have two

In a Bacharach song, especially any that he wrote with his great lyricist partner Hal David, the emotions go back and forth like the mixed-up thoughts in a lover’s head. “In the studio, I would do as many as 20 or 30 takes, listen compulsively to all the playbacks and mixes as many times as I could, and then play the acetate over and over again. Before a record was ever released, I would have heard it about a thousand times and I was still never satisfied with the way it sounded on the radio,” Bacharach wrote in his 2013 autobiography Anyone Who Had a Heart. “No matter how hard I tried, nothing was ever perfect.”

In other words, you can’t just blast off the launchpad to Planet Melisma with a Bacharach tune like the notoriously tricky “Promises, Promises,” the title number from Bacharach-David’s sole Broadway musical. Jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote that it “bulges around its midsection with one bar each successively in 5/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/4, 3/4, 4/4, 6/4, 3/8, 4/8, and 4/4,” and joked, “Stop already!” Shortly into the run, supreme pro Jerry Orbach moaned backstage to the composer, “Why'd you have to make it so difficult?”  

Burt Bacharach died last week at age 94, and amid the flood of richly deserved tributes, there were lingering references to his music as cocktail accompaniment, or lounge atmosphere, or easy listening, or even (here’s where I’m inclined to lose my temper) Muzak. As a film critic I’ve often complained that most people listen to the dialogue and follow the plot in a movie. Unfortunately, they’re also likely to ignore the contradictions that lurk in an image, a facial expression, or in the background of a shot. Reading about Bacharach makes me think that music often gets the same deal. The songs were suited to a kind of lifestyle, they’re often associated with the more languid and pleasurable side of the 1960s, so people don’t always notice the deep regret in the lyrics and the fiendish difficulty of the time signatures. Unless, of course, they’re trying to sing them. “It all counts,” Bacharach told the Daily Telegraph in 2013. “There is no filler in a three-and-a-half-minute song.”

When composing for films, Bacharach had an uncanny sense of what the music should do for what was happening on screen, how a title song should set up a mood, and what a song played over the credits should do for, or to, the audience about to leave the theater. He had excellent help—he asked wife Angie Dickinson, who he met and married around the time of "What's New, Pussycat?" (1965), to read the scripts. “He felt that as an actress, I might be able to evaluate them better than he could,” she told an interviewer in 1971. “He would ask me whether I thought a certain passage would fit a particular sequence, or if it were needed at all, and I would tell him what I thought.” 

It worked. As someone who is allergic to most 1960s sex comedies, even I have a fondness for "What's New, Pussycat?" which lightens its sexism with a sort of transcendent weirdness, and, importantly, sets it all up with Bacharach and David’s title song. Tom Jones has been candid about not liking the song, giant hit or not. Jones told Rolling Stone that even when asked by Bacharach himself, he hesitated over the assignment. Then, said Jones, “I thought, ‘I’m going to punch the s*** out of it.” And Bacharach’s unexpected response was, ‘That’s what I want. It’s a crazy song for a crazy film.” It was his first Oscar nomination.

For an even crazier film, 1967’s "Casino Royale," Bacharach gave one of his all-time best, “The Look of Love,” a dreamy celebration of foreplay sung by Dusty Springfield while the camera leers at Peter Sellers and Ursula Andress through a giant aquarium. It’s not a good movie (you heard me) but it’s a fantastic stand-alone scene. I can’t imagine what it felt like for Bacharach to lose the Best Song Oscar to, and I wish I were kidding, “Talk to the Animals” from "Doctor Dolittle." 

Bacharach had a much better night in 1970, when he was up for Best Score for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and Best Song for “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” winning both. “Raindrops” is ubiquitous even now, a staple of piano lessons and school choirs, engraved in the memory of late-era baby boomers as the song that Top 40 radio hung onto for years like Linus’ blanket. It’s a good idea to go back to the film, and see how this delicate ode to illogical optimism is used—about 30 minutes in, after which, despite the humor, events take on a growing seriousness. The score (which never plays under dialogue, per director George Roy Hill’s wishes) is modern in feel, announcing a new era for the Western almost as much as the script did. 

But when I think of Burt Bacharach and film music, my mind goes first to an earlier movie. For years, I had the notion that "Alfie" was a comedy, and in 1966 I guess it played that way to a lot of people, including lead actor Michael Caine, who said he knew "Alfie" would be a hit when he heard laughter floating out of the cinema during dailies. By the time I saw it, imagine my surprise. "Alfie" is incredibly sad, the tale of a man who can’t love or be loved in return, a damaged character who does nothing but damage other people. Such jokes as there are fall squarely in the “wry chuckle” range. 

Listen to Bacharach and David’s title song, and see if you don’t think they perceived the film the same way I did. Cher sang the version that plays over the end credits of the American release, and it was Dionne Warwick whose rendition became a hit. Myself, I prefer Cilla Black, who sang “Alfie” for the British release. She wasn’t as good a singer as Warwick, which Bacharach later acknowledged, but Black’s version is the most haunting. Maybe the emotion in her voice came from her familiarity with London, with the scene, with men like that. Maybe it was exhaustion. Black recalled doing almost 30 takes of the recording, until George Martin, in the studio as producer although Bacharach was running the show, said gently, “Burt, I think you got it in take four.” I don’t know which take is here on YouTube, but Black was right, they all look done in, even the dapper Bacharach, clad in one of his signature turtlenecks. But Bacharach was also right, whatever he was doing, because this song will rip your heart out.

He was known for his charm, which must have come in handy around take 20. His candor, his graciousness and ease of manner, seemed genuine, whatever flaws came with the package. Bacharach, as he eased into his eighties, was more than willing to tell you which things had been his fault. Things like the breakup with Hal David, over profit “points” on 1973’s calamitous film "Lost Horizon" that were never going to happen anyway. The breakup with Warwick, which came shortly after, when Bacharach bailed on a planned album with her because, post–Hal David, he was just too damn depressed. The breakups, plural, with three wives (the fourth marriage lasted) and a host of girlfriends. To his colleagues in the Brill Building, Bacharach was known as “the playboy of the western world,” the kind of nickname that’s hilarious, if you find "Alfie" hilarious. And Bacharach was heartbreakingly open about the mistakes he made with Nikki, his daughter with Angie Dickinson. Born prematurely in 1967, and diagnosed far too many years later as on the autism spectrum, Nikki died by suicide in 2007. 

Bacharach usually managed to react politely when asked the same old questions, like which of his seventy-something hit songs were his favorites. For example, in one interview he named “Alfie” and “What the World Needs Now”—adding that “This Guy’s in Love With You” had made him the most money. “Some compositions are instantaneous hits,” he continued, “but they fade almost immediately. I like those that are played and sung for a long time and become classics.” 

What’s both amusing and now poignant about this interview is that it’s from 1969. Burt Bacharach’s first hit was “The Story of My Life,” a country chart-topper for Marty Robbins in 1957. I don’t think that was the song he had in mind as a classic. It was written with Hal David, but the two men didn’t form a steady collaboration until about 1963, at which point Bacharach still had decades of good work ahead of him. If “Alfie,” from a 1966 movie, pleased Bacharach in 1969 with its longevity, did he foresee that it and other songs would be played and sung for a really long time—20, 30, eventually more than 50 years into the future? 

Maybe he did. In 2013, when Bacharach was doing publicity for his autobiography, he still named “Alfie” as his finest song.

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