Burt Bacharach Passes, 94
Mainstream pop writer and sometime film scorer Burt Bacharach died at home this month at the age of 94. As a hit song writer, he stood out probably for two reasons beyond the usual one of we just liked where each song was going. First was the joyous flip of his metric lines: the breezy jazz waltz that is What the World Needs Now Is Love, the dogged repetitions in Do You Know the Way to San José?, the skipping pace of I Say a Little Prayer but the slow, knowing saunter of One Less Bell. It felt like someone who was in tune with the impatience, the efficiency, the sophistication, maybe the anxiety of the 1960s. The song Wishin' and Hopin' starts and stops nervously right along with its lyric and yet a song like A House is Not a Home is, in a way, completely free of meter and proceeds like a mini-aria. His music knew more than the '60s and we shouldn't just call him a '60s phenomenon.
Which brings up the second reason that he stood out: a certain universality in his music, born of the training he had received and absorbed from scholars like Olivier Messiaen and Elliot Carter, classes that helped him to compose on the page from then on, rather than just by ear and, as a result, he was able to extend his reach and his career well beyond most talented tunesmiths and still be doing solid and distinctive songs into late age – always able to switch-up a time signature where it needed a lift (yet make it sound natural) and to carry off a given tonal motif into some extended melodic line that sounded like it was headed there all along. These could be simple and "right" songs like The Look of Love, or as complex as the film song Alfie perfectly set to its pre-supplied lyric by Hal David (who would serve as his songwriting partner for the bulk of his career until his death in 1991). In Bacharach's head, these free-flowing discursive songs where he probably just felt he was following a natural line became miniature recital songs that could be sung by pop star or opera star alike.
Indeed, when the Bacharach/David reputation started turning heads and they got a view of themselves in rather rarified company compared to ordinary song writers, they started trying to tackle big world problems in their songs (it was the protest generation, after all): The Windows of the World took on war; Everybody's Out of Town was about the end of the planet; Question Me An Answer was supposedly about environmental degradation. But the otherwise decent impulse for "mere" songwriters and movie folks to get involved with the problems of the day culminated in the miserable laughable, self-conscious movie musical version of Lost Horizon (1979) and everyone associated with it saw that it didn't work and ended up angry at everyone else. The Bacharach/David team broke up and Burt went off to rejoin the movies where he had only recently found some success writing screen scores.
There, he did not only songs but some background scoring for films like Casino Royale, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a delectable waltz for Wives and Lovers, and a quirky one for Tom Jones to sing in What's New Pussycat? In the not-too-distant future was an Oscar for his song to the Dudley Moore film, Arthur, and another for the playful song in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In fact, he was at his best writing the whole score for that film. Of course, critics were quick to point out that this was pop music, so what was it doing in a western film? But, then again, if you chronicle the music in the film, at first you have an old barroom piano theme, then a turn-of-the-century ragtime ensemble, a teasing ukulele song during the scene where Butch and the Kid are cavorting around on bicycles and, for a silent montage of bank robberies, a seven-minute jazz piece for rhythm and scat-singing chorus. Critics were fond of asking there, What's all this vocalizing, and in complex contrapuntal syncopated jazz, yet. They figured this was the example they'd been looking for: how Bacharach the song writer doesn't know how to score a dramatic film, let alone a western. And yet, there's a very strong message that comes with this humorous montage and its studio singers. It's the message of the whole mod-western movie: a reminder that considering this as turn-of-the-century history, that isn't just the posse chasing Butch and the Kid – it's the changing times.
Bacharach worked with a lot of solo singers in the years after Lost Horizon and his break with Hal David. I Live in the Woods with Carly Simon was one song. In 1998, he collaborated on a strong album with Elvis Costello, "Painted from Memory", and in 2005 with Rufus Wainwright in an album of mostly protest songs, almost like the 1960s, this one fed-up with the excesses of the several Bush administrations in the US ("Who are these people who destroy everything and sell off the future for whatever it brings..."). And yet they were still rhythm tunes, still impulsive, still solid as minted coins. He fronted another album of his own songs in 2018 by Steve Tyrell. His future attempts at another Broadway musical were interesting in that the individual songs were as strong as ever Messiaen had taught him but, hey, if they didn't sound like Bacharach '60s all over again.
In later years, he feuded with his three remaining wives and after the pampering he had received from his first road-boss, Marlene Dietrich, as a very young travelling pianist/assistant, he seemed to expect to be pampered evermore, at least that's what his detractors said. And he did seem to expect to be loved but, then, people around him seemed to expect they could tag along for free on the BB bandwagon and it doesn't always work like that.
Certainly, songwriters aren't trained like him anymore and so he may be a fossil to remember. Certainly, the best of the songs still completely have a life of their own. Certainly, he was lucky to get the extraordinary musicianship of Dionne Warwick, early on in their careers to record his broken meters and make them sound natural. Why, the title song from the Broadway show Promises, Promises actually changes time signatures fifteen times within the three-minute tune, and yet sounds natural, conversational.
Anyway, with him gone, what the world needs now... a Bacharach.