I had big plans to write a super-duper new Valentine’s Day post (Bruce Springsteen, chocolate). Alas, my damn back is acting up and my seated time is limited. But I heart you, dear readers (making little Taylor Swift love sign), so I wanted to share this oldie but goodie with you.
I wrote this Valentine’s Day appreciation of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s peerless love songs for Salon in 1997. I’m reprinting a slightly edited and updated version here, with some video inserts. Mmmm-wah!
To appreciate just how much Burt Bacharach and [the late] Hal David contributed to the canon of pop love songs, imagine a 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.
The greatest love-song writers of the pop era, 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 above the orchestral whirl. 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 covered by artists of widely differing styles — a partial list includes Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Gene Pitney, Luther Vandross, the Beatles, the Pretenders, Tom Jones, the White Stripes, Bill Frisell, Albert Lee’s Love, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Isaac Hayes and the Walker Brothers.
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 over Warwick’s original). 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 sultry “Close to You” and Karen Carpenter’s innocent one. A Bacharach and David song is a challenge for a singer and a treasure hunt for a fan. Here are two disparate versions of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself.”
Now in his 80s, Bacharach always overshadowed his staid partner in their heyday. Ruggedly handsome despite his prematurely gray hair, Bacharach milked his 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.
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.
Anyone who had a heart would tell you that Bacharach and David’s love 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). 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 continues David’s spiritual theme in his lyrics for his collaboration with Bacharach, “God Give Me Strength,” which they wrote for the 1996 film Grace of My Heart and appears on their 1998 duo album Painted from Memory. From the song’s first downcast blurts of muted trumpet, “God Give Me Strength” is so very Bacharach-and-David, it erases all the time between the era of the AM dial and the era of the iPod.
As another Valentine’s Day comes around, take a few moments to savor the pleasure these songwriters gave us. So plush and melodic they made your heart sing, Bacharach and David’s songs 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.
© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013