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Baby, It's Him 

How can Burt Bacharach make a comeback when he never went away?

Wednesday, Dec 24 1997
In person, Burt Bacharach seems smaller than he does when you see him on television or in old photos, standing next to ex-wives Angie Dickinson and Carole Bayer-Sager. His arms are twig-thin, and his face is a little more gaunt than it was back when he was pop's leading man; and when he wears jeans and running shoes and an Austin Powers T-shirt (as he does on this night), he seems a bit more ... mortal than his myth would seem to allow. Even his handshake is slight, like a whisper.

But when you are as big as Bacharach -- when you have contributed so much to pop music almost since its inception, when you have created so much of the language we now take for granted -- even the small things seem enormous.

Take, for example, this evening's performance -- an intimate, small-scale concert in front of no more than 30 people piled into a small Los Angeles studio. It's early September, and the 69-year-old Bacharach is putting the finishing touches on a career-retrospective concert that will include not only his iconic hits but also some forgotten gems dating back 40 years, when people still bought Perry Como records. For this retrospective, Bacharach has eschewed the orchestras with which he has surrounded himself for decades; he has ditched Dionne. Instead, he has gathered a dozen or so performers and three singers -- two female, one male -- who help polish off the tarnished gold and make it shine as though brand-new.

He has also gathered a few family members, some friends and business associates, and a handful of fortunate journalists, all of whom are treated to a repertoire of timeless and affecting songs. Every piece Bacharach and his band perform this night -- and there are dozens, dating all the way to "Magic Moments," the 1958 Como single, one of the first songs Bacharach and lyricist Hal David wrote together -- was once a hit. They're songs filled with melodies and lyrics you've memorized without even trying, like old phone numbers you haven't dialed in years. Behind the keyboards, Bacharach moves with every note and mouths every word. He stands on the pedals till he resembles a runner in the starting blocks. He's mesmerizing to watch, a kaleidoscope of movement and noise always seeking perfection.

"The attractive thing about that show is we're doing songs I've never done live -- well, almost never," he says a few weeks later, sitting now in a majestic I.M. Pei-designed Dallas concert hall, preparing to perform the familiar old songs with a familiar old partner, Dionne Warwick. (He's currently playing select dates, alternating larger, safer shows with the intimate retrospective he rehearsed in Los Angeles.) "Some of those songs I haven't thought about in years. I mean, 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'? 'The World Is a Circle'? 'Magic Moments'?" He pauses and grins, then speaks again in that Chablis-and-cigarette voice. "Jesus. It's fun."

Those fool enough to speak of a Bacharach renaissance -- on the heels of a John Zorn-produced tribute album that's no homage; a McCoy Tyner homage that's more water than wine; his work with Elvis Costello, which will soon result in a collaborative album; his music's appearance in such films as Austin Powers and My Best Friend's Wedding; a couple of commercials using his music; and dozens of magazine articles trumpeting his comeback -- those people miss the point. You can't come back from here.

To recite the list of songs written by Bacharach and David and to catalog the roster of artists who have covered them is to crisscross the history of modern pop music; few other composers can claim to have been performed by Como, the Drifters, Elvis Presley, Andy Williams, Benny Goodman, Costello, Isaac Hayes, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Stranglers, the Bay City Rollers, and Bomb the Bass. Hell, to have withstood Ethyl Meatplow's take of "(They Long to Be) Close to You" alone is to prove one's invincibility. Bacharach songs from the 1960s and early '70s are more than golden oldies; they're these indestructible, complex, dense pieces of pleasure that eat you up the first or millionth time you hear them. Bacharach gave Hal David's words -- a sad and wonderful oeuvre, three-dimensional falling-in-and-out-of-love songs that sought the middle ground between sadness and satisfaction -- a heartbeat. Bacharach, who came of age working for Marlene Dietrich and hanging around bebop clubs in New York, brought them to life with tangled arrangements and time signatures and voicings, by making the song less about what the words meant and more about how they felt. They're perfect creations, where intangible emotion meets tender flesh. Only a handful of pop songwriters have managed to create such music -- people like Cole Porter and George & Ira Gershwin and Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein. And only Bacharach and a few contemporaries, including Jimmy Webb and Randy Newman, belong among their Tin Pan ranks.

"But I never could stand back and smell the roses very much or have any kind of historical sense of what was going on," Bacharach says of the songs he and David wrote during their days spent in the Brill Building, New York City's storied songwriting factory. "I was going so fast and working so much I was hard-pressed to even take a vacation.

"Part of you always feels not so special, not so good, not such a great writer. You steal a little bit, you don't need to work so hard, something's derivative. But then you meet somebody like Miles Davis who says, 'I like that,' or he looks to hang out with you, and then you start to say, 'Miles Davis? Maybe he's not that wrong, maybe I really got something.' But back then, I had a chance to write material that had a chance to survive, to make standards."

Yet only two of Bacharach's original A&M releases remain in print -- the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid soundtrack and the horrible, hooked-on-Muzak 1987 Greatest Hits that sounds as though it was recorded in a dentist's waiting room. (MCA has just released a similarly schmaltzy version on CD.) The soundtrack to Casino Royale, the James Bond parody that featured Herb Alpert's and Dusty Springfield's immortal takes of "The Look of Love," now sells for hundreds of dollars in vinyl.

About The Author

Robert Wilonsky


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