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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Remembering Hal David, Whose Pop Lyrics Portrayed a Very Different 1960s

Posted By on Tue, Sep 4, 2012 at 9:45 AM


Mom and Dad are baby boomers. Though they're not just any kind of boomers. They are an underrepresented type, a minority voice within their generation. My parents never liked Bob Dylan and thought the White Album was too weird. So the 1960s that Mom and Dad passed down to me was different from the one Rolling Stone rehashes with each issue. It's less chest-beating, more shut-mouthed, altogether less narcissistic, and, sure, more bourgeois than the Sixties that spawned a million revivals. In my Mom and Dad's 1960s, Lennon and McCartney were fine songwriters. But the tunesmiths they revered were Bacharach and David, the Pipers of the Pan-Am Age of upward mobility. "Walk on By," "What the World Needs Now," "I Say a Little Prayer" -- that was the nostalgic soundtrack of my '80s childhood.

Hal David, right, with Burt Bacharach
  • Hal David, right, with Burt Bacharach

Hal David died on Saturday. In his partnership with the more famous Burt Bacharach, David wrote the words and Bacharach wrote the tunes. Had rock 'n' roll not morphed into the self-mythologizing beast we now simply call rock, Bacharach and David's phenomenal popularity would today be a common fact of their time, the kind of historical signpost everyone knows and takes for granted, like moon landings and "Mrs. Robinson."

It wasn't just that Bacharach and David were popular. Their sound, which was founded upon doo-wop and jazz, had the scruff-grabbing combination of familiarity and strangeness that tends to let us know the state of an art has changed. This is indeed what Bacharach and David brought about within the discipline of rock 'n' roll: quiet transformation and a new complexity.

But Bacharach and David didn't become Bacharach and David until they met Dionne Warwick. The duo first worked with the gospel-trained singer on a handful of demos intended for already established stars, relics of the day like Gene Pitney and the Shirelles. This was Brill Building pop, rock 'n' roll for lovers, manufactured at a factory's clip.

In Warwick, Bacharach and David recognized a rare voice, one versatile enough to afford them the space to play within their business model. The first fruit of their sessions was "Don't Make Me Over," a song that fluctuates between 12/8 and 6/8 time and whose title was inspired by a fragmented piece of slang David overheard Warwick tersely toss at his maestro. Upon its release in the autumn of 1962, the song was a massive hit, and as much a signifier of the new age's arrival as another sophisticated blend of rock attitude and songcraft just beginning to flare across the Atlantic, in Liverpool. To a certain kind of Esquire-reading middlebrow listener in the early '60s, the sound of Bacharach, David, and Warwick was the sonic equivalent of Camelot -- an optimistic appeal to the masses' good taste and cultivation.

But Bacharach and David often worked at cross-purposes. Therein lies their songbook's real distinction among the oldies set. Bacharach was flashy and temperamental; David, who trained at New York University as a journalist before publishing his first song in his late 20s, labored over craft and the integrity of his fictions. Above all else, the wordsmith on the team aimed for the proverbial "world in a grain of sand."

"It is easy to be simple and bad," David wrote on his website. "Being simple and good is very difficult. I seek this elusive thing called simplicity always. I hope I sometimes achieve it."

The "elusive thing" rarely eluded David. In October 1963, at Bacharach's apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Warwick first heard "Anyone Who Had a Heart." It soon became her second hit. "It was being written the day we were going in to record," Warwick recalled in an interview a quarter-century later. "At that point, they only had the part: 'Anyone who had a heart/ would take me in his arms / and love me too / why won't you?'"

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Andrew Stout


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