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The lyricist and composer Sammy Cahn once quipped that Burt Bacharach “was the only songwriter who didn’t look like a dentist.” Many, indeed millions, were similarly bewitched by the looks of this greatest song-master of longing, loss, and ambrosial redemption.
Bacharach’s was, and still is, a strikingly handsome and expressive face, one that stared out with dark intensity from his LP covers. Whether he was portrayed in brooding chiaroscuro or in enraptured limelight at the piano, Bacharach was perhaps the best-looking composer ever photographed, surpassing even those surviving stills of the young and middle-aged Brahms.
Bacharach’s image defines composerly glamour, whether he was armored in his tuxedo, relaxing in his wide-knit white sweater with polo-shirt collar upturned, or seen in leisurely contrapposto wearing a double-breasted blazer with his hands tucked nonchalantly into the pockets of dark trousers leading the eye down to the bright white loafers that crowned him the king of casual from the bottom up. Like the suavely reluctant bossa nova underpinning of so many of his greatest songs, Bacharach’s face seemed to resist the on-rush of the years.
While his looks may have defy the changing times, his look embraced them on the cover of his At This Time of 2005, the seventy-seven-year-old Bacharach is pictured in half-length wearing a wind-breaker and carefully disheveled t-shirt. Once again those magic hands once are tucked into his pockets (this time of his trackpants), as if wanting to hide them.
Hands are at least as expressive as a face; just as crucial to the Bacharach image, they are capable of as wide a range of poses: the fingers of his left hand covering the fist of his right; the knuckles brushing his cheek as he gazes down at the piano key; both hands gently arched and resting tenderly on the Steinway’s lacquered ebony as if in studied caress.
In remarking on the composer’s magnetic physical presence by negative comparison to the average dentist, Cahn was unaware of the future irony that many of Bacharach’s hits would attain a parallel existence as muzak in countless North American dental offices, There they were meant to assure and to soothe, even while the adventurous harmonies, unpredictable melodic contours, and irregular rhythmic gestures were often anything but anondye.
Like many who first heard Bacharach’s music, if unwittingly, in the 1970s, I encountered a few of these songs in a heightened state of awareness primed by anxiety: at the dentist’s.
Mine was called Dr. Aue, a name that means “meadow” in German, and in the old country might have evoked a comforting alpine vista, perfect for allaying dental fears. In America, however, the name was pronounced “owie”— yet another addition to the already thick lexicon of bizarrely apt names for dentists. The bilingual dialectic of surety and doubt, pain and comfort, embedded in my dentists’ name has always captured for me the complexity of Bacharach’s music: the bite behind the beauty.
My understanding of those Bacharach songs I encountered in my early years have shaped my understanding of and physical reaction to his music ever since. True, the vacuous “Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head,” which the Carpenters hoisted up to pop #1 in the summer of 1970, was as sickly sweet as a mint-flavored fluoride treatment, but other Bacharach tunes that came to me through the nitrous oxide hiss of muzak were comforting and challenging in like measure. Early on they gave the lie to the commonplace assertion that Bacharach was nothing but an easy-listening composer.
The haunting pastels of those songs, even when besieged by muzak’s stultifications, oddly mirrored my mental/dental state of mind. The music was so wedded to conventions yet continually set about defeating them in the most subtle ways.
Bibbed and suctioned and otherwise pinioned in clenched recumbancy, I was crisply attuned to the each melodic leap that would ruffle the musical surface; I tried to anticipate the next the harmonic twist that would release a doubting eddy into the deceptively calm stream. That I still hear the rocking chords of introduction to “Close to You” as sounds of assurance and unease, is no doubt largely the residue of those trips to the dentist’s. In those days I could not hear goal of the uneven upward-striving arc of the melody’s opening gesture, denuded of a lyric I would only learn later. In just three rising notes—a minor third followed by a perfect fifth—the song’s melody seemed in search of something it could not find.
As this line achieved its highpoint and held to the note it had momentarily chose, the chord below it and seemed to me to be profoundly ambivalent. It was a stack of successive thirds, consonant alone or in pairs, but shimmering and unsteady when combined in these ambiguous arrays, rich and radiant, but also doubting and unfulfilled. The melody note wanted to resolve but wouldn’t let itself. It was dissonant but hardly discontent. Thus, in only three tentatively rising notes and a single chord, Bacharach’s music seemed to say everything that needed to be said about the dentist. I suppose that older generations heard in these songs the sound of failed affairs and marriages, the hopes for love in a leisure suit. For me the music activated a barely contained desire to get the hell out of that reclining seat, while simultaneously provided the sole reason for staying there.
I awaited the detours and savored the momentary arrivals of “Close to You,” as keenly as I anticipated the pickings and probings and moments of respite from the progress of dental inspection.
What impresses me most now through the prism of three decades and subsequent musical training and experiences, is the amazing resilience of Bacharach’s music to the narcotic onslaught of muzak. The electronic anesthetic of those sounds could not obliterate a deeper enigma in the music.
Bacharach’s music must have suggested to me that while life could be as unsettling and troubled as a trip to the dentist, it could never be as simple as getting your teeth cleaned: the tortures of liasons made and sundered were far more deeply-rooted and intractable than an impacted wisdom tooth.
I recognize that this unusual line of aural-oral hermeneutics might seem twisted, saracastic, and dubious in many other ways. I offer the defense that no soundtrack is more deeply engraved on the permanent enamel of the mind than musical halo surrounding the dental chair of one’s youth. Far all the times I practiced Bach’s Two-part Inventions in those same years none of them bring back the clarity of mind that Bacharach’s music does. Even now I tense to the faltering melodic ascent of “Close to You,” see the light blue of Dr. Aue’s smock, and smell the sickly scent of fluoride and naugahyde…
Bacharach studied composition with Darius Milhaud and Henry Cowell, whose concerns for modal structures and complex patterns of harmonic rhythms respectively echo through their student’s pop hits. It is to this solid training, something unheard of to many a present-day a garage band junky who calls him or herself a composer, that Bacharach attributes the longevity of his music. A decade ago, at the time of his 70th birthday, he modestly pegged the staying power of his songs at thirty years.
Perhaps he did not then perceive or understand the pronounced acceleration of nostalgic creep, which inexorably diminishes the distance between the historic past and the living present. The phenomenon renders it increasingly difficult to parse retro from reality, delusion from allusion, ironic posturing from unstaged sincerity. Bacharach’s 1999 cameo appearance alongside his noted collaborator of the period Elvis Costello in Austin Powers 2 captures the paradox. In the movie Bacharach and Costello perform “What do you get when you fall in love” as Mike Myers’ psychedelic-clad Spy Who Shagged Me dances with a gorgeous German agent on a 1960s London sidewalk. The musicians are simply themselves, non-costumed in late 90s dress and playing a music that seems simultaneously younger and older than the 60s put-on of the film. The two-minute number calmly halted the indolent progress of the comedy with ease and surety of a classic, ringing clearly out against the grain of the movie’s post-modern kitsch, ennobling the song while graciously feeding the charming foolishness of the surrounding scene.
Compare that cameo to the awkward but riveting appearance of Wanda Landowska in William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights of 1939, where the grand dame’s solo performance has the effect of an extraterrestial alien landed on the 19th-century Yorkshire moors, her giant harpsichord coming off more like whacky space ship than a piece of period décor. On seeing Austin Powers 2 Bacharach would have immediately known, if he hadn’t suspected it already, that his music had crossed the modest threshold of three decade he’d marked out and proceeded a joined a longer historic cycle.
“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” was pushed up both the pop and R&B charts in 1969 by the voice of the greatest and most prolific of all Bacharach singers, Dionne Warwick. Here was a tune that deftly skirted the perils of romantic involvement to a shuffling bossa nova and a fluent rhetoric of denial. It was as if the barbed cynicism of the song’s lyric were as easily imbibed as a poolside cocktail: “What do you get when you fall in love, You only get lies and pain and sorrow.”
Heard above Bacharach’s music, renunciation never felt so easy. Compare it to the Teutonic convolutions of the Renunciation of Love leitmotif from Wagner’s Ring, which (can it be a coicidence?) uses the same rising minor sixth that is the most prominent ascending interval in Bacharach’s song. Extreme as the comparison may be, none better illustrates the truth that a show of defiance is much more effective when underplayed.
In Bacharach’s pop classic there is doubt behind the suave façade, however, and this shadow is cast by the music. On the last syllable of “a—gain” which concludes each chorus, Bacharach swerves away from the expected arrival point and flattens the third degree of the scale, not only tingeing the melody with a forlorn blue but side-stepping the expected closure. That cadence is deferred a few beats at which point the minor third is transformed into major. With that single, ingenious touch Bacharach makes it clear that the whole thing is an act: love cannot be resisted, and the singer doesn’t want to anyway. Yet the facile denials of the voice and in the vacillations of the harmony convey an even darker message, one Bacharach would surely resist, but is nonetheless on offer: love itself is a pure theater.
That interpretation is only strengthened with the repeat of the “I’ll never fall in love again” a few beats on in the song. At this point Bacharach sets the text to a disarmingly straightforward scale which descends to the correct final note. But the line arrives there one beat too early as if in casual disregard for rules of poetic scansion. This mixture of arch self-denial and bitter self-awareness is finally paid off at the close of the song with the line “So for at least until tomorrow, I’ll never fall in love again.”
Costello and Bacharach had only a minute in Austin Powers to get through the song, so they didn’t get around to doing Hal David’s brilliantly conceived, now quaintly dated verse with the lines “What do you get when you kiss a girl, You get enough germs to catch pneumonia, After you do, she’ll never phone you.”
Here we encounter another of the discreet pleasures of revisiting the Bacharach/David songbook: wallowing in the rich and subtle palette of the composer and listening out for remnants of a world disappeared. The falling chords of “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” yet another song of Latin persuasion made famous by Dionne Warwick, evoke the whir of that “great big freeway” that is L.A, the allure of which is encapsulated in the line: “Put a hundred down and buy a car / In a week maybe two, they’ll make you a star.” San Jose by contrast is a sleepy oasis where “You can really breathe” and where “They’ve got a lot of space.” If Bacharach’s music is a sentimental music of lost love, it has become, in this and many like passages, a music of a lost America as well
Throughout the 1960s Bacharach continued to investigate the emotional contours of the heart, though a nascent political consciousness erupts in “The Windows of the World,” a song which refers, if obliquely, to Vietnam: “Everybody knows when boys grow into men they start to wonder when their country will call.” Here war is cast as a kind of lethal sandbox dispute: “When men cannot befriends their quarrel often ends where some have to die.” Bacharach saturates the music with longing by means of the doubting oscillations of the harmony. At the close of each verse, the harmonies of the cadence are the same as those of “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” but the collision of romantic yearning and glib transcendence heard there is transformed in “Windows” into political frustation.
This is evoked partly by the pizzicato strings heard as if coiled in impotent range and sadness, but embodied more urgently in the rhetorical questions that ascend only to be dispersed by the upward sweep of small chimes—“Where is the sunshine we once knew?” —and in the coursing bossa nova lament of the sad and searching chords.
This same aching nostalgia imbues every moment At This Times, Bacharach’s last CD and one that he has described as a love song to an America in peril, laid low by the deceptions, of Bush et al: “Looks like these liars will inherit the earth.” (Bacharach wrote the lyrics along with Tonio K.) Still in evidence are the hallmarks of Bacharach the composer/arranger, from the haunting saxophone, to the surging violins, to the friable sweetness muted trumpet and the spray of tiny bells. The grand man enjoys here the updates of drum loops and makes mild gestures towards rap, as in the opening Sprechgesang of“Where Did Go?”—a passage that distills the entire history of classical and popular music in the 20th century. It was as if Arnold Schoenberg had finally decided to leave Beverly Hills and lay something down in South Central. The plaints of At This Times are those of an old man: “When I was a young boy / Twelve years old/ Growing up in New York City? I could ride the subway by myself / And never, ever be afraid / Where did it go?” The disco chorus pleads: “Stop the clock / Where’d it go? / I don’t know.”
Finding little comfort in the safe haven of his own familiar style, Bacharach complains that “Nobody is safe these days.” These recording studio jeremiads sound like gentleman club rants uttered between savored sips of single malt whisk: it’s all incredibly smooth going down.
Maybe all great hit men should stick to their guns in this way. On Sunday night Burt Bacharach will finish a week-long run at the Las Vegas Hilton, and on Monday the greatest American hit man of the second half of the 20th century will turn 80.
I’m getting my teeth cleaned that day and bringing my iPod.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org