Baby, It's Him

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

"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.

Such poor caretaking does not well serve a legacy only now being appreciated and understood: Imagine the reaction of a kid who goes to the record store after hearing that Noel Gallagher leapt onstage with Bacharach to sing "This Guy's in Love With You," only to find the only version available is one not even a parent could love. The most important pop (as opposed to rock) songwriter of the 1960s can only exist for so long off the royalties of reverence; his work must be heard to be treasured, examined to be respected. Rhino Records has long promised a boxed set, but it's nowhere near completion.

Bacharach once seemed a thing of the past -- a vestige of a time when pop music was opulent and untold, when Bacharach's cotton-candy strings swelled with teary-eyed grandeur and women named Dionne and Cilla and Dusty turned Hal David's stark lyrics about heartbreak and hurt into the stuff of adult poetry. But lately he has been lionized by virtually everyone, starting with the lounge crowd, the sharkskin swingers who take their Bacharach with a little Martini & Rossi on ice; somewhere between the hit parade and royalty-rate retirement -- between "The Look of Love" greatness and "That's What Friends Are For" detritus -- Bacharach became the missing link, the long-lost influence, the hero cited by the alternarock crowd when its members seek to wrap themselves in the cred of Cool. But don't be fooled by the Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Stipe and Oasis endorsements; you don't need John Grisham to tell you William Faulkner was a good writer.

And you don't need John Zorn to remind you of that either, no matter how heartfelt the sentiments. It's sadly ironic that many of the songs on Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach -- a "tribute" released on Zorn's own Tzadik label as part of his ongoing Radical Jewish Culture project -- celebrate the man's immortal music by so completely fucking with it you can't recognize the results without looking at the track list. What, after all, is the point of paying homage to one of the greatest melody writers and arrangers of all time by allowing Joey Baron to reduce "Alfie," among the most complex and heartbreaking melodies Bacharach ever penned, to nothing more than a drum solo?

Bacharach, for his part, doesn't listen to others' interpretations of his music. He is flattered by McCoy Tyner's recent album of his compositions, What the World Needs Now, but uninterested in the idea of actually playing it.

"I just saw the sheet music someone sent me from Australia of 'I Say a Little Prayer' by Diana King [from My Best Friend's Wedding]," Bacharach says. "I'm glad the record is a hit, and I was curious about the sheet music. And sure enough, they had changed the piano bar and time signature on the chorus to match with how Diana King does it on the record. If you ask me do I like it better than what I wrote originally, the answer is no -- it doesn't make any sense. But it made sense to them.

"It's funny -- I can't go in for listening to my material. I have a hard time with it. You know, it's not even that I'm going to feel uncomfortable hearing it. I'm very happy they did it. But maybe it's partially that I don't want to be disappointed. And another part is that I want to think ahead."

Indeed, Bacharach has spent the better part of the year writing songs with Elvis Costello for an album they hope to begin recording this month; Bacharach figures he and Costello are up to 10 songs now, not including the few old Bacharach obscurities they might also record. Their partnership -- which began with "God Give Me Strength" from the film Grace of My Heart, a fictional and flawed account of the Brill Building's heyday -- is hardly an unexpected one; Costello recorded "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" two decades ago on Live Stiffs. But it's too simple to say Costello is Bacharach's new Hal David, just as it was too easy to describe Costello as this year's John Lennon when he collaborated with Paul McCartney in the late 1980s. After all, Costello isn't only a lyricist; he's an obsessive melody writer, as well, apt to call Bacharach in the middle of the night with a new bridge or chorus -- in addition to a handful of lyrics.

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