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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008
Burt Bacharach: Been there, wrote that
By WAYNE GABEL
Special to The Japan Times
Let other musicians measure their success with applause and awards. Burt Bacharach's been there and done that.
The writer of 48 Top 10 hits and winner of seven Grammys now knows there's another way to judge the impact of his work. For the first time in his six-decade career, he's getting hissed and heckled. And he's loving it.
Speaking by phone from his Los Angeles home ahead of a February tour with Tokyo Newcity Orchestra, Bacharach recounts a night in San Diego last summer when he was playing "Who Are These People?," a politically charged song from his 2005 album "At This Time." As the tune ended, the commotion started.
"There were boos," he says, laughing. " 'Wow!' I thought, 'This is spectacular. I've never been booed before.' "
Reactions to the tune, which goes for the jugular of the current U.S. administration, didn't stop there.
"A fight broke out," Bacharach continues. "My daughter was out in the audience. It was happening right in front of her."
The composer, who's better known for writing sunny melodies such as "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on my Head" than courting controversy, knew "At This Time" would ruffle feathers. The reaction was swift. No sooner had it been released in the United States than he found himself fired from a private gig. The event's host feared he'd make trouble. Bacharach says he doesn't regret opening his mouth.
"I was proud of that moment," he says of the night in San Diego. "Just like I was proud of getting fired from that private date. I feel very strongly about what I'm saying politically on that album. It's not that I'd make another album that way, but I said what I had to."
"At This Time," released by BMG Japan in February 2006, is a break with his past work, and not just because of its topical nature. So outraged was he over the state of affairs in the United States under President George W. Bush that he penned his first-ever lyrics.
Although Bacharach's quick to point out that the songs benefited from the input of colyricist Tonio K., the move was a major step for a composer whose biggest hits feature the words of longtime songwriting partner Hal David. Perhaps the effort had a cathartic effect, for Bacharach says he'll focus on music — not words — from now on.
"Lyric writing — I think that was just for one time," he says.
Bacharach says he also hopes to write more songs with Elvis Costello, who partnered him on 1998's Grammy- winning "Painted From Memory." Costello appears on "At This Time," singing "Who Are These People?" Other guests include singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and hip-hop artist Dr. Dre.
Though he's keen to have his audiences hear his new material, Bacharach won't ram it down anyone's throat.
"I know why the audience is there — to hear things that they know," he says, adding that the plethora of old faves requires that some be performed in medley form.
For this tour, he's bringing his band, and singers Donna Taylor, John Pagano and Josie James, who'll fill the shoes of the vocalists — among them Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Herb Alpert and The Beatles ("Baby, It's You") — who've recorded his compositions over the years.
Accompanying them will be Tokyo Newcity Orchestra, which has performed with the late tenor Luciano Pavarotti and rap star Kanye West. Bacharach, who'll conduct the orchestra from his piano, takes the mic to sing some numbers, including his signature tune, "Alfie."
Bacharach frequently performs with local symphony orchestras. In keeping with his style, he'll put the Tokyo Newcity Orchestra through its paces in the hours leading up to the tour, but not before.
"The day of the first concert, there'll be a 3- or 4-hour rehearsal in the afternoon," he explains. "That'll be the first time they've seen the music and the first time they will have seen me. And then we turn it right around. Two hours later, we do the first concert."
Bacharach, who'll turn 80 in May, could be forgiven if he decided to rest on his laurels while minding his two young children from his present marriage. But he's not about to call it quits.
"If I wanted to, I guess I would," he says. "Nobody's telling me I've got to do it. But in my heart, I know that if I just stayed home, that wouldn't be good."
It was partly out of concern for his kids that he was motivated to write "At This Time." The composer of so many timeless songs ("Make it Easy on Yourself," "There's Always Something There to Remind Me," "What the World Needs Now Is Love") concedes that the topical nature of his latest album, not to mention its title, will likely limit its shelf life.
The sole tune with potential staying power, he says, might be "In Our Time," an instrumental he performed with jazz trumpeter Chris Botti. That standout, now a concert staple, helps explain why "At This Time" won the 2005 Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album.
He could be wrong, though. Topical tunes from the Vietnam years remain popular long after their presumed expiry dates. More importantly, younger musicians are always discovering his work. In the 1990s, Bacharach found a big fan in Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher, who joined him on stage to perform "This Guy's in Love With You" and prominently placed a framed Bacharach poster against a sofa on the cover of Oasis' debut album "Definitely Maybe." In 2003, garage-rock duo The White Stripes covered the Bacharach-David tune "I Just Don't Know What to do With Myself." A broad segment of the U.S. public has become acquainted with him more recently, thanks to the 2006 season of the TV show "American Idol," on which Bacharach was a guest.
Though many months have passed since the release of "At This Time," Bacharach's anger at the current U.S. administration hasn't subsided.
"I'd be surprised if he doesn't go down as the worst president that we've ever had," he says of Bush.
Back in the 1960s, Bacharach was more reticent. While his younger peers were penning protest songs, he and David focused on romance.
"I don't get tortured by regret," he says of his silence back then, adding that the advent of 24/7 cable news has reshaped our worldview. "That wasn't going on with the Vietnam War. It was far away. It wasn't tied into buildings being struck by airplanes in our country."
Bacharach, who decries politicians unwilling to admit their mistakes, readily admits his own. One of his biggest was falling out with David. The two men, who've since reconciled, split over the value of their respective contributions to a 1973 musical remake of the 1937 movie "Lost Horizon." Unable to see eye to eye about money they weren't likely to get after the film bombed, they went their separate ways.
Eventually, singer Dionne Warwick was dragged into the fray by contractual obligations to her label, Warner Brothers, which had signed Bacharach and David as her writers and producers.
"It was a mistake because we neglected our artist, Dionne," Bacharach says. "There were lawsuits, and it was all messy. Everything is fine now."
Bacharach and David teamed up with Warwick in the early 1960s. She initially sang on demos the pair pitched to labels. Later, she got a record deal of her own, scoring a hit with her first single, a Bacharach-David composition titled "Don't Make Me Over." She also charted with other songs by the duo, including "Anyone Who Had a Heart," "Walk on By," "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" and "I Say a Little Prayer" (also a sizable hit for Aretha Franklin). It's no surprise that she's among Bacharach's favorite interpreters of his music.
"Gladys Knight. Aretha Franklin and the great Dusty Springfield," he says, naming others. "That's a pretty good list."
Though Bacharach's music is often pigeon-holed as "easy listening," it's difficult to play, thanks to unusual time signatures. A classically trained pianist who cut his teeth as a pop tunesmith in New York's famed Brill Building along with the likes of Carole King, he says there are no tricks to writing great songs. They're the result of hours of work.
"One basic principle is not to lose touch with your music. That can be as simple as testing it out — improvise, fool around, communicate with your muse," he says. "If you do it often, maybe something will occur. Or maybe nothing will occur. But if you are practicing, you are getting in touch with your music."
Burt Bacharach performs with Tokyo Newcity Orchestra Feb. 16 (6 p.m.) and Feb. 17 (3 p.m.) at Tokyo International Forum Hall A. Call Disk Garage at (03) 5436-9600; Feb. 20 (7 p.m.) at Green Hall in Sagamiono, Kanagawa Prefecture. Call Move at (04) 2742-9999; Feb. 22 (7 p.m.) at Festival Hall in Osaka. Call Kyodo Ticket Center at (06) 6233-8888. Tickets for all shows are ¥10,000 and ¥12,000.