Magic moments with Elvis and Burt
Costello the ex-punk and Bacharach
the king of croon - they sound an odd duo, but they click. Mark Steyn met them
'ROCK and roll is here to stay, it will never die," sang Danny and the Juniors at the dawn of what scholars call "the rock era". Well, they should have been in Chicago on Friday night.
Elvis Costello is at the Chicago Theatre, introducing Alison, his
classic from Britain's long-ago summer of punk and new wave. But he's wearing a tuxedo and
explaining how he's written a new arrangement for strings. The crowd loves it. Then he
does a stripped-down version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's Twenty Four Hours from
Tulsa with spare piano backing. They go bananas.
And then there's Burt himself. Most of the audience is younger than Bacharach, who's 70, but then most of them are younger than Costello, too - he's 43 - and several of them are younger than Costello's son (23). But Burt is unfazed. "I played here on my second job as a professional musician," he says, "as accompanist to Vic Damone." "Oh, wow!" says the twentyish girl on my left and starts to clap. Not only is Bacharach hot, but apparently association with Vic Damone (big balladeer, floreant 1950s) only makes him hotter.
What's happening on this five-gig mini-tour, which comes to the Festival Hall this Thursday, is not just an exercise in double nostalgia but an attempt to discover whether the guy who wrote Do You Know the Way to San Jose? and the guy who wrote I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea can figure out somewhere to go together. Their new album, Painted from Memory, is billed as "The new songs of Bacharach & Costello", which, as songwriting teams go, is more unwieldy than Rodgers & Vicious or Gilbert & Doggy Dogg, and only marginally less unlikely.
Bacharach is Bacharach: he has done what he does - flugelhorns, muted trumpets, shimmering vocal backings, intricate melodies that weave through more time signatures in 16 bars than most rock writers use in a lifetime, yet seem as natural as walking. Costello was just part of the background din. "His early stuff I wasn't too aware of," says Burt. "The rebellious-young-punk-anger thing, I tend to put that into a non-interesting category. But he knows so much about different kinds of music - opera, classics. Way more than me. Do you mind if I floss?"
A gruelling perfectionist, he is eating and flossing during our conversation because he's spent the afternoon rehearsing his string section in the theatre lobby, with Elvis prowling behind, cheerfully bellowing along, word-perfect, like a beefier, pastier Dionne Warwick. Framed by the theatre's classical columns and gilded sconces, it's like a Nineties Palm Court. And, pared down to the string parts, the old Bacharach/David songs and the new Bacharach/Costello songs sound even more exquisite - and a forlorn reminder of how the ballad has been degraded by the booming bombast of Celine Dion and co.
"Still, millions like that stuff," I say. "They like Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, too," says Costello. "Lots of blood. But it's not real blood, is it?" And, if nothing else survives from his noisier days at Stiff Records, a Costello song still likes to draw real blood. Whether his work is any less non-interesting (as Burt would say) is more questionable. One minute, he's talking about his collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, "I'm not a classical musician but. . ." Next, he's talking about his collaboration with John Harle and the Jazz Passengers, "I'm not a jazz musician, but. . ."
So what is he then? A rock musician? "God, no," says Costello. "I hate the word. 'Rahrk'," he growls in the dark tones of those big-city jocks who gave up on Elvis a handful of albums back. So did his last record company, which is why he's now with Polygram/Mercury, enjoying a unique deal under which his CDs will be released on the company's classical, jazz or pop labels, as appropriate.
'I love Richard Rodgers," he declares. "And Burt's in that league. To me, he's Rodgers and I'm. . . whoever," he says modestly. This is the way a lot of pop stars talk now. Nothing about punk, folk, hard rock, soft rock, but plenty about Gershwin and Kern and those other "short New York Jews like me", as Paul Simon put it. "It may be a trend," says Costello, "but I don't think I'm part of it. I recorded My Funny Valentine in 1978."
As he points out, he's more consistent than he's given credit for. "Since 1980 I've listened mainly to country, for the storytelling, and, for the music, to Rodgers, Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerland's Cole Porter songbook. I loved Benny Green, God bless him," he sighs. "Never missed him."
As a concise guide for neophyte songwriters, Costello's preferences are hard to beat: country songs still have imagery and titles and lyric thrust, and pop standards have greater harmonic sophistication than rock. That's what makes Bacharach a logical collaborator. In the Sixties, Bacharach and David were regarded as Tin Pan Alley throwbacks, easy-listening guys serving Como, Jack Jones, the Carpenters and somehow managing to hold on in an age of rock groups and singer-songwriters.
Thirty years on, the Velvet Underground, Jefferson Airplane, you name it, all sound as quaintly dated as Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. But Bacharach is hipper than ever. "It's like the clothes from the Sixties," he says. "They don't work anymore. A lot of the songs don't work anymore." He beams, flashing his newly flossed teeth. "But some songs do."
So Bacharach got to sing What the World Needs Now in the film Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, while I Say a Little Prayer spurred My Best Friend's Wedding to its only moment of inspiration. But not all the new recordings are good news. "What's the girl's name who did the single for Best Friend's Wedding?" he asks. I've forgotten, but it turns out to be Diane King, who did a sort of reggae version, Me Say A Little Prayer.
"I don't particularly love that. I'm glad it was a hit, but I don't know why they had to change the three/four bar." He's referring to the way King smoothed out the "Forever, forever you'll stay in my heart. . ." section, eliminating the tempo changes and several syllables, and making the song more ordinary.
Such are the vicissitudes of a songwriting life in the late Nineties, that neither Bacharach nor Costello is confident any radio stations will even play the new album: new-wave oldies formats that play Costello's Watching the Detectives will ignore it, and so will old-time "music of your life" formats that play Bacharach's Magic Moments.
More fool them. Several of the new songs sound like strange, contemporary half-answers to old David titles. Are You There (with Another Girl)? - I Still Have That Other Girl. A House Is Not a Home - This House Is Empty Now. "I marvel at Hal's selflessness," says Costello. "He always served the music."
David rarely gets the credit Bacharach does because he's unobtrusive. Costello's lyrics are much darker - "uneasy listening", as one critic called them - but they can also be denser, and on occasion you pine for a little more formal clarity.
For his part, Costello thinks Bacharach and David are dark in their own way. "I find Alfie very painful, almost as much as I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." I point out that Alan Jay Lerner, lyricist of the latter, asked Bacharach to write with him and got turned down: the stiff from Stiff with the semi-Scouse vowels has succeeded where the elegantly Oscared and Tonyed author of My Fair Lady and Gigi failed.
In a way, a Bacharach/Costello partnership has far more at stake than Bacharach and Lerner would ever have. Of all the curious collaborations of recent years - kd lang and Tony Bennett, Bono and Sinatra - this one is at least a serious attempt to re-connect pop music with its pre-rock past.
"The other day, this German guy was giving Burt a hard time because he'd never got into rock 'n' roll. And Burt said, well, if you've just come out of the army and you're studying composition with Henry Cowell and listening to Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Haley doesn't sound that hip. And I can see that now."
So now, like Vic Damone, Elvis Costello has a tux. "When I bought it, I
suddenly knew why they all wear them. They all say they make you feel great and I never
believed it. But is does. It feels really comfortable. I walked on stage and they cheered
the tuxedo. It got a bigger hand than I did."
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