Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach--together at last
By Robert Wilonsky
|Photo by James Minchin These guys are in love with you: Bacharach and Costello.|
Declan MacManus, better known as Elvis Costello, knows too well the threat of being run down and destroyed by your own history. He has spent the better part of this decade trying to outrun his past, to escape those old photos of a pigeon-toed, knock-kneed punk staring down the world through Buddy Holly rims and those old songs about “revenge and guilt” he once snarled. For a while, he refused to play the old favorites in concert; then he stopped playing rock and roll altogether, recording in 1993 a strings-and-vocals album with the Brodsky Quartet. Titled The Juliet Letters, it was a subtle, lovely triumph--and it remains among the poorest-selling of all his records, and the most reviled by even his staunchest admirers and apologists.
He would return to rock for 1994’s Brutal Youth and subsequent tours, but his mind appeared to be elsewhere. He would, in time, record a track with the Jazz Passengers, another with the gospel-singing angels of the Fairfield Four, and appear as vocalist on John Harle’s classical gem Terror + Magnificence. He showed up on MTV singing George Gershwin with Tony Bennett, recorded a live import-only album with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, and joined mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter on a Swedish stage. Oh, yes--and he would also write a song with Burt Bacharach for a 1996 film, Grace of My Heart, that didn’t deserve such an honor. The two men never stood in the same room when they wrote that first song, but eventually they would spend hours together, writing and recording a full-length disc featuring their music and Elvis’ sparse words. The result, Painted From Memory, came out two weeks ago, though it sounds as if it’s been in the racks for decades--an astonishing mouthful of sugar and salt, what happens when two men out of time connect to make music that pays homage to then while trying to be relevant for now.
Perhaps their collaboration was inevitable, almost fated. Costello, after all, had long been a fan of the music Bacharach had written with lyricist (and ex-journalist) Hal David during the 1950s and ’60s. Twenty years ago, before Costello even had a deal with Columbia Records, he and the Attractions recorded Bacharach and David’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” for the Live Stiffs collection. In 1984, he and Nick Lowe performed “Baby It’s You,” intending it as a single release until Columbia deemed the song “too good” for release (Elvis’ words); “Baby It’s You” would later appear on the import odds-and-ends collection Out of Our Idiot and, subsequently, on Rykodisc’s reissue of Goodbye Cruel World. In 1990 Costello also recorded the Bacharach-David classic “Please Stay”--though it, too, wouldn’t be released until 1995’s all-covers-disc Kojak Variety.
The two men first met 10 years ago, while Costello was in the studio recording his album Spike. That meeting was a brief, thrilling one for Elvis; imagine a child running into Willie Mays in the Polo Grounds’ tunnels after a game. They exchanged a few words; Costello apologized to Bacharach for “stealing” his arrangements, and that was it. Now, instead of paying homage to Bacharach, Costello is his partner: They wrote each song on Painted From Memory together, performed them in the same room with an eight-piece ensemble, then invited a 24-piece pop orchestra to lay down the plush carpet that blankets each song. For the second time in his life, Costello has been given the opportunity to write and record with a childhood idol.
A decade ago, he collaborated on a dozen tunes with Paul McCartney, whose band turned a young Declan MacManus onto the power of rock and roll. Now, he shares royalties with Burt Bacharach, whose music takes up so much space in the pop dictionary. Such songs as “Walk On By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” and “Any Day Now” are filled with melodies and lyrics you’ve memorized without even trying, like old phone numbers you haven’t dialed in years. To recite the list of songs written by Bacharach and David during their days and nights together in New York’s legendary Brill Building and to catalog the roster of artists who have covered them is to recount the history of modern pop music; few other composers can claim to have been performed by Perry Como, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, the Drifters, Elvis Presley, Andy Williams, Benny Goodman, Isaac Hayes, Cilla Black, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Stranglers, the Bay City Rollers, and Bomb the Bass. Hell, to have withstood Ethyl Meatplow’s distorted, druggy take of “(They Long to Be) Close to You” alone is to prove one’s invincibility.
“It was a little daunting,” Costello says of sharing an album credit with a man whose résumé reads like a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame entrance exam. “I’ve had this experience twice now with very notable songwriters, and it’s something where you have to remind yourself that you’re there for a reason. In the case of Paul McCartney, I was 34 or 35, you know, and now we are 10 years later. When Burt and I first started, I’m thinking, ‘He doesn’t want to hear from the 9-year-old, the person that first fell in love with “Magic Moments” or “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” ’ He wants to hear from the grown-up guy who writes his own songs and had a degree of confidence in what he is doing.”
On a beautiful Los Angeles night late last summer, Burt Bacharach gathered in Hollywood a few family members, some friends and business associates, and a handful of fortunate journalists, and treated the intimate group to a repertoire of songs so timeless, so affecting, so absolutely perfect. Every piece Bacharach and his band performed that night--and there were dozens, dating all the way back to “Magic Moments,” among the first songs Bacharach and lyricist Hal David wrote together--was once a hit.
Behind the keyboards, Bacharach moved with every note and mouths every word. He stood on the pedals till he resembled a runner in the starting blocks. He was mesmerizing to watch, a kaleidoscope of movement and noise always seeking perfection.
“He doesn’t stop moving,” Costello says. “This is the great myth about Burt Bacharach--that he’s Mr. Laid-Back and Cool, but here is a very physical aspect. When you’re not a singer and you don’t play electric guitar and you have any of the more bombastic gestures of music at your disposal, what people assume is that that somehow equates with a lack of emotional commitment. That, to my mind, is really crazy, because here’s a man who can take the tiniest, most delicate gesture in music to a really thrilling crescendo, and he knows how to control the elements of the orchestra that are around. I think if you go to see him in a performance, you see him kind of playing the orchestra as his instrument in a way.”
Costello and Bacharach first began working together without once seeing each other face to face; they communicated by phone and fax. Costello was in the middle of contributing songs to director Allison Anders’ 1996 pseudo-biopic Grace of My Heart--which takes a wrecking ball to the history of the Brill Building--when Anders and music supervisor Karyn Rachtman approached Bacharach about writing a number for the record. Because Costello had already completed one song and was in the middle of another, he sent Bacharach the beginning of what would become “God Give Me Strength.”
The result was a song that is performed by the film’s protagonist Denise Waverly, played by Illeana Douglas. Waverly is writer-director Anders’ not-so-disguised version of Carole King, a frustrated singer-songwriter who ends up working for a Phil Spectorlike producer in the Brill Building writing hit singles for black all-girl groups. (On the soundtrack, Waverly’s “hits” were penned by the likes of Bacharach’s ex-wife Carole Bayer Sager, Lesley Gore, Joni Mitchell, Gerry and Louise Goffin, Los Lobos, and Costello, who also contributed a tune called “Unwanted Number.”) About halfway through the film, Waverly stands in the studio with a Brian Wilsonlike figure (played by a dazed Matt Dillon), opens her mouth (revealing singer Kristen Vigard’s voice, thank God), and performs “God Give Me Strength” over nothing but a piano’s tear-drop accompaniment. It’s the film’s sole highlight, a woman crying “I want, I want him to huuurt” while shaking as though riding out an earthquake.
Oddly, Vigard’s version, so sparse and heartbreaking, unfortunately does not appear on any record. Instead, MCA Records released a far more opulent version featuring Costello on vocals backed by Burt on piano and an enormous orchestra. (The song also made its way onto the Live on Letterman collection, Painted from Memory, and a forthcoming Bacharach boxed set on Rhino Records.) It’s enormous and intimate all at once, its lyrics dripping with the sort of despair (“Now I have nothing so God give me strength, ’cause I’m weak in his wake”) that was once Costello’s trademark. Indeed, it sounds somewhat similar to his very first single, “Alison,” about a man scorned by an old flame--an assessment Costello doesn’t necessarily disagree with.
“There’s no doubt that over the years I have referred to Burt,” he says. “There’s always been different little references or just tiny suggestions of his influences that would be invisible to anybody without being tipped off to it, I’m sure. It’s been in the background. I won’t say it’s a dominant thing, but it’s been an underlying thread. I was very lucky. I’m 44, and I’ve grown up in a very rich time of music, and particularly in the 1960s. People romanticize it very much, particularly the latter few years, but the early few years were just an amazing sound coming at you all the time with all these different events and ideas.
“Of course, if you went back and listened very meticulously to each year’s output, you’d find that there’s just as much rubbish in 1966 or 1967 or any of these legendary years of music as there are today. And just as many good records. It’s just that we remember them more fondly ’cause it’s longer ago. It’s the rosy glow of nostalgia, I suppose. It’s not even nostalgia. It’s just a faulty memory.”
In the end, it’s perhaps a little surprising that Bacharach initially accepted the offer to compose for Grace of My Heart. After all, he had long ago put aside his past, refusing to talk about what used to be unless hounded by a journalist seeking answers or a peer looking for a little guidance. Like Costello, he too has no time for nostalgia. That is because Bacharach does not like to be thought of as a walking waxwork whose best work lies far behind him, 30 years in the past. To him, the Brill Building is a faint, pleasant memory; to recall those days is to recollect a time when songwriting was, more or less, a job. He seems almost dismissive of his and David’s output back then; he regards those days with the affection of a construction worker speaking about a skyscraper he once built--with pride and with distance.
“I never could stand back and smell the roses very much or have any kind of historical sense of what was going on,” Bacharach said during an interview in November 1997. “I was going so fast and working so much I was hard-pressed to even take a vacation. 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 make standards, to write material that had a chance to survive.”
Survive it has. Bacharach once seemed a thing of the past--a vestige of a time when pop music was opulent and untold, when his cotton-candy strings swelled with misty-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 then Bacharach started getting lionized by the lounge crowd, the sharkskin swingers who took 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” material--Bacharach became the missing link, the long-lost influence, the hero cited by the alternarock crowd whose members sought to wrap themselves in the credibility of Cool.
As a result, recent months have found A&M Records and myriad other labels busily reissuing most of Bacharach’s older albums; the most impressive release is Rhino Records’ brand-new The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection, a three-disc boxed set that dates back to 1957’s “The Story of My Life,” performed by Marty Robbins, and Perry Como’s take on “Magic Moments.” It’s a thrillingly comprehensive collection of songs that span the distance from country (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”) to kitsch (the title track to The Blob and What’s New Pussycat?) to so much glorious R&B (the Drifters’ “Please Stay” and Chuck Jackson’s “I Wake Up Crying”) to dozens of pop treasures that remain indestructible, tangled pieces of pleasure.
Thankfully, the box excises much of his late 1970s and 1980s material, songs written after he and Hal David had an acrimonious split that resulted in a lawsuit long since forgotten. Indeed, Bacharach might well have disappeared during the late 1970s and ’80s; save for a few soundtrack contributions, including “Arthur’s Theme,” he seemed to stumble along without David. Bacharach’s output, once so complex, turned into Muzak; on songs such as “On My Own” and “That’s What Friends Are For,” the grand orchestras gave way to tinny keyboards, and the depth felt suddenly very shallow, even when his songs were performed by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Luther Vandross. The later songs contained so much cheese you could buy them at a deli.
Which is why his collaboration with Costello is so significant. It offers proof that Bacharach is himself no museum exhibit frozen in time. Even at 70, he is willing to take on a new partner, to trade a little knowledge with the man who once insisted his first album could best be described as being about “politics/philosophy and revenge.”
It’s too simple to say Costello is Bacharach’s new Hal David, just as it was too easy to describe Elvis as this year’s John Lennon when he collaborated with Paul McCartney. After all, Costello isn’t only a lyricist; he’s an obsessive melody writer, as well, and apt to call Bacharach in the middle of the night with a new bridge or chorus, in addition to a handful of lyrics.
“He’s a good risk-taker, a serious risk-taker,” Bacharach says of Costello. “He takes his chances, like with the Brodsky Quartet. He’s got a group of hardcore people who are his fans, and they’re going to say, ‘Damn it, Burt Bacharach? The king of the middle of the road writing with Elvis?’ But it’s an interesting thing...He’s a brilliant lyricist--I won’t even suggest a word to him, because he’s one of the great, great writers--and musically, he brings to certain songs more than others a distinctly Elvis core.”
Which is perhaps why Painted From Memory is so often a remarkable record, though now and then it lies in the middle of the road and waits for a truck to run over it. Using “God Give Me Strength” as their departure point, the two men decided to write an entire album of what Costello calls “lost-love songs.” But the record’s a rather joyous affair as Costello’s deep, almost soulful vocals float above Bacharach’s sparse, lavish melodies and arrangements. Songs such as “In The Darkest Place,” “Toledo,” “I Still Have That Other Girl,” “The Long Division” (a very Costello title), and “What’s Her Name Today?” are very much what you imagine Costello-Bacharach songs to sound like--beautiful, complex, sophisticated, angry, sentimental.
Initially, Costello wrestled with just how to write with Bacharach; he didn’t want to simply imitate his style (he had done that throughout his career, for God’s sake), but he also didn’t want to come in with a bunch of “rock and roll” songs, thus creating an album that was more like a “Frankenstein’s monster.” So instead, he decided to “borrow gestures that I think of as his, but still obviously employ them in a way that is entirely mine.” The result is an Elvis Costello record even a grandmother could love--pristine pop music made for the concert hall, Costello as the Dionne Warwick of the 1990s.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the record is Costello’s spartan lyrics. Where once he filled every second of every song with a twist (of a knife, most often--“I wish you luck with a capital F”) and crammed his music full of puns (“You lack lust, you’re so lackluster), now he’s content to write simple, straightforward lyrics; Bacharach’s songs, so full of knotty time signatures and even staccato melodies, demand such streamlining. And so the man who once wrote “She said that she was working for the ABC News/It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use” now pens lines such as, “I can’t believe this is happening/We’re such unlikely lovers.” Doesn’t get any simpler than that.
“The challenge became saying things simply enough to where they were immediately understandable but to stay away from clichés,” Costello says. “I hope we’ve stayed away from clichés, and maybe we’ve coined a few new phrases. That was a very definite conscious decision, and of course that caused me all kinds of problems. Burt writes very sparsely, so the words have got to be very spaced out and yet they still have to be very coherent. And with me, I would have a tumble of words coming out in some songs without as much consideration of melodic shape...There’s a difference in the approach of a lyric-driven songwriter and a melodic-driven songwriter. I’m somewhere between the two now.
“I’m less driven by lyrics than before. I think the music has the ability to suggest things to you if it is handled properly, and words just reinforce that feeling, and that was what I went for in some cases. I wasn’t so concerned to dazzle people with my wit. Who cares? Wouldn’t it be better to touch you with something that you’re feeling before it’s explained to you?”
A few nights ago, Costello was watching television when some performer--he does not recall who, perhaps intentionally--explained to an interviewer that he is “a rock star.” He recalls wondering at that moment, “Is that a career? Can you train for that?” He then explains he is not much a fan of rock music any more, at least that “monolithic beat” that has come to define to much of the genre. Costello’s decision to work with Bacharach is actually an admirable move; it signifies that as he approaches middle age, Mr. MacManus will no longer find it necessary to go on the road with an electric guitar, singing about how radio’s a sad salvation and accidents will happen and how he’s got to pump it up until you can’t feel it.
To that end, he has disbanded the Attractions for good, hanging on only to pianist Steve Nieve, who appears on Painted From Memory; the two of them will tour behind the disc (Bacharach and Costello will only appear in a few cities), performing the new songs in addition to a few Costello oldies rearranged for piano and vocals. Last year, the duo released a five-disc boxed set featuring performances recorded around the country; and among the highlights is their austere rendition of “Watching the Detectives.” It swings, but it does not rock.
“There has been the impulse for a number of years now to build a temple to rock and roll, and when that happens, the more solid and static it gets,” Costello says. “It just crumbles away, and it stops moving...You watch the MTV Music Video Awards, and you can’t find anything of consequence. If that’s the best that the business can provide, then we’re really in trouble.”
He begins to chuckle just slightly; you can hear the smile in his voice. “But I particularly liked Madonna’s impersonation of Cameron Diaz. You know when Cameron Diaz gets up to sing at the karaoke in My Best Friend’s Wedding? Wasn’t that what Madonna was doing in ‘Ray of Light’? It was fantastic. That was the most out of tune I’ve ever heard anybody sing on TV. We shouldn’t be slagging her off, but I was falling on the floor laughing.”
Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach perform Tue., Oct.
20, at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal