London Times, February 18, 2023
'It will never cease to amaze me that I
After enthusing for an hour or so on the joys and challenges of his songwriting partnership with Burt Bacharach that lasted three decades, Elvis Costello announces his next life goal. "I want to give a copy to Burt," he says of The Songs Of Bacharach & Costello, a four CD/two LP box set that assembles everything they did together. Costello's versions of Bacharach classics such as "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself," "My Little Red Book" and "I'll Never Fall In Love Again," recorded and performed throughout his career, also appear. "I want to go up to him and say, 'Here you go, my friend. That's what we did.'"
Costello never got to do that. A few days after we spoke about the impact that Bacharach had on his life, about their 1998 album Painted From Memory and the thwarted attempt to turn it into a Broadway musical, and about tackling songs that are easy to listen to but extremely difficult to sing or play, the American composer, songwriter and producer died. Costello learnt of his death the night before the first date of a residency at Gramercy Theatre in New York. "A really great man left us yesterday," he said as he took the stage. "It's never time to say goodbye to someone if you love them. I'm not ashamed to say I did love this man, for everything he gave."
"I am very sad today," Costello says a few days after that New York show. "But Burt Bacharach means the same to me this morning as he did at midnight on Wednesday, when the call came. I have to accept that there will not be the next song that he – or even we – might still be about to write. I will always struggle to think of him in the past tense."
Costello's blend of respect and affection for Bacharach typifies a faithful student's relationship with a wise master. They met in 1989 when they found themselves in the same recording studios. "These are the chance encounters that don't happen today, because now everyone makes albums on their laptops." Costello says.
"I had been using a marimba with the same suspension as [that in the Bacharach classic] "24 Hours From Tulsa," as a gesture of acknowledgement really. He was down the hallway so I asked him to listen." What did he think? He was gentlemanly about it." That sounds like an extremely diplomatic answer.
So began a friendship that continued when the two worked on "God Give Me Strength," a song for the 1996 drama Grace of My Heart, based loosely on the life of Carole King. "I took the unusual step of writing the top-line melody an faxing it to him, which is a presumptuous thing to do," Costello says. "He's not known to be collaborative on his music, but I wanted to tip the song towards his older material. When I was young his songs made me feel strange, I think because there was tension in them. They became more genial as he got older, and although nobody wants to go back – if someone says, 'Can you write another "Oliver's Army"? I'll show them the door – there are certain things in rhythm and harmonic disposition that are classically 'Bacharachian'. I wanted to acknowledge that musical grammar he once did as second nature."
Bacharach's musical grammar had a big impact on the young Costello. His father, Ross MacManus as well as being the voice of the "Secret Lemonade Drinker" on an unforgettable 1973 advert for R. White's Lemonade, was a performer with the light entertainment-focused Joe Loss Orchestra. MacManus was a glamorous but unreliable figure, only intermittently in his son's life, "a great guy, but a terrible example as a husband and father," according to Costello.
In the accompanying booklet to The Songs of Bacharach & Costello there is a photograph of MacManus hanging out with Bacharach at a 1963 Royal Variety performance. "Not just Bacharach, but also the Beatles, Harry Secombe, Marlene Dietrich … they're all there." Costello says. "I had a lot more access to Bacharach than the average kid because my mum was friends with Michael Holliday, who had a hit with Bacharach's "The Story of My Life" in 1958, when I was four, and Dad was bringing the songs home to sing on the Joe Loss Pop Show. As a teenager I was hearing torrid songs like Anyone Who Had A Heart and I began to understand the emotional moments in life they represented. Then I learnt a few chords on guitar and discovered how they were completely beyond me to actually play.
That's a subject we come back to throughout: how incredibly difficult Bacharach's so-called easy listening is to recreate. His regular lyricist Hal David, had a way of giving depth of feeling to everyday language – think of the title to This Guy's in Love with You – and Bacharach managed a similar feat in the melody. It makes the songs a huge challenge for musicians and singers, yet the end result, if done properly, sounds breezy and effortless.
"The songs use an uneven meter because they're conveying a feeling and a conversation." Costello explains. "Music tends to happen in a uniform way, but it's not like that when you speak, with hesitations and so on, which is why orchestras find Bacharach's music such a challenge. He put innovative harmonic ideas and mysterious rhythmic impulses – the kind of thing that would normally be the stuff of esoteric essays on Radio 3 – straight through the middle of the road."
Costello describes the experience of working on Painted from Memory, the 1998 album that he made with Bacharach, as his equivalent of three years at music college. What was he like to work with? "Very considerate, but he won't let anything get in the way of the music, and all the geniality and elegance on the surface of the songs hides the power at the heart of them," Costello says. "Once he gets the shape of a melody he won't negotiate. 'Could I get a triplet, so I can use it against this three-syllable word?' – 'No, you can't.' After a while, the sheer rigour of his approach makes you fall into line."
It generally takes singers of the calibre of Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick to tackle Bacharach's material successfully. "It isn't hard to sing if you trust the music, but modern singers have a tendency to sing anything but the tune, probably because we have so many TV talent shows with people who make Mariah Carey sound like Ethel Merman," Costello says. "With Bacharach, a bit of restraint is not a bad idea."
Costello heard this in action when he saw Warwick perform at the Liverpool Philharmonic in June last year, an experience that came a few days after the worst concert of his career at the same venue. "Everything went wrong," Costello says. "It was heartbreaking because all my friends were there – it was meant to be a wake for my mother, and I dealt with the technical issues and the audience reaction so badly I don't think I can ever go to Liverpool again."
Costello's microphone wasn't working, and he thought that the audience were heckling him when they were merely trying to tell him that they couldn't hear him. "I forced myself to go back to see Dionne Warwick a couple of days later," he says. "The first 13 songs were by Bacharach and David and everything that came after sounded like the work of students by comparison. Her understanding of the material was expressed so beautifully that it was the most restorative thing. When she sang Alfie she transformed a song about a glib male character in a movie into a meditation on the need for love. It was incredible."
How about Cilla Black's cheery if gauche version of "Alfie," which became a UK hit in 1966 after Bacharach made her do an estimated 28 takes? "Dionne certainly didn't have much good to say about Cilla's version of Bacharach and David songs, not least because they stole the thunder of the originals," Costello says. "But Dionne was unusual in that she could sing the most gentle, intimate moment and then have the power to go all the way up to the crescendo. Other singers had to bring the songs into their own dynamic range."
You wonder, given that Costello's wife is the Canadian jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall and her sultry rendition of "The Look of Love" is almost as celebrated as the Dusty Springfield version, whether the challenge of tackling Bacharach is a regular topic around their kitchen table. "Not really, and I don't argue with her about time signatures," he says. "That would end badly because she has the greatest sense of tempo of anyone I have ever met. We all have different gifts. I can look at a page of type and see song titles within it, yet I can't play Scrabble."
Costello faced the challenge of writing lyrics of a quality to match those of David, but in his own, typically evocative way. Painted from Memory features songs about trying to get back with someone ("In the Darkest Place"), infidelity ("Toledo") and loneliness ("This House Is Empty Now"). The director Chuck Lorre, mastermind of the hit nerd sitcom The Big Bang Theory, saw the potential for the songs to be threaded into a Broadway musical about an artist who leaves his wife for a model, and demanded that Bacharach and Costello write another 12 numbers to flesh it out.
The musical never got off the ground, but gems such as "Stripping Paper" – a poignant ballad in which a wife strips away layers of wallpaper in her family home only to be reminded of happier times when she sees a pencil mark of her daughter's height – did come out of it.
"The songs were too good to be languishing in a drawer," Costello says of Taken from Life, the album formed from the extra material. "And I can't be sad that [the musical] never happened because I got to write another 15 songs with Burt Bacharach. Besides, I'm not a great fan of musical theatre because the quality is so poor unless you go back a bit. How can you talk about Leonard Bernstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber in the same sentence? It is like the difference between Beethoven and the 1910 Fruitgum Company."
Bacharach's work has been dismissed as lounge music, not least after he appeared in the first Austin Powers movie. He and Costello even wrote a song called "Lie Back and Think of England" for a proposed Austin Powers musical and it appears on the box set, sung in affectingly broken tones by Bacharach. "It was a wonderful gag that Burt was in Austin Powers, but it did put him in that world of kitsch," Costello says. "The problem was when you got moderately talented musicians attaching themselves to lounge music and it dragged everything their way."
The sadness of the interview, given what happened a few days later is in the enthusiasm with which Costello talks about working with Bacharach. "I'm always pleased because every time I think 'Is there going to be another opportunity?'" he says, suggesting there most likely would be.
Even at 94, Bacharach seemed too much of a songwriting giant and a figure of superhuman elegance to succumb to plain old death – until he did. He has left behind a body of work that informed 20th-century song. Remarkably, a chunk of it was recorded with the man behind "Pump It Up," "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea" and other, frenetic punky classics. They are as far away from Bacharach's glamorous cocktail party world as you could imagine, but Costello has since aligned so closely to him that the two are now for ever interlinked.
"When people first came upon Painted from Memory they had to get over their assumptions about me," Costello says as our original interview wound to a close. "As the years have passed, it has become one of the most important records I've done, certainly the one people want to talk about. Now I want to say to Burt, 'Let's look forward to the next time.'"
That time never came.
"To have written alongside Burt, to have listened to him spontaneously compose, was like overhearing a conversation in a beautiful language, like Portuguese, and wishing one could converse in that tongue," Costello says a few days after Bacharach's death, by which time he has had a chance to reflect on it all. "Thanks to Burt's curiosity and his willingness for us to compose some music together, I can now understand and even speak a few words of Portuguese, if you catch my drift. Having admired him for so long, it will never cease to amaze me that I was able to call him my friend."
The Songs of Bacharach & Costello (Ume) is out on March 3.
Sunday Times, February 18, 2023
Will Hodgkinson interviews Elvis Costello about Burt Bacharach.
Photo credit: William Claxton.
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