“Make It Easy on Yourself,” “Always Something There to Remind Me,” “Promises, Promises.”
So many Burt Bacharach titles lend themselves to the dodgy act of memoir. And it’s more telling than he knows, probably, that he’s chosen “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” to which our musical subconscious adds the necessary predicate: “could love me, too.” If that isn’t the cri de coeur of every memoirist, I don’t know what is.
Do we love Burt Bacharach, too? Chances are good we love at least one of the songs he composed, whether it’s “Walk on By” or “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” or “I Say a Little Prayer for You” or “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” In partnership with the underappreciated lyricist Hal David, Bacharach enjoyed one of the most exceptional runs in pop music, stretching roughly from 1958 to 1969 — or, if you prefer, from “Magic Moments” to “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”
This was the music you were listening to if rock wasn’t your bag — or if your bag was large enough to admit more than three-chord progressions. As a music student, Bacharach spent his days in conservatories and his nights in jazz clubs, and what came out of his Brill Building office was a high-low hybrid of rare complexity and inventiveness. “Wives and Lovers,” beneath its masculine swagger, is a tricky little jazz waltz. “What’s New, Pussycat?” boasts five out-of-sync pianos playing chords that Kurt Weill would have warmed to. “Don’t Make Me Over” zigzags between a 12/8 bar and a 6/8 bar, with a melody line that spans nearly two octaves. “Alfie” is, to my ears, a tone poem that keeps trying to escape its central motif and declines even to finish in its home key. (The song nearly defeated its original singer, Cilla Black.)
Unusual among his peers, Bacharach insisted on arranging and orchestrating his own tunes. “In the studio, I would do as many as twenty or thirty takes, listen compulsively to all the playbacks and mixes as many times as I could, and then play the acetate over and over again. Before a record was ever released, I would have heard it about a thousand times and I was still never satisfied with the way it sounded on the radio. . . .No matter how hard I tried, nothing was ever perfect.”
We might have been excused for thinking it was. Bacharach, in lyricist Sammy Cahn’s words, was “the only songwriter who didn’t look like a dentist,” and he parlayed his handsomeness and charm into high-profile ventures: an early conducting gig with Marlene Dietrich (whose advances he resisted), a chain of TV specials, even a cheesy Martini & Rossi commercial with then-wife Angie Dickinson. People who could never have picked Harold Arlen out of a lineup could have told you who Burt Bacharach was.
But can he tell you? That’s the question left unanswered by this unreflective memoir, which devotes as much time to the composer’s Gershwin Prize as to his childhood. We do learn that his first wife, Broadway singer Paula Stewart, “was really good-looking and had great [breasts], which back then could not be prefabricated.” We learn, too, that Dickinson, in the midst of an emotional breakdown, “was wearing this incredible white dress that left her stomach bare and she looked terrific.” (Wives should always be lovers, too.) We learn, too, that the day after Sharon Tate was murdered, Bacharach was flying up to San Francisco to watch a preview of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” How those two events are correlated remains a mystery.
The most unfinished business of Bacharach’s life (he is now 85) seems to be his daughter Nikki, a troubled girl who suffered from obsessive-compulsive behaviors belatedly diagnosed as Asperger syndrome. Even here, the author’s anguish can’t quite muffle the note of crassness: “Nikki was really quite nuts. . . . If a child was born as prematurely as she was back then, there was no way she was going to come out with a full deck.”
Not exactly the look of love, but give the piano player his due. He could have coasted on his own version of the past; instead, he has sent co-author Robert Greenfield to harvest dissenting voices. It’s a surprisingly gracious gesture that, in the case of his first three wives, yields a Strindbergian brew of counter-accusation. Stewart: “I think I married his talent.” Dickinson: “I knew I couldn’t compete with his hatred or his money.” Carole Bayer Sager: “Nothing changes with Burt when he changes wives. The only thing that changes is the wife.”
Or, to quote Bacharach himself: “What do you want from me? I’m a selfish guy.” Throw in narcissist, workaholic, philanderer — all the bad names his exes have been saving up — and now admit that he’s ignored the advice of his own song. He’s refused to make it easy on himself. And the music still lives, more than anything that could be written about it.
Bayard is a novelist and reviewer.
ANYONE WHO HAD A HEART
My Life and Music
By Burt Bacharach, with Robert Greenfield
Harper. 291 pp. $27.99