Baby, it's them

Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach are not such unlikely partners

"It was a little daunting," Costello says of sharing an album credit with a man whose resume 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 know 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 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 mouthed 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. Laidback 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."

Those who are fool enough to speak of a Bacharach renaissance on the heels of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, My Best Friend's Wedding (with its Bacharach-heavy soundtrack), a 1997 John Zorn-produced tribute album that's no homage, a McCoy Tyner disc that's more water than wine, his collaborations with Costello, a couple of commercials using his music, and dozens of magazine articles trumpeting his comeback miss the point. You can't come back from here.

His songs from the 1950s, '60s, and even early '70s are more than golden oldies, but indestructible, complex, dense pieces of pleasure that eat you up the first time or the millionth time you hear them. Bacharach gave Hal David's words a heartbeat--his sad, wonderful words, these three-dimensional falling-in-and-out-of-love songs that sought the middle ground between sadness and satisfaction. Bacharach, who came of age working for Marlene Dietrich and hanging around bebop clubs in New York, brought them to life with tangled arrangements and time signatures and voicings, by making the song less about what the words meant and more about how they felt.

They're perfect creations, where intangible emotion meets tender flesh. Only a handful of pop songwriters managed to create such music, men such as Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Only Bacharach and a few contemporaries--including Motown's Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman, and, yes, Elvis Costello--belong among their Tin Pan ranks.

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 Spector-like 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 Wilson-like 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.

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