Baby, it's them

Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach are not such unlikely partners

Oddly, Vigard's version, so sparse and heartbreaking, 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.

In a weird way, "God Give Me Strength" sounds very much like a Bacharach-Costello composition: 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 not so different in some ways from 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."

But in the end, it's perhaps a little surprising that Bacharach initially accepted the offer to compose with Costello 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 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 late last year, before a performance at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center with Dionne Warwick. "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 write material that had a chance to survive, to make standards."

Bacharach once seemed a thing of the past--a vestige of a time when pop music was opulent and untold, when Bacharach's cotton-candy strings swelled with misty-eyed grandeur and women named Dionne and Cilla and Dusty turned Hal David's lyrics about heartbreak and hurt into the stuff of adult poetry. Bacharach has of late been lionized by the lounge crowd, the sharkskin swingers who take 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" detritus--Bacharach became the missing link, the long-lost influence, the hero cited by the alternarock crowd when its members seek to wrap themselves in the cred of Cool. But don't be fooled by the Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Stipe and Oasis endorsements; you don't need John Grisham to tell you William Faulkner was a good writer.

And you don't need someone like John Zorn or Shonen Knife to remind you either, no matter how heartfelt the sentiments. It's sadly ironic that a good deal of the songs on Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach--a "tribute" released on Zorn's own Tzadik label as part of his ongoing Radical Jewish Culture project--has chosen to celebrate the man's immortal music by so completely screwing around with it that you can't recognize the results without looking at the song list. What, after all, is the point of paying homage to one of the greatest melody writers and arrangers of all time by allowing Joey Baron to reduce "Alfie," among the most complex and heartbreaking melodies Bacharach ever penned, to nothing more than a drum solo?

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