Baby, it's them

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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.

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."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky