Burt Bacharach (and Elvis Costello, Part 2)
“No one has to push me to be complex.”
If there has been a musical menage à trois more sublime and more successful than that of composer Burt Bacharach, lyricist Hal David, and singer Dionne Warwick, I can’t think of it. The three worked magic together. Proof is in the music found in the glorious “The Dionne Warwick Collection: Her All Time Greatest Hits,” a 24-track compilation, all but one written by Bacharach-David (who also produced every cut). While Burt, Hal and Dionne all notched other notable accomplishments, nothing compares to their body of work as a triumvirate, an apotheosis of pop romance and heartbreak.
Hence the audacity of Elvis Costello teaming with Bacharach for “Painted By Memory,” a song cycle that doesn’t want to be something new as much as it wants to recapture the bewitching Warwick-Bacharach-David sound and sensibility.
October 6, 1998
Speaking by phone from his car in Los Angeles while driving to the second day of rehearsal for a short series of shows with Costello.
We’re rehearsing the core band here for four days, with the backup singers and a couple of horns. It’s essentially the band I use when I do self-contained out on the road. And that part of the show from the album is with Steve Nieve, Elvis’s longtime accompanist. Then we’ll go to New York and start rehearsing with the full orchestra, strings, over the weekend, and then open Tuesday at Radio City Music Hall. Nothing like a break-in date at Radio City Music Hall! Some people play Schenectady first. Not us. But we have no choice. That’s the way it is.
Do you think you and Elvis will tour together more next year?
I think it’s in the realm of possibility. Of course a lot depends on how this album does. What visibility will it get? Or won’t get.
Did you know Elvis’s work when you first wrote together for “Grace of My Heart?” Were you at all dubious about collaborating with him?
There wasn’t time to be dubious. I did know his work. Not the early work so much. The hard core punk area, the era he was in, it didn’t appeal to me. But later on he showed he was a very gifted songman, working with the Brodsky String Quartet, the Jazz Passengers, things like that. There’s a very big spread with Elvis. Then this picture came up, “Grace of My Heart,” very fast. We were in very different parts of the world, but we just embarked to do it.
We used phone and fax machine. I certainly liked the way the song turned out. Then what sealed it and pushed it up to the next level was the fact that when we did get together after the song was written and I was meeting Elvis in New York to record the actual record, that was our first real time in the studio working together. I showed the orchestration I’d written to Elvis, showed him my concept for the horns and strings. That was the first time we had an interaction in person. He was very easy to work with, very giving, very open. It was very easy to work together and make this record. When we finished the record, it felt really good, the whole process. So imagine if we wrote a song without a fax machine and actually sat down in a room. So we had a good platform to go from there.
As a vocalist, Elvis has a very different quality than other singers you’ve worked with. Was that something you took into consideration while you were writing with him?
You’re right. It has to affect what you write. When you’re tailoring songs, particularly if you’re writing songs with the person who’s going to sing it, it’s a plus. If we write something, Elvis sings it and we hear immediately how it sounds. So we can make it more conversational here, try it in another key. We’re in the trenches together.
In many ways, the songs are a return to a classic pop style. Is the thought in there somewhere that you’d like other artists to do cover versions?
Sure, we hope for that. I’ve always felt comfortable working with female singers, but I’m comfortable working with male singers too. Elvis has a very powerful voice, very emotional. It’s not urban. He’s not Luther [Vandross]. He’s not supposed to be. We worked very intensely on this. We knew it was going to work. You can hear it. You’re a musician, you’re in a room working together. You can hear what doesn’t work, what might be hazardous.
An unusual aspect of this project is that there’s going to be this instrumental jazz version by Bill Frisell coming out [“The Sweetest Punch: The Songs of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach”].
I’ve heard a track or two, but I wasn’t involved with that. I think it’s great that it will exist. There are a couple of vocals. Elvis, I think, sang. Cassandra Wilson. But I haven’t heard it. But it’s flattering.
In recent years there’s been what might be called a Bacharach revival. It must be nice to be appreciated.
You never can plan those things. You might hope for them, but it’s out of your control. A number of things just happened to happen at the same time. “Austin Powers,” the McCoy Tyner album [1997’s “What the World Needs Now”], “My Best Friends Wedding [a 1997 Julia Roberts’ romcom with a soundtrack heavy on Bacharach-David classics],” the John Zorn album [the first release in Zorn’s Tzadik label’s “Great Jewish Music” series]. A lot of things happened in a matter of months. f you had the best publicist in the world, they couldn’t manufacture something like this. It was just stone cold luck, being in the right place at the right time. Did it start with Oasis? Did it feed off Noel and Liam? I don’t know. You might say that it had some power and influence from England. But it’s always been England for me. When I first started, people knew me way more in England than over here. [The first Oasis album, 1994’s “Definitely Maybe,” includes a prominently positioned picture of Bacharach. That same year, Oasis recorded a Noel Gallagher song, “Half the World Away,” the theme song of a popular BBC comedy, “The Royle Family”; Noel freely admitted that the melody is based on Bacharach’s “This Guy’s In Love With You.”]
[Above: Jeez, it sounds like this guy Noel’s in love with you, Burt.]
Did you feel neglected before all this renewed interest?
There were a couple of times….there’s a big dip down. You don’t get songs recorded, you’re not writing as much. I’ve had a couple of times to come back again. This isn’t the first time, I don’t know if it’s the last time. I’ve been very fortunate. What’s going on, the songs from 30 years ago, they feel really good now. The only thing you can say is that they were sophisticated at the time and they have enough meat on their bones that they sound sophisticated and fresh 30 years later. Some records from 30 years ago that you liked you don’t want any part of now. It’s like clothes you wore then that you wouldn’t wear now. Where does it come from? The serious training? That I was a little in front of my time back then? But if I was in front, then we wouldn’t have had hits with them the first time around. I’m not very good at saying historically why it is what it is, I’m just glad that it is and I’m very grateful.
Did Elvis push you to be as complex as you wanted?
No one has to push me to be complex [laughs]. You just have to go back to see the album I did with the Houston Symphony of all original stuff [“Woman,” released by A&M in 1979]. It’s pretty adventurous. Maybe it was the other way around. Maybe it was looking to get from Elvis, “Okay, we did the verse one time, do it the same way. It’s a hooky chorus, don’t change it.” He’s been lyric-driven so much in his early career. so the second time around in the stanza there are a couple of more words so [Elvis might say] “Okay, let’s add a couple of more notes.” I’m a big believer in not doing that. I’m a big believer in giving the ear of the person hearing it the first time something to hook back into again.
Rhino put out a boxed set of your work [1998’s three-CD “The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection”]. Was that something you had input into?
I’m very happy it’s there, but it’s not something I’m going to get involved in any more than I got involved in “Promises Promises” when it was revived. They asked us to write a new song so we wrote a new song. But I’m not good at looking at the past. I’m interested in now and what lies ahead.
Okay, so what’s next?
In the last year and a half I’ve never done so many concerts. I’ve been working an awful lot. We’ll finish our last concert at the end of October in London and I’m scoring a movie, which I haven’t done in a while. I’ll stay home with my family during this time and write the music for this picture, which is interesting. It has Bette Midler. “Isn’t She Great?” It’s about Jacqueline Susann, the story of the writer. That should be done in late January [Bacharach reunited with David and Warwick for a song on the soundtrack, but the movie was a flop and garnered Midler a Razzie nomination for Worst Actress]. After that, a lot of concerts.
[“On My Way,” a Bacharach-David-Warwick joint from the not-great “Isn’t She Great?”]
More concerts with Elvis?
If this is something that we do well, I’ll move the other dates around because it would be important to be out there if this album does what we hope it will. I know there isn’t another album out there like this. It’s not easy for me and Elvis to get played on Top 40 radio, so we have to go another route. We were doing a signing at the Virgin Megastore in New York the other night. After we played about six songs, we were signing autographs and this woman comes up to me, about 35, and she said, “Y’know, this is the first album I’ve bought in three years. There’s nothing that’s interested me until this.” I thought that was really interesting. There must be more of her in this country, people who don’t listen to Top 40, who gets intimidated going into record stores. So I do think there is an untapped audience. I think it’s a very strong female-oriented album, love that’s gone astray, maybe we’ll get it back. Elvis is a brilliant lyricist. Some of those lines, who else will write something like that? The album is emotional, powerful and I think they will get hooked into it.
Have you gotten any radio play yet?
It’s one of those things that you put out and hope it creates an awareness.