Elvis Costello (and Burt Bacharach, Part 1)
“I think there’s as much self revelation in “What Is This Thing Called Love” by Cole Porter as there is in any song by Kurt Cobain.”
Time and again Elvis Costello has demonstrated a gift for unlikely but rewarding collaborations. Take the 2014 gem “Lost on the River” by the The New Basement Tapes. It features the now-60-year-old Costello as the wizened veteran in a band of younger generation of performers (Jim James, Rhiannon Giddens, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith) tasked with creating songs from unused lyrics Bob Dylan abandoned in 1967. Masterminded by producer T-Bone Burnett, The New Basement Tapes looks on paper like a misbegotten multiple personality vanity project train wreck, but, damn, it works.
In 1998, Costello’s pairing with Burt Bacharach also seemed a potential disaster, a possible blot on both their reputations. So many ways to go wrong. Costello is a strong if idiosyncratic singer, but he’s not the first – or 101st – name that springs to mind if you’re looking for someone to give voice to Bacharach’s fully orchestrated romantic pop. And while Elvis is a superior wordsmith, no one short of Shakespeare or Johnny Mercer had a shot of surpassing Hal David’s lyrics to “Walk On By,” “Anyone Who Had A Heart,” etc. Bacharach, for his part, was 70 at the time and a decade past writing his last hit (though he was good for a chuckle onscreen helping Austin Powers woo his lady love). The mismatch marriage of Costello and Bacharach appeared destined to disappoint.
It did not.
“Painted From Memory,” Costello and Bacharach’s one album together, impresses as both a work of craft and an emotionally fraught exploration of lost love. Costello delivers some of his best singing, while Bacharach demonstrates his trademark ability to write, arrange and orchestrate deceptively complex pop that is as beautiful as it is brainy. You might call “Painted From Memory” the best album Dionne Warwick never made.
Gushing with enthusiasm, his words tumbling forth at a rapid clip, Costello could hardly have been more enthusiastic when he spoke about working with the estimable Bacharach (whose interview on the subject of working with Elvis will appear in Part 2).
October 1, 1998
From New York City by phone
What are you doing in New York?
I’ve been to the Top 40 radio station. I played a couple of songs, so I’m rocking. They ambushed us. They had an electric piano there for me and Burt to play. We went to talk and found ourselves doing a little set. We’ve done a couple of TV appearances this week. Letterman the other night. Regis and Kathie Lee, which was a gas.
It’s safe to say that you and Burt Bacharach have very different fanbases. Do you think the combination of you two together is pulling in each other’s fans?
I’m not a great one for the charts and graphs, but that does seem to be the tip. We’ve been written up in the rock mags and then in the New Yorker. And then the same in radio. We did Vin Scelsa’s show, which is very thoughtful, and then we’re on a Top 40 station this morning. It’s not that we’ve planned it, it’s just the way it’s going. And I hope it goes on like this.
Will you be performing the album when you play in Boston next week [on October 10, 1998 at The Mix Fest at Boston City Hall Plaza]?
No, because Burt and I are going on the road to do just a few dates to announce the record. We’d have loved to do Boston, but the venues weren’t available on the nights we had. So I’m coming in with just Steve Nieve and we’ll do a little bit of both. We’ve been doing a lot of shows together the last couple of years in a duo format. We’ve played Japan, the Dominican Republic, Italian opera houses. So we’ve covered a lot of ground. So we’ll probably be able to do things from 1977 to ‘97 and everything in between. Obviously I’m very proud of the new songs I’ve written with Burt and we’ve already done a few.
So you will do a tour with Burt?
That’s what we are doing. Opening in Radio City October 13. If everything goes well, we’ll do a full-blown tour early next year and Boston will be the top of the list. This time we’re only doing New York, Washington, Chicago, L.A.. and then London. And that’s it for now. Burt’s scoring a movie, I’ll be on the road in Europe doing Italian TV shows and Swedish game shows, anywhere I can get the music heard. I just want to take these songs out and play them. [Neither the full-blown tour Costello hoped for nor a Boston date with Bacharach happened.]
Your collaboration with Burt started with the (1996) movie “Grace of My Heart” [which included their first collaboration, “God Give Me Strength,” the closing track on “Painted From Memory”].
The writer and director Allison Anders and the music supervisor Karyn Rachtman had already involved me in the movie. I had already written one song on my own, “Unwanted Number,” and they came back with this notion of me writing with Burt and of course I was absolutely delighted. I’d met Burt very briefly once before. Then they announced the deadline was like next week. So we had very little time to get together on it which was why we ended up writing it on the telephone.
Was Burt delighted too?
He was really open to it. I was really surprised. Bear in mind, this is a couple of years ago, the beginning of this period where he was coming in for a lot of attention. These things just happen to people whose careers are long and illustrious. Maybe he got out of focus for a while and then a few chance things add up and next thing they’re back really in focus. What you have to have in the center of it is quality, and Burt has undeniable quality in his songs. Which means that it’s very difficult to make a case for not liking him. Those things were just starting to happen and I think he was opening up his mind to the possibility of playing to a different audience than he was presently playing to. So to do something new was obviously a good way to go.
He was very open to my suggestions. And one of the most unusual things about our collaboration from his point of view is that I write a fair share of the music. I don’t think he’s ever done that before. He’s always been in total charge of the music, other than accepting a few suggestions from somebody like a Neil Diamond or Carole Bayer Sager. But he’s never given up as much of the control of the music as he has in this. So just in doing that, it tells you he wanted to do something different. And for me, I like to control things. I had to obey the shape of the melodies. Even if we agreed a melody went a certain way, even if I had originally proposed a section of music, sometimes I would make a hard job for myself as a lyricist and try to tell a story in [very little] space in these tunes, in between these lines. The lines are not so crammed with words. And I had to obey that. It was a very exacting discipline. But it wasn’t a bad thing to have to not bend the music out of shape just to suit a rhyme or two. I enjoyed that. It was very daunting sometimes and I’d get down about it when I couldn’t make it work out, like anybody when you can’t make something work. It wasn’t all effortless.
But we had a very good rapport. Once we made the record of “God Give Me Strength,” it just seemed crazy to stop there. I made the proposal to Burt that we write a whole album, which picked up the feeling that song had and expanded out into songs that looked at love, lost love, from every angle. We really made a conscious decision that that would be our subject. We knew that that would give us plenty of ways to go musically. And I think that’s the way it turned out.
There’s the subject of lost love. And the sense of an unfaithful lover who feels regret. Are you drawing from experience?
I think the situations that are in the songs are entirely real. And of course some of the incidents might be extracted from a degree of experience and a degree of observation. But unlike an awful lot of current rock writers, I don’t believe there is a superior authenticity in setting your diary to music. Nor is it necessary. These are works of imagination informed by experience and observation. Therefore I don’t invite the audience’s sympathy or any interpretation of my personal circumstances by singing songs that are sad. Because my job is to sing songs to people, to create stories with the music and words which we’ve written, and invite people to identify themselves with those songs, not with me personally. I’m not looking for sympathy. If my personal circumstances are happy, it doesn’t mean that, like an actor, I’m any less convincing playing a role. You can walk away from a role. One minute you’re a murderer, the next minute you’re a tap dancer. And everybody believes you, nobody doubts his authenticity. There’s this bogus notion that it’s somehow more real if you cut yourself and bleed on the page, and you smear it into interesting patterns. I don’t believe that myself. I think that’s lazy. I think there’s as much self revelation in “What Is This Thing Called Love” by Cole Porter as there is in any song by Kurt Cobain. One is not superior to the other. One is apparently more self-revealing in that it’s more raw. Or “Mother” by John Lennon. Is “Mother” a better song than “What Is This Thing Called Love?” I don’t think it is. They’re both excellent songs, but they take different views of self-expression. And these [collaborations with Bacharach] are loaded with personal emotional details, but they’re not secret messages to people. They’re not inviting the contemplation of my circumstances, they’re inviting contemplation of the listeners’ circumstances. And how the songs touch them.
Did you think this subject matter of lost love would be a rich source for Burt’s music?
It’s the area of his writing that has always touched me the most. I find “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head” and “What’s New Pussycat,” they’re great songs, they have a real charm and wit. But the songs that got under my skin are “Are You There (With Another Girl)” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” the real romantic ones. But they have a churning, an anguish, not just in the words but in the way the music twists and turns. Obviously, we tried to make the music as rich and surprising as possible while dealing with an instrumental pallet that will be familiar to a lot of people: a string orchestra, instrumental voices, and the way the vocal group will carry on the story for a line of two, all elements that are more typical of Burt’s canon than mine. But I feel really at home with them because I grew up listening to this stuff, and it’s second nature. And I’ve plundered it for inspiration and ideas on a few occasions, I hope not too overtly. I certainly have no reason to hide the fact that I’ve used his songs as a model on occasion. And I probably did a very poor job of reaching the standard of composition that he’s done, but nevertheless, listening to his songs has helped me solve certain musical problems over the years. Now, working with him, I can see how it’s done to some extent, but it doesn’t make me able to write like him. I left certain elements of the musical sounds I’ve used at the door because they would have been too contradictory. I didn’t need to bring frenetic rhythms or aggressive or edgy sounds to this disc. I moved to the piano for my part of the compositions because I felt that’s where we could reach the most agreement. And in that lyrical, emotional territory, I knew that was a place we could meet very easily.
Bacharach is a trained musician who studied with some great composers, Darius Milhaud, most famously, and even Henry Cowell. Was it a learning experience for you working with him?
I learnt a tremendous amount. I can write music down. I’m not a good sight reader, very slow. I can write music down reasonably confidently. I’m a rudimentary pianist in terms of providing a credible accompaniment, but it’s a good composing instrument for me. But the fact that I could see the music he was making meant that I wasn’t getting his music just on instinct, I was able to get inside the harmonic suggestions he was making. Sometimes I would disagree where he wanted to make changes. Or where he would compose a development in something we’d written together. Sometimes he would oppose one of my ideas. But we were able to talk the same language. I was left a bewildered student. He obviously has a greater natural sense of melodic shape than I do, and he has a great sense of structure. Which is something which influenced the words I wrote. He encouraged me to write more simply, less private language, less selfish. Here’s an example. In the very first song on the record [“In the Darkest Place”] it says, “that is the torch I bear.” And I go – originally I had misread it and sang, “that is the torch I carry.’ Burt said, “Well, that’s great, but you’re crowding the end of the bar there. Then the next line comes in too suddenly and it becomes garbled. Couldn’t you just obey the music in the manuscript?” And sure enough I had added a couple of little extra notes at the end of that line. And in the end, I like “that is the torch I bear.” I like it better. By obeying the music I wrote a better line. So I did learn something.
And he also encouraged my instinctive feeling for not charging in vocally at the beginning of certain songs. Bear in mind, I’m not challenged by electric instruments on many of these songs, it’s the piano and acoustic instruments and strings. I don’t have to push so hard to get out front. So my voice is warmer when I need a little tenderness. And hopefully, sometimes, dare I say, beautiful. And then I have somewhere to go dynamically. I don’t sing the crescendos of these songs with ease because I’m not an easy kind of singer. I like the tension in my voice. It’s not for everybody. But this is the process of Burt and I writing together. And if some smoother vocalist wants to come along and give us the effortless version of these songs later, I’m not sure I’m gonna like that better, but I’m sure some people will. If a Luther Vandross comes along and sails up to these high notes with no apparent effort, I’ll be thrilled because he has a lovely voice. But I’m really hoping that some people do get brave and try to sing these songs later on.
[Elvis got his wish. People did try to sing his and Bacharach’s songs, one in particular: “God Give Me Strength.”]