Burt and Me

From about 1965, when I was a small boy, till 1980, when I was a skinny teacher, pop music was a central part of my life. I would love to say that I’m talking about Pink Floyd and King Crimson and Frank Zappa, but really I mean chart music, the essence of ‘60’s and ‘70’s pop which was, to use a cliché, the ‘soundtrack of my youth’. 

Burt Bacharach, who has died aged 94, is, in my view, one of a handful of songwriters who created that soundtrack, along with Lennon and McCartney, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Brian Wilson and – a more minority taste – Jimmy Webb. And Burt and Hal David, who wrote the occasionally slightly weird lyrics, were responsible for so many songs which are fixed in my head, conjuring the sun of my childhood. They were masters of the single song, and the artists who covered them created some of the best singles ever. From a huge list, I would select Bobbie Gentry’s version of ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’ and Dionne Warwick’s ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose?’, but my top three, and three of my top ten singles ever are The Carpenters’ ‘Close To You’, with Karen’s beautiful sad, fated voice and that trumpet solo. Then Herb Alpert’s ‘This Guy’s In Love With You’ (‘if not I’ll just diay ay ay..); but – and there is no exaggeration caused by sentiment here – my top single of all time is Aretha Franklin’s version of ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ which, as I age, simply excites and moves me more every time. Thank you, Burt, thank you Hal. I will continue to strive to master the strumming pattern of ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ and I know many of my readers can’t wait to hear that….

I saw Burt in concert twice. Firstly in the ‘90’s in New Jersey with my friend Ronnie Janesko where he was appearing with Dionne Warwick. It was a great concert, but it was clear that the pair were not entirely reconciled following their legal dispute; today she has said that he was more like family than a friend. At one point when Burt (who must have already been a pensioner) was talking about their friendship, Dionne politely but firmly suggested he stop talking. But their presence in one another’s lives created an astonishing archive of recordings.

The second time was much more recently, just ten years ago. Burt was 84, frail, great bones, talked very slowly. There was of course a small orchestra/band on stage, a group of backing singers and two fabulous vocalists, one male, one female, to take us through many of the significant moments in the Bacharach back catalogue (try saying that when drunk). I have two very vivid memories. The first is of Bacharach, alone at the piano, singing ‘Alfie’; this old, old man singing – pretty well – this sad and questioning song, made most famous in the UK by Cilla Black. At school assembly on the Monday I talked about the song’s lyrics – ‘What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie/Are we meant to take more than we can give?/Or are we meant to be kind?’

I don’t imagine 5% of those present had heard of Burt. Still, I thought it was interesting and these kids were so polite and indulgent.

So Mr F and I were sitting in the gods, the only seats left when I found out about the concert. Just after we sat down three middle-aged ladies sat behind us in a state of high excitement. Shortly after, two men sat beside them, talking loudly, laughing, drinking pints. The concert began and the men barely quietened down at all, eventually being shushed at by one of the women. One of the men responded:

‘Keep yer hair on, hen, it’s no Tchaikovsky’. 

The Usher Hall was, in truth, fairly buzzy. But they did quieten down a bit and some gendered peace was restored.

Until the end. Burt and his gang finished then came back on, to a considerable and justified ovation, to do an encore.

Burt thanked the audience and then croaked out ‘We’re going to finish with a song I wrote with my third wife..’

‘Carole Bayer Sager…’ I whispered to Mr F, for I love her too.

‘Carole Bayer Sager,’ agreed Burt, who was well on to his fourth wife by this stage in his life. 

Meanwhile behind us, the men were having a big laugh about something.

Burt continued ‘ That’s What….’

One of the angry angry women behind said fiercely ‘Will you fuckin’ shut up!’ as Burt concluded

‘…Friends Are For’.

And most of the Upper Circle collapsed in laughter.

Goodbye Burt, and thank you very much. I will be singing your songs ‘til I die.


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