Burt Bacharach: What the world needs now

Once the world's smoothest crooner, Burt Bacharach is now collaborating with Dr Dre and attacking President Bush. He tells John Walsh why he's swapped easy-listening for tough-talking
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The Independent Culture

TS Eliot's Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons; some people can do it in Bacharach songs. The first single I ever bought was "Anyone Who Had a Heart" sung by Cilla Black (I know, it should have been The Kinks, but I was young). My first sighting of the power of male machismo was Tom Jones exploding into "What's New Pussycat?" My first wild promptings of lurve were sound-tracked by the parping trumpet and tentative vocals of Herb Albert doing "This Guy's In Love With You." Sadly, it wasn't reciprocated, but Dionne Warwick and "Walk On By" got me through. No movie of my teen years charmed me more then Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for which Bacharach won two Oscars - Best Music and Best Original Song for "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on my Head", even though Sacha Distel's chart-topping cover version, sung with a boulevardier wink, bordered on the emetic. Thirty-five years after these glory days, all the songs are playing in my head like a musical photo album.

We're meeting today because Bacharach has a new record out next month. For a chap well into his eighth decade to be still composing, singing and touring, this puts the 62-year-old Jagger & Co in the shade. And to find that the record features guest contributions from Elvis Costello, Eminem's mentor Dr Dre and the operatic divo Rufus Wainwright, suggests its maker is not yet ready for the twilight home and the night-time Horlicks.

Here he comes. Five foot three, with dishevelled silver hair, he's wearing a T-shirt saying "Change" and the top and bottom of non-matching tracksuits, as casual as a 19-year-old student who's just woken up after a rave. He is instantly likeable, confiding and modest about the commotion that greeted his appearance at the GQ Awards two days earlier, from an audience that included Robbie Williams, Bob Geldof and Bryan Ferry. "I was blown away by the standing ovation. I've had tributes before, sure, but I don't retain that feeling, and I wasn't prepared for it on Tuesday. But maybe you shouldn't retain these things or you'd be on a permanent high."

As he demolishes a hotel brunch of scrambled eggs, and talks about his life in a spectral whisper, the biggest surprise, from this merchant of superior schmaltz, is his new-found political indignation. Invite him to wax nostalgic about the death of the jazz-fan's paradise, New Orleans, and he says: "The music is the last thing I'm thinking about right now, in order of what's important," and directs you to read the articles - written months before the hurricane - in the Louisiana Times-Picayune warning what might happen to the city - "that it would be engulfed, that people would drown, that bodies would be floating down the road. Instead of pushing the funding up, they took most of it away to fight this stupid war, and that's unforgiveable."

Check out the lyrics on the new album, At This Time - the first on which he's supplied most of the words - and you find a sustained lament for the modern world. On "Who Are These People?" there's a line about "this stupid mess we're in" and Costello sings: "Seems like these liars will inherit the earth." Were the liars the Bush administration or al-Qa'ida? "I've always had a problem with people who couldn't tell the truth or admit a mistake and say they're wrong. And wouldn't it be great if Bush said, 'I fucked up, I misjudged, it was my mistake'... I think Bush is just about the poorest president we've ever had. You'd have to go back before I was born to find a worse one. If you're not in agreement with whatever he wants, well, he's not the smartest guy in the room, and his reaction process is pretty much what we saw at 9/11, when they told him in the classroom about the towers and he went on reading the kids' book, and then disappeared for a day in the sky." Bacharach's face creases in pain. "If he'd said just once: 'Boy. I hope you accept my apology as a country,' or showed some humanity..."

This is not what one expects from the relaxed crooner. He admits he wasn't a political animal when he was young. "There's the thing. I'm writing songs with the Vietnam war going on and I'm not involved. I'm not marching. I'm not protesting. Here's the Cuban missile crisis in 1963 and I've just finished 'Anyone Who had a Heart'..."

All that's changed. The inspiration for the new album came from the UK boss of SonyBMG, Rob Stringer. "He told me, 'Don't give me an album of pop songs like people will expect, songs that will get played on the radio. Take some risks.' I'd met Dr Dre, he was thinking about his next album, we talked a little and he said, 'Let me give you some of these loops and see what you come up with'." Bacharach duly presented the hip-hop impresario with some "musical polaroids" of his rap-with-lush-orchestra experiments, but Dre evidently found them insufficiently "street" to be useable. So Bacharach presented them to Stringer last summer and was encouraged to plunge in.

"But Burt," I say, "there is nothing in the world more antithetical to your stuff than rap. What are you doing?". "I respect it," he says equably. "This record is a challenge, to ask, 'Can the two things exist together? Can you take a four-note bass-line that goes all through a song, and write something over it that works, that's still melodic, that goes back to my jazz and classical roots?'"

Bacharach was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1928, and grew up in Queens, New York, the son of a journalist father and a musical mother, an aspirational singer who insisted he play cello, drums and piano when all he wanted was to be a football star.

"I was an only child, rather isolated, I didn't have a lot of friends. Those I did have were all Catholic, attending midnight mass at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs church, and I never wanted them to know I was Jewish. It wasn't very fashionable in my family to be Jewish."

Being of both German and Jewish extraction while the war was going on, he was doubly conflicted. "At McGill University [in Montreal] I made a pact with my friend Kenny, who didn't want people thinking he was black - I'd tell people he was Indian, while he would tell people I was Lutheran German rather than Jewish." Psychotherapists would have a ball working through Bacharach's identity issues. "I felt alienated at school, and I never did well with girls," says the man whose manipulation of smoky chords became the soundtrack of several million sofa-based fumblings.

He did badly at exams and "because I was small, I was getting the shit kicked out of me playing football", but he discovered his passion in the late 1940s, in the jazz bars of 52nd Street. "It was the Spotlight Club and the Two Deuces. I had to fake my ID otherwise I couldn't have got in. Dizzy [Gillespie] had a big band there, Charlie Parker was playing, and Thelonious Monk. Miles [Davis] too. They were my heroes. It woke me up. It was like a breath of fresh air. I started playing piano with a little band in high school." And discovered a natural vocation? "Oh no," says Bacharach, shaking his head sadly. "I was terrible. I thought I had absolutely no talent. I couldn't keep time. I only got into McGill, which was a lousy music school, because they were taking American music students." He studied composition, orchestration, 12-tone dissonance, he studied with John Cage, the master of the avant-garde - but one day a tutor told him: "Never be ashamed to write a melody that people remember." And it stuck in his mind.

And so the Bacharach sound was born, a bouncy hybrid of Dizzy Gillespie bebop, French classical lushness and bits of Brazilian salsa. He put them all together as a dance-band arranger in the army, switched to being a piano accompanist and fetched up in the Brill Building in New York, the home of a thousand hit songs written for the Famous Paramount Music Company. There he met Hal David, seven years his senior, a seasoned lyricist with a sharp Manhattan wit - and musical history was made. Easy-listening's Rogers had met his Hammerstein.

Their first hit was "Story of my Life" for Marty Robbins and "Magic Moments" for Perry Como. Bacharach was now 30. Between 1958 and 1975, he and David racked up 52 Top 40 hits, picked up Grammy and Oscars (for "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on my Head" and "Arthur's Theme)" and collaborated with everyone who could carry a tune: like Marlene Dietrich - "She treated me like a God, because she knew I'd get the right tempo for her," he recalls, "and she treated everyone else like shit" - The Drifters, Gene Pitney, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, the Walker Brothers, the Carpenters.

Every Orpheus needs his Eurydice, and Bacharach's was Marie Dionne Warwick, whom he met in 1961 when she was a 21-year-old backing singer for The Drifters. She took to cutting demo records of Bacharach and David's new songs. "Trains and Boats", "San Jose", "Walk on By" - Dionne test-drove them all and had seven Top 10 hits. "Dionne always had this fluency - she could do things that would cause other people a lot of labour and stress," says Bacharach.

Their musical collaboration, the tightest since Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, fell apart spectacularly in 1973 after the launch of Lost Horizons, a musical re-make of the 1937 classic film about Shangri-La. "It kicked the wind out of me, that movie. You just don't make a movie musical, it's too risky. I was working my ass off and I resented that Hal was playing tennis in Mexico." Bacharach asked for an extra five per cent composers' fee. Hal David refused to support his demand. They fell out. The movie opened, it was a flopperoo, and Bacharach left LA. "I couldn't get out of town fast enough, to go and hide. I went down to Delmar, north of San Diego, and pretty well did nothing for a year, just hibernated." But he and his partner were legally contracted to write songs for Warwick. When he refused, she sued him and David. David sued him in turn for loss of earnings, and Bacharach sued him back. This mutual backstabbing took years to resolve, but they all kissed and made up in 1993 when Warwick made an album called Friends Can Be Lovers.

After 1982, he all but disappeared - but since 1995 (when he was 67) he's been on an unflagging comeback ride. It started when he joined Elvis Costello to write the Grammy-award nominated "God Give Me Strength" for Allison Anders' film Grace of My Heart, while in 1997 at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York with a tribute concert that featured Sheryl Crow, Chrissie Hynde, Luther Vandross, Mike Myers, All Saints and a slew of other glammy partners.

There's no doubt that At This Time is a departure, a deeply-felt and personal statement. Among other things, it features the sound of the old smoothie actually breaking down and weeping, while talking about his children on "Where Did it Go?" He has four children, a 39-year-old daughter by the actress Angie Dickinson, a 19-year-old son by Carole Bayer Sager, the songwriter he married in 1982, and two young children with his fourth wife, Jane Hansen. He sings heart-rendingly about the world he's bequeathing to them. "I recorded the song live," he says, "in front of an orchestra, and yes, I was very moved, I was in tears." Does he really fear for his kids' future? "Yes I do. It's not getting any better, is it? I don't want my 19-year-old boy going into the army. I love these little kids. They understand how passionate I am."

Indeed he is. After a lifetime of silken orchestral music, dating beautiful women and crooning in a bow tie, Bacharach is letting some socio-political anger startle his fans, even if it probably fails to frighten the Oval Office. Happily, his passion for a good tune remains intact. Like the Rhine wine from which his family derives their name, he improves with age. And he is charmingly modest about the main achievement of his life.

"I remember sitting next to a girl, a woman, on a flight from LA to New York a few years ago. She'd had a couple of drinks and she said, 'Can I tell you something?' I said, 'Sure.' She said, 'I can't make out properly unless I'm listening to your music'." He smiles at the memory. "So that's been my contribution."

'At This Time' is out on 31 October