I made Burt Bacharach cry once. He was receiving a lifetime achievement award at the GQ Man of the Year awards about 10 years ago, and the person who was presenting his gong had pulled out at the last minute. The editor of the magazine asked me to step in, exhorting me to write an encomium to Burt that would leave everyone in the room misty-eyed.
I gave it my best, explaining the unique and prodigious talent of one of the greatest figures of popular music. Burt, I said, wrote the soundtrack to all our lives. I don't know whether anyone else in the audience was affected, but Burt, then in his mid-seventies, came to the stage with tears rolling down his cheeks. He hugged me, and, falteringly on account of his emotional state, made a modest and charming speech. In retrospect, I suppose it's not that remarkable that a man responsible for some of the most romantic, sentimental tunes of all time should himself be a bit of an old softy.
We vowed to stay in touch, but the next time I was to see him was this past weekend. It wasn't quite the intimate experience of the previous occasion. He was on stage in the grounds of a stately home at the Wilderness Festival in Oxfordshire, and I was among thousands singing and swaying along to a compendium of popular music's most recognisable songs.
Wilderness is one of the new breed of summer festivals. It's a resolutely middle-class, county set kind of event - Charles, please meet Amanda - and the accent is as much on modern day rock'n'roll - that'll be food - than on actual rock'n'roll. Angela Hartnett got a standing ovation from 400 diners who attended her banquet, while Mark Hix was purveying roast chicken to discerning festival goers. On Saturday night, however, music was the food of love.
Burt Bacharach is now 86, and the golden voice has deserted him. He sang only very briefly during a 90-minute set, leaving that to a trio of backing singers, but the unmistakable scent of genius was carried in the cool night air to an audience who sang along to classic tunes composed long before many of them had been born.
The hits came with such rapidity - often, one merging into another - that we were left marvelling at the sheer scale of Burt's oeuvre. Did he really write that? And that, too? “What the World Needs Now” was followed by “This Guy's in Love”, which was followed by “Close to You”, which, in turn, was followed by “Trains and Boats and Planes”. And so it went on, Burt playing those unmistakable lilting melodies on the piano, deep into the night.
There wasn't a hint of irony about Burt's appearance at Wilderness - this wasn't Dolly Parton at Glastonbury. If anything, the evening was infused with sadness, as the realisation struck that this might be the last time we'd be privileged to see Burt perform. As night fell, and a cold wind blew across the wooded landscape, the soundtrack of all our lives was playing. I found it a truly moving experience, a gentle reminder that it's only the songs that are timeless.Reuse content