Honest to Pete! Why the hell would anyone read a near 350-page song-by-song breakdown and bio of a composer best known for lite-pop hits like “Walk on By” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head”?!
Take Carole King, Dionne Warwick, Mike Myers, Elvis Costello, Vic Damone, Frankie Avalon, Neil Simon, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Spinners, Ray Parker Jr., James Ingram, Barbra Streisand, Freddie and the Dreamers, Dr. Dre and Marlene Dietrich for starters. Each of them has worked in some capacity with Burt Bacharach. So let’s be glib for a second and concede that Burt Bacharach is the musical equivalent of Kevin Bacon — and then some!
So maybe Song by Song isn’t so strange. As author (and, as it were, Metro Times contributor) Serene Dominic notes in his introduction, “Since the late nineties, the words ‘resurgence’ and ‘Burt Bacharach’ have found their way into a lot of the same sentences.” From recent inclusions of his classic pop hits in flicks like My Best Friend’s Wedding, Forrest Gump and, of course, the Austin Powers movies to Bacharach’s recent collaboration with Elvis Costello and the surprisingly deep pilfering of his catalog by hip-hop and sampladelic artists (a list is included in the book), and, of course, the recent White Stripes hit, the maestro’s never far from center stage. It’s alarming when you think about it. And it’s even more alarming when you’ve dug into this tome — a blow-by-blow account of the songs, their creation and historical context — and realized how many Bacharach songs you’re probably still singing in the shower. So with the cultural currency question answered, should the casual fan care? It’s a reference book, after all, right? Well, to both issues: yes and no.
This is an intensive assessment of the works of Burt Bacharach — from his humble post-World War II baby steps to his ’60s triumphs with Dionne Warwick/Hal David and others that have become staples of our collective pop memory; from the Brill Building to collaborations with Dr. Dre. And Dominic’s dotted his “I”s and crossed his “T”s on the research tip — matrix and catalog numbers, personnel and credits are definitive and comprehensive with chapters spanning a mean of seven years (and a few devoted to single, hugely productive ones). But holy hell if Dominic doesn’t take that potentially glacial conceit and infuse it with all the warmth, wit and vigor of his subject’s work.
Let’s be clear — the subtitle to this tome is “The ultimate Burt Bacharach reference for fans, serious record collectors and music critics.” And while it’s deadly accurate on one level, it’s gotta be a piss-take on the kind of pigeonholing to which music writing often falls victim. Though Dominic’s rigorous scholarship is such that he undoubtedly knows waaay more about Bacharach’s collective works than even the composer himself, the stories behind each of these songs, taken as a whole, outline in anecdotal detail the flow of music’s mainstream over the last five decades.
Included here are such titillating features as a hilarious and insightful interview between Dominic and Bacharach at the latter’s Colorado home that finds him taking a rare trip down memory lane (often with Dominic showing him the way or nudging him away from vague or misremembered tunes and events). Says Dominic in the interview intro: “[It] is literally asking someone to try and remember a day at the office 47 years ago. I’m not even 47, and I couldn’t tell you why my grade point average in English might have dipped a little in the sixth grade.”
It’s that light-but-informed tone that keeps the pages turning. Here’s another prime cut from the central paradox of this tome — the ongoing case of Pop vs. Scholarly. On page 217, Dominic’s caption under the album cover for cheeseball crooner B.J. Thomas’ Grammy-nominated take on Bacharach and David’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” says: “In our continuing efforts to discourage you from getting a life, let us note that first pressing of this LP has a fold-open Unipak cover and came out with a muddy mix. This batch can be identified by the matrix numbers ...”
Even a committed crank like Elvis Costello — who’s often credited with the apocryphal “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” slag — should see Song by Song’s reason for being. (Of course, Costello’s in this book as a Bacharach collaborator and one of the key drum-beaters for the composer’s genius and torchbearers for his relevance.)
And, if we may get pedantic for a moment, reference books are a dull lot and it’s about time someone cracked the code and made one an interesting read.
Especially with the proliferation of suspect (or overly subjective) reference Internet sites like allmusic.com and intermittently reliable genre-spanning paperweights like the MusicHound series written largely by enthusiastic youngsters with time to kill and little sense of what their words are worth, a book like Song By Song is an admirable wedding of sense and sensibility.
If nothing else, the book triangulates the exact distance between fan gush, obsessive research-nerd and popular culture relevance. And, frankly, after reading, leafing, skimming and otherwise pecking over this book, one might have doubts that few writers save for someone with Dominic’s particular flair for combining distance, humor and immersion could pull it off.
So while Song by Song may not get tapped by Oprah anytime soon, it’s a worthy benchmark chronicling a talent that refuses to go out of style. And that’s as geek-chic as it gets.
Read more about Burt's hurts.
Chris Handyside writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail [email protected].