Anyone Who Had A Heart: My Life and Music, by Burt Bacharach, with Robert Greenfield
The American composer’s songs are much more revealing than his lacklustre autobiography
Anyone Who Had A Heart: My Life and Music
Burt Bacharach, with Robert Greenfield
One morning about 20 years ago, I stood in my kitchen and watched one of my children as he lay on his stomach on the floor, playing with his toy cars. He pushed the cars across the tiles and sang quietly to himself: “Woh woh – woh woh – woh woh – wah – woh woh – wohhh.” He repeated this nine or 10 times. Then, after a final, extra-long “wohhhhh”, he sang, “Do you know the way – to San José?”
Burt Bacharach is everywhere. We know the songs we know he wrote, or co-wrote: Walk On By, The Look of Love, 24 Hours From Tulsa, and many others. There probably hasn’t been a day in our lives when we haven’t heard at least one of them, or a few bars of several of them – on the radio, in the supermarket, in our heads. Burt Bacharach is like the English language – there.
We choose our songs and moments, of course. There are the songs we didn’t know he wrote, or choose to forget he wrote. For the record, Burt Bacharach wrote Magic Moments, and with Hal David. If there is music in hell, Perry Como will be in charge of the afternoons. But there I am, blaming poor Perry for Burt Bacharach’s crime. Because I can’t blame Bacharach. He’s too cool. He’s too brilliant.
I can’t blame him for the book either, even though he wrote it. Reading it, I was reminded of the Woody Allen joke about the two Jewish ladies complaining about the fare in a New York restaurant; the food was terrible and the portions were too small. Anyone Who Had A Heart isn’t a very good book, and it’s much too short. There’s something quite dispiriting about seeing decades of a full life summarised in a couple of neat chapters.
But it is fascinating in patches, when Bacharach writes about composition, his work with Hal David and other lyricists, record-company politics and the singers who recorded the songs, particularly Dionne Warwick.
The first shock – and there are a few – is in the first chapter. He was born on May 12th, 1928. Burt Bacharach is 85! How can that be possible? He was born in Kansas, but his memories start in Forest Hills, Queens. He was a lonely kid. He hated his piano lessons. He suffered from insomnia as a teenager, “because I kept hearing music in my head”.
He studied at the music conservatory at McGill University, in Montreal, “because I didn’t know what else to do”. After his second year at McGill, he studied composition with the composer Darius Milhaud, who gave him a piece of advice I suspect we’d all love the opportunity to give: “Never be ashamed to write a melody you can whistle.” But this is a problem with the book. That gem is followed by, “So he taught me a lesson I never forgot”, but nothing more.
There just isn’t enough about the music in Bacharach’s young head. He left McGill before graduating. It’s then that the Burt Bacharach we know, or we think we know, the public Burt, arrives. A college dropout, he was drafted into the army to fight in Korea. But he ended up learning to ski in Germany. Because he could play the piano. Because he was handsome. Because he was Burt Bacharach.