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.
Out of the army, he got an office in the famous Brill Building, at 1619 Broadway, "a desk, an old upright piano, and an air conditioner that didn't work in a window you could never open", and started to write songs that he hoped would become hits. But he "had no idea how hard it was going to be". He didn't want to write "teen pop": "the plain C major chord just seemed so vanilla to me".
A way in to understanding the eventual success comes as another shock, and is almost certainly unintentional. He met and married his first wife, Paula Stewart, a singer. She had, Bacharach tells us, "great tits". Fair enough, but this is the man who wrote I Say A Little Prayer and Walk On By, wonderful songs, sung – narrated – by women.
It is Bacharach's second wife, Angie Dickinson, not Bacharach, who best captures the significance of lyricist Hal David's arrival into Bacharach's life and work: "Maybe the fact that Hal was old-fashioned let him write those lyrics from what seems like a woman's point of view. The old-fashioned way people loved and lived, they kissed, they fell in love, they got married, they had babies. It was pure romance."
Bacharach met Hal David in 1955. Burt recalls Hal telling him: "I work between 10 and five and then I get on the train and go home." That could almost be one of his lyrics. Dusty Springfield could sing it and we'd see the woman's life in those 16 words. Bacharach's great melodies now had David's lyrics – and stories. But it was two years before they had a hit, and another five before they met Dionne Warwick.
In the book, Bacharach's narration is regularly interrupted by inserts from others, most of them seem spoken and transcribed. His four wives speak, and some of his collaborators, including Elvis Costello. They are not uninteresting, but they grate. It's as if Bacharach doesn't trust himself to tell his own story. Perhaps it's a generosity of spirit. His life is their lives. He admits mistakes and lets others describe their impact. He can't write about his daughter, Nikki – her premature birth, her autism, her suicide – without including her mother, Angie Dickinson. She's frank. It can't have been easy for him to read what she says in his own autobiography. That, finally, is the problem: there isn't enough "auto" and there isn't enough "biography". The songs say much more than the book.
Roddy Doyle's novel The Guts is due in August. The musical of his novel The Commitments opens in London in October.