What's it like to write a song with Burt Bacharach? Well, I can tell you from firsthand knowledge that it's amazing, because we did just that during my visit to Burt's home in September. Just before I left for Los Angeles for the Wall Street Journal, I asked myself what thrill I could experience with Burt that readers would dig. When I had interviewed Jerry Lee Lewis, I had him show me how he runs the keys with his fingertips. At Berry Gordy's house, we sat in his living room and listened to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. And with Fats Domino, the legend tapped out his signature rock-and-roll beat on the back of my hand.
With Burt, that kind of moment had to be something big, something that would give me up-close insight into what makes him special. That's when I decided to write lyrics to a song before arriving and then see if Burt would put music to them. Nuts, I know. But by doing this, I would see firsthand how Burt works and I'd get a taste of the guy who forced Cilla Black through 30+ takes of Alfie back in '66.
The problem is I had never written words to a song before. Not even as a kid. But I knew that if I went through with my plan, my lyrics had better be my best effort. Otherwise I'd be fed into a thresher. After all, my entire credibility as a journalist would be on the line if I wiped out. I could just hear Burt's voice in my head saying, "What? Are you kidding? Better not quit your day job, kid."
So I hesitated. But when I arrived at the Delta gate in New York about an hour early, I decided to open a pad and go through with it. But nothing came. So I tried to channel Hal David and Elvis Costello. Still nothing. What could I write about? Well, it had to be love—or a broken love. That's Burt's bag. But it couldn't be cliche or icky.
Then, as luck would have it, a couple sitting behind me began talking about their friend. Listening to them, I heard the woman tell her boyfriend or husband how lousy a female friend of theirs had behaved. It seemed their friend had had an affair and instead of remaining quiet about it, she felt compelled to come clean. The more they talked—and disagreed over whether the friend had done the right thing—the more I realized I had a groovy topic.
Nice, I thought, I had my theme—and a good one: The pain of infidelity and the burden left behind following a confession. Writing lyrics was going to be a snap. Then I started to write. And write. And write. Each time I'd finish a stanza, I'd tear out the sheet, crumple it and toss the ball into the trash. This went on for about 10 sheets. Finally, I had a stanza I liked—the cadence was good and the intent and poetry were spot on.
But when I pulled out the pad in my hotel room hours later in West Hollywood, I hated what I had written. My meeting with Burt was the next day, so I had to get cracking. I grabbed an early dinner and went back to my room, where I spent the next seven hours working on three stanzas on my laptop. Finally, around 1 a.m., I had something that worked. And when I awoke at 6 a.m. the next morning and read them over, they still sounded pretty good. Before leaving for Burt's place, I had the lyrics printed out and slipped the sheet of paper into my bag.
Fast forward to the end of our interview that afternoon. Petrified, I just hurled myself off the cliff, hoping for the best. "Burt, would you mind taking a look at these lyrics I wrote," I said, pulling the sheet out. "I want to get a sense of what it's like to write a song with you."
Burt looked at me and for a second seemed astonished—not by my imposition but my gall. To his credit, Burt put on his gold-rimmed reading glasses and started going over the sheet I had handed him. I sat there in silence for what seemed like an hour. Burt mouthed my words, rolling them around for the feel and sound. Finally, he spoke. I braced myself. "These are pretty good," he said.
Taken aback, I said, "Really? Nah, I just dashed them off at the airport coming out here." I didn't want Burt to misinterpret my intent. I wasn't trying to peddle a song, like his dentist, doctor or uncle. I just wanted a feel for the process.
"I don't care where you wrote them, I think they're pretty good," he said, with a deadpan expression.
That's when I felt the electrical current surging through me. Even though I had done this merely as color for my article, I suddenly felt myself slipping into shock. Burt Bacharach had just said he liked my lyrics. And he seemed to be sincere.
Opening my mouth, I said, "Would you mind putting music to the words?" As I finished the request, I felt the same dread a kid feels after belting a ball too hard and watching the orb bear down on a neighbor's window. I was waiting for the sound of glass shattering.
Without answering, Burt studied the lyrics more intently. "The Monday love you gave up on—maybe that should be your title. That's a very good line. It's a little long but... I'd also reverse instantly forgiven so it's forgiven instantly.' It will sing better.
"Leave it with me and I'll give them a shot," But said. But I was already too far gone. "Could you play it now, so I can feel what this songwriting process is like?"
"I have to go to work now?" Burt cracked half in jest. To Burt's credit, though, he got up from the sofa and went to the piano with my lyrics. Putting the sheet up, Burt put music to the words—feeling his way through them with a halting melody. What's more, he sang them.
At the door, I stuck out my hand but was greeted with a soul handshake. As Burt's other hand came over the top of mine, the guy who wrote all those songs I've loved for so many years—the guy who invented '60s cool, the guy put up with my amateurish lyrics just minutes ago—said, "It's great to talk to someone who knows what they're talking about."
And then I left. Driving back to my hotel listening to Marilyn McCoo sing One Less Bell to Answer, I felt on top of the world. I'd never be able to write lyrics like the ones I was listening to. But I had given it a shot and found it's a lot harder than I ever imagined.
I also realized I couldn't use any of it for my Wall Street Journal article. Playing out the writing of what had just happened, there was no way to write it so the reader wouldn't come away thinking I was a pompous jerk. So I held the story for this space, where I have plenty of room to tell it with the proper perspective.
What happened to the lyrics? They're either in Burt's fireplace or buried on that brown piano. It doesn't matter. Burt Bacharach said they were really good. And even if he was just trying to be nice, I still got to hear what those words of praise sound like and what my words sound like set to his music.
For the record, I've always admired and appreciated Hal David's lyrics. Now even more so. The guy's a genius.
JazzWax clips: Here's Marilyn McCoo and the Fifth Dimension singing Burt and Hal David's One Bell to Answer. Clip is great even lip-synched...
Here's Elton John, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder singing Burt and Carole Bayer Sager's That's What Friends Are For...
And here's Luther Vandross, Whitney Houston, Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder singing the song...