About the inspiration behind his lyrics, the man behind such iconic hits as What The World Needs Now Is Love once wrote that a passage from a book or a snippet of dialogue from a film could be the spark – but that more often than not, an idea would simply pop into his head.
Some pop. And some head.
Hal David, who died over the weekend at age 91, was the lyricist partner to composer Burt Bacharach and, famously, the feeder of lines to the great singers of the 1960s, including Dionne Warwick, a sublime interpreter of some of the very best Bacharach-David collaborations.
David had, like many of the greats – Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer or Gerry Goffin – a flair for elegant simplicity, which is to say, a knack for presenting an emotion concisely, unfrivolously and persuasively, with unruffled metre and charismatic wordplay.
And if Bacharach’s turtleneck-and-martini melodies were the answers to top-notch prose, it was David who routinely asked the best pop-lingo questions: What’s New, Pussycat?, What Do You Get When You Fall in Love? and Do You Know the Way to San Jose? (This was in the days before GPS.)
More philosophically, 1965’s Alfie posed a doozy: “What’s it all about?”
In the 1970s, the era of the backroom songwriter gave way to singer-songwriters, many of whom were gifted at those two requisite skills. James Taylor saw fire and he saw rain, and he eloquently wrote that his body ached and that his time was at hand. After that, much lesser talents began to assume people would be interested in their own aches and desires. Non-performing craftsmen like David quickly became anachronisms.
I recently interviewed Adele, perhaps the greatest pop vocalist of her young generation. She said that she could not fully believe what came out of a singer’s mouth unless the words were written by that very singer. I doubt she really believes that; anyone who has heard Adele’s readings of the Bonnie Raitt hit I Can’t Make You Love Me or Bob Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love would be dubious as well.
What we’re talking about is interpretation – the core of any art form, whether making it or receiving it. In an online essay, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning lyricist applauded Warwick’s skill, saying that she sang his lines in a way that sounded as though she had written them herself.
It’s about believability. David wore no curlers or housecoat, but he wrote credibly from a woman’s view: “The moment I wake up / Before I put on my makeup / I say a little prayer for you.” (Granted, something like Wishin’ and Hopin’, which was a hit for Dusty Springfield in 1964, wasn’t exactly a feminist anthem.)
If Bacharach and David’s songcraft appeared effortless, it certainly wasn’t. What The World Needs Now Is Love, for example, took two years (off and on) to complete. David was meticulous in his art, and it showed.
Listening to today’s hit of the moment, Taylor Swift’s imbecilic We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together, it is hard not to think of falling standards. Swift neither sings nor writes with any great prowess, and yet she persists in doing both – mostly because people buy what she’s warbling.
So, it’s sad that we now settle for less than the best. There was a time that we didn’t need to – a time when the world’s most sophisticated singers sang the songs of David and Bacharach. Those days are gone. Say a little prayer for the pop-music lover.