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Questioning greatness

Published Sunday, September 02, 2012 @ 6:59 AM EDT
Sep 02 2012

What's new, Pussycat?

What do you get when you fall in love?

Do you know the way to San Jose?

How can I forget you, when there's always something there to remind me?

Why do stars fall down from the sky, every time you walk by?

What's it all about, Alfie?

Lyricist Hal David (May 25, 1921-September 1, 2012) asked those questions, accompanied by the distinctive melodies of Burt Bacharach in a decades-long collaboration. The duo received the Library of Congress' Gershwin Prize for Popular Song earlier this year during a White House concert attended by Bacharach and David's wife. (David was too ill to attend.) While named after composer George Gershwin and his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin, it was the first time the prize was awarded to a songwriting team.

I've always felt that Hal David never received the full recognition he deserved for his contributions. A Google search for "Burt Bacharach songs" yields 2.4 million hits; "Hal David songs" returns 1.6 million.

Writing lyrics is never easy. Crafting them to his partner's songs bordered on the miraculous. Bacharach's distinct style featured arcane, erratic syncopation and phrasing that was almost foreign to normal human speech patterns. Take Promises, Promises. It features cycling, uncommon time signatures- 3/8, 4/8, 3/8, 4/8- that change 20 times through the song, sometimes lasting only for a single bar before switching yet again. Jerry Orbach, who won a Tony Award for his performance in the show of the same name, called the number "practically unsingable."

(You Tube video: Jerry Orbach's rendition of "Promises, Promises")

While David sometimes produced lyrics notable only for their Ogden Nash-like rhyme distortions, more often than not he produced lyrics that could stand on their own when divorced from Bacharach's bombast. Block the melody and the song's rhythm from your mind, and David's lyrics reveal a hidden depth:

Promises, promises,
I'm all through with promises, promises now.
I don't know how I got the nerve to walk out.
If I shout, remember, I feel free.
Now I can look at myself and be proud,
I'm laughing out loud.

Oh, promises, promises,
This is where those promises, promises end.
I won't pretend that what was wrong can be right.
Every night I'll sleep now, no more lies.
Things that I promised myself fell apart,
But I found my heart.

Oh, promises, those kind of promises,
Take all the joy from life.
Oh, promises, their kind of promises
Can just destroy your life.
Oh, promises, promises, my kind of promises,
Can lead to joy and hope and love,
Yes, love.

David's best work was constructed upon a throwaway line from the film Alfie, which featured an instrumental-only version of the song in its original British release:

What's it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What's it all about, when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give?
Or are we meant to be kind?

And if only fools are kind, Alfie,
Then I guess it is wise to be cruel.
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie
What will you lend on an old Golden Rule?

As sure as I believe there's a heaven above Alfie,
I know there's something much more-
Something even non-believers can believe in.

I believe in love, Alfie
Without true love, we just exist, Alfie-
Until you find the love you've missed, you're nothing, Alfie.
When you walk, let your heart lead the way.
And you'll find love any day.

Hal David's heart was truly something special.

Categories: Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Jerry Orbach

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