By Mary Kunz Goldman
News Book Reviewer
In 2001, giving a concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Burt Bacharach joked freely about his personal life. When one nervy Buffalonian yelled something about Angie Dickinson, he grinned.
“I’ve had four wives,” he told us. “Angie – the gentleman was referring to Angie Dickinson – was my second. I really got it together now.” He paused. “God, I hope so!”
After reading his recently released memoir, I am not sure he does, for reasons I will get to in a second.
But so what? Anyone who had a heart would have to love Bacharach for his self-deprecating humor, for his nuttiness, and, oh yes, for his songs.
From the early Dionne Warwick hits to the extravaganzas of the 1980s, Bacharach’s songs came at a time when everyone heard the same pop music. They were really part of life. Jazz musicians still play “Alfie.” I danced in Girl Scouts to “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” There was no avoiding “That’s What Friends Are For,” featuring every pop star in the world. Or “On My Own” (“Now we’re talking divorce/And we weren’t even married …”)
Bacharach’s book is full of details of how these songs came to be.
That “And” that begins “That’s What Friends Are For”? It was because Bacharach wrote that extra note, and it required an additional syllable.
“A House Is Not a Home” was sparked when one of Bacharach’s wives asked a friend to run an errand and added: “That’ll be one less bell to answer.”
“Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” part of the fabric of American culture, originally met with resistance by the makers of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Bacharach cheerily laughs at himself when he recalls visiting the set of the now-legendary movie. “Paul Newman was drinking in his trailer and did not appear.”
Anecdotes like this keep the book humming. In between, in a creative touch, other people, living and dead, are handed the mic to give their observations of him.
You hear from Marlene Dietrich (Bacharach toured with her early on in his career, and she praised him in her memoirs); Elvis Costello; Angie Dickinson (from an article she wrote). A showgirl with the marvelous name of Slim Brandy was involved with him for two years, after her Mexican divorce. (Bacharach’s song “Mexican Divorce” appears two pages later.)
Bacharach, in the midst of it all, seems blissfully oblivious to how he comes off.
Take the part where he talks about meeting his current wife, Jane Hanson Bacharach. He had met her in Aspen. She was his ski instructor. She was 29, and he was 61.
Jane tells how it was 100 degrees and her father, up since 5:30 a.m., had spent the morning burying his favorite cow, which had been found dead that day. “Exhausted, my father was sitting on our back porch. He had just loosened his work boots and opened a cold Budweiser when Burt, who was twice my age, pulled up in a white stretch limo. Burt hadn’t had breakfast yet and here was my dad with a Bud. The difference in their lifestyles was apparent to all of us.”
Ridiculous as that sounds, Burt makes sense of it all: “Her mother had seen ‘Promises, Promises.’ ”
Meanwhile his then-wife Carole Bayer Sager, soon to be on her own, chimes in, talking about how Bacharach behaved toward her at that time: “He was in this weird mode of behavior where all he wanted to do was go skiing and talk about skiing. ‘I love skiing.’ ‘That’s so wonderful, Burt.’ ”
People forgive Bacharach everything. Slim Brandy loves him, though she wistfully recalls his reluctance to get married. Sager is unflinching but indulgent.
“I used to get what I called weather reports from Burt,” she remembers. “ ‘Today I feel like I’m 55 percent into the marriage and if I could go away for a few weeks …’ I didn’t get it. I thought he was having a late mid-life crisis. I never dreamed there was another person. And when he finally told me about Jane, because he had to, he said, ‘You know, she’s very young.’ I always thought I was very young compared to Burt.”
Bacharach has known heartbreak. His daughter Nikki, born prematurely, suffered mental illness and committed suicide at 40. That episode is recounted in a straightforward, affecting way. You feel bad also for his insomnia, an affliction Sager also suffered from. “We both had our own sleep machines and we would take sleeping pills,” Bacharach confides. “I’d say to her, ‘So, what’d you take last night? One of the yellow ones or one of the green ones?”
He welcomes the idea that he has helped others through hard times.
Looking back on it all, he writes: “Whenever somebody takes the trouble to tell me how much my music meant to them when they were going through a divorce or having chemotherapy, I think to myself, ‘Just take that to the bank and store it and remember it.’ Because it’s so real, I never take that kind of thing lightly.”
He continues, in a telling aside: “After she’d had a few drinks, a good-looking woman who was sitting next to me on a plane once said she couldn’t make love unless she put my music on. I thought that was pretty great, too.”
Reflections like that suggest that Bacharach, although an incredible 85 years old, still has living to do.
The book’s last two pages amount to a bold-faced personal ad. Burt is recalling playing a show in Japan in fall 2012. “Long after I was done playing at the concert hall, a beautiful young girl saw me and started to sob uncontrollably, so I went over to her. She could hardly speak so I just put my arms around her.”
After a later concert, the girl reappeared. “My son Oliver was running security for me and he found the girl from the concert hall trying to get through the crowd to give me a present along with a note. … She never gave me an email address or a way to contact her, so I’ve never been able to tell her how much she really touched me.”
If I were his current wife, I would worry.
It reminds me of another charming, philandering songwriter, Richard Rodgers. Rodgers’ wife, before she took the plunge, was cautioned by her sensible Catholic father. “I like him. I like him very much,” her father said, before telling her that there would be other women, and that those women would get younger and younger.
I wonder if Jane Hanson Bacharach received a similar warning. I wonder if she ever listened to “What Do You Get When You Fall in Love?” Then again, Bacharach had already been married three times. She knew what she was getting into.
She knows she’ll always have her memories, and that they will be fond ones – even after there’s one less egg to fry.
Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music
By Burt Bacharach with Robert Greenfield
Harper Collins, 292 pages, $28
Mary Kunz Goldman is The News’ classical music critic. She is working on a biography of pianist Leonard Pennario.