Hal David: People’s English and modern tales, to sophisticated music

At his 90th-birthday tribute in 2011, Hal David (right) was joined by Dionne Warwick and composer Burt Bacharach.
At his 90th-birthday tribute in 2011, Hal David (right) was joined by Dionne Warwick and composer Burt Bacharach. (VINCE BUCCI / AP, file)
Posted: September 08, 2012

Hal David's life was the spectacle of a hard thing done well, with grace.

David completed his song in Los Angeles on Sept. 1, at 91. As a musician and lyric-writer, I grew up with his words, especially his celebrated work with Burt Bacharach. How easy the words rode - how twisty the musical rails.

I asked a very accomplished songman, Paul Williams ("We've Only Just Begun" and much else), who is president and chairman of the board of the music company ASCAP, what he valued about his friend's lyrics. In an e-mail, Williams nailed it.

"Part of the magic and beauty of the Bacharach-David collaboration," he wrote, "was that Hal was able to fashion such simple, direct, and poignant lyrics to Bacharach's melodically and rhythmically sophisticated music. It takes a master lyricist to be able to do that so artfully. Hal was the perfect wordsmith for Burt's musical flights of fancy. The combination of their two sensibilities gave their songs a freshness and immediacy that still endures today."

Let's think about his words and what he did well.

Williams has already captured David's knack - natural words for tough music. But he also told great stories, stories of his moment, and created engaging characters and situations.

He managed to make something memorable out of many everyday scenarios. Eric Bazilian, singer-songwriter of the hallowed Philly band the Hooters, and a huge fan of David's work, says his "genius lay in his ability to transform the mundane into the sublime."

Case study? Sure: The magnificent "Are You There With Another Girl?" on Dionne Warwick's 1965 album Here I Am.

A woman stands outside her man's door. In a cliche too intense to be hackneyed, she agonizes between desire to believe in her mate and the evidence of her senses:

I hear the music coming out of your radio . . .

I hear your laughter . . .

I see two silhouettes in back of your window shade . . .

What an amazing recording - and a study of songwriter and lyricist.

The superlative Warwick, then a mezzo-soprano, is the only pop singer of any color or gender in that era who would even have attempted such an ordeal of the throat. The very first note - the I in "I hear the music coming out of your radio" - is bold, low. She hits it every time and vaults. Wonderfully.

But to return to the poor woman of the song, standing there: Should she ring the doorbell? Walk away?

Love requires faith, I've got a lot of faith, but

I hear the music coming out of your radio . . .

With the music, words build - then deflate to a flat restatement of her fix.

We don't get to see her decide. The last we hear is a bluesy descent on piano, and that stratospheric girl chorus singing, "Oom-pah-pah pity the girl." Whose idea that last bit was, I don't know, but it's just splendid.

Internal rhyme often mirrors musical complexities, as in the snaky, bent "Always Something There to Remind Me." The chimes are in roman, and they are fun:

As shadows fall , I pass a small cafe where we would dance at night .

And I can't help recall ing how it felt to kiss and hold you tight .

Long, long lines follow a long, long melody, sprawled over groups of five (not four) measures. Rhymes fall on both stressed and unstressed syllables.

And of course there's

Do you know the way to San Jose ?

I'm going back to find

Some peace of mind in San Jose .

Such playfulness runs throughout David's best work. "How," asks Bazilian, "could one not be captivated by the charm of 'the moment I wake up, I put on my makeup' or 'So go powder your cute little pussycat nose,' " from "What's New, Pussycat?"

David mastered the concrete, focusing image, as in the "guy whose feet are too big for his bed" of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head"; the rain-streaked glass of "The Windows of the World," a lament for Vietnam War dead; the makeup and coffee break time of "I Say a Little Prayer," or the unforgettable "all the stars that never were" who "are parking cars and pumping gas" in "San Jose."

The wider world intrudes, as in "San Jose," or "Trains and Boats and Planes," with the woman's left-out sense (he wrote a woman's view so well!) of a world on the go:

Trains and boats and planes are passing by

They mean a trip to Paris or Rome

For someone else but not for me.

One of David's best. The tune is a tango, with odd groupings of measures, fabulous yet askew.

David is also a maker of resonant phrases that pull songs tight. In "Alfie," the speaker reasons with a nihilist:

And if only fools are kind, Alfie,

Then I guess it is wise to be cruel.

Years later, those lines still startle. The speaker refuses them near the end:

I believe in love, Alfie.

Without true love we just exist, Alfie . . .

So the speaker would be a nihilist, too, but for the chance of love. Even in "This Guy's in Love With You," less adventurous, there's "Yes, I'm in love" and then - as if in proof - the piquant "Who looks at you the way I do?"

David's career included Brill Building stuff galore, dreary work-for-hire such as "Only Love Can Break a Heart." There was pap and sap. "What the World Needs Now Is Love" endures because of sentiment rather than words. Because love remains an issue, the tune stays evergreen. The non-Bacharach "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" is despicable. You want to tell the speaker, "Good for you, guy, glad you had an active youth."

And I want to cram my ears with Play-Doh whenever "(They Long to Be) Close to You" comes on, idiot angels flinging squalid stardust. It's awful, an awful song written by two dawn-limned giants of the genre. But people love it, and that was Bacharach/David's job, to make people love it. I'm probably wrong.

Still, I think of Hal David as the Thomas Campion of his time. He wasn't a poet as Renaissance songmaster Campion was; the 1960s had Dylan and Lennon and Mitchell for that. And David's job was to avoid poetry, avoid anything that strained. Good pop lyrics must not overpower; they're not meant to stand apart from the music. He wrote people's English that lay naturally. Hard to do.

Yet Campion, a contemporary of Shakespeare's, was the lyricist of his age, a man who could twist a turny rhyme with the best of them. I hope the two are by now good buds in Lyricist Heaven.

Warwick's next album, Dionne Now, out in October, will have the last Bacharach-David songs, the last lyrics David ever penned. Wow. In his honor, in memory of a lifetime of good words, I and millions more will listen intently as she sings, and he speaks.

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @jtimpane.

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