Heart of Hearing Burt Bacharach, master of the pop hook, offers a book without pep or heart

Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life in Music

Burt Bacharach (Harper, 2013) 304 pages with index and color photographs

Professional songwriters dream of finding the perfect “hook”—that magical musical snippet that perfectly combines melody, rhythm, and words so that it sticks in listeners’ ears and reels them in. Burt Bacharach is responsible for an astounding number of hooks. “Walk On By.” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” “That’s What Friends Are For.” If you’ve listened even casually to oldies radio, these titles immediately conjure up the associated melodies, which Bacharach composed to lyrics by Hal David (for the first two) and Carole Bayer Sager (the last.) Your mind’s ear might also hear the voices of the songs’ best-known interpreters—Dionne Warwick for “Walk On By” and “Friends” and B. J. Thomas for “Raindrops.” Bacharach can take some credit for that too, as he co-produced the records (with David or Sager). Whether you’re a fan or not, it’s hard to deny Bacharach’s way with a hook.

It’s surprising, then, that Bacharach’s new autobiography is a book without a hook or an inviting voice. It comprises bare accounts of events narrated without much context or emotion and more introspective passages that usually make Bacharach seem unpleasant—self-centered and often offhandedly cruel to those who depend on him. It is perhaps admirable that Bacharach doesn’t try to sugarcoat his own image. He comes across, however, not as a romantic antihero bravely confronting his flaws and failings but rather as a cad who couldn’t care less about them. This persona and flat prose make the book more depressing than dramatic.

Although Bacharach is not inclined to deep introspection, the book’s early chapters make it easy to blame his superficiality and coldness on his parents. His father, Bert, was a successful newspaper columnist and radio host. Son Burt (a spelling his parents chose instead of “Bertram Jr.”) remembers swanky dinners out in midtown Manhattan at which his parents ignored him to schmooze with celebrities and fellow journalists, even when he was “talking to my parents about something really important to me. … Although I always wanted to say, ‘Hey, I’m talking here,’ I never did.” When his mother, Irma, did pay attention, it was to push him to fulfill her own thwarted dreams of a career in music or to meddle in his romantic life. In one horrifying incident, Bacharach answered a phone call from a woman who claimed to have flirted with him at a party. “I was going right along with it,” Bacharach recalls, “until I realized it was my mother, who now knew I was not really being so faithful to Paula” (Stewart, Bacharach’s first wife and an accomplished Broadway actress). After her son proposed to Stewart, Irma warned her, “You know, honey, he’s really not marriage material.” Sager, Bacharach’s third wife, says “I don’t think Burt had ever dealt with his own feelings about his own mother, because he was very obedient with her to the point of being dutiful.” Although this might encourage us to read such stories through a pop-Freudian lens revealing that Bacharach’s difficulties in his adult relationships are his mother’s fault, that approach is perhaps unfair to Irma, whose depiction conforms a bit too neatly to the Portnoy’s Complaint stereotype of the possessive Jewish mother.

He comes across not as a romantic antihero bravely confronting his flaws and failings but rather as a cad who couldn’t care less about them.

Whatever the reason, by early adulthood, Bacharach was a charming seducer most comfortable with women who made no emotional claims on him. We learn this not only from Bacharach himself, but also through interviews with his family and associates that appear frequently throughout the book. Actress Lee Grant recalls that “when I started to get some secret serious feelings about Burt, I called [actress] Norma Crane, who was a friend of mine, and asked her, ‘Can he be there for anybody?’ She said, ‘No,’ and I said, ‘Thank you.’” Bacharach recounts his early romances with little nostalgia and less discretion. Of Paula Stewart, he rhapsodizes: “the attraction between us was physical, because she was really good-looking and had great tits, which back then could not be prefabricated.” He eulogizes former lover Tracy Fisher thusly: “We finally broke up when she gave me the crabs after sleeping over at a friend’s apartment. Tracy just kept right on living the same way and eventually wound up with some low-level hood, who killed her on a boat.” One doesn’t have to be a dewy-eyed romantic to bridle at Bacharach’s cynical tone, which strains to convey worldliness but merely makes him seem crass and unfeeling.

The women most central to Bacharach’s chronicle are Angie Dickinson and Carole Bayer Sager, his second and third wives respectively. The book’s first sentence, “I had only been married to Angie Dickinson for about nine months when I started thinking about getting a divorce,” foreshadows their fractious marriage. Bacharach’s awkward proposal to Dickinson (“You want to give me a nice birthday present?…Marry me”) led to an awkward wedding in Las Vegas at 3:45 AM, at which bride and groom, who had been drinking for hours, began laughing hysterically during their vows. Dickinson believes now that “that was the night Burt fell out of love with me, because here we were sitting and waiting in a casino lounge and it just took the boom off of it.” Bacharach’s wedding to Sager, to which he refused to invite her overbearing mother, was similarly inauspicious: “We all had an ample amount to drink and I smoked some dope. Then this guy who I guess was a judge in Santa Monica said, ‘Do you, Burt Bacharach, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife, in sickness and in health, till death do you part?’ I said, ‘I’ll try,’ and Neil Diamond said, ‘Holy shit!’” Both marriages collapsed in acrimony. After several years with Dickinson, Bacharach, while carrying on multiple affairs, presented his wife with “a list of about twenty-six things that would have to change because I couldn’t live like this anymore.” Later, Bacharach chose a shared appearance on The Mike Douglas Show to tell Dickinson “maybe I should ask you for a divorce now.” (“On the air,” adds Dickinson, making sure we appreciate the full extent of her humiliation.) Sager remembers that “I used to get what I called weather reports from Burt. ‘Today I feel like I’m fifty-five percent into the marriage and if I could go away for a few weeks…’” Finally, Bacharach reports, “even though we had signed a prenuptial agreement, it still took us a long time to work out the terms of our divorce and it became a long, drawn-out process that wasn’t pleasant.”

Bacharach writes most appreciatively about his ex-wives when he’s admiring their professional skills—Dickinson, by Bacharach’s account, taught him how to run an editing machine and splice film when he was writing the score for What’s New Pussycat?, while Sager was a valued songwriting partner for years. Fourth wife Jane Hanson, in contrast, attracted Bacharach “really quickly because she wasn’t in the business. She didn’t sing, she didn’t want to write songs, and she didn’t want to be an actress.” If Bacharach is “finally truly happy” with Hanson, a former ski instructor thirty-two years his junior, it may be because she isn’t a competitor.

A celebrity whose professional successes are equaled only by his or her personal failures is a fine subject for tragedy, as in Citizen Kane or There Will Be Blood, but Bacharach’s account rarely reveals the sense of inner turmoil that might lend it pathos. To the extent that the book has an emotional core, it’s the sad story of Bacharach and Dickinson’s daughter Nikki, who was born prematurely with vision problems, spent much of her adult life institutionalized for what was belatedly diagnosed as Asperger’s syndrome, and committed suicide in 2007 at the age of forty. Bacharach’s unrevealing style is surprisingly poignant when he discusses Nikki, because it seems to mask genuine but inexpressible pain and regret. The famously poised and glamorous Bacharach is frank about the embarrassment he felt when his daughter’s unpredictable behavior drew unwelcome attention in public, and he admits to criticizing Dickinson’s parenting while making little effort himself. Nikki died blaming her father for his neglect. In a heartbreaking passage, Bacharach reveals that “before Nikki killed herself, she left me a note in a sealed envelope. I have never read the note because I can just imagine what she said in it.” This somber but gripping aspect of Bacharach’s life forms only a small part of a narrative centered on hit songs and failed marriages. Although Bacharach’s reticence about this very painful subject is understandable, one wishes for more, as these are the moments in which he seems most fully human.

Readers not captivated by Bacharach’s life story might still hope for some new insight into his music, and in this respect the book often succeeds. I was intrigued by the impressively diverse range of Bacharach’s early training, which included lessons with swing pianist Joe Bushkin, French composer Darius Milhaud, who told Bacharach, “Never be ashamed to write a melody you can whistle,” and American avant-gardist Henry Cowell, known for a then-unusual interest in Asian music and for piano pieces that require players to scrape strings or strike the keyboard with their forearms. Bacharach’s own music, for all its accessibility and polish, is famous for tricky time signatures and unpredictable harmonies, and it is illuminating to hear these as the product of his youthful interest in modernism. We also learn about Bacharach’s meticulous approach to producing records (he made Dionne Warwick sing thirty-two takes of “Don’t Make Me Over” before deciding to use the second) and his songwriting methods, which often involved drawing inspiration from unexpected places (the “angular off-center chords” of the title song for “What’s New Pussycat?”, for example, were Bacharach’s attempt to translate the film’s neurotic psychiatrist, played memorably by Peter Sellers, into sound).

Disappointingly, Bacharach has little to say about his closest musical collaborators, perhaps because his relationships with them often have been strained. He writes that he and Hal David “decided to get married as songwriters and only work with one another,” but this marriage ended much like Bacharach’s others, with a fight over royalties followed by an interminable lawsuit. In rare flight of poetic fancy, Bacharach writes that Dionne Warwick’s “voice had all the delicacy and mystery of sailing ships in bottles,” but we don’t learn much about their artistic partnership, which dissolved into yet another lawsuit. Bacharach devotes more attention to Marlene Dietrich, with whom he toured as accompanist, arranger, and conductor throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. Bacharach is effusive about Dietrich’s artistry, but their personal relationship was a challenge, with Bacharach the unwilling target of Dietrich’s romantic interest. Her jealousy eventually doomed their collaboration—when Bacharach and Dickinson became involved, Dietrich “had voodoo dolls made up to look like Angie and put pins in them”—but it’s clear that this was one of the most significant musical relationships of Bacharach’s life, and his reflections reveal a passion missing in much of the book.

Although Bacharach provides ample detail about his musical career, he avoids serious reflection on critical assessments of his work. Unsympathetic listeners might dismiss Bacharach’s elegant, moody 1960s productions as middlebrow cocktail music, pseudo-profundity aimed at the Mad Men set. An unkind but not entirely unpersuasive critic could add that, by the early 1980s, Bacharach’s collaborations with Sager epitomized mawkish, maudlin adult-contemporary balladry—take the E.T.-inspired “Heartlight,” popularized by Neil Diamond, or “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” a No. 1 hit for Christopher Cross in 1981. Such criticism appears only implicitly in the book as other artists defend Bacharach from it. Noel Gallagher of rock band Oasis explains that “a lot of people like Burt Bacharach because they think he’s kitsch. And then there’s a generation of songwriters who respect him immensely for what he’s done, and for the songs that he’s written.” Elvis Costello complains that “when we started doing the interviews for [their 1998 collaborative album] Painted from Memory, there were people who didn’t understand who Burt was. They’d come in and say, ‘Of course, you are the King of Easy Listening. You are in the lounge. You are the elevator music.’ And I would go, ‘What are you talking about?’” Mike Myers, who returned Bacharach to public attention in 1997 with a cameo in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, recalls his father’s affection for Bacharach’s music and asserts graciously that “it was all about me being a straight-up fan of Burt,” but if Austin Powers, on one level, pays affectionate homage to the 1960s pop culture Bacharach represents, it’s also a teasing send-up of that culture. Bacharach’s reputation straddles an uneasy line between sincere appreciation and ironic detachment, but he doesn’t comment on the irony.

In short, although it’s recommended to readers with an interest in Bacharach or in popular song of his era, Anyone Who Had a Heart is an unsatisfying book. Readers hoping that Bacharach’s autobiography will reveal new depths in the man and his music may find that both come to seem shallower than ever.