Monday, 3 September 2012

Hal David

Read about the death of Hal David on the BBC's news channel and was surprised it wasn't mentioned in the subsequent news programme on the main channel. Doesn't it count as a major event, then? By way of compensation I searched my MP3 player for something to play as a kind of personal tribute, or reminder to myself of his lyrics; luckily there was Do You Know the Way to San Jose.

I remember once having a conversation with a former line manager about this song, someone of whom it might have reasonable to expect a degree of sensitivity to language, but no: for him the song was simply a jolly, bouncy thing and the lyrics a negligible part of that whole.

Even at an early age, I got it - and I think my first contact with the song was via that unlikely video of a donkey on a 1968 edition of Top of the Pops, which I'm guessing was got up by the BBC rather than provided by the record company.

Actually, not that unlikely - you could argue that the would-be stars are deceived by the thought of near-instant ("in a week, maybe two") gratification, like those poor translated boys in Pinnochio.

And yet the Top of the Pops video was ultimately superfluous: the lyrics had already done the work, their undercurrent of mockery umissable, especially when wedded to that jaunty arrangement. The Beeb's - I can only call them asinine - visuals merely coarsened the effect.

That said, why not judge for yourself? It starts about 1.19 in on the following clip:

But when you heard the record on the radio, without such distractions, you could marvel at that combination of lyric and a melody so catchy that you too were half in love with that world of false hopes. I suppose you could say it's a callous song, except that Dionne is both commentator and participant: she, too, has been stung and yearns to get back to safety and familiarity, that place where it's going to be alright again: "I was born and raised in San Jose": it's the land of lost content, updated and still applicable to today's age.

According to the songfacts website, she wasn't keen on the song, which may, I suspect, have worked in the recording's favour. A performance which signalled the heartache underneath would have been too much to bear; as it is, the throwaway nature of her delivery seems just right. Nothing to get all heavy about: it's just the way things are for most of our dreams.

I bought one newspaper today, and luckily it had a piece by David Hepworth about Hal David which focused on that song:
"LA is a great big freeway/put a hundred down and buy a car/in a week, maybe two, they'll make you a star/ weeks turn into months/ how quick they pass/and all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas." (At which point your sub-conscious supplies "Boom boom boom".)

In writing that lyric to Do You Know the Way to San Jose?, Hal David, who died on Saturday aged 91, managed the rare trick of encapsulating the eternal truth about showbusiness within a line as light as a souffle, which balanced so perfectly on Burt Bacharach's tune that, like all the great lyrics, it seems to sing itself into eternity. [...] Songs that have three verses, a developed plot and a moral are few and far between and don't often trouble the charts these days [...] the last refuge of the song with a story is country music. [...] Walk On By, Always Something There To Remind Me, What's New Pussycat? and other great Hal David lyrics were internalised as a result of endless repetition. We've heard them so much they're inside us now in the way that hymns might have been for our forebears. Most of the people who could sing his songs in the shower don't realise that they already know the best poem about going home a failure. It's called Do You Know The Way To San Jose? and we all know it by heart, which is really the only way.

A few days ago I was having a conversation with a friend about stories in song, prompted by hearing Honey, the song associated with (but not written by) Bobby Goldsboro, on the mixtape of the restaurant where we were dining. Yes, it was corny and sentimental but my point - not really grasped by my companion - was that details had lodged in my brain ever since childhood, like Honey "sittin' there and cryin' over some sad and silly late, late show."

And it got me thinking that quite a few stories in song had made a vivid impression in childhood, before I ever conciously thought of analysing that kind of thing. Some of these I've written about already, like Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp, written by Dallas Frazier, here, which was originally a country song even though OC Smith's hit version was soul.

This has taken us a bit away from Hal David himself, so let's get back. My next David-related note here is a small one, but important - at least to two people. My non-blog-reading friend, whom I have mentioned in earlier posts, once remarked on the remarkable intimacy of those simple opening lines to I Say a Little Prayer:
The moment I wake up
Before I put on my makeup
It's a small detail in the song but I think it does encapsulate what pop lyrics can do at their best: they take you somewhere with the minimum of fuss. In this case, to a realm my friend, dubbed "Girlsland", a mysterious place, more or less unknown to either of us at the time. And unlike Honey, the rest of the song doesn't let it down (though I do have a soft spot for Honey, written by Bobby Russell).

Nevertheless, when I think of Bacharach and David songs it's not so much about isolated elements, more about the overall effect - and often the choice of singer is a major part of that: Chuck Jackson, for example. You can't separate him from Any Day Now, and Elvi's Presley's version is an imitation. I've written a bit about Lou Johnson's original recording of There's Always Something There To Remind Me, here, which Sandie Shaw seems to have modelled her version on very closely indeed, though there is a coda, possibly adlibbed, in Johnson's version which adds another dimension. Make It Easy On Yourself may not have many phrases you can hold up to the light, and yet, when sung by Jerry Butler, it makes perfect sense. Having said that, "Run to him before I start crying too" is the masterstroke, because it's the subtext of the whole performance.

And that reminds me that there is a version of an earlier lyric entitled Are You Lonely By Yourself, recorded by the Isley Brothers, which just doesn't work as well. The words in pop songs matter - which is why I hate, and shall yield to none in my hatred of, B*hemian Rhaps*dy. It's at the opposite end of the spectrum from Hal David. I once heard a wholly pointless choral arrangement of it at the Barbican by someone who must have been seduced by the original recording; the problem was that once you took away the visuals and the musical backing and were left to focus on the words it was painfully clear there was nothing there. Pop lyrics at their best - wedded to the right music - are a kind of poetry; B*hemian Rhaps*dy is not. It was a chance to say something, to communicate with an audience, and it wasn't taken. I'd take Honey any day, for all its mawkishness.

Or, of course, the directness of Hal David: as I write I think of the opening line of Make It Easy On Yourself:
Breakin' up is so very hard to do
A simple, universal situation, given dignity in song.

Another person who will be mourning the death of Hal David today will, I suspect, be the playwright and TV writer Peter Moffat. There is a discussion in his play Nabokov's Gloves about the unlikely distance covered when listening to a certain Dionne Warwick record on a walkman. It is, I suppose, a characteristically male kinda dialogue, the ol' bonding-without-intimacy bit, but it reinforces the importance and the magic of these songs. And at the end of his play Iona Rain, There's Always Something There To Remind Me is used to heartbreaking effect. I will never forget the final image in the Croydon Warehouse production where Sandie Shaw's recording causes a kind of emotional damburst. (Buy the play and read it.)

When I used the play on a few occasions in a seminar, in what might be thought of as an act of indulgence I would get the participants to stand and listen to the record in silence before we began, though the sort-of serious intention was to lead my charges into the world of Moffat's overgrown schoolboys in which such things are de rigeur. Having recently renounced even that pale shadow of my dominie past I will probably never have occasion to do that again, which I sort of regret: were there to be a next time it could also serve as a tribute to the man who framed those words.

Here's that original Always Something There to Remind Me. Sandie Shaw's is not a bad performance but it seems unfair that Lou Johnson's superior original has been sidelined when it sounds like Shaw modelled her vocal very closely on Johnson - unless both were being closely directed in turn by Bacharach. The arrangement is largely the same on both records but in Johnson's case there's an additional hint of foreboding suggested by the strings' plunge downward at the end, suggesting that this is a loss which might just spiral into obsession: These Foolish Things all over again, even if the world of Hal David's sixties lovers seems less rarified - or maybe just less particularised - to reflect a time of greater social mobility: no specific places or objects, only the information that they used to dance in a small cafe. No "verbal pyrotechnics", as one of the obituaries quoted below says, but Lou Johnson's voice, like that of Chuck Jackson on Any Day Now, makes them unnecessary. Hal David provided exactly what was needed.

From the Daily Telegraph obituary:
Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head [...] was a fine example of their art — an eminently hummable (and unusually plain) melody by Bacharach to which David had added deceptively simple words. For, as with many of their songs, the content of his lyrics actually formed a downbeat counterpoint to the jauntiness of the tune; the song is in fact about someone suffering constant disappointments.

David’s gift was for writing words that gave voice to the interior sadness of daily life, the melodramas of devotion, rejection, jealousy and vulnerability. Thus San Jose, which at first hearing seems to bounce along merrily enough, is actually a record about a person abandoning her dreams of fame: “And all the stars that never were/ are parking cars and pumping gas”. If his songs can be said to have a theme to them, it is that of putting on a brave face when inside all is tears: “What do you get when you fall in love?/ A guy with a pin to burst your bubble” (from I’ll Never Fall in Love Again).

His critics had it that David’s lyrics were banal (although no more banal, surely, than “All you need is love”). Certainly his songs lacked the verbal pyrotechnics of Cole Porter or Lorenz Hart, but such dexterity with rhyme did not suit his purpose, which was to tell everyday stories in the most natural way. David understood the great truth of all good writing: that it should not appear to have been written at all.
Hal David on his inspiration, quoted in the Independent obituary:
"I have no formula, sometimes it flows smoothly and other times it is like rowing a boat upstream. Most often a lyric starts with a title. A line in a book I am reading may set me off. Other times, some dialogue in a play or a movie becomes the catalyst. More often than not the idea just pops into my head. Where it comes from I hardly ever know," he said. "In writing, I search for believability, simplicity, and emotional impact. There have been times in the past when I've heard one of Burt's melodies and the words just fell out in a matter of seconds. 'Do You Know The Way To San Jose?' is a perfect example of that, I heard the whole lyric in a flash, I just instinctively knew what Burt was looking for. The ones that come out of the blue are usually the best ones."
The piece ends:
The easy listening revival of the late Nineties seemed to benefit Bacharah more but David remained philosophical about his place in musical history. "Composers tend to be better known than lyricists, and Burt is a performer. That's never been my thing,"he said. "The important thing is what one does, not one's name. The songs live, the writer doesn't. You just hope your songs outlast you."



It seems appropriate to add this clip of I Say a Little Prayer as performed in the 1997 film My Best Friend's Wedding. It's a romcom (with a twist) rather than a documentary, but the choice of song in a particular scene is interesting because it seems to bear out David Hepworth's observation that Hal David's lyrics are "inside us now in the way that hymns might have been for our forebears."

The details of the plot don't matter too much for the purposes of this post. The person seated opposite Julia Roberts' character is her former lover, about to marry someone else (Cameron Diaz), hence the looks which pass between them as the song progresses. Rupert Everett is masquerading as Roberts' boyfriend, and the impromptu song is part of this deception, intended to fool Diaz's family, gathered together at this pre-wedding, getting-to-know-you meal.

But that's solely the business of those three, really, because what is happening more generally in the room, swiftly spreading beyond members of the family to include all the diners and staff, is a joyful recognition of the power of this song, taken up by young and old alike; by the time a restaurant employee sits down at a piano and nods to continue it seems like the most natural thing in the world. It's a scene which transcends the plot and tells a wider truth about the importance of this this quasi-hymn: of course the guests know it, young and old alike, and the other diners. Who doesn't?

It is based on Aretha Franklin's version of the song with its gospel-style call and response, despite Rupert Everett's character invoking Dionne Warwick because he launches into it, but as Warwick had already done most of the heavy lifting in her original recording that seems entirely appropriate.

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of great lyrics and you mentioned Dallas Frazier here, his song and his own version of 'California Cottonfields' encapsulates the Great Depression and the migration of The Okies from the Dust Bowl to the supposed promised land in about three minutes of writing of which Steinbeck would be proud! One of my favourite songs!
    Cheers, Brian O'Connell