You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

The Uncivil Servant: Alfie-Shmalfie

Mitchell Abidor
June 18, 2013

Burt Bacharach Walks on By His Jewishness

Burt+BacharachIn 1997, the eccentric musical genius John Zorn released, as part of the “Great Jewish Music” series on his Tzaddik label, a Burt Bacharach tribute album. It included many of the luminaries of the then flourishing Downtown music scene contributing their unique versions of Bacharach hits like “(They Long To Be) Close to You”, “Promises Promises”, “The Look of Love”, and “Walk on By” — and the great accordionist Guy Klucevsek performing a medley of tunes with the word “Guy” in the title. The liner notes, a veritable program statement, begin with Zorn saying, “Burt Bacharach is one of the great geniuses of American popular music -- and he’s a Jew.” Zorn goes on to call him a “trailblazer. A questioner. An unbridled genius.” He speaks of how Bacharach’s songs “explode the expectations of what a popular song is supposed to be. Advanced harmonies and chord changes with unexpected turnarounds and modulations, unusual changing time signatures and rhythmic twists, often in uneven numbers of bars.” Zorn situates Bacharach squarely within, and defines him as, one of the prime avatars of a century “that has produced one of the most richly rewarding periods of Jewish history,” placing Bacharach in a pantheon that includes, in my book, Philip Roth, Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin, and Lou Reed. Finally, Zorn is grateful to Bacharach for something not entirely insignificant: “Thank you for not changing your name.” With Anyone Who Had a Heart (HarperCollins, 2013, 304 pages), we now have Burt Bacharach’s account of his own life, and however hyperbolic Zorn’s statements might be, and however invisible the Jewish content in Bacharach’s music, his life bears many of the characteristics of a classic Jewish journey through 20th-century America. Early in the book, the matter of his name comes up, and we learn much about the man. As a teenager -– having played piano since his childhood in Forest Hills, where his family moved shortly after his birth in 1928 –- he formed a band using the name of Happy Baxter, which, he explains, “was as close as I could get to Bacharach without sounding Jewish.” Happy was the name he was called by his family, his father’s name being Bert. Not sounding Jewish, not being taken for Jewish, was the Holy Grail of Bacharach’s youth. In its chapters about the young Burt, Anyone Who Had a Heart is nothing less than the portrait of a young man who wishes he wasn’t Jewish yet is, and doesn’t know how to escape its grip. His family broke with organized Judaism shortly after he was born, when his maternal grandfather Abe, having lost all his money in the Crash of 1929, offered to resign as president of a Reform temple in Atlantic City because he was unable to pay his dues. “When they accepted it, he never returned. Whatever connection my mother might have had with being Jewish also ended right then and there, which helps explain the way I was raised.” The way he was raised included not just not attending synagogue or being in any way involved in anything Jewish, but in not even telling others that he was Jewish, if not actively presenting himself as non-Jewish. Either as cause or result of all this, “I got the feeling that this was something shameful that I should hide.” Being Jewish, for young Happy, was nothing but another plague on his already difficult existence. He was short -- so short that no one in his high school, girls included, was shorter. “I already had enough problems,” he writes, “without having to also admit I was Jewish.” Feeling an outcast, with Catholic school students as his few friends, Bacharach says that when his football team played a team with Jews, his captain would say, “‘Let’s go and kick the shit out of these Jews,’ and I would say, ‘let’s kick the shit out of these Jews.’” Yet he never explains precisely what he found so horrible about being a Jew, nor why being taken for a Jew in Forest Hills, Queens -- one of the New York borough’s oldest Jewish neighborhoods -- would have been a problem at all. His flight from Jewishness led him straight into the maws of clichéd Jewishness. He studied piano, and though he loved sports -– he recounts how attending a football game deprived him of the chance to hear the radio broadcast of Leonard Bernstein’s famous conducting premiere as a replacement for Bruno Walter -– he dutifully shlepped into Manhattan to take advanced lessons. When finally offered the chance to abandon the piano he couldn’t: “The Jewish guilt started creeping in and I thought, ‘Jeez, I can’t do this to my mother.’ So I kept taking lessons . . . and maybe even practicing a little harder than before.” The Jewishness that he so hated both guided and dogged his steps as he grew to manhood. Though he loved and studied classical music and was taught, among others, by the French Jewish exile Darius Milhaud, he also loved jazz, and when the time came for him to choose a mentor, instead of the famous Teddy Wilson he chose a certain Joe Bushkin, who “taught [him] about life. A skinny Jewish guy who had grown up in a tough neighborhood in Manhattan.” The quixotic nature of Bacharach’s attempt to hide and hide from his Jewishness was revealed when he went to McGill University in Montreal, where “I didn’t want anyone to know I was Jewish.” (Inevitably, two weeks after his arrival there he received, unbidden, an invitation from the B’nai Brith to attend services.) While at McGill, where he studied music but didn’t receive a degree, his frenzied flight from his past led him to become obsessed with Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song,” and he played “nothing else for four straight months.” Need we point out that “The Velvet Fog” was actually Melvin Howard Torma, son of Jewish immigrants? However much Bacharach hated being a Jew, all that piano practice served him in good stead when he was drafted during the Korean War. Instead of being shipped overseas, he got the cushy posting of playing concerts on military bases, and then as pianist at the officers’ club on Governor’s Island, New York. All went well there until he started dating the daughter of the colonel in charge of personnel. The colonel didn’t approve of this because, Bacharach says, “Number one, I was a Jew and, number two, I was a private.” No third strike was necessary, and despite all attempts to keep him playing tunes on the island off Lower Manhattan, he was shipped to Germany, where he wrote orchestrations for the band that played at the army rec center! Once out of the army, he worked as orchestra director for Marlene Dietrich, including a tour to Israel where, Bacharach claims, La Dietrich was the first person to sing in German on an Israeli stage. He then began his climb to songwriting fame, working with his extraordinary lyricist, Hal David, in the famously Jewish Brill Building at 1619 Broadway. Their fellow tenants including Phil Spector, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and Jerry Moss -- while across the street, working for Don Kirshner, were Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. If ever Jews ruled American music it was during this era, and Bacharach was perhaps its greatest contributor. (Hal David died in September, 2012 at age 91; the previous year, he and Bacharach were the first songwriting team to receive the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song bestowed by the Library of Congress.) Bacharach and David turned out a dizzying number of hits, including, ”Don’t Make Me Over”, “Alfie”, “Only Love Can Break a Heart”, “The Look of Love”, “What the World Needs Now Is Love”, and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”, among many, many others. As Zorn mentions in his notes on Bacharach, many of these songs were daring and famously difficult for musicians to play due to their tricky time signatures and changes. One of Frank Sinatra’s braver girlfriends told the singer, after he had condemned Bacharach as “a lousy writer,” “You couldn’t hum any of his music, never mind sing it. It’s so complicated.” Equally complicated, in many ways, is the personality Bacharach presents to us. His relationship to Jewishness (why didn’t he simply change his name? live as Happy Baxter?) is not the least of the contradictions his book reveals. The author of so many beautiful and direct love songs was a four-time-married, chronic womanizer whose mother tried to warn women away from him. His split with his songwriting partner, Hal David, over a fraction of a percentage in royalties, and with Dionne Warwick, the most famous interpreter of his songs, seriously derailed his career, leading to long periods in the doldrums. (The friendship of Bacharach and David survived the split, however, and the two even collaborated again in 1993.) Most tragically, Bacharach’s first child, by his second wife, Angie Dickinson, was born prematurely and suffered from severe mental problems throughout her life. She was institutionalized at his insistence, Bacharach makes clear: ”It’s hard even now for me to explain how stifling it was to live [with her], because at this point, Nikki was really quite nuts.” She was later discovered to have Asperger’s syndrome, so her institutionalization served no purpose -- and Bacharach is horrifically cold (or brutally honest) about his inability to love her. He seems to feel no guilt for the fact that her final Asperger obsession was suicide, and that she finally killed herself, though not before writing him a note which he has never read, a note that others say expresses what she thought of him. Despite its maudlin final pages, in which Bacharach describes his love for his fourth wife and his surviving children, and despite the genius of so much of his music, Anyone Who Had a Heart displays a fair amount of heartlessness. Mitchell Abidor is a contributing writer to our magazine and a translator, musician, and actor living in Brooklyn. He is author of Communards: The Paris Commune of 1871 as Told by Those Who Fought For It.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.