On October 18, 1998, I went to see Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach at Radio City Music Hall. The unlikely duo gave a concert in support of their superb album, Painted From Memory, featuring “Toledo” and the for-the-ages masterpiece “God Give Me Strength.”
I came into this experience from the Elvis side, not knowing much about Bacharach beyond his cameo in the Austin Powers movie. Costello was one of my favorite artists, and I’d seen him live a few times before. But this show was different. He wore a tuxedo. He acted like an MC. He was earnestly humble, directing the attention of the audience at every opportunity to the older gentleman behind the piano, who struck me as shy and uncomfortable with all the fuss. And the set list was much more Bacharach than Elvis. You could tell that Elvis loved Burt, that he was genuinely honored to share the stage with him. Elvis could be grouchy, which made his fanboying all the more delightful to behold from my primo seat on the floor, ten or so rows away.
That was my first real exposure to the work of Burt Bacharach, who died this week at the age of 94. Oh, I knew some of the songs. Every Gen X-er is familiar with “That’s What Friends Are For” and “Always Something There to Remind Me,” the latter covered by Naked Eyes when I was in grade school.
What I didn’t realize until that concert was how prolific Bacharach was, and for how long. He was a human ChatGPT, but for pop music. He didn’t have that one, singular, enormous hit; rather, he had so many very big ones that headline writers had difficulty this week narrowing him down. I mean, which one song do you mention at the top of the obituary? There’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” and “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and “What the World Needs Now is Love” and “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” and “The Look of Love,” from the James Bond spoof Casino Royale. How do you decide? Different outlets, I noticed, all mentioned different hits.
And those are just the songs Dionne Warwick wasn’t involved with! The pinnacle of Bacharach’s career was the collaboration between those two musical giants and the genius lyricist Hal David. Back when I still listened to CDs, one of my favorites was the collection of Warwick singing her iconic Bacharach hits: “I’ll Say a Little Prayer” and “Walk on By” and “You’ll Never Get to Heaven” and “Message to Michael” and “Trains and Boats and Planes” and “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” and “Alfie.” All of those songs are fucking awesome in every way that pop songs can be. When we consider the complex musical composition, the virtuosity of Warwick’s vocals, and the understated poetry of the lyrics, the output is simply staggering.
My favorite Bacharach song is, funnily enough, one that Warwick doesn’t like: “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” In a 1983 interview with Ebony, she said, “It’s a dumb song and I didn’t want to sing it.” But sing it she did, to magnificent effect.
Warwick found it dumb; it’s certainly syrupy, with the vocals coming in all singsong and happy. Too, the title seems to be someone asking for directions; what can be dumber than that? But darkness lurks behind all that California sunshine and light. “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” is, sneakily, a song about failure. It’s also, even more sneakily, a song about Los Angeles.
It begins innocuously enough:
Do you know the way to San Jose?
I’ve been away so long,
I may go wrong and lose my way.
Do you know the way to San Jose?
I’m going back to find some peace of mind in San Jose.
And then we come to the heart of the matter:
L.A.’s 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 years—how quick they pass!—
And all the stars that never were
Are parking cars and pumping gas.
First, let’s admire the brilliant rhyme scheme. Initially, Hal David pairs “car” and “star” at the end of the line, establishing those sounds in our ear. Early in the verse, these words indicate good things; our narrator is going to be a star, going to buy a car. Later, David rhymes the same two words internally—and this time, they invert, taking on negative connotations. Our narrator, a star that never was, parks cars driven by other people—successful people, stars that are. We’re also told, in the first line of the verse, why cars are so integral to Los Angeles; unlike in, say, New York, where having a car is an encumbrance, the whole urban center around Hollywood is “a great big freeway.”
Already, the sugary-sweet music begins to feel ironic. The second verse is even more heartbreaking:
Fame and fortune is a magnet.
It can pull you far away from home.
With a dream in your heart, you’re never alone.
Dreams turn into dust and blow away,
And there you are, without a friend;
You park your car and ride away.
So: the narrator had Hollywood dreams, came to L.A. from San Jose, stayed for years trying to break into the business, and failed to do so. Now it’s time to accept defeat and return home, where good friends, affordable housing, and clean, breathable air await. (Adding to the cruel sting of the failure, “park your car and ride away” implies that the mode of transportation up the 5 will be Greyhound bus.)
When the narrator asks, “Do you know the way to San Jose?,” it has nothing to do with directions; it’s about changing an entire state of mind. Not the way but The Way. The return to San Jose is at first humiliating and then, ultimately, liberating. You can really breathe in San Jose. I’ve got lots of friends in San Jose. Once a symbol of the lackluster and ordinary, San Jose becomes the happy place.
“Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” came out in 1968 and earned Dionne Warwick her first Grammy. Things were different then. Now, if fame-whore arrivistes don’t make it in Hollywood, they just become alt-right influencers. The bad guys are always hiring, and the audiences for their garbage are huge. Distill the worst of the rightwing shitbags to their core essence, and what you get, inevitably, is a gas-pumping car-parker who would rather go to the Kehlsteinhaus than San Jose:
But that’s a topic for another time. For today, let us remember the brilliance of the late Burt Bacharach. Let’s hope he’s tickling the ivories in the great San Jose in the sky.
Our guest on the Season 3 premiere of The Five 8 was the brilliant Billy Ray:
Photo credit: Eddie Janssens. Burt Bacharach in the Netherlands in 2009.
Morning Greg, Nice tribute to a very talented man, and also an interesting thought provoking statement; “Now, if fame-whore arrivistes don’t make it in Hollywood, they just become alt-right influencers. The bad guys are always hiring, and the audiences for their garbage are huge. Distill the worst of the rightwing shitbags to their core essence, and what you get, inevitably, is a gas-pumping car-parker.....” More on this spiral of sad behavior later.
Morning, Greg! Thanks for this tribute to Hal and Burt. I'm amazed at myself for remembering the words to each of the songs you mention...more so than the Beatles'!
I have never been much at "nuance," but my teenage self got the message that "San Jose" was telling at the time.