Burt Bacharach interview: ‘You’ve never done it all’

At 86, the legendary songwriter is still working at full pace. What’s the secret to his youthful vigour? Lightweight sneakers and clean teeth, apparently

The Great American Songbook, aka the finest pop and show tunes of the twentieth century, would be considerably shorter and a whole lot less loved-up without Burt Bacharach. The master of sophisticated smooch, he’s written 48 Top Ten hits worldwide, and his tunes have been recorded by more than 1,000 artists from The Beatles to Aretha Franklin. When he cameoed in the Austin Powers films (which he’s now helping turn into a Broadway musical) he hit ‘play’ on an entire guilty pleasures revival, seeing hits he penned such as ‘Walk on By’, ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head’ and ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose’ surge in popularity once again.

If his personal life hasn’t always been as smooth as his sound, that’s only made for a classic music autobiography, 2013’s strikingly unguarded ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’. Now 86, he’s preparing to don his blazer and sneakers for a world tour that takes in two nights at the Royal Festival Hall this week and Wilderness Festival in August. Crackling down the line from LA with a voice that makes Leonard Cohen sound like Joe Pasquale, he tells me you’ve never done it all – but he’ll courteously agree he’s getting close.

There’s a unique laidback air to songs like ‘The Look of Love’, ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ and ‘What the World Needs Now’. What’s their secret?
‘I never did try to make my songs crowded: too many notes, too much for the listener to absorb. There’s nothing I dislike more than hearing a record that is overloaded, strings playing from the introduction to the very end. Give us a break! When those strings come back in they’ll sound like a big breath of fresh air.’
Why did you invite your ex-wives to contribute to your autobiography?
‘I invited two or three former wives, and a former girlfriend got in there too. The only way to write a book for me was to be totally honest. If it shows some not so nice things about me, well, that’s who I am. That’s who I was at the time, that’s what I was going through.’
Who’s the bigger ladies’ man, you or Leonard Cohen?
‘Oh, I’m not a ladies’ man. And I didn’t know that Leonard was either! Well okay, [I’m not] right now. I’m quite content, quite married. I have two children by this marriage. I’ve got a 21-year-old and an 18-year-old. Sure, it’s a little late to do it in life.’

‘You cannot get too involved with horses. They’ll break your heart’

© Rob Greig/Time Out

You have two lifelong loves: music and horse racing. Do they give you a similar rush?
‘If you look at all the winner’s circle pictures on the walls in my office where I’m sitting now, the photographer never has to say “smile!” It’s a great feeling. My horse, Heartlight No 1, was the champion filly years ago. But listen, you cannot get too involved with horses. They’ll break your heart.’

How’s your Austin Powers musical going?
‘It’s a little bit at a standstill. Mike [Myers] is very involved with the documentary he did on Shep Gordon. I brought him some songs in April and he seemed to love them. But these things take time. Elvis [Costello] is on tour this summer too, and he’d like to sing one of the songs we’ve written, and I’d like to sing one of the songs we’ve written, but [Mike] says no. We mustn’t do that before they see the light of day in context. Our other musical, “Painted from Memory”, is making great strides towards a production.’
What’s your pre-tour fitness regime?
‘I’ll be in my pool every day, with the trainer, and when he’s not here I have an Aqua Jogger. And I’m going to see the dentist today, trying to keep my teeth clean. I finally found a pill for my insomnia. Although when I’m in a cycle of intense work, music will keep me awake no matter what I take.’

And the tour wardrobe?
‘I’m not a big clothes horse. I wear a blazer on stage and some very dressy sneakers: white Nikes that are very lightweight and it almost feels like I’m walking in bare feet, which is a good feeling.’

Any dreams left to fulfil?
‘You’ve never done it all. My writing creativity goes towards whatever musical might be in store, whether it’s Mike’s or “Painting from Memory”. “Promises Promises” [the 2010 Broadway revival of his 1968 musical] was a huge success. It’s exciting.’

You’re 86 on paper. What age are you in your head?
‘Oh, I’m younger than the chronological. I’m still working, I’m still writing, I’m still relevant. It’s just numbers, right?’

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