Sunday, October 12, 2008

Age of Nostalgia

“The age of recording is necessarily an age of nostalgia,” wrote Geoffrey O'Brien in his music memoir Sonata for Jukebox. It's such an obvious observation -- if it's recorded, it already happened -- and yet not something you immediately think of when you're wailing on your air guitar to Thin Lizzy's "Jailbreak," is it? But in the last couple of years I've really come to embrace the idea that musical taste is basically memoir, a subtle social and personal pyramid scheme. As Stephen Metcalf, a great critic, wrote while reviewing the O'Brien book: "When anything can be made to last forever, the process is inherently deflationary -- too few lives chasing too many memories. For respite we cleave to monuments: Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles." Right, and the monuments are therefore a social handshake so that whatever bond that music created in us doesn't break apart and leave us wandering all alone with our Iron Butterfly albums (heaven forbid). The end result is you'll never run out of bands who replicate Neil Young and the Beatles. It's a canon of comfort and it's called being a conserve-a-tive.

This is all a long way of saying there's something about Burt Bacharach that I've only just begun to put my finger on lately, but it's deep. O'Brien wrote a whole essay about Bacharach and how he informed a kind of urbane, commercial lifestyle in the 60s that was embedded in advertising and TV. It seems so obvious, but I wasn't around in the 60s, so as I listen to Reach Out, an album Bacharach conducted and arranged in 1967, I realize how so much of this style -- the symphonic horn lines and cleanly executed exotica rhythms -- crept into my brain almost subliminally in the 70s and 80s. Mainly through TV theme songs and incidental "clean up in aisle five" K-Mart muzak. If I think of my music experience linearly, his sound was probably the first track laid down in a 64,000-track recording that culminates in a mix I call my "taste" -- the pop Rosetta Stone.

It took me some time to find my way to this realization, but if you listen to these songs, which I love against all good judgment, you may begin to see/hear what I'm talking about. It came to me through appreciation of 60s-era Duke Ellington, the post-rock of Air and Tortoise, the Bachrachian jazz of Ben Allison, some Dusty Springfield cuts, some early 70s Bee Gees -- but really, a whole helluva lot of things that seemed to ultimately converge at Bacharach. And I've concluded that's because Bacharach is not just the sum of his parts, but a kind of one-man pop gestalt, a cultural uber-shape that informed everything. When I hear his arrangement of "The Look of Love," I can feel the shape of my living room while watching "Barney Miller" at my father's feet, the shape of the brightly-lit aisles at Sears with my mother in the late 70s, almost touch the long lines of the boat-sized Buicks and Oldsmobiles in the parking lots outside that Sears. It's like the part of my brain that was molded in the 20th Century starts to glow in the dark, illuminating the architecture of memory -- as if it IS the architecture of memory, and the therefore subconscious cue for why I like Duke Ellington, Air, Elvis Costello and all manner of melodic pop set to lush accompaniment. Realistically, I know it's just because the Bacharach sound came to represent a polished professionalism that absorbed all styles, the pop template of all that was completely acceptable to anyone anywhere at any time. He bridged the Greatest Generation's big-band to the Boomer's groovy swing and therefore single-handedly poured the concrete on which mainstream American pop could be housed. But that's where I grew up: Inside an aural JC Penney, wandering the wide, illuminated aisles of pluralism and style and hope, the unified field of commerce set to flugel horn and cha-cha-cha.

So as the world breaks apart (like, MAJOR cleanup in aisle five) and something unrecognizable takes its place, for better or worse, it's come to this moment where I'm sitting here listening to "Bond Street" -- which is, as far as I can tell, that ridiculous song they play when Benny Hill is chasing girls about the lawn -- and I'm hearing how, wait, hold up, there are parts of this that are really great and somehow ... pure. Like, what's with that strange bent horn note at the end that races off into infinity? And how great are those leisure-wear horns on "The Look of Love"? Why do I get subtly emotional when those backup singers start up on "Reach Out to Me"? Why is it so comforting to me when that little trumpet squiggle pops up at the end? Why is that little Mary Tyler Moore piano tinkle in "Are You There (With Another Girl)" so downright tragic? Honestly, it's nostalgia. But all recordings being equal, what isn't at this point?

The Look of Love - Burt Bacharach

Reach Out to Me - Burt Bacharach

Bond Street - Burt Bacharach

Are You There (With Another Girl) - Burt Bacharach

In the course of posting this, I tripped upon this amazing blog called Malls of America, featuring vintage photos of malls, exteriors and interiors, over the last 50 years.


Anonymous said...

I don't appreciate Tortoise or Elvis Costello, but there's one Bacharach tune that ranks among the best pop compositions ever committed to vinyl: Mexican Divorce. Ry Cooder's amble through it, alas, is so-so, but Bacharach's own is a joy. Imagine that! A song about divorce, a joy!

Lefty said...

A lovely song indeed, "Mexican Divorce." I posted the Ry Cooder version a while back as part of an homage to Cormac McCarthy. Perhaps you could send us the Bacharach version? Here's Cooder's again:

Mexican Divorce - Ry Cooder