Burt Bacharach: What I've Learned

The 86-year-old songwriter on racehorses, tennis and touring Russia with Marlene Dietrich

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Mr Bacharach? Let’s dispense with the formalities. It’s Burt.

Turtlenecks. Blazers. It was almost like a uniform. I used to do concerts in a tuxedo but I don’t know when I last wore one. I don’t mean to put it down, it’s just something that’s not so important to me.

It’d be great if you had to take one year in college, on a course called Relationships or Entering Marriage and you had to pass. I joke, but it’s so much easier to get married than to get unmarried.

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I’ve never been a money counter. But not having money makes me unhappy. It’s nice to live in a comfortable house.

I can’t play tennis now with my shoulders. Assorted injuries compromise. It doesn’t feel good to hit a ball with a tennis racket but I have a small gym and I work out with a trainer. She comes three times a week, and twice a week I work out with a pool trainer who does different things where you have weights on your ankles and you run. No impact. I nurse that pool!

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If you’re a musician, do your work. Learn how to write down a piece of music. Then you can transcribe what you’re hearing in your head.

When I was a kid, I would make sure that I’d turned off the gas jets in the kitchen and then check them four or five times. You have to get rid of stuff like that because your life can get into a form of paralysis.

I wouldn’t get on a racehorse because they’re so high-strung. I love them but some are not very kind. The attractive thing for me about owning racehorses is you’re a custodian. They’re very fragile animals; every day is another day that they’re not coming up injured or dead. We went to the Kentucky Derby twice. Special moments. But it’s a horse; it’s not a piece of music you wrote. You just value the time. Say you have a horse that wins a big race. You’re in the winner’s circle having your picture taken with the jockey and whoever else is in your party. You’re happy. The lesson is to stay in the moment. Don’t be asking your trainer, “Well, what do you think we’ll do next?” It was hard enough to get to that moment, so enjoy it and don’t hurry things along.

Always be thirsty for information.

I was born in Kansas City, Missouri. That was because my dad had a job there in retail, at a store called Woolf Brothers. I left when I was one year old because we moved to the east coast. I’ve been back twice. Last time I found the house where I lived. It didn’t hit an emotional chord.

A large part of my life has been about not getting enough sleep, having the music going around in my mind. If you keep hearing something you were working on before you went to bed, maybe you have something. The bad news is that it’s keeping you awake. I abused sleeping pills.

I believe in some order, some higher power, but I kind of made up my own religion. In retrospect, one of the things that turned me away from prayer was the first one I was taught by a German nanny. This was a long time ago. Basically it was, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take”. I mean, what? How’s that for scaring the shit out of a kid!

For a long while, I had a feeling of racing against the clock. Getting as much done as possible. Running out of time. I’ve always thought that the best way to slow things down is get on an ocean liner and go on a cruise for five or six days.

My wife is an athlete. She doesn’t want to be a singer. She doesn’t want to be an actress. I like the way she takes care of her body. I think that’s great.

Your country discovered me way before it happened for me in the States. The thing about England is the fact that even if you’re down, they still hold you up and care about you. I liked being on tour last year and playing in Liverpool and asking if they were going to miss... who’s the guy that was biting everyone? Luis Suárez! I’m playing some more dates this summer. No bullshit, I think it’s really great that somebody still wants me to do that.

My parents got to see me win a couple of Academy Awards and saw me in concert. You always wish they could see a little more.

Every trip is important, particularly now that travelling is a bitch. Somebody’s getting married. They’re friends of ours. OK, where’s the wedding? Hawaii? No, count me out. I should be better about that.

You have to stay in touch with your muse. Touch the piano daily. I don’t do that consistently but it’s a rule of thumb.

In my bathroom there’s this mirror. I have all these notes, Post-its, that I’ve put up. One of them says, “Life is valuable”. “Do not waste a day”, that’s another. Maybe five like that, and then a bigger one in the middle of the mirror that says, “Look at the other notes”. Just a little reminder to check in and try to take nothing for granted.

Family’s what counts. I have a daughter who is 19. It’s been easy for me to be able to sit down and have a frank discussion with her. I don’t ask about her sex life. That’s off bounds. What’s not off bounds is talking to her about pregnancy. My youngest son is 22. I hope that he doesn’t knock up a girl.

I conducted for Marlene Dietrich. Years ago, I saw the world with her; I travelled to Russia when it was really terrible. The drive to perfection that I’ve had all my life, did I learn it from her? That’s an interesting question that I’m posing for myself. Some of that came from Marlene. She wanted everything to be as perfect as possible. She said, “You want to get anything done, do it yourself. Don’t depend on somebody else.”

I try to stay accident-free. I’m not scared, just careful.

Will my music live forever? I’m surprised it’s lived as long as it has! I’m not searching for an answer, but do I write as well now as I used to? Probably not. It takes me a long time. That hasn’t changed.

This article was first printed in the Spring / Summer 15 issue of Esquire's Big Black Book, On sale now in selected newsagents and direct from Apple Newstand.

 

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