I had always held out hope that the great triumvirate of Hal David, Burt Bacharach, and Dionne Warwick would reunite for one last great project, a classic album that would put a final stamp on their 1960s-early 70s run as the best long-term teaming of lyricist, composer, and singer in pop music.
Not to be. Lyricist Hal David died on the first day of this September at the age of 91.
He’ll be forever remembered for a slew songs made classic by Warwick, but also by Dusty Springfield, The Carpenters, Tom Jones, The Fifth Dimension, and many others.
Though I cop to leaning toward the morose and maudlin in my musical tastes, fed largely by melancholy French chanson, wrenching rancheras, hard-luck country & western, and gloomy American pop standards, sometimes even I need a pick-me-up.
One of the first songs that I can remember from my childhood is Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head. A small child easily relates to the actual sensation if not the metaphor, so when I heard the song, I really heard happiness. Not happiness through the hard times, but just sheer happiness. Later I came to hear the song as an ode to optimism and perseverance, but part of me still revels in the simple childish delight of the line, “So I just did me some talkin’ the sun / and said I didn’t like the way he got things done.”
And really, simplicity is the key to Hal David’s lyrics. Simplicity and a direct, unfiltered appeal to emotions, often longing and sadness, but also happiness and outright joy, or as in the case of Close to You, bliss. It’s schmaltz, I know, but I relent to the charm of the song and its singer.
I recently watched the documentary Strange Powers about Magnetic Fields/The 6ths/Gothic Archies/Future Bible Heroes songwriter Stephin Merritt. He’s consciously aware of the detachment and insincerity of his (excellent) lyrics, as if he’s taken a step back from gut honesty and approached pop music from a sidewalk, as if he’s painting over the familiar existing façade of a building. He’s forever on the outside, but he knows the architecture perfectly. Stephin Merritt writes about feelings that he doesn’t feel but believes other people think they feel.
Hal David was on the inside of that building. There was something real beyond the façade, which is why a singer like Karen Carpenter, who approached each song without with a disarming purity, could make it great. Yes, on the sentimental side, and though some might find that treacly, I just buy into it because I can’t resist. If I think of the best versions of Hal David’s work, those singers are practically incapable of an interpretation lined with cynicism: Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Marilyn McCoo, B.J. Thomas, and especially Karen Carpenter, to name a few. When I hear Hal David songs or watch the performances, I’m dropped right into another era and feel the immediacy of the lyric delivered just as it’s written, devoid of ironic distancing or a consciously constructed attitude imposing into the words.
One of my go-to songs when I feel like things are collapsing around me is Hasbrook Heights, a lesser known nugget from the Hal David/Burt Bacharach/Dionne Warwick catalogue. It’s an invitation to get away – from wherever you are – and come visit Hasbrook Heights, which I think is perhaps the misspelled name of a city in New Jersey, but I like to think of it as in sunny California. How could you not walk away from Hal David’s Hasbrook Heights without a smile? Well, Stephin Merritt would probably just crib some notes from it and smirk in cynicism, but Raúl feels genuine warmth, friendship, and love, and breaks into a grin from the heart. There are different ways of smiling at Hal David’s words.
Listen below for the 1972 original by Warwick. (Look up the version sung by Bacharach at your own risk. There is a reason Dionne Warwick made it a trio.)
Hasbrook Heights from the 1972 LP Dionne sung by Dionne Warwick. Music by Burt Bacharach/Lyrics by Hal David:
And here is a live duet from May 2012 between Dionne Warwick and Pakistani-British singer Rumer:
Lyrics by Hal David:If you ever get out to Hasbrook Heights and you’re dying to see some sights if you’re lonely just phone me I’ll come and get you I’ll show you a good time you won’t need a motel in Hasbrook Heights no one ever has sleepless nights out at my house it’s your house come kick your shoes off start having a good time each day is like a week’s vacation come rest up bring along your swim suit that’s how we get dressed up you can get away from it all in Hasbrook Heights if you’re tired of neon lights we’ve got sun beams and moon beams and friendly people they’ll show you a good time throw some things in a grip take the early train it’s a beautiful trip don’t forget the name Hasbrook Heights, Hasbrook Heights