The Best That You Can Do …how to live with your strengths, and weaknesses…
Most of you know I was named after a singing group. There’s a reason for that: you see, my human, Handsome, just loves music. He’s always got a song going through his head, and usually is singing something or has music playing on a machine. I, like all dogs, have fantastic hearing, but, because of him, as well as the bugs and squirrels and skateboards I can hear from far away, I’m usually hearing guitars and trumpets and drums and singing from close by.
Handsome also tends to get on “kicks.” He’ll go through weeks listening only to some new singer, or some old opera, or become completely obsessed with the works of one great musician and not want to listen to anyone else for weeks.
Recently he’s been on a kick about a brilliant songwriter named Burt Bacharach. You might have heard of him – his most popular stuff came out way back in the 1960s and early 70s (there was even a running joke of him appearing in the retro “Austin Powers” movies), but his tunes show up still all the time. They’re not exactly rock and roll, not specifically soul, not quite jazz… you can only categorize them as Bacharach.
What pulled Handsome in to this obsession was the intricacy of Bacharach’s recordings. On the surface, they just sound like great, bright, catchy tunes. But if you listen closely, there is such incredible detail – the instrumentations are amazing, the timing changes lots within a song (something very rare in pop music), and the singing is often of a range very few vocalists can achieve. It’s like if one of the great classical composers started writing for the pop charts.
I used the word “bright” up there. His songs even conjure up colors in people’s minds (not in mine – we pups don’t see colors). A big brash sound with tons of instruments will suddenly go quiet for a soft trombone solo or a few notes on a piano, and you can’t help but see pictures. The great singers he had do his songs (including my namesakes, The Shirelles!) were given the most glorious rhythms, sweeping and witty-sounding melodies, creating a world of sophistication, intelligence, romance, and sexiness – but all in tunes everyone of any age can hear and enjoy.
But then there’s this other, unexpected, thing about those songs. Most of them have words that expose – not bright and sexy feelings – but sadness, loneliness, fear, failure, and especially deep love. And it’s that mixture, of the brightest of melodies with such poignant lyrics, that make these songs so powerful, and so continually popular.
If you’re intrigued, I’d say to check out the following recordings to start:
- “Baby, It’s You” by The Shirelles
- This was an early hit for him, and not as complex as he’d get, but it shows the brightness I talk about. And if you listen really closely to the background, you’ll hear one male voice among the females… That’s Bacharach singing!
- “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” by Dionne Warwick
- This defines the brightness I was talking about. Listen to how the beats change, all the cool instrumentation, and how effortlessly this great singer jumps from low to very very high notes, like me when I wake up to see a cat outside the window – but much smoother!
- “What the World Needs Now is Love” by Jackie DeShannon
- One of his most famous songs – and a magical example of what I mean by pictures. Just try listening to this beautiful hymn without suddenly seeing that soft trombone when everything stops for it to play those tiny simple notes
- “Casino Royale” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass
- The theme song to a very silly movie – not the more recent Daniel Craig one. Here’s Bacharach without words – just an orchestra and a pop/jazz band painting an incredible landscape of sound. Listen to this one loud!
So while Handsome has been playing this music all the time, I became fascinated by this mix. You see, these songs are kind of like me. On the outside, I’m the most cheerful, silly, wild dog you’ve ever seen. But on the inside, I’m always thinking about the things you write me questions about – loneliness, fear, worries, etc. Which made me wonder – how did this Bacharach achieve these? What sort of human is he?
So I started to study up about him. He’s a very good-looking man (not as handsome as Handsome, of course, but to my eyes, no one is), and has lived a life of great wealth and popularity, with exciting romances, and even marriages, to beautiful movie stars, and yet – if you watch footage of him – there’s something a bit, well… dorky about him! He’s a little distanced from everyone around him. A little shy. A little obsessive.
And that’s not just in how he looks. People who worked with him talk about how crazy he’d drive them with his perfectionism. Everything had to match exactly the way he’d hear his music in his head, and he wasn’t necessarily nice about telling them so. Most composers write songs to fit particular singers; Bacharach wrote whatever he heard in his head, and then had to go to great lengths to find singers who could possibly sing it (Today, he performs with a group of singers, using two or even three voices to sing as big a range as one of his greatest vocalists could handle). He wrote the score for a hit musical, but was so horrified when he went to a performance and realized he couldn’t control all the musicians all the time that he never did another (though now, fifty years later, he’s saying he’d like to). “Control Freak,” you ask? You bet.
And in his personal life, what did people say about him? That he’s charming, but self-centered, maybe even a little cold. In other words, all that intricacy you hear in his recordings, and all the bright brilliance, is him. But then where did those beautiful words come from?
And this is what made me write this article. One simple fact: He never wrote the words to his songs! He only does music. In fact, at one point, when explaining to his ex-wife why he was a caring but distant father, his argument was, “Look, I’m just a piano player!”
He worked with a number of lyricists over the years, but most of his great successes were with a writer named Hal David. David was the complete opposite of Bacharach – a quiet man, devoted to his wife and family, and full of all the tender wisdom those lyrics express. As brilliant a lyricist as Bacharach is a composer, but in a fully different way.
What this means is that these two men knew it. They saw in each other what they each lacked, and valued it. And knew that, mixed together, their strengths could make magic. People often think that the great partnerships are between folks who think alike, but this is the opposite – these guys succeeded because of the incredible electricity that their differences created!
So when you go to school, and suffer the pain of doing poorly in one area, while you’re succeeding in another, sure, put some more effort into what you’re weak at. But also, be sure to remember: no one is great at everything. And, throughout your life, if you can devote yourself what you’re best at, while acknowledging what you’re not, and honoring those qualities in others, you’re on the road to a lot of success and happiness.
It’s hard. I know. It drives me nuts that I can’t climb a tree like stupid cats do! And I do try, believe me! But then again, I don’t know any cats who help girls win boyfriends, or help mothers talk with their kids! And maybe, just maybe, each of us in this world is helping co-write some great composition that we don’t even know about.
So that’s what I get out of listening to all these songs endlessly over the last couple of months: Respect what you’re great at, find your true voice, and dive into your passions. And yet be honest enough to encourage others in what you just don’t do all that well.
And if you can do that, perhaps you’ll achieve something as great and fascinating and addictive as Bacharach and David’s songs are, and will always be. At the very least you’ll know you’re doing, as another of Bacharach’s lyricists wrote, “The Best That You Can Do.”
And that’s not too bad a way to live.