Burt Bacharach is a direct line to a lost musical world

The effect of seeing Bacharach live at the Royal Festival hall was to be hit by more top-40 songs that you'd think a single act could be capable of producing.

Burt Bacharach
Royal Festival Hall, London SE1

Many men admit that they became musicians in order to meet girls. Burt Bacharach, the writer of 73 top-40 hits in the US alone, is no different. Piano players look so shy and clever tinkering away onstage – but we know they’re controlling the show.

Marlene Dietrich fell for Bacharach when she took him on as musical director in 1956 (he was 28; she was 55). She propositioned him one night and, when that didn’t work, focused on mixing his energy drinks, washing his tennis shorts and promoting his career in an intense mother/son relationship that took him some years to wriggle free from. On 7 July, at one of two sold-out gigs at the Royal Festival Hall, he said of the Dietrich years, “The music was terrible but I got to see the world.” His new autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart: My Life and Music, is full of such shrugging observations, of which the most misleading is probably: “I was just the piano player.”

When Mike Myers had Bacharach serenading Felicity Shagwell in Austin Powers: the Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), it was a moment of high kitsch. For a while, no one could admit they liked the great 1970s songwriters – Bach - arach, the Bee Gees, the Carpenters – without saying “guilty pleasure” first. Luckily, all that has changed and while many of the crowd at the Royal Festival Hall clearly discovered him grooving to “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”behind the ironic retro cocktail cabinet, they gave an incredibly enthusiastic reception to the 85-year-old, who looked comfortable in a lounge suit and big, white trainers.

Bacharach is a direct line to a lost musical world. As a teenager in Queens, he met Leonard Bernstein on a bus. (His parting words were: “See you on top some day.”) The French modernist composer Darius Milhaud taught him how to eat tacos between tutorials at McGill University. He has a great memory for the mundane and, in his book, he seems to glide through his early years – playing piano for Vic Damone, fruitless months at the Brill Building – more interested in tennis and women than in music.

He drifts from the Korean war to the Oscars like a kind of musical Forrest Gump but behind the deadpan voice is a complicated youth who, ashamed of his Jewish roots, rails against his sense of inadequacy by jumping on any job or girl that lands in his path.

He is openly neurotic – an entire chapter is given over to his insomnia – and exhibits many of the kinds of obsessive behaviours that his first child, Nikki, later diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, suffered in adult life. Bacharach sent Nikki to a medical institution when she was 16 against her mother’s wishes, where she remained for a decade. In 2007, aged 40, she committed suicide. He takes the unusual step of printing a running commentary from Angie Dickinson, his exwife, which blames much of Nikki’s tragedy on his lack of understanding. He also recalls the time he approached Dickinson with a list of 26 things he wanted her to change in their relationship. “I don’t recall the list,” she counters. “You’d think I’d have saved it – held it up to say, ‘See what a prick I married?’”

At his show in London, Bacharach’s small, plush band – strings, trumpets, flugelhorn – fades down while he sings “Alfie” alone in the spotlight and the frailty of his voice is moving. He rarely performed in his own right until he won an Oscar for “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” (sung by B J Thomas) in 1969. Residencies in Vegas followed, as did a friendship with Sinatra, who once introduced him as “the man that writes music in hat sizes – seven and three-fourths”. While many of his bestknown tunes are presented in annoying, clapalong medleys, you can still hear the quirks and complexities that set them apart, such as the missed beat in “I Say a Little Prayer” that speeds the chorus along.

Best of all, you can see what music still excites him: “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (originally sung by Dionne Warwick, tonight by Josie James) stretches out in all its breastbeating glory and Bacharach jumps up, bent over like a grandpa, hammering the keyboard. His lyricist Hal David died last year at 91 but more recent collaborations with Elvis Costello and Steven Sater still have the right kind of old-fashioned titles (“I Still Have That Other Girl”, “Every Other Hour”), not to mention a luxuriant sadness that recalls a more leisurely time for the love song, when men and women let themselves lie around feeling blue, waiting for the landline to ring.

The effect of this show, like the Abba and Queen musicals that play in the West End, is to hit you with more top-40 songs than you’d think a single act could be capable of, from the stuff you’d expect to the ones you’d forgotten (“Magic Moments”). When he shouts, “Let’s modulate!” during a singalong rendition of “Raindrops”, you are watching the composer keeping himself interested. And at exactly 12.15am, if his book is anything to go by, he’ll be inserting wax earplugs, after his nightly dose of sleeping pills.

“Anyone Who Had a Heart” is out now (Alcourt, £20). A box set of the same name is released on Universal Music (£39.99)

Walk on by: Burt Bacharach in 2005. Photograph: Rob Greig/Time Out/Camera Press.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Has this physicist found the key to reality?

Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. So what to make of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli?

Albert Einstein knew the truth. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” However good we are at maths – or theoretical physics – our efforts to apply it to the real world are always going to mislead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reality is not what it seems – even when, like the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, you’ve done the maths.

It is a lesson we could certainly learn from the history of science. Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. With the invention of the telescope, for instance, we found new structures in space; Jupiter’s moons and sunspots were just the beginning. The microscope took us the other way and showed us the fine structure of the biological world – creatures that looked uninteresting to the naked eye turned out to be intricate and delicate, with scales and hooks and other minute features. We also once thought that the atom lacked structure; today’s technology, such as the particle colliders at the Cern research centre in Geneva and Fermilab in the United States, have allowed us to prove just how wrong that idea was. At every technological turn, we have redefined the nature of reality.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technology to take the next step. The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the “Planck length”. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. “Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,” he tells us.

We simply cannot probe the universe at these scales using current methods, because it would require a particle accelerator the size of a small galaxy. So – for now, at least – our search for the nature of reality is in the hands of the mathematicians and theorists. And, as Einstein would tell us, that is far from ideal.

That is also doubly true when theoretical physicists are working with two highly successful, but entirely incompatible, theories of how the universe works. The first is general relativity, developed by Einstein over 100 years ago. This describes the universe on cosmic scales, and utterly undermines our intuition. Rovelli describes Einstein’s work as providing “a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman but which have all turned out to be true”.

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”, and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.

The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works. “The two pillars of 20th-century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – could not be more different from each other,” Rovelli writes. “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.”

Physicists are aware of the embarrassment here. Hence the effort to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a theory of “quantum gravity” that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Einstein and his quantum counterpart Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Today’s physicists have some new ideas and mathematical intuitions, but they may also be heading towards a dead end. Not that we’ll find out for sure any time soon. If the history of science offers us a second lesson, it is that scientific progress is unbearably slow.

In the first third of his book, Rovelli presents a fascinating dissection of the history of our search for reality. The mathematical cosmology of Ptolemy, in which the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and the other heavenly bodies revolved around it, ruled for a thousand years. It was unfairly deposed: the calculations based on Copernicus’s sun-centred model “did not work much better than those of Ptolemy; in fact, in the end, they turned out to work less well”, the author observes.

It was the telescope that pushed us forward. Johannes Kepler’s painstaking obser­vations opened the door to the novel laws that accurately and succinctly described the planets’ orbits around the sun. “We are now in 1600,” Rovelli tells his readers, “and for the first time, humanity finds out how to do something better than what was done in Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier.”

Not that his version of history is perfect. “Experimental science begins with Galileo,” Rovelli declares – but there are any number of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance figures who would baulk at that claim. In the 12th century the Islamic scholar al-Khazini published a book full of experiments that he had used to test the theories of mechanics. The man who helped Galileo achieve his first academic position, Guidobaldo del Monte, also carried out many experiments, and possibly taught Galileo the craft.

It’s a small misjudgement. More ­irritating is Rovelli’s dismissal of any path towards quantum gravity but his own, a theory known as “loop quantum gravity”. He spends the last third of the book on explaining this idea, which he considers the “most promising” of all the assaults on the true ­nature of reality. He does not mention that he is in a minority here.

Most physicists pursuing quantum gravity give a different approach – string theory – greater chance of success, or at least of bearing useful fruit. String theory suggests that all the forces and particles in nature are the result of strings of energy vibrating in different ways. It is an unproven (and perhaps unprovable) hypothesis, but its mathematical innovations are nonetheless seeding interesting developments in many different areas of physics.

However, Rovelli is not impressed. He summarily dismisses the whole idea, characterising its objectives as “premature, given
current knowledge”. It’s a somewhat unbecoming attitude, especially when we have just spent so many pages celebrating millennia of ambitious attempts to make sense of the universe. He also strikes a jarring note when he seems to revel in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern having found no evidence for “supersymmetry”, an important scaffold for string theory.

As readers of his bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics will know, Rovelli writes with elegance, clarity and charm. This new book, too, is a joy to read, as well as being an intellectual feast. For all its laudable ambition, however, you and I are unlikely ever to learn the truth about quantum gravity. Future generations of scientists and writers will have the privilege of writing the history of this particular subject. With theory ranging so far ahead of experimental support, neither strings nor loops, nor any of our other attempts to define quantum gravity, are likely to be correct. Reality is far more elusive than it seems.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is published by Allen Lane (255pp, £16.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood