Sunday, 2 September 2012

Hal David R.I.P.

Hal David, the American lyricist, has died at the age of 91. It's extremely sad news as far as I'm concerned, as he wrote the lyrics to a great many of my absolutely favourite songs. Hal David has often been described as 'legendary' - Paul Gambaccini, speaking to BBC News, has just described him as a 'giant' - yet he was a modest man, content by and large to remain in the shadow of his main songwriting partner, Burt Bacharach, to whose complex and sophisticated melodies he supplied words that were, in contrast, straightforward, yet somehow equally distinctive and memorable.

David had an extraordinary gift - the ability to make a very challenging form seem remarkably easy. His approach to writing offers a shining example not only to other lyricists, but to anyone who uses the written word for artistic purposes. He used to say that it's easy to write something complex - what's really difficult is to write something simple, something that sounds so natural that it seems as though nobody 'wrote' it. The more I've learned about writing, the more I've realised how true this is. 

The only time I saw Hal David in the flesh was at a Royal Albert Hall tribute concert, when Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice paid glowing tribute to the influence that he and Bacharach had on their writing of musicals, and this admiration was shared by countless people all over the world. Only a couple of months or so ago, Barack Obama lauded David's work when he and Bacharach became the first songwriting duo to win the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize. There's even a video of Obama on Youtube singing the opening words of 'Walk on By'.

Hal David conjured up crisp phrases in his lyrics - phrases such as 'walk on by', 'make it easy on yourself', 'what the worlds need now is love', 'do you know the way to San Jose?' 'what's it all about, Alfie?', 'anyone who had a heart' and many others - that stayed in the mind. The lyric to '24 Hours from Tulsa' offers a brilliant, heart-rending story about adultery in a few lines - and I used that lyric as a reference point in a rather dark short story named after the song which was included in Best British Mysteries a few years back. He can even be forgiven for rhyming 'phone ya' with 'pneumonia' because the lyric to 'I'll Never Fall in Love Again' is such a concise - and witty - masterpiece. It was written for the musical Promises, Promises, a show which provides part of the background for the Harry Devlin novel The Devil in Disguise.

A Hal David lyric provided a clue to the solution of the mystery in my very first book, All the Lonely People,and another led to a key revelation of the fourth, Yesterday's Papers. I'm pretty confident that his work features more often in my novels than that of any other novelist, and that's simply because I love those Bacharach and David songs so much. In the 60s, it was their work, even more than that of the Beatles, that gave me my love of music. For that I shall forever be grateful. Thanks, Hal, for all those countless magic moments. (And yes, he did write 'Magic Moments'.)


Margot Kinberg said...

A fine tribute, Martin, for which thanks. David will indeed be sorely missed.

Anonymous said...

I knew of him, of course, but looking him up on the internet I was amazed at how many famous song he did write. RAINDROPS KEEP FALLING ON MY HEAD was intended by William Goldman to be a musical interlude that would be a 'modern' song, but also acceptable as something of the period that BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID was set in. I think that it works as both.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Margot.
And thank you Anonymous. Raindrops is a great example of subtle writing - for all the jauntiness of the tune, the words are really about coping with constant setbacks. The more one thinks of what Hal David did as a lyric writer, the more one stands in awe of his concision and precision.

Nan said...

Wonderful, wonderful tribute. I loved remembering all those lines in his work. So much a part of our culture.

Martin Edwards said...

Thank you, Nan. Great to hear from you as ever. As you say, part of the culture.