Do you Know the Way to San Jose - Dionne Warwick
While Burt Bacharach was the world-renowned writer of numerous hit tunes, his songwriting partner for most of them, Hal David, was almost unknown by comparison, as is often the case with the lyricist in the partnership from Ira Gershwin onwards. How many people have heard of Bernie Taupin, Gerry Goffin or, to be topical, Pete Brown? This is perhaps because none of these has been celebrated as a performer, and therefore they have little or no media profile, but, perhaps because of this, there is also, especially in the above instances, an implication that the tune of any song is more important than the words.
In ancient times, as pondered previously on these pages, Homer and Sappho would have sung the poems that they are now remembered for, but, in the absence of the phonograph, we'll happily take the Odyssey, the Illiad and the love poems on paper. And, like all good poetry, there is music in the words.
Just as it's impossible to enunciate the opening line
"Let us go then, you and I,"
of TS Eliot's "Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" without involuntarily reproducing the musical phrasing of the words, or, similarly Emily Dickinson's
"Safe in their alabaster chambers...."
so too, many of Hal David's lyrics carry within, their own inimitable tune.
While Elton John and Carole King wrote the music for Bernie Taupin and Gerry Goffin to add the words to later, with Burt Bacharach and Hal David there was no consistent method: sometimes the tune came first, sometimes the lyrics.
The Song "Do You Know the Way to San Jose", a 1968 hit for Dionne Warwick, is often dismissed as mere commercial pap, with Warwick herself leading the dissenters, but that's doing it a disservice, and doesn't reflect well on the singer either. While there seems to be no record of which came first, the tune or the lyric, I wouldn't mind betting that it was the latter. Okay, we may be suffering from tune pre-knowledge, but it's almost impossible to just say the words
"Do you know the way to San Jose?"
without some form of musical variation of pitch creeping in, and who can resist the natural stress of the words "way" and "san" and the rhyming "sé" of "Jose"?
It gets better, with the final syllable of every line a stressed open end, and within the line a predominance of monosyllabic words and a litany of internal rhymes that evoke the busy crowded sidewalk prison of downtown LA:
"I've been away so long I may go wrong and lose my way Do you know the way to San Jose? I'm going back to find some peace of mind in San Jose."
The technical poetry of the first verse is natural yet accomplished, the play of "car" and "star", the stuff of dreams evolving into "stars, "cars" via "years" and "pass" into the tonal let-down of "gas" and the drudgery of the heayier "parking" and "pumping".
"LA is a great big freeway- Put a hundred down and buy a car, In a week, maybe two, they'll make you a star. Weeks turn into years, how quick they pass And all the stars that never were Are parking cars and pumping gas."
And David did indeed know the way to San Jose, both actually and metaphorically: during the Second World War, while a US Navy rating, he was stationed just outside the California city. Upon his discharge, David left his original career choice of copywriting and followed his brother into the songwriting business, struggling on the lower floors of New York's Brill Building with only minimal success until, at the age of 35, finally teaming up with Bacharach in 1956. In contrast Bacharach was already something of a wunderkind, having just landed choice the job of arranger, conductor and music director of international superstar Marlene Dietrich at the age of only 28. Beside the brilliant, dashing, gifted, ultra-handsome Bacharach, the dowdier David must have appreciated the ironies which suffused their partnership, the fact that his more prosaic journey enabled him to write lyrics that appealed to ordinary people because they reflected their lives and caught the poetry out of the suburban air. Especially in 1973 when Bacharach demanded a larger percentage than the 50/50 split on their song-writing credits. While he felt that this reflected the extra work he put in on producing, providing link music and arrangements, David thought that Bacharach was valuing the music more than the lyrics of the songs, and, obviously, demurred.
Of course, this reflects a more universal belief: most people who have been to school feel that they would be capable, if pushed, of writing a few lines to a tune - after all, who hasn't dreamed of being a pop star? - while considerably less of us can show any expertise in playing a musical instrument, let alone composing a new tune on it. It's an old story in microcosm: Mozart versus Shakespeare.
San Jose is 333 miles from Hollywood, LA, just a shade under 6 hours driving time. That is almost the exact same distance and driving time from London to Scotland, if you go the traditional route of lovers to Gretna Green, emphasising David's point that, although in the same state, they are worlds apart. So too the dream of being a star and the down-to-earth reality of not making it.
But David's saying more than that, that the American dream of going west, finding space and seeking fame to settle is an empty lie and that the life rewards of staying at home are greater:
"You can really breathe in San Jose:
They've got a lot of space,
There'll be a place where I can stay.
I was born and raised in San Jose -
I'm going back to find some peace of mind in San Jose.
Fame and fortune is a magnet
It can pull you far away from home
With a dream in your heart you're never alone
Dreams turn into dust and blow away
And there you are without a friend
You park your car and ride away"
It was Ira Gershwin, lyricist for his much more famous brother George, who wrote the following inscription on a gift to Bacharach of the original sheet music of Gershwin's "Strike Up the Band": "For Burt - The Fifth B - (in no particular order) - Beethoven, Brahms, Berlin, Bach & Bacharach."
If Bob Dylan is the Hemingway of US music lyrics (both won the Nobel Prize for Literature after all), then could it be that Hal David is the F Scott Fitzgerald?