Monday, September 3, 2012

Bacharach/David's "Wives and Lovers:" "I'm WARNING YOU"

As you probably know by now, legendary Burt Bacharach lyricist Hal David passed away last Saturday, September 2, at the age of 91. David brought his lyrical talents to such pop gems as “Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head,” “Do You Know the Way To San Jose,” “Walk On By” and “I Say A Little Prayer.”

For people my age, the songs of Bacharach/David evoke images of a certain era. Hits such as the beautifully tender “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and the lighthearted, humorous “Do You Know the Way To San Jose” are some of the first songs I remember hearing that weren't nursery rhymes or from “Sesame Street.” Bacharach/David compositions have earned the respect and admiration of young people today, who understand and appreciate the timeless beauty of these songs. 

However, at least from my perspective as a little girl at the time, it wasn't music for prepubescent kids who loved the Osmonds, or teenagers who worshiped Led Zeppelin. This was music your suburban parents listened to, to be played on large stereo consoles in living rooms with avocado green drapes and gold carpets, at cocktail parties, or for summer barbecues, or on the AM radio in your mom's station wagon when she picked you up from school. Your long-haired, older stoner brother, with his mustache, sideburns and Led Zeppelin tank top, was way too "cool" to listen to it. It was music for sophisticated, mainstream grown-ups, performed on television shows by such adult contemporary artists as Dionne Warwick, Tom Jones and Dusty Springfield.

Hal David's passing has made me think of some of my favorite Bacharach/David compositions, such as “One Less Bell to Answer,” “There Is Always Something There To Remind Me,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head,” “Don't Make Me Over,” “The Look of Love” and “(They Long To Be) Close to You.” If you've heard any of these songs (and if you haven't, you must have been living under a rock for most of your life), you'll know why they're so exquisite, and why the lyrics, ranging from heartbreaking to witty to sweetly sentimental, work perfectly with the melodies and chord changes.

But I've also been reminded of a Bacharach/David song that, unlike the songs mentioned above, isn't tender or funny or sweet. In fact, it comes across a little sinister. 1963's “Wives and Lovers,” originally recorded by Jack Jones, captures the mood of the time, but not in a particularly positive way. Here's the video for your entertainment (or possibly dismay):

The song, sung from the point of view of a not-so-objective observer, offers advice to a young wife. He immediately addresses her: “Hey! Little girl” (one imagines him grabbing the young woman while she's in the middle of ironing, and shaking her by the shoulders), and then offers his “wisdom.” “Comb your hair, fix your makeup” he commands - just because you're married, doesn't mean you can relax and let yourself go. Keep yourself pretty, little girl, or you're in deep trouble:

Day after day
There are girls at the office
And men will always be men
Don't send him off with your hair still in curlers
You may not see him again.

Wow. That's a marriage built on a shaky grounds, if just the sight of his wife in curlers is enough to make him run off with his secretary. And the “men will always be men” lyric is depressing, if not insulting to guys. “Men will always be men”suggests that “men” is synonymous with “skirt-chasing bastards.” It's a world of Don Drapers: handsome, leering, successful, untrustworthy men who chase their secretaries around their desks while demanding perfection from their wives. There aren't any devoted husbands in this scenario; they'll dump you as soon as they see you lounging around the house without makeup and wearing fuzzy slippers.

For wives should always be lovers too
Run to his arms whenever he comes home to you.
I'm warning you.

Wait, what? “I'm warning you?” Who are you, anyway, and why are you giving me all this unasked-for advice about my marriage? You're starting to creep me out.

I'm sure that when Hal David originally penned these lyrics, his intention wasn't for them to come off creepy. He probably wanted it to be a light, humorous commentary on how young wives shouldn't “give up” - they should retain the good looks and glamor they possessed when their husbands first met them, to keep the marriage fresh. I understand that. 

But, unless the husband was making enough to hire a full-time maid for the household chores, it also sounds like a lot of work. Would I be expected, in the 1963 world of this song, to cook breakfast for my husband, clean the house, do all the shopping and laundry, prepare dinner for him - and still greet him at the door wearing makeup, in a chic little cocktail dress, and finish the evening with mind-blowing sex? (No wonder women back then were turning to “mother's little helper.”)

Hey! Little girl!
Better wear something pretty
Something you'd wear to the city and
Dim all the lights, pour the wine, start the music,
Time to get ready for love.

I don't know; I think I have a headache. I'm exhausted. Can't we just cuddle and watch “The Jack Benny Show” instead? Do I really have to dress up for you every single night, without fear of you running off with that floozy stenographer? Are our marital bonds really that fragile? Seriously – if I greet you at the door once in a while in pajamas and no makeup, are you really going to divorce me and move in with that redheaded vixen in accounting?

This song makes me grateful I live the modern age, and especially thankful for my loyal, highly-evolved husband – who has seen me many times wearing sweats and no makeup, and – unlike the guys in the song - shows no signs of fleeing in terror or running off with a 20-year-old waitress. (In turn, if he wanted to wear a t-shirt full of holes around the house and a pair of cut-offs, I also wouldn't be driven to infidelity because of it.) I'm also grateful I'm not expected to have dinner on the table every night while looking like Marilyn Monroe, or that I'm not expected to give up my career and have kids, or "obey" my husband . . . the list of things I'm grateful for in the year 2012 is endless.
That said – if there's ever a knock at the door and a mysterious stranger standing in the shadows addresses me with, “Hey! Little girl!,” I'll just slam the door on him.