Column: Now 90, songwriter Burt Bacharach is doing everything he can to stop school shootings
The man who wrote that song “I Say a Little Prayer” and hundreds more — songs that are part of the soundtrack of your life and the whole force of his own — that man, Burt Bacharach, is now asking for a little prayer and a little support from his fellow Americans for a cause that has moved him to tears, and to music.
He and songwriter Rudy Perez composed “Live to See Another Day.” It’s a plea that the mass shootings of schoolchildren be stopped. It’s a video that’s just out, and it was crafted, compellingly, in the hallways and classrooms of an empty school. Its lyrics, like “Our lives mean something more than pain,” are performed by two teenage singers. At the video’s end, it asks people to donate to the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation, named for the school where 20 first-graders and six adults were murdered in 2012.
Bacharach’s music waded into political waters in 2005, during the Bush administration, with the song, “Who Are These People?” asking “How did these people get control of our lives? And who’ll stop the violence ’cause it’s out of control?”
Now, at 90, with the leverage of dozens of hit songs and his Oscars, Bacharach is still touring, and planning concerts this fall on behalf of political candidates he admires. And he was moved to create this music by the unending pattern of young people dead and maimed by school shootings, and so it is that this video and this song are dedicated to the “survivors, victims and families affected by school violence.”
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Talk about this new undertaking.
You know, I’m very passionate about what’s going on. I wasn’t this way in the Vietnam days; we were just writing music and songs that were significant, like “The Windows of the World.”
It was far away, Vietnam. But now, every morning is kind of like a dark cloud. Because one day is terrible, and the next day things will be terrible again.
How did this song come about?
The song came about because, it was — I don’t know which shooting it was; I think we calculated one a week. I wrote it with Rudy [Perez], a Latin songwriter who lives in Miami, just trying to make a statement about keeping your kids safe. “Live to See Another Day.” It says a lot.
It was done in concert with two girls from the Miami Symphony. Important as it was being a live concert, there’s something about the way it's been transferred over to this extraordinary [video], going into a school, an empty school, and letting it all happen in there in the way they did it. So my hat’s off to them. They did it for nothing because they believe, as we all believe, in trying to do some good.
Do you like the song?
I do. I was very moved by “Have we learned nothing from all the suffering that comes from war and prejudice? Our lives mean something more than pain.”
I see [the video] now, it brings me to tears. It's very emotional, the song’s emotional. What's happened is emotional.
Onstage with the San Diego Symphony after I’d come back off a European tour, I was speaking to the audience, and said I’d just done 10 concerts in Europe, and in every country I went to, I heard the same thing: This is the hottest summer we've ever had.
Then I go to Finland, and it’s 91 degrees, and nobody's ever seen anything like that. And I come back to San Diego and it is broiling; we’re burning up. Here’s my feeling: Whatever side of the road you’re on on this, whether you deny climate change, can we think in terms of maybe your children, and the air they breathe and the food they’ll eat? And your grandchildren — can we look at it that way?
And a fight broke out in the audience! A small fight.
A fight broke out in an audience at your concert?
Yep, because it was “crossing the line.” And it’s not the only time. Because eight years ago it happened — more than eight years, before Barack [Obama].
I had this album called “At This Time.” I was very passionate about that, and we had this one song in there called “Who Are These People?” And when we did that onstage, a bigger fight broke out in the audience.
Traveling through Europe this summer, people would say: What’s wrong with you people? How did you let this happen?
Half the time, when I’m doing a concert, particularly here in the States, I will dedicate a song to the citizens of Puerto Rico and explain they are United States citizens of Puerto Rico.
And I will work for this [school shooting] song. I will do promotion on it. I will work the people. It’s not the song, it’s what you take away from it — the emotion and the feeling that you get. And the power that you should be left with, to make you think, will anything be done about gun safety in schools?
You chose the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation to benefit from the song.
We looked at a couple of charities that we could align with, and this [incident] always had a real dent in my heart, what happened there. And what Obama said [about it], and how he said it so right.
It's hard to believe that it's been nearly 20 years since the Columbine school massacre. It will be six years since the Sandy Hook massacre. And yet, as you say, it seems that every week there's another school shooting, another mass shooting certainly. You're 90 years old — what’s changed in this country?
We’re more divided. Traveling through Europe this summer, people would say: What’s wrong with you people? How did you let this happen? Not that there aren’t some countries over there that are swinging right; Austria I think has a problem [and] Hungary. But it’s not the insanity of this.
So this song is not your first foray into social commentary. But this is not the kind of music people know you for. What do you say to fans, to people who say, Oh, I love Burt Bacharach music! But this is something they're not familiar with.
You have to do it onstage, in small doses. You don’t want to lose that group that somehow transitions with mother, daughter, maybe the grandmother, the whole family, however it happens that they all still connect with my music.
But the other thing I’ve got always to hold in mind is that when I am onstage, it makes me feel good, particularly in these times. It makes me feel more grounded.
After 9/11, we played a date in New Jersey, right across the river. I thought it would be canceled, but people came. It was like a catharsis, the five or six songs that we did that night, with the whole band crying, with me crying. We did “That’s What Friends Are For,” “A House Is Not a Home.” Then we did “The Windows of the World,” “What the World Needs Now” and “Alfie.” So they’re all from the heart, those songs. If I could make people feel something, even for a couple of minutes, I feel like I’m doing good.
Even on a subject as difficult as this one, as school shootings?
Yeah, because you see, “What the World Needs Now” is love. It was so true when we wrote it, and it’s so true now.
I will [also] do a couple of fundraisers. We’ll try to go and look at the [congressional] seats that might be more vulnerable [to going Democratic], and try to do three or four mini-concerts — not with the whole band, just with songs and the singers and me playing keyboard.
With your political engagement, you’re like the Bruce Springsteen of your generation — or he’s the Burt Bacharach of his?
Bruce was doing it way before me. I was a latecomer, let’s put it that way. So coming in late, when we wrote “What the World Needs Now,” I was just looking to make this a great song. I didn’t get too involved. I got involved later on with what I found out about Vietnam, when the lies came out, when the Pentagon Papers came out and Daniel Ellsberg. But that’s in retrospect. So I can’t say I was directly involving myself as it was going down, but after the fact.
And I’m angry now. I mean, I cannot believe that this ever happened. We can only do something about moving forward. And that’s why, if we can do something with safety in schools through this medium, I’ll break my ass working on it.
Are those your hopes for this song, that it can move the needle on school shooting issues?
You know, I’ve been so disillusioned. There's so many times nothing gets done. And as powerful as the [live onstage] concert was, it can’t hold a candle to what this [video] message is, portrayed this way.
My hope? Yeah, for the song, sure. But the thing is to get through the midterms and turn the House [Democratic]. That’s the best shot we’ve got. When nothing happens after any shooting, you tend to be a little cynical. Will it be different this time? Well, you keep on trying. That’s why we did it, to make a statement. Maybe enough people will see it, go online, like it, post it. You just do the best you can do and hope we can make an impact.
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