(There’s) always something to remind me of Burt

Burt Bacharach (1928-2023)

First things first.

I am not a huge fan of Burt Bacharach, who died last Feb. 8 in his 90s, triggering a global wave of mourning. But I do have fond memories associated with him. So this is a love letter (sort of) to a pop icon in a non-fangirling way.

It was the turbulent 1970s, best described by one as a period of “extreme love and extreme hate.” Poet and journalist Jose F. Lacaba so wisely observed that unusual period of our country’s history as “a glorious time, a time of terror and wrath, but also a time for hope.” Around the world, revolutions were being fought, fashion barriers torn down, music defined by rock, fueled by drugs, mellowed by James Taylor, Cat Stevens, and Elton John. 

And then there was Burt Bacharach.

Alone and depressed in Ohio when I couldn’t fly home after my baby brother passed in an awful car accident, I bought a second-hand piano, hauled it to the unheated fourth-floor apartment I called home, and pretended I could create good music with my limited keyboard skills while trying to drown out the anguish of missing a beloved sibling.

Blue book

Earlier, while walking in downtown Columbus looking for shelter from one of those fierce Midwest winters, I chanced upon a music store that seemed warm and inviting. 

I looked for sheet music I could play easily, and I saw the “Bacharach and David Songbook” perched on a shelf. After leafing through its contents, I deemed it adequate for my largely self-taught attempts at piano-playing, and bought the blue book.

Being a jazz fan, I didn’t exactly cotton to Burt’s musical chops which I found schmaltzy (“elevator music,” a diehard Ellington and Peterson fanatic scoffingly told me), and I was unenthusiastic about Hal’s lyrics. I used the songbook principally to practice on the simple chords of “Alfie” and “This Guy’s in Love With You” because they were slow and easy to follow.

Back home, I would take out the blue book occasionally, my musical skills improving ever so slowly. I began to appreciate Burt’s adventurous excursions in composing; I even conceded that he had a jazz musician’s ear, after all, with his songs going into successive progressions and different time signatures, and my favorite jazz singers Ella, Dinah, and Sarah singing his songs. 

Still, I wasn’t about to get hooked.

Related: Memory machine

Fire survivor

Fast forward to 1983. Our house in Mandaluyong City was razed by a fire caused by a neighbor’s carelessness, turning most everything in it to a crisp. By some miracle, one of the few “survivors” of the fire that destroyed my dad’s books and vintage memorabilia and other family heirlooms was the blue book.

Sometime in the late 1990s, I needed to have an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) procedure and wanted someone by my side to see me through as I was claustrophobic and deathly afraid of being closed in. Dear friend Babeth Lolarga came to the rescue, held my hand during the 40 minutes I was close to dying, and sang a Burt classic, “Whoever You Are, I Love You,” as an ex-boyfriend watched amusedly from the gallery.

Years later, in June 1997, Burt Bacharach and his favorite vocalist Dionne Warwick came to Manila for a one-night concert at the Philippine International Convention Center. I wasn’t too keen on going, but a colleague, the late Eric Catipon, had an extra ticket and urged me to come with him.

On an impulse, I brought the blue songbook for Burt to sign.

I don’t remember much about the concert except that it drew a big crowd and that Dionne had a few false starts. When it was over, Eric and I went backstage and took our chance, hoping that Burt would at least sign the book. Well, he not only signed the book, he also spent a good 20 minutes with us after I told him that little anecdote of the fire and his songbook.

‘Dear Ester’

Frayed songbook bought from a music store in Columbus, Ohio (left) and Bacharach’s signature (right)

On the second page of the badly charred book, Burt wrote: “Dear Ester – Please hold on to this book. Keep it ‘Close to You.’ Must be special for it to have survived.”

Upon learning that I had bought the book in Ohio, he called his wife, Jane Hansen, to his side and told her: “Hey, honey, there’s someone here who went to the same school as you did.”

And so to you, dear Burt, I have kept my “Promise(s) Promise(s)” and your book “Close to Me” as “Always Something to Remember” you by.

And this is a love letter, after all.

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