A bright, beautiful light went out today. Burt Bacharach, the Queens-raised popular songwriter who infused his meticulously constructed ditties with jazzy chord progressions that sounded nothing like anything on the radio in the 1950s and ’60s has passed away. There is so much to say about Bacharach, and so much more to listen to. His collaborations with Dionne Warwick (including “Walk On By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose”) are musical nirvana. Ditto his numerous contributions to the motion picture songbook. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Look of Love” from 1967’s “Casino Royale,” and “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” from Steve Gordon’s sublime “Arthur.”
But Bacharach respected the heck out of a dollar, as did his Brooklyn-born buddy Neil Diamond. So in 1982, with the United States gripped by “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” fever, this duo joined forces with Bacharach’s songwriting-genius wife, Carole Bayer Sager, and recorded “Heartlight.” Given the talent involved, no one was surprised that it was catchy enough to earn heavy rotation on adult contemporary stations all over the country. But the song’s exhortation to “turn on your heartlight” had an unmistakable connection to what would eventually become one of the highest-grossing films ever made. What was the deal? Universal wondered, and a lawsuit ensued.
Hitching a ride on E.T.’s intergalactic success
Novelty songs inspired by pop cultural sensations are a junky staple of American life. George M. Cohan once wrote a hit song goofing on a successful Irish-American composer named Edward Harrigan. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of ditties dedicated to dance crazes. In 1982, Buckner and Garcia cracked Billboard’s Hot 100 with their arcade anthem “Pac-Man Fever.”
Diamond/Bacharach/Sager’s “Heartlight” wasn’t explicitly written for “E.T.,” but Universal felt the song, which was released in August of 1982 (two months after Steven Spielberg’s film opened) was capitalizing on their blockbuster property. Let’s give the track a fair airing. Here’s the end of the first verse leading into the chorus:
I just made a friend/A friend is someone you need
But now that he had to go away/I still feel the words that he might say
Turn on your heartlight…
A $25,000 kerfuffle
Hm. “Turn on your headlights” had a definite meaning in the early 1980s, but not a family-friendly one. As for “turn on your heartlight,” Team Bacharach’s best argument would’ve been that they either hadn’t seen “E.T.” or, having seen it, read his glowing chest as a fit of intergalactic angina.
Diamond, who was and still is incredibly rich, took the path of least resistance and settled with MCA/Universal for $25,000, a sum that neither party would miss. Bacharach, who’d won all the Oscars he was ever going to win, probably rolled over and found the cool side of the pillow. It’s a strange episode in that this team of three very savvy, incredibly brilliant songwriters exposed themselves to a lawsuit, but, also, what was the damage to the studio? $25,000?
Sometimes rich people have nothing better to do than to sue each other. Fortunately, Bacharach spent most of his life writing transporting music with everyone from Dionne Warwick to Elvis Costello. As for E.T., the alien was such a precious commodity that Spielberg, who’d resisted sequels for over thirty years, allowed the character to be exploited for the benefit of Xfinity.
In any event, godspeed Burt Bacharach. I’ll be joining you any day now.