Sunday, September 2, 2012

Photo of the Day: Where Music Used to Live

“Better take that picture while you can,” a passerby in Times Square growled as I took the image accompanying this post. “That store is gonna close soon.”

His was one of those typically unsentimental New Yorker acknowledgements of the evanescent nature of their city’s landmarks. Actually, I was taking the photo because I knew that very fact.

A week ago, Colony Records—a six-decade mainstay on 49th Street and Broadway—announced that it would shut its doors soon, yet another victim of the digital revolution that has allowed music aficionados to download tunes at will. It’s funny, but I had passed by this establishment—a longtime mecca for anyone hunting down elusive sheet music, vinyl records or CDs—virtually every workday over the last decade on the way to my office, but—despite my curiosity about what lay behind the window display—I had never been tempted to go in. Now, the opportunity was passing.

When I read Aaron Edwards’ New York Times piece about the closing, I was additionally surprised to learn that the store was located on the ground floor in the Brill Building, legendary in the music industry as the bridge between Tin Pan Alley and the modern songwriting era. Here in this Art Deco songwriting factory, such hitmakers as Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Neil Sedaka, and Neil Diamond (not to mention producers Phil Spector and Don Kirshner), created one pop classic after another in the 1950s and 1960s. That glorious history led it to be named a city landmark two years ago.

The heyday of the Brill Building passed at least 40 years ago, but this weekend another link to that glorious era in songwriting died: Hal David, the lyricist partner of Burt Bacharach. David was the less flamboyant of the two--the one who didn’t make guest appearances in Austin Powers movies, the one who didn’t provide musical accompaniment to Marlene Dietrich; the one not married to Angie Dickinson. But it’s inconceivable to think of the duo’s songs without the more earthbound one. He could be indomitably optimistic ("Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head"), but for my money he was at his best in wistful songs tinged with regret, such as these lyrics from one of his less well-known hits, recorded by B.J. Thomas, "Long Ago Tomorrow":

"Maybe I'll get to change the world
Before it changes me
And maybe my life
Will always be
Just as happy as it seems."

When Bacharach and David first began collaborating at the Brill Building, the term “songwriting factory” meant exactly that. Music was made to order for the artist, and Bacharach took over producing simply in an attempt to make sure the pair’s songs weren’t ruined during recording.

Joni Mitchell, from a far different musical environment, summed up the sense of loss created by the modern era:  “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” This past week, the passing of Colony Records and Hal David was mourned by hundreds of thousands on social media, a non-physical environment not even around when they helped bring music to the world.

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