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Songs or drawings, it's art to Hal David
Oregonian- 5/ 7/ 2004
A gracefully drawn line, a brilliant brushstroke, a heartbreaking lyric. Gifted artists make them seem easy. But getting there is a creative challenge no matter the medium, as Hal David knows about as well as anybody would. You don't write lyrics to some of the most enduring songs of the last half-century without learning how hard it can be to find the right word, the freshest phrase, the perfect verse.

David is, of course, the lyric-writing half of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David team, what the Internet's All Music Guide site calls "the greatest songwriting duo of the postwar era." David's lyrics -- romantic, wistful and buoyant by turn -- are the heart and soul of the pair's songs, which keep getting rediscovered in everything from "Austin Powers" movies to "American Idol." Just a few examples of the Bacharach/David catalog: "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?," "I Say a Little Prayer," "The Look of Love," "What's New Pussycat?," "Make It Easy on Yourself," "Walk on By" and "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head."

With all that, you'd think David would take it easy and rest on his laurels. But he and his wife, Eunice, have taken on another challenge: assembling a collection of drawings by artists ranging from Pablo Picasso to Winslow Homer to David Hockney.

Eunice and Hal David sat down at a table in downtown Portland's Heathman Hotel recently to talk about their collection, which is on exhibit at the Portland Art Museum through July 25. They were happy to be in Portland not just for the show, but to catch up with loved ones. "My oldest son went to Lewis & Clark and lives in Tualatin," Eunice says. "My granddaughter lives here. We get to visit family, and have our art on display."

The Eunice and Hal David Collection of 19th and 20th Century Works on Paper features 60 drawings by 48 notable artists, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Gustav Klimt, Henri Matisse, Georgia O'Keeffe, Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol.

Organized by the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts at the UCLA Hammer Museum, the collection represents Eunice and Hal David's love of drawing.

"It shows the process of the artist, and how they make that 'perfect' picture," Hal says of works on paper. While history may deem a finished work "perfect," Hal points out, the artist's sketches toward the completed work shows how complex and messy the journey can be.

The sense of process reflected in an artist's drawings reminds Hal of what he goes through writing a song lyric. The completed work isn't "perfect," Hal says, with a chuckle. "But that's about as good as I can do. It's about how you get to that destination."

Eunice agrees. She points to one of her favorite pieces in the collection, "The Metro Crossing the Seine," Pierre Bonnard's sketch of train passengers, with the Eiffel Tower appearing in a window behind them. Bonnard sketching while traveling makes Eunice think of Hal's habit of writing down lyric ideas as they go about their own world travels.

"He's always saying, 'Write that down!' " Eunice says, patting her husband's hand. She recalls the time years ago when the couple attended a party in London. The hostess had said, "Don't bother to ring the bell, there'll be one less bell for me to answer." Hal had a "write-that-down" moment, and the result was the tenderly melancholy "One Less Bell to Answer," a hit for the Fifth Dimension in 1970.

Both Hal and Eunice have favorite works in the collection -- and in Hal's songwriting catalog. "I think the (Isamu) Noguchi would be my favorite," says Hal of "Drawing of a Buddhist Monk," a brush and ink rendering. For years, Hal's favorite among his songs was the wistful "Alfie." "But my favorite now, and maybe it has something to do with what's going on in the world, is 'What the World Needs Now Is Love.' I'm so glad I wrote that," he says.

Her favorite work in the collection, Eunice says, is "Study of a Seated Man," an 1880 graphite sketch by Gustave Caillebotte. "He was a patron of artists," Eunice says of Caillebotte. "His love was art. And he had a talent for it, so that appeals to me."

As for her favorite Hal-penned lyric, Eunice smiles and chooses "To All the Girls I've Loved Before," written with composer Albert Hammond. Why choose a song about other women? "They were the ones he loved -- before," Eunice says.

Hal, who at 82 is a veteran of a music business, finds the ongoing popularity of his songs -- especially the Bacharach collaborations -- "phenomenal." Eunice laughs, adding that in their hotel room earlier that day, the Meier & Frank commercial jingle played on TV -- the same jingle that's set to the tune of Bacharach and David's "Always Something There to Remind Me."

Of today's pop music songwriters, Hal says there don't seem to be lyricists of the sort that influenced him -- Johnny Mercer, Lorenz Hart, Irving Berlin. He admires Norah Jones and Alicia Keys, even if he thinks their material isn't quite as strong as their musical abilities. "But talent is always there, and art is cyclical," Hal says. "I'm an optimist."

Kristi Turnquist: 503-221-8227; kristiturnquist@news.oregonian.com
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