Walk on By – Dionne Warwick – 1964

Written by Burt Bachrach with lyrics by Hal David.

Most of the time I have some story to tell centered around a song.  But in this case, it’s just a bunch of impressions.  I discovered this song through a girlfriend.  I actually bought her a CD of Dionne Warwick’s Greatest Hits or something like that.  I can’t remember how I knew that it would be a good gift, but before I bought the CD, I had no idea how much of my creative voice and my music consciousness were due to Dionne Warwick and Burt Bachrach.

“If you see me walking down the street,”

It’s cold and it’s November, and I have to work.  The cold humidity seers through my jacket.  The two cups of coffee warm my hands.  The street is wet and dirty.  The foot traffic is picking up.  Everyone has their heads down.  The sky is gray. I’m waiting on the corner of Commonwealth and Berkeley for the light to change.  I don’t know why I’m doing what I’m doing, but it makes sense right now.

“and I start to cry each time we meet.”

I’m driving around the 610 loop in Houston.  It’s one of the cold months.  It’s around 3am.  This is my third time around the loop.  I don’t know why I’m doing this, but it feels right.

“Walk on by, walk on by.”

There’s a big window in the living room and it looks out over Commonwealth Avenue.  It’s drizzling.  The street is shiny in the street lights.  The light on top of the Old Hancock tower is blinking red.  I wonder about the architecture of the Prudential building.  It’s very late and I’m tying my shoes.  I’m going for a walk.

There’s a certain sadness to Walk on By that isn’t reached by other pop break up songs.  And it’s the imagery that I’m left with.  The impressions are always so solitary.  It’s like there’s nothing else.  And there is something in a big break up that is like this.  A life completely centered around another person.  All of the plans of a day and all thoughts of the future around this one person.  And then we are supposed to become strangers.  It’s tough on either side of a breakup like that.

“I just can’t get over losing you.”

And most of the time a breakup song is overly sentimental with declarations of independence meant to inspire and overcome.  The solid reality of a breakup, the part where the only reason you talk to people about it is to fill the space in between the silence.  The conversations that don’t really help anything.  These are the moments represented here.

“So if I seem broken and blue.”

And maybe I’m just avoiding being specific because it seems so irrelevant and unreachable.  And there’s something about this that is very specific.  The arrangement only says what it has to say.  And Dionne Warwick takes over the space with an understated performance.  There is so much in the way of vocal acrobatics in new vocal divas.  And I think most of the time this doesn’t serve the song or the vocal performance.  Dionne Warwick sings this song and it lands right on my chest and works it’s way in.  Many people did this song after her.  And for some reason, she re-recorded the song several times as well.

But none of these performances matches this original 1964 recording.  She’s very clean and understated with very little self serving vocal styling.  I mean she’s Dionne Warwick, but in 1964, she wasn’t Dionne Warwick.  She was a rising star with a lot to prove.  I’m sure there was a lot of feedback from the other legends in the studio about just singing the song without a lot of ornamental phrasing, but that’s so hard to stick with.  It’s some of the hardest advice to take everywhere in life.  It’s such a temptation to attempt something extraordinary with every breath.  Just sing the song.

“Foolish pride, that’s all that I have left.”

There’s the stark reality of a breakup song.  The part of the breakup you don’t want to remember.  The part your consciousness blocks out.  The part where you wonder why you did it.  It’s the part of a breakup you spend 700 words avoiding talking about because it’s too intense.  No one wants to remember what that actually feels like.  It’s not a Sex in the City episode where the pain is all wrapped up by the end of lunch, and we are planning our next encounter by the last 5 minutes.  It’s the pain that makes the human race gravitate toward monogamy.

“So let me hide the tears and sadness you gave me…”

And then there’s this very subtle touch with the last time she hits this at the end.  Just a hint of how much control she actually has.

“When you said goodbye.”

My final impression is the pictures left afterward.  There are always fewer pictures than you remember there being.  You can find one or two, but they don’t seem to say what you want them to say.  You can’t reach what you know was there from the images.  There’s never any real evidence of what the relationship meant at the time.  And if you look at pictures like this for too long, it will make you crazy.

It’s a cruel song.  Just crushed, missing and spent.

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