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Bayer Sager’s tunes don’t reflect her uncomfortable life

They’re Playing Our Song
By Carole Bayer Sager
Simon & Schuster
336 pages, $28

For those of us who grew up loving AM-Gold “yacht-rock” radio, there are certain places where violin-soaked love songs are appropriate – late night karaoke bars, solo car rides and pretty much any other time our snarky cool friends aren’t around.

Legendary songwriter Carole Bayer Sager was the lyricist behind many such heart-tugging hits in the ’70s and ’80s, including Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You,” Melissa Manchester’s “Midnight Blue,” and Carly Simon’s James Bond theme “Nobody Does It Better.” In fact, if you went to the movies at all in the ’70s or ’80 you probably exited the theater at some point to one Bayer Sager’s swirling ballads.

In her new autobiography “They’re Playing Our Song,” Bayer Sager dishes about her life as somewhat of a square on the edge of the fast lane, and what it was like being married to ultimate love-song writer Burt Bacharach, who it turns out, didn’t know much about love at all.

Carol Bayer grew up in New York City near the Brill Building on Broadway, and as a teenager she began writing songs a few floors away from other Brill Building legends like Neil Diamond. Under the tutelage of legendary early rock music impresario Don Kirshner, Bayer Sager and Toni Wine wrote “A Groovy Kind of Love,” and the Mindbenders’ recording of the song became a hit in 1966.

Carol added an ‘e’ to her given name and became “CarolE,” the first of many chameleon-like adjustments she would make over her lifetime to ease her anxiety about not being comfortable in her own skin, and never being “enough.”

Bayer Sager’s second big hit “Midnight Blue” was a long way off however, and in between she wrote for “The Monkees” television show. She met and married Andrew Sager during her dry spell, a time during which she admits thinking her musical career had all but died and being someone’s wife was her best shot at an identity. As her marriage to Sager crumbled she partnered up in love and in song with Marvin Hamlisch. Their songwriting partnership and collaboration on the ’70s Broadway musical “They’re Playing Our Song” was in essence their entire relationship, although their friendship continued until his death in 2012.

This theme of her identity seems wrapped up in whom she is with and how she compares to tall models who reappear over and over in her life; nothing in the book highlights Bayer Sager’s lack of self-worth more than when she describes the night her song, “Nobody Does It Better,” which she co-wrote with Marvin Hamlisch, was nominated for an Oscar in 1978.

“I was sure I didn’t belong there. My dress wasn’t glamorous; my hair was not just ordinary but brown. I was too short, I had no breasts, and my weight was not where it should have been. There was no way I could enjoy myself,” she writes.

The notion that she had co-written a song that had reached No. 2 on the U.S. pop charts and been nominated for an Academy Award, and sold more than 500,000 singles was nowhere on her mind.

The meatiest part of the book begins when Bayer Sager meets charismatic songwriting superstar Bacharach in the late ’70s, whom she describes as “the great fake love of my life.” She writes with her trademark lyrical simplicity of a painful, futile 10-year battle trying to please a hopelessly narcissistic man who at first flattered her by bringing her into his limelight, then slowly diminished her with his subtle, constant criticism the way narcissists tend to do, and in the end never really knew her.

Bacharach, whose dozens of hits included “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “Say A Little Prayer” and so many radio staples, was on something of a career slow-down when he met Bayer Sager, and she helped reinvigorate his career as the two wrote songs together. As she had with Hamlisch, their work life became their love life, and as long as that was going well, that stood in for a healthy relationship.

They won an Oscar for their song “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do)” in 1982, and in spite of Bayer Sager’s life being on a picture-perfect high, she writes in retrospect that she should have known in the beginning of her time with Bacharach, “I was learning something here. It should have been to get the hell out of this relationship as fast as my short little legs could possibly carry me, but instead my lesson was to accentuate the positive and change whatever else I could.”

And change she did: she had custom-made high heel shoes to add inches to her 5-foot-1 frame, breast-enhancement surgery, cosmetic surgery to her face and she stopped wearing skirts because Bacharach told her she looked taller in pants. Being married to a man whose previous wife was Angie Dickenson does not make it any easier to accept one’s own physical flaws.

It is hard to read the words of an undeniably beautiful and talented woman describing herself as so inadequate in reference to the men who judged her so. When she describes the ultimate end of her union with Bacharach, there is a sense of relief, and you almost root for her to get as far away from his oppressive selfishness as she can, which, in the end, she does.

She dishes plenty on the famous people she crossed paths with; Paul Simon does not come off well. Bob Dylan, Melissa Manchester and Michael Jackson appear as complicated artists. Elizabeth Taylor sounds utterly fascinating, and as one of Bayer Sager’s best friends, her legend does not disappoint.

Neither does Bayer Sager. Her voice has an honest vulnerability that keeps you turning pages. Bayer Sager may not be a household name or even a face you’d recognize, but knowing the woman behind those deceptively simple rhymes and soaring melodies is far more interesting than she gives herself credit for.

Robbie-Ann McPherson is a frequent News contributing critic.

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