How We Met

Saint Philip by James Tissot
James Tissot (French, 1836–1902). Saint Philip (Saint Philippe), 1886–1894. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, image: 11 1/8 x 6 5/16 in. Tissot declined inclusion in the first exhibition of impressionists in 1874, and in 1885 he began portraying Biblical events exclusively following his rapprochement with Catholicism. (Photo: Brooklyn Museum)

Rob Berg was a member of St. Philip the Apostle Church in Pasadena, California when David Hughes joined in February of 1984. “My coworker at Kaiser, Greg Zucchet, asked me one day if I’d sung Handel’s Messiah,” David recalls today. “I said, Yes. He told me his choir needed tenors for a couple of concerts. I came to a rehearsal, thinking I’d be a non-professional ringer. Instead, I was joining a choir that sang Mass every Sunday! I had no idea what I was getting into.” The concerts weren’t until May. “That was a dozen days after Holy Hell Week,” David says, using the endearment Catholic choristers call Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday.

Rob was classically trained in flute and piano in his native Saskatchewan, having performed in local bands and orchestras and studying music at the University of Columbia in Vancouver. He moved to San Francisco in 1971 and co-founded a three-piece “Beatle-brained” band, The Mystery Group, which became the musical arm of the Moment Museum, a children’s theatre nonprofit. In 1975 he wrote the musical world’s first popera, called Butterfly Head and the Magical Musical Egg, performed by Rob and the Moment Museum at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In 1977 Rob joined the Ramakrishna Monastery of the Vedanta Society of Southern California in Hollywood. But that didn’t keep him from making music, forming The Razor’s Edge with a fellow monk and releasing an album of originals, The Only Way Out Is In. He also organized several “know-wave” musical festivals, including 1982’s Shiva Celebration.

As a youth, David received an excellent choral education at the First Congregational Church (UCC) of Boulder, Colorado—until his voice changed. An anti-war activist in high school, he left Boulder at seventeen in 1973 to work in L.A. with the United Farm Workers on its famous boycott. He’d pick up his dulcimer to jam with fellow organizers before eventually enrolling in the music program at Immaculate Heart College in 1977.

During David’s three semesters at IHC he organized a benefit for a campus art gallery—featuring the Extremes, the Go-Go’s, and X. Except that the event committee’s talent liaison hadn’t actually asked X, which declined due to too much exposure and no new material. (In the end they picked up the Go-Go’s instruments and played anyway.) David’s rap group Age of Consent had its debut during a music series he arranged at Traction Gallery in 1981, disbanding in 1983, six months before David joined the St. Philip’s choir and met Rob.

At about that same time, in 1983, Rob had left the monastery and joined the St. Philip’s choir at the invitation of a colleague’s boyfriend. Rob remembers it this way:

I loved Gregorian chant and Renaissance music and when a friend said he was in this choir, which sang Palestrina and Tallis, I went and immediately got sucked into a vortex of choral music. And I wasn’t even Catholic! How was I to know that there was another—more cosmic—reason to show up at that church in Pasadena?

“One day he showed up and sat beside me,” Rob told a journalist later about David. “He was the only one that had bleached blond hair and a cross in his ear.”

The two compared notes. They both had a reverence for the Renaissance music they sang in the choir. David was intrigued by Rob’s time as a Hindu monastic, having himself a shelf of Indi-pop records—rock music infused with South Asian influences—which would creep into the work of Bachelors Anonymous as well. Rob loved The Cure and The Clash. The two exchanged tapes.

David Hughes, Rob Berg, John Fleck, Reed Roles
Counterclockwise from lower left, David, Rob, John Fleck, and Reed Roles, taken not long after David met Rob. David’s bleach-blond hair is almost grown out.

Today, listening to the tape David gave Rob, only his reputation in Age of Consent might have created interest in collaboration. The “Snooze Side” (David still has the cassette) consists of dreary musique concrète drones and the “Pop Side” contains three raps, indicating at least some facility as a lyricist.

Rob gave David a copy of a couple songs he was working on with a keyboardist he met through Music Connection magazine. He did not give him any music from his previous bands.

Rob was impressed that David wrote lyrics that were openly gay and confrontational:

After six years in the monastery, I was hungry to write and record songs that had no boundaries or limitations but I had never thought about being in an openly gay band. I am not really sure how the concept evolved. But I was ready for a change—ready to start the next chapter of my life.

David appreciated Rob’s musicianship, commenting recently:

If Rob’s songs’ sensibility was, say, McCartney to my Lennon, let’s not forget who wrote “Helter Skelter,” “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road,” and who “sought out concerts featuring the music of modernist composers during the summer of 1966.” 

My earlier band Age of Consent had two pop songs in our repertoire, in addition to all the raps. Early on John [Callahan] had suggested “Too Much of Nothing,” the Peter, Paul and Mary hit written by Bob Dylan. Their perky arrangement belies Dylan’s darkness: “Too much of nothin’ can turn a man into a liar/ It can cause some man to sleep on nails, another man to eat fire.” I suggested Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” which I sang starkly without adjusting gender. And I fudged a bit by swapping out “You don’t know what he means to me,” with “You don’t know what he does to me, Jolene.”

At Bachelors’ first gig, in January of ’85, I asked Rob to back me with a faithful rendering of Donovan’s “Isle of Islay.” “How sad the farm lad” is about as dreary as that one gets. But it does contain the sentiment: “Felt like a tide left me here” and “Felt like a seed on your land.” That’s what Universe had done, planting Rob and David side by side in a choir rehearsal. And so, at the time, I was intrigued by the challenge to explore tuneful songwriting. In retrospect, our first “tune” can be seen as a bridge between rap, which set spoken word atop disco B-sides, and what Rob and I would do, which often was me writing lyrics to a tune he provided.

As David recalls it, the to-be-Bachelors’ first collaboration was for a St. Philip’s summer 1984 event, perhaps a choir fundraiser. David’s mother Phyllis Hughes had been researching the family history. She’d come across David’s paternal great great great grandfather Daniel Vogel, born in 1795 in Mainzlar, central Germany, who had inscribed his Bible with a message that in the 20th century David and Rob couldn’t resist. They adapted two disparate translations, moved the punch line to the end, and recorded the narration’s backing tracks that later were repurposed as “Ritual Life,” the second tune in their first six-song cassette, to be re-released digitally as soon as it is remastered. (Subscribe—see the sidebar at right—to be in the loop for this release.)

Inscription

When anyone lives as I have, his life is blessed
What I continuously sought, I have now just found
I was pressured by the world around me
Which promised sweet rest
The golden time of indulgence, vanity, splendor
My eyes full of lights, tried to direct my soul

When anyone lives as I have, his life is blessed
What I continuously sought, I have now just found
I turned away from the hurly-burly of the world
I directed my heart and my senses up to the heavens
I ate the bread of tears and nearly grieved unto death
But alone I would not have found Him

When anyone lives as I have, his life is blessed
What I continuously sought, I have now just found
I am without worry
And sit in the lap of Jesus

Daniel Vogel, who wrote this, desires that
whosoever does not believe (in) it, so be it.
    —Mainzlar, 23 March 1815

Header image: B.A. performs at
Sunset Junction Street Fair ’85

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