“The Bells of La Brea” is the sixth song on Bachelors Anonymous’ unreleased second album, In the Land of Nod, remastered and released digitally. Bachelor David Hughes tells the story behind the song.
In 1983 my friend Scott Craig got me a gig deejaying at the Starlite Cafe, a small restaurant in the same elbow on Melrose (at Gardner) as what would become the first Johnny Rockets diner. My band Age of Consent had broken up that August (ironically, after having opened for Nona Hendryx at the Palace on the 5th), so I had some time on my hands.
Lore had it that the Starlite sound system came from the owners’ prior venture—a club called Probe,1 which they sold—and the Cafe’s fixtures were salvaged from the Wiltern Theatre, which twice had been destined for the wrecking ball before the Los Angeles Conservancy succeeded in saving it in 1981.2
One afternoon that December I nearly shit myself when Scott told me in his understated manner that Talking Heads would be dropping by the Starlite in a few minutes for a meal. They were in town at the Pantages shooting Electric Guitar, working title of the music movie Stop Making Sense.3 Given the season I likely had Christmas-themed discs in my milk crate, but I’d been mixing something at the Starlite that I thought might catch the musicians’ ear.
I remember that Scott first played for me “Streets of Derry,” a Celtic ballad by The Bothy Band, but as I’ve been digitizing my collection of audiocassettes, I find the song on a homemade sampler called Tríona & Paris, from Mark Grady (Rest In Power), a friend of Scott’s as well as our mutual friend Steve Duddy, who confirmed Mark’s handwriting.
The song is a lament sung by the lover of one sentenced to die. I liked it so much but wondered how I possibly could play this snoozer at the Starlite. Some time before the T Heads incident I paired “Derry” on LP with the 12″ instrumental of New Order’s “Confusion” slowed from 45 rpm to 33. It was perfect. And David Byrne seemed to think so when he approached the booth to inquire. He seemed disappointed that it wasn’t something he might find at Aron’s Records two blocks down. Scott recalled recently, “Yes, I remember that day too. I looked over and saw him talking to you because the band was seated at a long table not far from the DJ booth. He was asking you about an Irish song and I thought, Mark is gonna be so jealous….”
Two months later, in February of 1984 I met Rob Berg and we formed Bachelors Anonymous. In 1987 we did a string of gigs in the spring: Club Lingerie, Sunset Junction, and Rock Against AIDS among them (see our timeline). It was at about that time we must have written “The Bells of La Brea.” It was simple: an antique ballad, which in the 1980s resonated with the ongoing Troubles in Northern Ireland, is adapted to the troubles borne by gay men in Los Angeles. (It resonates still: this September—not having paid attention until then—I found that the immigrant to the U.S. on my father’s side came from Ulster.4)
I’m compelled to attribute two lyric lifts. 1) My “your lover, your killer” mirrors “my brother, my killer” from Leonard Cohen’s famous “Famous Blue Raincoat.” 2) My “In a scientist’s arms” is less obviously influenced by Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman (For Massenet)”’s “automatic arms/ Your electronic arms […]/ Your petrochemical arms.”
When we were mastering the song with Scott Jennings this May I told the above story. But what I hadn’t realized until our session is that my drum track for “The Bells of La Brea” had some of the same indeterminacy as the marriage of “Derry” and “Confusion”; they simply don’t synch. This gives the song a tension that could have been otherwise missing, especially since the lead vocal is sung for a demo, with no rubato. I’m also surprised by the lone low bell tone at the song’s start. It nicely mirrors the first sounds heard on John Lennon’s first solo studio album: the slowed down (funeral) bell in “Mother.”
Rob concocted a compelling ostinato that gives depth to the air. His friend Clive Wright had contributed guitar to our Christmas single and we asked him to do the same on “Black Bells,” as we refer to it. His solo turns the lament into an anthem of resistance. Scott Jennings added the lovely “crack” at 4:16, which is featured more prominently in the Men’s Dept mix of this song, which we’ll include in our next batch.
I dedicate the song to Mark Grady, who succumbed to complications from AIDS, and without whom obviously the song wouldn’t have come about. He also planted a seed in me that bore fruit years later.5
I come to recall the black bells of La Brea,
The first time I heard their sullen peal
Of amorous chimes—
A resonation of lead, a tintinnabulation
I would come to dread
It was in ’68. I was fresh from the Rockies
To find myself in a foreign land
Of poppies and sand.
The bells tolled my need for the foreign touch
Of a foreign man.
In a summer of love I gave myself freely;
Old ideals of love were left to chance,
Romancing to romance.
You whispered your name, the bells did ring,
We did the dance.
In a winter of lust we took to the back streets
To lay with lions of leather on beds of down.
The black bells rang to drown.
Ring around the rosy, pockets full of posies,
All fall down!
In a season since past, in an autumn forgotten
They did judge our affection to be a crime;
Now with cruel irony
He stands here before you, your lover, your killer: me!
In a springtime to come, how the black bells will beckon,
But you will not take comfort there
In a scientist’s arms—
In a scientist’s words, in his lies,
In a scientist’s charms.
You can open your eyes now. Just open your eyes.
Open your eyes now. You can open your eyes.
Open your eyes. If you just open your eyes.
You can open your eyes now.
Why won’t you open your eyes?
If you’d only open your eyes.
Just open your eyes.
You can open your eyes now…
Lyrics Reprinted by Permission
See album credits
- Scott Craig PMed me on 20 Jun 2021. “And yes, the owners of Starlite, Ray and Michael, used to have Probe,” he told me. “We always thought they brought that sound system in from there since it was so huge (and not well equalized for that space).”
- Starlite co-owner Ray Grimaldi said in 1984 that its expansion was “being decorated with the original furnishings from the Columbia Cafe, an old actors’ hangout dating back to the 1930s that was torn down” in 1983. See Elaine Woo, “New Restaurants Hop on Be-Bop Bandwagon of Fifties’ Nostalgia Craze,” Los Angeles Times, 21 Jun 1984, IX-10. Of course, Art Deco was a style of the 1920s and ’30s….
- The Pantages performances were held December 13–18 Dec 1983. See Michael London, “Talking Heads: Demme’s View of Their World,” Los Angeles Times, 21 Dec 1983, VI-1.
- I tell the story of my discovery in a rambling post on my personal blog.
- Mark unwittingly planted a seed in the ’80s when I told him about what my now-wife Andrea Carney was experiencing with our employer, Kaiser Permanente, and her union, Service Employees International Union, for which she was shop steward. Mark explained that such unions had become employers’ collaborators rather than adversaries. Later, in the same vein, Andrea and I would receive the mentorship of Stan Weir, who experienced, organized, wrote, and taught about worker autonomy, which Andrea already had fomented, after (and in spite of) two years of labor studies courses at L.A. Trade Tech. I called Andrea the “accidental Wobbly” (IWW) after the direct actions she spearheaded on the job at Kaiser. I’m so grateful to Mark for what, to him, was merely a remark in passing.