Mission Bells are Ringing
By Dr. Karen Andrews, Associate Professor of Urban Studies and English
Nearly every Sunday in the city, I hear the Mission bells as I walk by the corner of 16th and Dolores Streets. On a recent fog-free, blue-sky September Sunday, when those bells began to toll, I felt like singing aloud Matt Nathanson’s catchy tune, “Mission Bells.” (The single “Mission Bells” was released in Spring 2013. Last of the Great Pretenders album was released in July 2013).
The original San Francisco Mission, founded in June 1776, is the oldest building in our city and the oldest intact Mission Chapel. It was originally named for St Francis of Assisi but became known as “Mission Dolores” because of the nearby Arroyo de los Dolores, the “Creek of Sorrows.”
San Francisco’s beautiful Mission Dolores has been the subject of many songs and movies. Poets have penned lines in its honor, such as Bret Hart in “The Bells of Mission Dolores.” Rock musicians prior to Matt Nathanson have written songs about it, such as Jerry Garcia’s “Mission in the Rain” (which also has been covered by other artists, such as Emory Joseph on Fennario). Filmmakers, such as Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo have captured the haunting beauty of the Mission and its cemetery, referred to in Nathanson’s song and music video for “Mission Bells.” Shipbuilders also have named ships after it, such as “S.S. Mission Dolores and S.S. Mission San Francisco.” Read more on Mission Dolores here.
Matt Nathanson, a resident of San Francisco who has lived in the Mission district, has created a memorable song and music video that serves as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock and the Mission. Here’s the music video for “Mission Bells”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tORhy2-fn0A.
Nathanson’s video includes explicit Hitchcock references, as in the opening shots with the dramatic, diagonal editing. Nathanson’s music video’s visual images and editing techniques honor Hitchcock’s art as filmmaker, evoking not only the classic San Francisco film Vertigo but more particularly the thriller Psycho. His song lyrics refer directly to Hitchcock’s influence, as “at the end of a Hitchcock movie, a little dark and a lot confusing.”
What do the Mission bells seem to represent in his song? If you attended California schools for the Fourth Grade, you would have learned about the California Missions and that the Mission bells were intended to call the faithful to come to Mass. It’s interesting that in Nathanson’s song, Mission bells stir up a confession or an admission of failure on the singer’s part. “Ringing somewhere higher,” the Mission bells seem to be haunting him, convicting his conscience. He has a dream where his love has died because of his “faithless heart.” He admits he was wrong to let her “get away” and feels “so lost” as “the last of the great pretenders.”
I have enjoyed listening to—and often singing along with—Nathanson’s latest song in honor of the Mission. The Mission bells continue to call the faithful to church and to inspire artists to sing the praises of its compelling beauty. Come to San Francisco and see the Mission for yourself and hear those haunting bells ring!