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‘Los Angeles Is Burning’ Bad Religion | 2004

Times Staff Writer

GROWING up in West Hills, Brett Gurewitz learned that Los Angeles was a more unruly beast than the far-off cities he read about in schoolbooks. “The telling thing about L.A. is the fact that it has a fire season. I’m a third-generation Angeleno, and proud of it, and if you grow up here you learn that fire is a cyclical thing. To me, it meant L.A. wasn’t quite tamed. Other cities, like New York and Paris, are settled and established — they long ago became docile, tamed things. Not Los Angeles.”

Gurewitz plays guitar in Bad Religion and writes many of its songs, which long ago established it as the most high-minded band among L.A.'s pioneer punks. In the fire season of 2004, Gurewitz watched the blazes on TV and in the vacuous news chatter he heard themes that would become the song “Los Angeles Is Burning.”

Somewhere high in the desert near a curtain of blue

St. Anne’s skirts are billowing

But down here in the city of limelights

The fans of Santa Ana are withering

And you can’t deny the living is easy

If you never look behind the scenery

It’s show time for dry climes

And bedlam is dreaming of rain.

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The lyrics came together in his mind during a long drive up to Santa Barbara to catch a Pearl Jam concert. “There on the 101, that’s where I got the chorus and the hook”:

When the hills of Los Angeles are burning

Palm trees are candles in the murder wind

So many lives are on the breeze

Even the stars are ill at ease

And Los Angeles is burning.

The music is a locomotive of howling guitars juxtaposed with the precise, punched vocals by Greg Graffin, which create structure in the din. “He is just the most amazing singer, his singing is almost like an extra percussive instrument for us,” Gurewitz said. Lyrically, Gurewitz was especially pleased with his image of torched jacarandas. As for those “stars” that are ill at ease — they were both the celestial variety as well as the celebrities that Gurewitz calls modern demigods. “It’s both, yes, that allegory of it; the elite of Los Angeles looking down from their towers and the night sky.”

Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s band, the Heartbreakers, has long been a hero of Gurewitz’s and contributed the song’s searing solo. (“He used the same guitar he played on ‘American Girl,’ ” Gurewitz gushed.) It was another special touch to a song that has become a staple of local rock radio. “That song’s filled with meaning for us, meaning and history and feeling,” Gurewitz said. “And more than that, Los Angeles can be burning with a lot of things. Hope is one of them.”

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— Geoff Boucher


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