Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ray Fulber and the Lost Art Bergmann sessions: Art Bergmann Week Redux

Ray Fulber and Susann Richter from the back of Crawl With Me (Duke Street Records, 1988)
(inscribed to a "Dr. Gribble," I think...).

Art and Ray, by Brian Roche, Richards on Richards, 2009. Note: photographs on this site are the property of the photographers and are not to be used without their permission).

1. The demo tapes, Crawl With Me, and the Lost Art Bergmann CD

Ray Fulber is the former manager, then bassist, for Poisoned - Art Bergmann's band - and is currently the man behind Bearwood Music, Gibson's Strait Sound studios, and the new Lost Art Bergmann CD release. Ray spoke to me at some length about Art, Poisoned, the March 27th show, and the 1986 demo tapes that are represented on the CD. As I mentioned in my Straight review of the CD, I've been waiting to hear these demos since I bought Crawl With Me in 1988 and read in Discorder or such that the demos were supposedly way better. (The actual phrase I use on the phone with Ray is "I’ve been waiting 20 fucking years to hear this stuff!")
Fulber chuckles in reply. "They were in my basement," he says offhandedly. "They almost were gone," deteriorating with age. "I put them on and they squealed and they started shedding. The magnetic emulsion had gathered moisture, so it’s density changed, so it didn’t work as the two elements properly. It stiffens up." The thought of losing sound quality on the tapes was frightening to Fulber, who has a fair amount invested in them, psychically. "I’ve lost different parts of my life for different reasons," he says. "Any one regret is not a good one, you know? And I just thought - I’m going to try to do this at the highest level. I read up on them. I found the same Studer machine that Bob Rock [who mixed the demos] worked on. I got a good mastering engineer and I found old photos," also from his basement stash. And then Ray took the risk of baking the tapes, a last-ditch effort that runs the risk of destroying the tapes permenantly. "If I didn’t, it would have been a shadowy, 'Oh yeah, that’s kind of cool' curiosity, right? But I really wanted to try to get what I felt when I first heard them." The process of baking calls for a food dehydrator, running "at about 130 degrees, and then you flip it over every half hour, and - I think I did it for six hours," Fulber tells me. In the end, it worked; the final CD, based on tapes originally mixed by Bob Rock and produced in part by Poisoned and in part by Rock's fellow Payola$-mate Paul Hyde - sounds great, especially considering the recordings were originally demos. "They were never meant to be an album," Ray says; "1986 demos" is clearly written in the Lost Art Bergmann notes.
The quality of these demos is something for which Fulber gives Bob Rock abundant credit. Rock had long been involved with Art Bergmann, producing the legendary Hawaii EP and Art's first release with Poisoned. Rock's initial fame locally was as the guitarist for The Payola$ - later Rock and Hyde - but by the time of the Crawl With Me demos, his reputation as a producer was extending beyond Vancouver. "Bob Rock used to mix as loud as a concert, at Little Mountain," Ray remembers. "You could actually have a stomach ache, sometimes, when you went in there. Bob mixed louder than anyone I have ever heard. I have a feeling that he might not be like that anymore, but the Little Mountain main room, when you went in there, it was like, 'Whoa, what the fuck is going on in here!' He had these big Yuris and the decibel level in there was hurtin’ - it was really, at least, like being in the Commodore, plus! People had no idea, and that’s how he was making those albums. He was like a live sound man - he would do it on the fly, and it was goin’ right on to the two-track tape. That’s why people like Aerosmith and Motley Crue, they came, because it was an easier translation from their live show," Ray believes. "I know there’s more to it than that - Bob has whole other production skills and stuff - but all I know is that when we’d walk into a control room with Bob mixing, it was a rush. You didn’t need dope - it was a huge sound rush. And that always excited me."

This excitement translated into the mixes for the 1986 demos, Ray feels - and Rock, according to Fulber, agrees. "He phoned me a couple of years ago about this stuff and told me how proud he was about it, even to this day. I mean, it was a demo, so he was very bold - the effects are way out there, over the top. He was just throwin’ it up, like, 'Wait til we get in there and REALLY do it.'"
Rock's growing success outside Vancouver, ironically, may have had something to do with Art's decision to go with John Cale as the producer for Crawl With Me - his much-anticipated debut as a Canada-wide recording artist. "The knee-jerk reaction Art had was to reject Bob Rock because he was starting to get some mainstream success," Ray says. "There’s that rebellious thing in Art, y’know? Me and Susann, we didn’t see it, we tried to talk him out of it - we just thought, Bob knew about Art as being the guitar guy. That was one of the reasons we recorded the second batch at Mushroom, because Rolf Henneman worked there, and he did all that Heart stuff and he could really record guitars. And then Bob mixed it for a few cases of beer and cheap studio time on downtime at Little Mountain, y’know? And I thought it sounded great the way it was - but I was the one who paid for it and all that kind of stuff..."

Ray's attempts to shop the tapes around Los Angeles, where he had previously toured extensively with The Scissors, had garnered some interest - Ray suspects the glam band Poison lifted their name off one of his blue Poisoned tapes that he was handing out, which Paul Hyde had co-produced - but there was no US record deal forthcoming; the band's new manager, Sam Feldman, who had taken over when Fulber started playing bass, ended up signing on with Canada's Duke Street Records. "From a business point of view, I think the record companies at that time had their way of doing things and I guess they wanted to start an album from scratch and everything," he shrugs. Proposed producer John Cale sounded great on paper; he was a former member of the Velvet Underground, had produced several legendary rock albums - Patti Smith's Horses; the first Stooges and Modern Lovers LPs; and several of Nico's most highly esteemed releases, like The Marble Index - but he had also undergone a rather radical lifestyle change, from the angry and self-destructive screamer one finds on Sabotage - his rawest, roughest, and in my opinion his finest solo album, recorded live at CBGBs in 1979 - to the sober, healthy, reflective, and much quieter figure found on (rather, alas, forgettable) albums like Artificial Intelligence (1985). Fulber suspects that the prestige of recording with Cale was a big draw for Bergmann. "A part of the inspiration of a lot of artists, I think, is when they look at other people’s successes and fame. It’s part of what drives them a little bit. You hear the odd famous name in Art’s songs, and other artists do that too." Ray laughs to remember that when the band was doing pre-production for Crawl With Me in his basement studio in his house in East Van, "John Cale was napping on the couch between working, and Art put on his hat and trenchcoat - because he’s all New York, right? - and Art’s, like, walking around while he’s sleeping, pretending he’s John Cale - mimicking and taking the piss out of him."
Fulber wants to avoid any sense of "sour grapes," and acknowledges that Feldman and Cale and Duke Street "all did what they thought was right at the time," and that Sam Feldman has been very supportive of the Bearwood project. All the same, no one - critics, fans, or the band - was that excited by what ultimately came out as Crawl With Me. While certain songs ("The Final Cliche," and "Inside Your Love," say) stand out as having a lot of strength - undiluted by a big radio-friendly studio treatment - many ("The Junkie Don't Care," "My Empty House") are markedly inferior to the original demo versions, and the single off the album, "Our Little Secret" - about incest! - sounds to me like someone was envisioning a future for Art as background music in dentist's waiting rooms, or on QMFM, God forbid.
According to Ray, the problems with the production were apparent as soon as they heard the finished product. "I mean, Art will dispute it, but I clearly remember this. We grabbed the CD - I was having a complete mental breakdown from my drug use; I was hospitalized slightly just before we went out there to record, and I was in very serious post-cocaine psychosis, so there was a lot of insanity and everything. But I remember the night we got the mixes, and we were in the rental truck - I mean, Duke Street was flying us around first class and all that, and we had this really nice rental van, and the band - the four of us - went onto the 401, slapped in the tape, and cranked it up. I think we were about two songs into it. I was driving; Art’s in the passenger seat - and I looked over and I saw tears rolling down his cheek. Like, he knew. We knew. But by that time the money’s spent, and dah-dah-dah, and we kinda had to go into denial."
Though it is by no means terrible, the Duke Street album failed commercially and critically; it is now long out of print, and is growing quite scarce, as is Sexual Roulette, the second and final CD that Ray, Susann, and Taylor Little would join Art on (though Ray and Susann both made songwriting contributions to Art's next album). "The band kind of broke up because of substance abuse stuff between me and Art, and Susann thought, well, this is looking fatal. Because we had had a lot of friends of ours dying. All those songs are little vignettes and documents of what was going on around us;" those familiar with the material know how dark it can get. Art would continue on to record solo albums with Polygram and Sony, winning one Juno, but never quite getting the success he deserved - leading to his ultimate withdrawal from the music business, also spurred on by the onset of serious health problems, especially arthritis. Fulber reinvented himself as a studio guy and family man. All the time, though, he tells me, the awareness that those tapes were in his basement was "festering" within him. "Susann would say every once in awhile, 'Shut up about that shit,' y’know? And then when I tried playing them, after all these years, they were deteriorating. And I had to figure out how to put’em together. I had a chance to kinda go back to that moment in time. For me, I always had it in the back of my mind that THIS was the shit, for Art, and everyone kind of missed it. So I get my I Told You So out of it."
Ray takes a step back, however. "...So there’s that part of it, but by the same token, I don’t want to belittle Art, because I understand, he was looking for what he thought was going to be an international career." Art and Ray "had this out years ago, and I don’t want to make it as a negative thing; I’d just like the CD out there as a document, and people can draw their own conclusions."
My conclusion: Ray Fulber was right.

Art Bergmann in rehearsal at Strait Sound; photo provided by Ray Fulber and Susann Richter. "Wait a minute - he's playing the guitar!" Note: photographs on this site are the property of the photographers and are not to be used without their permission.

2. The Concert at Richards on Richards

The decision to put together a concert to promote the CD release (and to convince a somewhat reluctant Art Bergmann to participate) came together quite casually, Ray says. "The promoter that put that together with me is basically my son-in-law, David Hawks. And the whole thing came together when we’re having dinner up here once. I said, 'I’m going to release this stuff,' and David said, 'let me do a show,' and away we went." The question was: given Art's complete withdrawal from the music scene, his arthritis, and his recent spinal surgery: could he pull it off? Until reading Alex Varty's piece in the Straight, the day of the show, I wasn't sure: would Art be able to play guitar, even?

"The first day he came to rehearse," Ray tells me, "we played through a couple of songs, and he was crabby and all that... We thought, 'Oh man' - all the same scene: it was the band again, in one room! With another person in it, to witness it, which was Tony (guitarist Anthony Walker, AKA Tony Balony), because I wanted that net, right? But we played 'Gambol' and a couple of songs, and I went, 'Shit, man - when he gets into the song, he creates the excitement,' and we went, 'the shit’s THERE.' I mean, we’re not playing as good, we don’t have the energy and detail that we used to have, but there was a rush that he brought in when he played the song through."
The initial excitement that things could possibly work out better than anyone imagined was quickly dashed, however. "After a couple of hours with the strap hanging over his neck, he couldn’t make himself move properly anymore," Ray says. "I guess when he was playing at home, he was sitting down, y’know - he didn’t have any idea that coordination [would be an issue]... Finally after a few rehearsals, we were up here, and -- it was mostly Susann; she was kind of the person who disbanded the band in the first place, the 'voice of reason' in a way. And she said, 'Art, if you play like that, I’m not playing. You can’t play the guitar. Let Tony play the guitar the best he can and put that thing down, because it ain’t happening.' He was really getting pissed off about it, and he was making more and more noise, he was behind the beat - he couldn’t do it. When Susann really said, 'What are you doing, listen to that - it sounds like crap!' I guess the amp was facing at her - he had the hi-watt cranked - and I had one of his old guitars that he’d smashed years ago, that somebody put back together in my studio, and he was just wailin’ away on this thing and it was just like, fuckin’ somebody stepped on the cat. And it was heavy. And yet there was something about it, and that moment of letting go for him - I mean, that’s a heavy thing, for an artist like him. It was easier for him to just put it down and never have to make that acceptance, which is what I think the last few years were, him putting off [that realization], 'My body is failing me.' He had to accept the fact that [he could no longer do] what he worked on so hard for so many years, to be able to play to and fuckin’ sing at the same time. And he was a really good singer, let alone being able to do it at the same time. It was great playing with him, because he had that heavy excitement that he could bring into a song. But that part of him that could play and sing, y’know, he sort of had this flash - pretty late in life, compared to a lot of us - that the guitar slinger days he had are not happening anymore."

Ray pauses, thinking. "I should have really flown out to Calgary and sat down with him" when planning the concert, he says. "We did it all over the phone, and one of the things he did say to me, he said, 'You know, I thought I was in better shape.' He had no idea that when he stood up with a guitar it was going to affect his spine and his legs again."

Susann Richter describes this as "me hiding behind the keyboard after I told him I wouldn't do the gig unless he stopped playing guitar. A painful moment." Note: photographs on this site are the property of the photographers and are not to be used without their permission).

This realization that Art wouldn't be able to play guitar, if I understand Ray correctly, took place the Saturday before the show was supposed to happen. "I mean, I gotta tell you," Ray says, "really right to the day of the show, in the back of my mind, I was thinking, 'How much is this going to cost me if the plug is pulled?' I had it already calculated how much it was going to cost me for instigating this, if he didn’t get up there. And literally, to the last rehearsal, it wasn’t until the very last time we got together and played, I thought, 'You know what, that bugger’s going to pull it off.'"

The stress didn't let up once the band got on stage, though. "At any moment," Fulber explains, he was aware that it could all fall apart. "At one point, I thought Art was going to throw himself into the crowd, which would have been just fatal."

Art has a reputation for being somewhat inclined to self-destruction, and if you talk to any of his fans who saw him live in the 1980's or 1990's, you will probably hear at least one or two stories that touch on these matters ("the time Art was so drunk he fell off the stage," "the time I saw Art puking under a bridge," etc). Fulber thinks that substance abuse has, in a way, turned into "part of [Art's] art - just like somebody writes, and they express where they were; Edgar Alan Poe without laudanum is what? That kind of thing. Not necessarily saying that if he wasn’t stoned out of his head, he couldn’t write, but I think it’s an artistic place that he went." Indeed, on the night of the concert, I was not alone in assuming that Art was a little bit wasted onstage, as he accepted shooters from the crowd and swigged the occasional beer during the set. "It’s very easy to think that he’s drunk and out of it, but I think, when he was accessing that part of his brain during the performance, that was a familiar place to go to," Ray says. But he assures me that, though Art may have been exhausted and ill and weak, he was not bombed. "He’s on a cane, he’s quite sick. To do his surgery on his neck, they put a bar in his upper vertebrae, and they moved his trachea... When I went to settle up with him the next day - I think he might be getting ready to head back, and we sort of said our goodbyes - Art looked at me and said, 'I don’t know where I got the energy to do that' - that the energy came from the people out there, what they were radiating at him."

"Definitely I think he was maybe a little worse than he was at home lying around at the farm, with no stress." Ray opines. "Arthritis is not good under stress. I think it was a tremendous amount of stress. I think it freaked him out when he got here, it’s like, 'What the fuck am I doing?'"

Art and Art, by Brian Roche, Richards on Richards, 2009. Note: photographs on this site are the property of the photographers and are not to be used without their permission).

Tony Walker laughed aloud when I told him at the Turbonegro show the other night that I "admired his fortitude" onstage, playing Art's guitar parts while Art fumed and micromanaged him; I wish I'd had a recorder handy as Tony recounted a few choice anecdotes about playing with Art back in the day. Ray confirms my impression that Tony was bearing the brunt of Art's frustration at not being able to play the guitar. "The reason that we picked Tony was because we knew that was going to happen," he tells me. "Tony has been hanging out with Art since he was about 13-14; Tony was, like, a young kid that came around that group of people - the early stages of what turned into the Pointed Sticks and Los Popularos and all that; Tony was there as a high school kid, and Art’s guitar playing influenced him a lot." When it started being evident in rehearsals that Tony was going to receive at least a bit of abuse, Fulber tells me, "I talked to Tony, and he says, like, 'Shit - it’s like when you go over and your granny asks you to move the TV and you’ve got it halfway across the room, and she says [Ray adopts the voice of a cantankerous old woman], ‘No, you fuckin’ idiot! I want it over there!’ That’s the way he took it," Ray laughs (Ray then tells me this is not an exact quote from Tony, but I like it so much I'm leaving it in).

"Tony’s an artist in his own right," Fulber continues. "He did the Real McKenzies stuff - that was all his writing, pretty much, I think. There was a big Green Day hit... Green Day, in San Francisco, used to hang out with the Real McKenzies and got some of their Vancouver punk rock/ celtic-ish thing and made huge amounts of money off it. There’s one song where I go, 'Man, Tony - that’s your tune,' right? Anyhow, he has his own band, Walker, and he just released an album of his material, which is pretty good" - a history of music in the 20th century, available through CD Baby. "He’s a good songwriter. And he covers 'Vultura Freeway' in his band. He played with Art in one of the tours for one of the record companies, in the ‘90’s, and he said Art didn’t show up for the first three rehearsals, so - Tony can play those songs and sing’em. He can fake it, y’know. I mean, we were at the point where Art was very much freaked out by this, and he goes into anger when he’s trying to get himself going, as part of the vitriol he’s trying to access. Susann said when Art walked out once to have a smoke - he’s pissed off, he threw everything down and we’re all standing around - and Susann quoted one of his album titles, only she changed it - she said, 'Oh, what fresh Hell’s Kitchen is this?'" Ray laughs, but I don't have a TV, and miss the reference. "Like the Chef Ramsey thing? He’s got this reality show on TV called Hell’s Kitchen, where he yells at all the cooks? He just humiliates them... Art has this thing that really pisses me off," Ray says (though there is fondness in his voice). "I think I read a book once on Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the German filmmaker’s life, and one of the big things in his method of production was, he would play the crew off against each other. There would be knock-down, drag-out fights because of rumours and shit - he would just cause a disturbance, so it would create this tension. And Art has some of that in him as an artist," something attentive audience members at the Richards on Richards show no doubt noticed.

Art Bergmann, photographed by Sabine Fulber. Tony Walker is at the far right. Note: photographs on this site are the property of the photographers and are not to be used without their permission).

After the show - which I'd left as soon as it had finished - Ray tells me, "Art sat at the back for an hour and a half, signing CDs. The last thing me and Art did when we parted ways and split the dough and all that stuff was, he held on to me and said, 'I love you man, and thank you for doing this.' It got him off the couch. Now, whether he’s gonna go back up there... At least maybe he’s going to maybe do something. Self-acceptance is a big deal for Art, to be able to say, 'Okay, this is where I am.' That means you can kinda move on, whether you’re a writer or painter or whatever." Bob Rock and Paul Hyde, I'm told, were both in the audience that night, and Ray's son, Rhys Fulber (a successful producer in his own right and a member of Front Line Assembly and Delerium), flew in from Los Angeles. Lots of people got to show their appreciation for Art, and more than a few - including myself - got to see someone they'd heard a lot about, but had never seen live before. "There were lots of people that were happy that we did this," Ray acknowledges. "And all those people got a reunion out of it."

The story doesn't end there: Ray Fulber tells me that Art is playing an opening acoustic set with the Great Lakes Swimmers in Toronto at the Queen Elizabeth Theater on the 25th of April at the request of their manager - amazing news, suggesting that he enjoyed himself at the Vancouver show. Art has also hinted that he is writing a memoir, which I'll be excited to read. Fulber, meantime, is contemplating another step, CD wise: the Lost Art Bergmann tapes are not the only thing in his basement, it turns out. "I’ve got a benefit thing that we did for Terry Jacks - it was called Save Howe Sound and it’s got 'Soul Power," Ray informs me. "Susann and Art have some really good vocal stuff and the Jazzmanian Devils horn section is on that! It’s good! What’s the big hook line that I love - 'I’m searching for soul power, but all I get is your face.' It’s an Art thing, you know?" he laughs. Ray also has the old Poisoned EP (pictured; thanks to Scott Beadle's Everything-You-Need-to-Steal record sleeve gallery for the image). This EP was recorded back before Ray and Susann were in the band, though Ray was managing Art at the time; he baked those tapes, too, just in case. There are also two videos that Ray had a hand in, that could end up on a CD release. "A friend of mine who produced the video for “My Empty House," Ted Herman - he’s been doing commercials; he’s been a producer for years. He’s moving up here, and he’s building a house not far from me. We’ve been hanging out. He’s going to pull out his archives... 'My Empty House' is like done on 35-mm handheld film, so we have that material." There's also the video that Ray helped make for the Poisoned EP, "Yeah I Guess," a low-quality version of which appears on Youtube. "There used to be a club downtown called Ms. T's, and it was an old transvestite bar - I think it started in the 1960s. We did a video there and it’s got tons of tough drag queens that have tattoos and moustaches. They’re real! I did a little Much Music thing, and I got Terry David Mulligan out - 'come on down to this club and we can have an interview backstage with Art while we’re shooting,'" Ray chuckles, remembering. "I could see when he went in there - there’s a bathhouse on one side, like an early 80’s bathhouse before AIDS - and all these transvestites and Art and those guys are on this little weird stage with fake cactuses on it. Which was always there - we didn’t set-dec the place at all. That’s a funny video!" With luck, these two videos, the Poisoned EP, and "Soul Power" will be enough to assemble a second Art Bergmann release. It's a tidy irony that, since most of Art's studio catalogue is out of print, Ray Fulber may end up with the last word here: right now - the Young Canadians CD and licensed Euro LP sold by Sudden Death aside - the only way you're going to buy a new Art Bergmann CD is via Bearwood.

I've got no more I plan to put up on Art for the time being - but I'd like to just thank him for having performed again for Vancouver audiences (and to thank Ray Fulber, Susann Richter, et alia for making it happen and answering my questions). The show meant a lot to me; I've met Art a few times - once when I was in full zombie makeup, and once at a video store in Maple Ridge, where I pressed him into autographing a rental copy of Highway 61 - and I've listened to many of his records, but I've never heard him perform live before, and had assumed I never would. The show had a level of raw excitement that I haven't experienced in years at a rock concert - maybe since the last time I saw Joe Strummer in Tokyo, in 2001, I think - and it's got me hooked on both the Lost Art Bergmann CD and Sexual Roulette, which I'm very happy to discover are great fucking albums (like Crawl With Me, the radio-friendly production had put me off the latter, back in the day, but the Lost Art Bergmann CD and the concert have "taught" me how to appreciate these recordings and have me thirsting for more). Even Art's crankiness - which I make perhaps too much of in the above, neglecting to mention times he smiled or danced onstage or just threw himself passionately into performance - was in an odd way inspiring to see. People spend far too much time trying to be nice to each other, but great art - or great rock music - cannot come from "niceness." It wasn't a nice concert, last month at Richards - but it was powerful as hell, and has been damn fun to jabber about, both on my blog and elsewise.

Here's hoping that it was good for Art, too, and that his set in Toronto goes well!


Anonymous said...

hey that's a phenomenal level of reportage on the lost Art Bergmann was great to read about in such detail, even though the last CD is just out can't wait to hear the Poisoned EP with those videos and whatever that "Soul Power" thing come out..Art fans can never be satiated !!..thanks for the hard work and effort, it's fascinating reading..

William Scott Scherk said...

Brilliant reporting, once again. Thanks a lot for this piece. More than memories, more than 'you are there,' it underlines the reasons why we gravitated to Art lo these many years ago: the magic of genius.

Anonymous said...

That was an amazing bit of insight on how the whole CD and show came about. A great bit of journalism!

I would love to see a DVD come out with all the videos, interviews etc. But I guess licensing would be a big issue.