Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Art Bergmann for dummies

Photo by bev.davies, not to be reused without permission

There was a time when I didn't have much interest in Art Bergmann's music. I had him filed on a shelf with "Canadian rock stars" - an oxymoronic concept, that placed him along Paul Hyde, Carol Pope, Doug Bennett, and Kim Mitchell... all people with brilliance to them, but whose music never really broke that big outside our country, was dependent on Canadian content broadcast regulations for the exposure it got, and whose recordings often bear the mark of a struggle to get radio play and notice outside the regions that supported them, especially (dare we hope) across the border. It almost always happens that the earliest recordings are the best, with artists like this, before the grab for the brass ring dilutes their genius, introduces the dread concept of "commercial compromise" to their recordings...

Art's stuff from the Vancouver scene is brilliant mind you - especially his two EP's with the Young Canadians (formerly the K-Tels). Check out: "I Hate Music," "Hawaii," "Automan," and the best of them, "Data Redux," all on Youtube (sadly, "No Escape" isn't, but you can get audio of it on the Art Bergmann fansite). A fantastic trio - but one that will never again play, sadly; Jim Bescott, the bassist, furthest in the background in the pic below, and Art's co-songwriter, was killed in an accident a few years ago. These are must-have albums, bristling with energy and inventiveness (and available on a terrific CD retrospective that also contains live tracks, songs off compilations, and so forth).
In the 1980's, Art Bergmann put out an EP and a cassette with his band at the time called Poisoned, that showed him going for more of a mainstream singer/ songwriter thing, even though they mostly only had local distribution. The music doesn't age so well; there's some real songcraft present, but there's also a visible attempt to make Art palatable for the Much Music scene - for instance, with the rock video for "Yeah I Guess." ("Emotion" was first recorded around this time, too, though I'm not sure when the video got made). There's also a song from this period called "Deathwatch" on Youtube - I think this might have been one of the cassette releases, originally, though it surfaced on CD much later. Art's voice is great, but the production isn't...
And that's the thing. You have to learn how to listen THROUGH stuff, around it, over it, because that commercial compromise thing is there, already, the attempt to present Art for the widest possible audience. But there's also brilliant songcraft present - something that actually deserves national exposure. It gets better, too - the demos produced for what was going to be Art's major label debut surfaced a few years ago, as Lost Art Bergmann, and they show Art and Poisoned in fine form. "The Junkie Don't Care" has a bit of a bad Billy Idol-esque  intro that doesn't age so well, but once Art starts singing, you realize it's a great song.  There's a bitter, biting aspect to the lyrics, and some terrific storytelling, and it sounds better than the Poisoned EP - there's a strong, self-confident band here, ready for the bigtime. Another example - "My Empty House," about murdering your family. Chillingly effective stuff, and not even my favourite song off the album! 

Enter John Cale. Cale had some amazing, edgy albums to his credit as producer - the Stooges, Patti Smith, the Modern Lovers, Nico - and had written songs that bore affinities to Art's material, dark and introspective (like "Fear is a Man's Best Friend," say, or "Sabotage" - that last being some of his toughest rock, from 1980, with Cale in a heavy place, no doubt - drinking and drugging a fair bit - but making powerful, honest, highly creative music). Unfortunately - for Art, anyhow - by the time Cale was brought on board by Duke Street Records to produce what was to be Art Bergmann's national breakthrough, Crawl With Me, in 1988, he had cleaned up, was doing things like JOGGING, and his own music was changing considerably, towards something with a lot fewer teeth. 

Sadly, that toothlessness was exactly what Cale brought to Art Bergmann's music. He neutered it, watered it down, overpolished it - pick a metaphor, the production on that album kind of blew. The single off it, "Our Little Secret," with Cale on background vocals and piano, was sung from the point of view of a man dating a woman who had been sexually abused by her father. It's a good song - the version on Lost Art Begmann was much better, naturally - but the Cale treatment was syrupy and fake-sounding, and came complete with an embarrassing, old-fashioned rock video that got pretty heavy rotation on Canada's video channel, Much Music. For someone like me - who, in the mid-1980's, actually was doing things like weeding out albums from his collection that he didn't think were "punk rock" enough (like, say, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere), Crawl With Me was pretty disappointing - as we gather it was for everyone in Poisoned, too.

There were a few songs that Cale didn't ruin, mind you. "The Final Cliche" is pretty great however you slice it, or "Inside Your Love" (not on Youtube). There's not a lot of stuff online that allows you to really compare the demos with the Cale production, but everything you need to know about what the album could have been and what it finally turned out to be can be gleaned by comparing Art's later recording of "Crawl With Me," with Chris Spedding, with the Cale version. I can barely listen to the Cale, but the Spedding collaboration - off an album called Design Flaw, which is my favourite of Art's solo output - is spare, soul-scorched, and absolutely brilliant. So is the cover of the Flying Burrito Brother's "Sin City," which I hope we'll get to hear Monday night...

After the Crawl With Me fiasco, people like me were tuning out. I remember standing in the now long-defunct A&A Records on Granville Street - the relationship of the name of that chain to A&B Sound remains mysterious to me - and contemplating for some time whether to buy Art's next album, 1990's Sexual Roulette, or not. CFOX was spinning the single "Bound for Vegas" - which is pretty great, bad rock video or not - and it sounded a lot heavier than Crawl With Me - seemed truer to what I understood Art Bergmann to be about. And indeed, the album is; it's probably the best recorded example of Art's songcraft from his solo years; check out "Gambol," here, or "Dirge No. 1". ("The Hospital Song," the best - and creepiest - song on the album, appears not to be online; it takes a wry, caustic look at spousal abuse).
The thing about Sexual Roulette, though, is that these are songs of EXPERIENCE, songs that require an adult listener to really enter and appreciate. I was 22 and listening to Black Flag and the Butthole Surfers; suffice to say that I didn't get it. I did end up buying the album - and while it was clearly better than Crawl With Me, I only played it a few times, and decided that I didn't really care about Art Bergmann anymore and sold it. I kept my Young Canadians EPs and that was all I really felt I needed. 

So then there's the 1990's. I might have liked songs like 1991's "Crackin' Up," if I'd heard them - there's some noisy, Lou Reed-y guitar-rock grandeur there - but I didn't even notice this album. And isn't "Faithlessly Yours" a great piece of popcraft? Maybe it is, but - this is how I felt at the time - so what? Bergmann had two big label albums in this period - for Polygram and Sony -  and won a Juno, for 1995's What Fresh Hell Is This, but sales were slight and the albums soon were allowed to go out of print; I heard neither of them at the time. Art was relocated to Toronto for much of this, which futher alienated me - he wasn't playin' for the home team anymore - and when he did show up in Vancouver, there were stories about trainwreck gigs, where the self-destructive, addictive aspects of Art's muse pushed him beyond being able to present his material professionally. At least some of his old fans hopped off the train, content to spin his earliest albums, and a new, more mainstream fan base - of who, Bryan Adams fans? who was ever going to "get" Art Bergmann in the mainstream? - simply didn't materialize. And so it went. Art went through some pretty tough years - I remember hearing about him washing dishes in Toronto, arthritic and destitute - and for awhile seemed to be on the verge of being forgotten; I remember standing at the now defunct Otis Music on Davie Street, maybe ten years ago, contemplating a signed copy of What Fresh Hell Is This? that Todd was selling for under $8, and not buying it.  

I kick myself for that, now (I do now own the CD but it ain't signed). It took a couple of friends and coworkers (thanks, Will; thanks, Kevin) to get me to reconsider Bergmann's music, starting shortly after that. (Susanne Tabata's essential documentary of the Vancouver scene, Bloodied But Unbowed, helped a lot, too, though the Art Bergmann stuff therein is pretty painful to watch; he is, you might understand, a little bit bitter about his career trajectory). I was really glad to be at the 2009 Poisoned reunion gig - a complex but memorable event, which I blogged a bunch about back then at some length. Though I'd met the man previously, I had never actually seen Art play until then, and was very, very grateful for the opportunity (there are a couple of great clips of the show on Youtube, like "Dirge No. 1," one of the high points of the night).

It takes a bit of WORK to get into Art Bergmann, like I say. There's stuff you have to play past, to work around, to contextualize. It's worth the effort, though. Eventually you might just come around to a place where you realize that he is one of the finest songwriters that Vancouver (or, um, White Rock - or maybe it's Canada?) ever produced - maybe THE finest. It's a great privilege to be given a chance to see him play again, July 1st at the WISE Hall. I have no idea what to expect, but I hope you'll be there (and I'll be looking at the Straight tomorrow to see if there are any clues as to what's to come...).

Oh: and come early, because the Ford Pier Vengeance Trio kicks ass.  

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