Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Art Bergmann Week Continues: Witness Testimony

Art Bergmann by Bev Davies, March 27th, 2009, Richards on Richards. Note: photographs on this site are the property of the photographers and are not to be used without their permission.

First Witness: Bev Davies
Since the 1970's, Bev Davies has been documenting the Vancouver punk scene so well, and taken so many famous photographs, that I don’t really see much point in introducing her; if you don’t already know who she is, you probably don’t much care about punk rock in Vancouver - or else you need to do some serious homework! Her Flickr site is here; her website is here; and my big interview with her about her last calendar is here. Apparently Bev has been doing some blogging of her own lately, too! She graciously contributed the above photograph and chatted with me over the weekend about the Art Bergmann show at Richards on Richards last Thursday. Note: the photo of Bev is by her late friend Keith Kristmanson.

Allan: So I don’t really know where to start, but...

Bev: ...I’ve thought about it. You’re going to run the picture of Art Bergmann, right?

Allan: Yes.

Bev: So that’s what I thought I would talk about, is that choice of that photograph. The reason that I sent you that photograph - because I have other photographs; one has to go to The Skinny and I posted a couple on my Flickr site - but that one, I felt really strongly about it, because when I photograph people, I stand and I see and I perceive a certain way that people look... And sometimes I’m very surprised by how much better they look in pictures; that does surprise me, sometimes with people. But quite often it’s a matter of taking pictures and - now I can look at them of course, with them being digital - until I find a bunch that start to look the way I see the concert happening. There may be lights that I’m missing or things like that, and I look at the picture and go, “Wow, look how that comes out.” But mostly I’m trying to match the image of the person with the way that I saw the concert and I felt about the concert. So this picture of Art, to me, though it wouldn’t have been something I’d’ve sent to The Skinny, for mass consumption of people who hadn’t been at the show, it still for me really really represents what it felt like to be there; I would call it, “We’ve All Been Bitten By Art Bergmann.”

Allan: (laughs). The feeling or the photo or -

Bev: The feeling, the photo - you know, there was such intensity there. It wasn’t a “clean, nice” show. Everything wasn’t all tied in a little knot. There was an encore... but that picture comes the closest to how it actually felt to be there.

Allan: There’s a bit of pain in Art’s face in that photo, as well.

Bev: Yeah. What you’re not seeing is another photo, that a friend took of Art and I afterwards. It’s a humbling photograph, for me, and I can’t pass it on to you because it’s not my photograph, I didn’t take it of course - but I’m sitting beside Art out where he’s signing records and things like that, and in the photograph there’s Art, and you wonder - who’s that little old lady sitting beside him? So the reality of how young Art looks in the photograph, when juxtaposed with me, was a bit of an eye opening shock. But I don’t think I’ve ever had a photograph of Art and I together. In fact, that’s probably true of most people in the music scene, who I’ve known for so many years. I think it’s a little bit late to go around and get them taken, unless I have my hair done...

Allan: Did you get a chance to interact with Art much?

Bev: No, but Dougie was standing with him while he was signing autographs and then, Dougie said, “Say hi to Art!” and I said, “Hi, Art,” and he just turned and said, “Bev!” and then he grabbed a hold of my hand and shook my hand. Not shaking my hand, but - he held on to my hand for awhile. And then my friend came up and said, “Oh, can I take a picture of the two of you?" And so he took two of Art and the little old lady. Who happens to be me.

Allan: I would love to see this photo... Does your friend have a Flickr site or a page he’s going to put it on?

Bev (laughs): I hope not!

Allan: You were sort of little-old-lady-ish on the bus on Nardwuar’s album cover.

Bev: That was The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.

Allan: (laughs).

Bev: That’s what I always call that woman sitting there. She got stuck on the Vancouver bus by mistake.

Allan: Anything that you want to say to Art, or...

Bev: Just thank him for the concert and the obvious time and energy that went into it. We really appreciate it. I mean, I really appreciate it; I’m sure lots of other people did. I came home and watched fucking “Hawaii” on the video, because I just really wanted to hear one of those songs.

Allan: Were you disappointed or surprised that Art didn’t play any of his Young Canadians songs?

Bev: No, I didn't expect him to; I'd been forewarned that he wasn't going to do that. It's kind of maybe better that they didn't play "Hawaii."

Allan: Yeah.

Bev: What was amazing - like, I was right at the front for quite a while, and then I left and walked around the house and got a better mix of the sound, than right at the front - but the young people behind me, who I didn't know, were singing along to every word of every song.

Allan: Right on.

Bev: I thought, that's cool; that's so cool. And it was nice to see Rampage there, and to see the people that were there. I think it's better to count who was there than who wasn't there. I heard a lot of, "Why wasn't John Armstrong there? He's only in Chilliwack!"

Allan: (laughs)

Bev: But it was nice to see the people that were there.

Allan: Now, is there anything of yours I should plug? Calendars, books, shows...

Bev: No, just remind people of shows coming up - like the Acid Mothers Temple (at the Biltmore on the 7th)!

Allan: Okay, thank you very much, Bev...

Bev: Oh, no, wait - I do have to plug something! Anton and the Brian Jonestown Massacre have a new record coming out, and for anyone who may have thought that they were going to grab for the gold ring and really head into the mainstream, it's totally disspelled by the name of the album, which is called Smoking Acid.

Allan, Bev: (laugh).

Bev: I laughed and laughed when I heard that, 'cos I thought - "Thank God he's not trying to go mainstream."

Allan: Can you actually smoke acid?

Bev: I don't know - you'd have to ask Anton!

(Two more of Bev's pics of Art last week can be seen here and here...)

Second Witness: Al Mader (photo by Femke van Delft)

Al Mader performs, as The Minimalist Jug Band, at Cafe Montmartre with Petunia on the second and fourth Sunday of each month. For those of you who don't want to do the math, that means April 11 and 25th, next month; a photodocument of a past show, with my comments, can be seen/read here, and another interview I did with him is here. Al will also perform at a birthday party for Rowan of the Creaking Planks on April 4th - more info on that here. Al used to sometimes share stages with Art when Art was based in Vancouver, hosting an open mike at the Gate that had been put together by Al's friend Chris Houston. Art would play a few songs on an acoustic guitar, then various open mike performers would get on stage and do their thing, including Al with his washtub. "It wasn't advertised or anything, but there was a higher 'hip quotient' in the crowd because Art and Chris were there..."

Al and I chatted a bit before the concert about how back then, it seemed like there were - quoth Al - "a certain number of people who wanted to see Art go over the edge, like with Shane McGowan and Billy Cowsill." Hard drinkers and drug users at shows would see Art as "one of us" and buy him drinks or dope; and indeed, during the show last Thursday, various people passed Art shooters from the audience. (Al was under the impression, as was I, that Art was a bit drunk by the time the night was over; probably a lot of what he and I were seeing as intoxication was simply Art's illness and the effects of pain meds that he's on, for his arthritis.) I called Al at work - he does the odd nightshift at a used book and record store I sometimes work at (and will be selling records at the upcoming record collector's meet on April 5th, I think...). We talked about the show in-between customers.

Allan: So I'm just curious what the Minimalist Jug Band made of the Art Bergmann concert.

Al: I don't know that I have anything too articulate to say. He certainly is mesmerizing. I found it eminently watchable. Y'know - there are songs I would have liked to have heard...

Allan: Young Canadians material, or...?

Al: I thought he would end with the song about getting together and having a relapse. "The Relapse Song," I guess...?

Allan: Oh, "The Hospital Song." Yeah, I was surprised that he left that out. That's nice - other people have said that they wish he'd played "Hawaii" or something, but I'm with you - I wish he'd played "The Hospital Song."

Al: Yeah, and it seemed so suitable at the end - we were all there having a relapse with him... It was sure nice to see the response he got just for comin' out. I felt like, to some extent, you're allowed to give a belated thanks to someone who has contributed, so that whether it sounds good or not, you're already glad to be there. And I don't think you could go away not being affected. You might have different takes on it, wishing he'd done this or that, but you still feel like you're watching somebody vulnerable up there.

Allan: Yeah - it took guts for him to do that, given how sick he's been. It was really powerful. Though it was interesting to see, when there were fuck ups, how he would scream, "No!" Ray compared him to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who used to sort of torture his actors on set to get more powerful performances from them.

Al: Ah! Yeah. Well, he did seem to go back and forth from being angry to being kinda conciliatory. And I guess some of it is just the creative tension... The interplay was interesting, but they all seemed to be genuinely in the moment and enjoying something about it.

Allan: Yeah, even Tony...

Al: I guess there was a certain affection for Art that came across, even with him not wanting to be yelled at in front of a sold out crowd (chuckles).

Allan: Any favourite Art Bergmann songs?

Al: Oh, there's just so many. I like the relapse song ("The Hospital Song," off Sexual Roulette). And "My Empty House." There's too many to think of. Art really is one of the better songwriters around - it's odd that you don't hear people covering his songs...

Third witness: Tony Bardach (plus a comment from Nick Jones).

Tony Bardach (not the same Tony as Tony Balony, note) plays bass with the Pointed Sticks and plays guitar and croons a bit with Slowpoke and the Smoke. He also does some really interesting fine arts work that doesn't so much as break boundaries as eliminate barriers, or, um... at least radically recontextualize them. I've done two interviews with him, here and here. The Pointed Sticks have new demos on their Myspace page, giving us a sneak preview of their new album, due this summer; and Slowpoke and the Smoke have a few gigs this week - at the Skinny party at Lugz (12th and Main) on April 1st, 9PM; and on April 3rd at Falconettis (9:30 PM; 1812 Commercial Drive).

Tony wrote me, when I asked his reactions to the show: "Wow, Al! We got to see something we hadn't seen from Art before - he was always expressive with his body and stances but now he is able to use his hands as well; this has greatly enhanced the theatricality of his performance and allows the audience to focus solely on his words, whereas in the past we also had his awesome guitar work to consider. I was very proud of him for pulling it off so well and glad to see such a big homey crowd there for him."

Nick Jones, the singer for the Pointed Sticks, couldn't be at the show - he was working out of town - but he had made an important contribution to my rediscovery of Art Bergmann. I'd kind of rejected both Crawl With Me and the much better Sexual Roulette, back in the day, because I couldn't get past the big radio-friendly, thumping commercial sound of them. I'd commented on this awhile ago to Nick, and he replied that it was true that those albums "suffer from 80's production... but both Crawl With Me and Sexual Roulette are loaded with great, great songs. And, trust me, it wasn't Art trying to make it safe for CFOX. Just listen to the lyrics - very dark. Also, on a good night at a packed Town Pump, he was amazing live." Nick, along with my buddy Theodore Stinks of the Art Bergmann fan site, has played an important role in helpin' me re-discover these albums - I can get through the production to the raw bleeding meat at the core of those discs, and it's amazing. Of course, Lost Art Bergmann - the new release from Bearwood Music, reviewed here - is more cohesive and passionate than either of them, but all three document the selfsame lineup we saw at Richards and the two Duke Street discs are well worthy of rediscovery/reissue. And Nick's right; the songs and the lyrics are fucking great.

Art Bergmann and Poisoned; photo provided by Ray Fulber. Note: photographs on this site are the property of the photographers and are not to be used without their permission.

Fourth Witness: Danny Nowak

Zombie, Danny, Randy

A photo by Femke van Delft

(Art Bergmann was watching us as Femke took this pic at the Summer of Love Pointed Sticks show a few months ago)

Danny Nowak is someone Vancouverites should know better than they do - not just because he shows up at a fair number of gigs and horror movies about town, but because he fronted a great 1980's Vancouver punk band, The Spores - who have a new compilation CD of their best songs out on Sudden Death - and because he was the cinematographer on Hard Core Logo (which Art briefly appeared in, recall). He is also working with Susanne Tabata on her upcoming documentary on the Vancouver punk scene (more on which below). I have a feature on Danny in the upcoming spring 2009 issue of Skyscraper. Danny was among those kind of disappointed by the lack of K-Tels/ Young Canadians material in the night's set ("even if he'd done one song..."); so I decided to ask him one of the more troubling questions of the night...

Allan: What was your take on how abusive Art was to poor Tony Balony?

Danny: Was it abusive? Like, did you actually hear him? Because I saw him go over to Tony and it looked like he was saying nasty things, but Tony was laughing and throwing it back at him. I didn't actually hear what he said.

Allan: Well, at one point, he called him the "fuckin' ringer..."

Danny: Yeah, right. I did hear that.

Allan: But I don't know - I don't know their relationship.

Danny: Well, I thought Tony was magnificent that night. He's like, one of my alltime favourite guitarists anywhere in the world. He's not only great playing, he's also fantastic just to watch, y'know? I've often thought if I ever get another band together, he'd be the first guitarist I'd ask to play.

(Actually, I put that up there just for Tony. I enjoyed what he did, too!).

Fifth witness: Susanne Tabata

Art Bergmann and Susanne Tabata by Randy Rampage, March 27th, 2009, Richards on Richards. Note: photographs on this site are the property of the photographers and are not to be used without their permission.

Susanne Tabata has been working for a long time on a documentary on Vancouver punk. At the moment, it stands at the hub of a controversy as to the title: there has been a suggestion to call it Bloodied But Unbowed, borrowing from a classic DOA compilation. It's a great title that can be applied to most Vancouver punk bands, all of whom have gone through hard times, but in many cases are either still going strong, back with a vengeance, or at least refusing to go out with a whimper. The last few years have seen resurgences of the Subhumans, the Pointed Sticks, the Dishrags, the Modernettes (sort of), and now Art Bergmann. But not everyone likes the idea of naming the movie after one album from one band. Due to his longevity and his assertive nature, Joe has already had a huge portion of the attention apportioned to the Vancouver punk scene; people watching films like American Hardcore would be under the impression that DOA were the only punk band in Vancouver (since Joe is the only Vancouver punk represented). Calling the doc Bloodied But Unbowed could play into that tendency, and do an injustice to other bands here. What do people think? Leave a comment - if you like the title, say so, and if you don't like the title, can you suggest an even catchier, more creative alternative?

Anyhow, Susanne has been talking with lots of people for the film, and visited Art on his farm in Calgary. She had many interesting observations about his music (saying at one point that "Art reassures people that it is good to stand your ground. He appeals to people who want to be defiant," which I think is very true). But for the purposes of this piece, she preferred to submit a few sentences in writing. Quoth Susanne:

"Art is incomparable so everything he does is judged 'too good' or 'not good enough'. I think the audience was awestruck and expectations were high. Art delivered for Poisoned. And Tony (ouch! what a tough spot) delivered for Art. I would have liked to have heard a couple of the older songs which made him a legend. But for him to be 'in the house' and play to the tribe, the Laundromat (location of Hardcore 81) is a moment ne'er to forget."

MORE TO COME AS ART BERGMANN WEEK CONTINUES... Next up Ray Fulber, talking about the demos, the rehearsals, and the show... Sometime in the next couple of days!

If you can't wait, join the Art Bergmann Facebook group!

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