Sunday, May 21, 2017

Art Bergmann and I: a reflection on troubled fandom, and notes on the last electric show

Art Bergmann at the Rickshaw, May 19, 2017, by the great bev davies, not to be reused without permission, please! All live photos of Art below by bev...

Note: I have added a couple italicized comments based on an interview I just did with Art, as yet untranscribed... more on that later]

I am not entirely sure what happened with me and Art Bergmann, in terms of my fandom. It has been a very rocky road! There are other artists I've tried to walk away, unsuccessfully, from at various points in my life - from Daniel Johnson to David Cronenberg - but not other Vancouver musicians. I'm presently back "on" in terms of my fandom, but I kinda feel like exploring my history with the man and his music, maybe in more detail than you want or is wise...

I didn't really get him, early on. I had the Poisoned EP, when it first came out back in 1985 - buying it off Grant Shankaruk, maybe on his recommendation even, back when Grant worked at Collectors RPM. My seventeen year old music geek self back then was aware of the critical buzz around him, but that EP - it might have been the first thing I ever heard of his - didn't really connect with me, truth be known. I enjoyed the Young Canadians' EPs, also acquired early on, around the same time maybe, but even they took awhile for me to fully appreciate, because I was an outsider to the scene when I bought them, a few years after they were current. The context of, say, "No Escape" to a suburban kid like me was pretty remote and mysterious back then; I had never even been to a gig at the Smilin' Buddha, though I knew it by rep, and had glimpsed it from bus windows on the way back and forth from Maple Ridge; I wasn't old enough to get in, and even if I had been, didn't have a car to get me home from gigs, or even a friend with a car who had the same level of interest in what was going on there. I recall, as a kid, liking the more "trivial" songs on the Young Canadians discs, like Jim Bescott's playful "Just a Loser." Nowadays, "No Escape" is probably my favourite song ever about police violence directed at punks, MAYBE with some competition from the Dicks "Pigs Run Wild," though the context of that is a very different scene than Vancouver's, so it seems a bit less relevant. "No Escape" seems brave, anthemic, and brilliant, and I've made a stab or two at transcribing the lyrics (without full success; not even his fansite has'em). I still don't really know what the Cold War-themed "Data Redux" is about, exactly - spies, sure, but what about 'em? - but those are the two greatest early songs by Art, far as I can see. (The K-Tel's "I Hate Music" also came across my radar early on, and was also pretty great, though how many artists have ever MADE a statement like that, admitted fundamental ambivalence to their own art form? It's a pretty interesting thing to do!).

...but the Poisoned EP, when I first got it, as a teenager on a diet of mostly American hardcore, just sounded like some sort of badly produced mainstream album, like "weak Lou Reed," or something, and even the edgiest moments didn't connect, though I tried to make them to with repeat playings, figuring that the problem was with me, not it. I like it better nowadays - I can see things in it that I sure couldn't then. Part of the problem may be that I've never had the remotest curiosity about heroin, let alone experience with it, save that it helped destroy one friendship I had, when a buddy got way deeper into it than he should have; it also has killed a few people I looked up to, which also wasn't great advertising for it. So "Guns and Heroin," which seems the obvious "best song" on the EP. the one that makes it a classic, like "Cortez the Killer" does with Neil Young's Zuma, was always kind of located between "meaningless" and "disturbing" to me, which is not a great spectrum for art appreciation to take place in: at best you admit you don't get it, at worst you judge it and walk away.

The next album I bought by Art, later on, was 1988's Crawl With Me, which was supposed to break Art bigtime across Canada, back in the days of Much Music and Jane Siberry and a genuine interest across the country in our hearing our own music, which seems to have lessened a bit since (The Tragically Hip notwithstanding, of course).  Even Art Bergmann admits that album fails, thanks to John Cale's limp, Artificial Intelligence/ "recovering addict" production (Art needed Sabotage-era Cale, steeped in alcohol and anger, and it ain't what he got; there's stories of him breaking down in tears when he heard the finished product). There were glimmers of greatness you could detect in the songwriting - the title track, say - but overall it seemed weak, nowhere worse than during Cale's saccharine "la-la-la" backup vocals on the incest-themed single, "Our Little Secret," which seem to completely misunderstand just how dark the song is. In fairness to Cale, I guess it does set the bar a bit high to try to market a song about trying to have a relationship with someone who was sexually abused by her father, as the lead single on a pop album; presumably that that's neither Cale's nor Bergmann's fault, but Duke Street Records, who I presume made the decisions here. (The rock video for it is fucking godawful, too; no wonder Art has a bitter streak!). I bought it on vinyl, back at A&A records on Granville I think, and got rid of it quickly. I'm not even sure I still have it in my collection these days. I almost felt like it was unfair to judge Art by it; word from the start was the demos were way better, which I had no trouble at all believing.

Sexual Roulette I liked way better - and the gritty album cover shows that Duke Street had a far better understanding of what they were trying to sell - but it was only decades later when I began to appreciate how horrifying "The Hospital Song" or "Dirge No. 1" are, or how rich. "Dirge No. 1" - about drugs and racially motivated violence in an unnamed  city - was actually the climax of the show the other night at the Rickshaw, with Art changing a couple of the lyrics: his friend was going out to kill every white man he saw, not every black man. Besides being politically timely and maybe expedient, this alteration fit Art's constant exhortations through the evening for "white folks" to dance, or his references to "Dumbfuckistan" - which seemed to be a mostly white country, maybe the USA, or maybe somewhere inside the province of rock'n'roll, or maybe even the home country (in Art's eyes?) of most of the audience at any given rock show. He has a sort of sporadic, sneering mistrust of the audience that was very much present at the last show I saw him at, at the WISE, and which I can't really blame him for; I feel much the same way, in fact, though it's shocking to see someone DISPLAY that mistrust so openly onstage, where most artists seem to just adopt a shit-eating grin and go "how y'all doin'?" (Art has something in common with Gord Downie, on that front, come to think of it - the one time I saw the Hip, at the Commodore on the World Container tour, Downie seemed to spend most of the show pretending to shoot members of the audience with a finger gun, then hiding behind his band members, like his fans were scary, dangerous things, which kinda seems to be the case). I really am not sure where "Dirge No. 1" came from, if it's mostly fictional, inspired by Art's readings, or what, since there is almost no white-on-black/ black-on-white violence in Vancouver that *I* have noticed (though the line about the chicken blood running in the gutter and stinking always takes me to the north end of Commercial Drive, on a summer day; I have had a few friends live in the ARC building, and the reek from the nearby chicken rendering plant is palpable indeed [talking to Art since clarifies that it was written about the Kensington Market in Toronto). Whoever's life, whoever's city informs that song, it rings very true and brutally honest - and surely there are plenty of people in Vancouver who "died along the way/ having fun." (A moment that, since I seem to be including every aside comes to mind, reminds me whenever I hear it of Philip K. Dick's mournful afterword to A Scanner Darkly - about people who were punished far too much for the crime of trying to enjoy themselves).

As for "The Hospital Song," I have had people argue at some length with me about the content, denying that it's about spousal abuse, sung from the point of view of the abuser, but, you know, I've also had people tell me that Kiss's "Lick It Up" and Judas Priest's "Love Bites" have nothing to do with oral sex; learning not to argue with the citizens of Dumbfuckistan is a valuable skill to acquire.

[And holy shit - Art also completely adjusted the parameters on that song: it's about putting your girl in the hospital with an accidental drug overdose, not violence. Wow. Totally shifted my sense of the song; it's still dark as hell but a lot less evil]

Anyhow, I could appreciate that Sexual Roulette was a good album, but when it came out - 1990, when I was 22 - I couldn't really understand it, and eventually set it aside, too; I stopped buying Art's records for twenty years after that, since, even if I conceded that they deserved respect, I just didn't figure I'd enjoy them. Somewhere in there I met Art, briefly, at a video store I worked at in Maple Ridge, where I got him to sign our rental copy of Highway 61, but it wasn't REALLY as a position of a fan that I pestered him, more like, "You're famous and respected! I should get you to sign something!" (It was nice of him to indulge me).

Art Bergmann and band by bev davies (Paul Rigby offstage to the left). Not to be reused without permission

Eventually I wandered away from rock music entirely, spent a few years on free jazz and noise and trippy weirdness like Eugene Chadbourne. It didn't really dawn on me to go back to Art until ten years ago, with the release of Lost Art, comprised of those storied Crawl With Me demos, which I'd always been curious about. (It helped that I was writing for local papers at that point and could do the album good by reviewing it from an informed perspective). That's where I finally got to appreciate his craft, though I retained a touch of ambivalence about him and his point of view. I mean, "The Junkie Don't Care" and "My Empty House" are really good songs, but they lean towards a wallowing in darkness that seems morally and aesthetically suspect to me. They're songs of experience, sure, observant and incisive songs of application to the human condition - I debate none of that! - but they're also songs of experience somewhat remote and uncomfortable, with a bitterness and blackness to their humour that I didn't fully buy into. Darkness sometimes can serve as an excuse for other things, a kind of special pleading, a belief that the rules of life, whatever exactly they are, somehow shouldn't apply to oneself, and a rationalization for bad behaviour. To simplify a bit: "Life is shit, pass the drugs." Art seemed to be following a very different idea of the rules of life than I was, and I got the sense that maybe, as a human being, I wouldn't like him very much. But Lost Art was still interesting, and I was glad it existed. Damn right it was better than the Cale album!

A couple of coworkers of mine back then were big Art Bergmann fans, and helped me make my way through my ambivalences over the course of conversations (one of them was in the middle of helping with the construction of Art's fansite, as it happens, around this time; both were present in the audience with me at Art's first comeback gig, awhile later).

Then Susanne Tabata's movie about Vancouver punk came out, and I recall having a conversation with a person of import, who shall remain nameless, about the title, Bloodied But Unbowed, which - while I liked it just fine - wasn't everyone's favourite title, including my friend, who thought it was kind of inappropriate as a summation of the Vancouver scene: "What about Art Bergmann, he's not unbowed!" this person observed. For those who have somehow missed the film, Art seems a very bitter failure in the movie, crippled and broke, avoiding the limelight in Alberta, kinda like Bucky Haight, whom I always presumed was a caricature of him; the early cut of the doc, in particular, becomes a brutal "Bloodied Beaten and Nearly Dead" kind of experience, largely due to the cloud around Art, who seems far from any sort of special pleading, at this point; he just seems heartbreakingly, genuinely sad about his life trajectory, that for all the praise and awards and "stardom" and respect he'd been accorded, he should find himself damaged, broke, isolated and apparently forgotten by all but a few. Your heart just goes out to the guy - it's painful to see, the most sobering stuff in the movie, and Susanne Tabata - with whom I've also had a bit of a rocky relationship - deserves tons of praise for having done the work to do these interviews, in particular; along with Mary of the Modernettes and some very frank talk from Gerry Hannah, Art's scenes make up the heart of the film, make it essential viewing if you care about Vancouver music or the cost of a life in rock or, well, stuff  like that.

(Not that hearing about Zippy Pinhead's large cock isn't entertaining, too, in its own way.)

Anyhow, my friend - the "Art's not unbowed" one - didn't know, at that point, that Art had a show planned for Richards on Richards when we were having that conversation, out at Lougheed Mall. My timeline gets a bit foggy here - I know that I thought that Art's comeback should be included in the film, and believe that it eventually WAS included, in some subsequent version (the one on the DVD), but all I know is, when my friend made that comment, the concert had not yet happened. I fished out my ticket for the Art show and pushed it across the food court table where we were conversing and said, grinning, "Guess what? Art's playing in a couple weeks."

So there! Who you callin' bowed?

That show, at Richards in 2009, while it didn't entirely cohere, even threatened to go off the rails at various points, remains my favourite experience of seeing Art live, the one I was both best and least prepared for. It was obviously difficult for him - he'd undergone surgery not long before, had hands (and bandmates) that wouldn't permit him to play guitar - but there were tons of moments where the intensity of his performance ("Gambol," say) was overwhelming, perfectly captured in what remains one of my favourite latter-day bev davies' images, in terms of capturing the spirit of the show (I think she said she called it "Art Bergmann bites Vancouver," or something like that):

I collected a bunch of "witness testimony" from people who went, and decided at that point that I would count myself a fan, starting to play catch up on Art Bergmann albums I missed. I even briefly owned the Shmorgs LP, a mid-70's pre-punk, pre-K-Tels band he was in, which is interesting if you're exploring Bergmann's history, showing him as having roots in a sort of Stonesy rock music; but it's not that exciting on its own terms, save to the light it shines on his formative years (I still don't know what the Mt. Lehmann Grease Band, his other storied, early project, actually sounded like). My favourite album of the ones I explored was and remains Design Flaw, an acoustic revisitation of the highlights of his catalogue that he did in 1998 with Chris Spedding, where the starkness of both production and delivery push his songwriting to the fore, letting everything else (career ambitions, a desire to get on the radio or Much Music or whatever) fall away. It's brilliant, and it's weird to me that it's not much talked about (due to poor distro?). If I was going to name one essential solo album he'd done, this would be it, at least until recently... It's still a world removed from me - it would take someone with a much more decadent sensibility to really grok where many of these songs come from - but I could say that about a lot of what Townes van Zandt writes, too. It's still a great, great album, a real unsung gem. Turns out you can hear my favourite song on it, "Crawl With Me," here;  and at this moment, anyway. you can buy the CD for a little over $20 US on Discogs, or get it sent from this dude in Campbell River for a bit more. There appear to be only three copies for sale on the internet!

Design Flaw is the reason I'm shedding no tears that the show the other night was billed as Art's last electric appearance; I've been jealous for awhile that Toronto got to see him do an acoustic set, since I imagine - as with Design Flaw - it's in an acoustic context that the real brilliance of Art as a songwriter will be allowed to shine. It's also, sadly, the context where the citizens of Dumbfuckistan are going to be most irritating, as they jabber loudly with their friends while the band is playing and whoop drunkenly at the wrong times and get onstage screaming and calling attention to themselves, as one girl did the other night... It would be nice if audiences were as mature as the artists in this town, but fat chance of that - too many people seem to go to these shows just to be seen where the action is and be social ("it's not about the music," as my friend David M. has repeatedly observed). Who can blame ANYONE for being ambivalent about that?

All the same, you don't really hear artists (Wreckless Eric, maybe) reacting to such things very vocally in Vancouver, so when you see it happen, it kind of takes you aback. I hadn't known what to make of Art wishing everyone "death" at the Khats fest surprise appearance, where he introduced the Pointed Sticks, but I was glad he was back on the scene. Actually, that reminds me - at that fest, he made a slight bit of fun of me in my zombie attire (muttering "play Misty for me" when I introduced myself afterwards, like clearly, all zombied up, I must have been just another total nutjob in his fandom; it was kind of offensive to me, actually, but, I mean, what can you do when someone treats you like a lunatic, if you're dressed like a fucking zombie?)

Later I wrote him some fan mail and sent him a package, via a friend, of about ten unopened Vultura Freeway CDs that I found at a thrift store, since I figured he could sell them for merch. I never heard back, but I hadn't really expected to.

My next experience with Art, I don't know what happened. I wrote a review for the Straight that got me in a fair bit of hot water. I have run out of excuses for that review, and have actually eaten humble to a few of the people who gave me shit in the comments section (including Aaron Chapman and Jim Cummins, who have both apparently forgiven me). What can I say? I was pissed off that night that a girl I liked, who KNEW I was into her, spent part of that gig, at the WISE, telling me about her boyfriend problems, which connected me to bitter feelings and memories of my own (I was a "high school loser who never made it with the ladies", who girls wanted to be "friends" with, you know? I got a free ticket back to a time I'd hoped I'd left in the past, that evening - which was hardly Art's fault). Add to that that I was there WITH a woman I'd been previously intimate with, whose pants I suddenly wasn't able to get into anymore, and that I was a bit high, and that my life was slowly falling apart in other ways, with illness and job worries and so forth circling around me; my mindset wasn't great, and I took it out on Art a little - maybe feeling just a bit pissed off at him for indulging his darkness, when I was trying at that point to escape my own, which had absolutely nothing to do with anything I invited or cultivated in my own life. And Art really did seem fucked up to me that evening, mopping his face with beer-soaked towels and letting between song interludes drone on interminably, sometimes while demanding that the band wouldn't play again until drinks were brought to the stage... I concede now that he may not have been drunk, as I asserted that he appeared to be. Still, somewhere, thinking about what I'd seen that night, before writing the review, I decided that Art had a very, very destructive muse, and I wanted to take him to task for it. I still don't fully understand why I wrote what I did - I actually meant it to be a kind of positive review, as I said in my defense in the deluge of comments that followed, about how, special pleading or no, Art had pulled a strong, solid, powerful show - if slightly audience-torturing - out of the jaws of a potential trainwreck, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor. But I kind of came to accept that the shit that fell on heaven from me afterwards, from every direction but maybe a couple of friends, was totally deserved by me. I slunk away shamed, like I'd written an editorial defending cultural appropriation or something.

Whatever it was, I stopped being able to listen to Art Bergmann, or go to his shows, for a few years after that. I hadn't meant to do that to myself. Part of it was not wanting anyone to get hostile with me in PERSON, which seemed more than possible, given how hostile people got online; but part of it was, somehow, in my own writing, I'd wrecked my appreciation for the guy's music, which I'd only recently acquired. Maybe my own guilt got the better of me? I missed his Commdore show, his Fox show, didn't buy his two new albums; I was glad he made them, just as I had been delighted to welcome him back to performing after the Richards on Richards gig, but now, thanks to my own assholish writeup, I suddenly I felt like I wasn't welcome in the crowd. (And who needs ditties about spousal-and-substance abuse when life is so full of problems that you DON'T bring on yourself?)

Last night - for complicated reasons involving a difficult friend, and a desire to get OUT of whatever swamp I'd mired myself in, in my own head at least -  I went to see Art Bergmann again at the Rickshaw. I paid to get in, and bought both his new albums - though not the new reissue, since I have the CD already. It was more about atonement than desire: I had to make up for past disrespect.

Turns out the show was really good. I was excited with the opening couple of tracks, like a country-tinged "Message From Paul," off his recent reissue Remember Her Name (I have the 1991 original, though now that I've spun it again, I'm tempted to get the vinyl, too). That was followed by a political number, "Drones for Democracy," which set the tone for a powerful night, with a controlled noise jam stretching out the song that brought the obvious debt to Neil Young and Crazy Horse to the fore. It was a great show; I'd probably have enjoyed it even more if I'd acquainted myself with ANY of Art's new material before the show, but I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about any of it before I went. Paul Rigby did some amazing stuff, switching between mandolin and slide guitar; I missed the other band member's names, but they did a great job keeping up with Art, who was at times alarmingly physical for a guy who had a stool onstage with him (most older artists who start a show seated - I'm thinking of David Thomas and BB King - stay in their seats for the whole night, but not Art, who got pretty physical at times). The tune ups and between-song chaos were minor compared to the WISE gig, and the night climaxed in a great reading of "Dirge No. 1," which I could later be heard singing to myself as I walked home from the Skytrain. (My cancer-surgery-induced lisp actually suits Art's songs quite well).  No band members got throttled, as Tony Walker briefly had when he pissed off Art at Richards. Art did seem to have moments of violent disgust that flickered across his face while performing - I've never seen an artist put so much of his inner life on display while onstage - but he also smiled plenty. He kept his shades on the whole night, remained apparently skeptical about his "comeback success," and at the end of the evening, hilariously and unexpectedly, to fill out the contracted runtime I guess, brought a few audience members onstage - pulling them up himself in a couple of cases, arthritis be damned - to shake shakers and congas and tambourines for a wackily impromptu dance party, with a few extemporaneous bits of, um, "poetry" from Art - which he chuckled at, too, as he delivered it. It was the end of the night, and resulted in nothing remotely resembling a song; Dave Bowes and Mo Tarmohamed both could be seen grinning in delight, commenting to me afterwards how brilliant it was. It was particularly nice to see Jon Card on stage during this segment of the evening; I've worried about him a bit since he lost two close friends and bandmates in short succession, and he didn't look so hot the last time I saw him, briefly getting onstage with Gerry Hannah at the WISE to sing along with "I Got Religion," but he sure looked to be having fun last night, and looked pretty healthy to boot.

Mostly, in deciding to go, I just wanted the WISE gig, tainted as it was by my own cuntishness, not to be my last experience of Art Bergmann. I shot two video clips, here and here...  There's definitely no one else remotely like him in the Canadian music scene - Neil Young maybe comes closest, but I'd actually say in terms of songwriting craft, late Art Bergmann kicks the shit out of late Neil Young (I'd rather hear "Drones for Democracy," on Songs for the Underclass, than ANY of Neil's recent anti-war stuff, which just seems lazy to me, the product of so much success that Young knows he can get away with anything: "I'll write whatever comes to mind over my coffee and those will be the lyrics." That sure ain't how it feels reading Art's lyric sheets).

Art Bergmann live at the Rickshaw, May 19, 2017 by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

Speaking of which, if you haven't heard it yet, and like songs of experience (and don't mind a caustic, bitter edge), The Apostate is turning out to be a fantastic album. I went from feeling like I was enacting an obligation in buying it, forcing myself to shell out $25 I could scarcely afford, to it being the album I'm most excited to listen to, and I've spun it three times through since the show the other night (you're not supposed to play a record more than once every 24 hours, didja know, to avoid wearing out the grooves, or I'd have spun it more often than that).The wit on it is savage as ever: for instance, in two lines, about a song about the experience of settlers, he goes from feeding the women and children first to eating the women and children first; you can't really argue with the truth of it. Paul Rigby is an MVP on it, as on stage. My early favourite tune, "Town Called Mean," is sung from the point of view of a hired gun called in to settle political troubles in a town, and apparently was inspired by Pinkerton-turned-novelist Dashiell Hammett (see video clip two). It has a pleasantly, disturbingly sing-a-long kinda chorus, about how evil has been good to the singer.

As ever, I'm not sure that that's autobiographical, on Art's part - if he actually feels like he HAS been evil in his indulgences or his career choices; or if his comeback success is strong enough that he can un-ironically proclaim that he's getting it good, finally. He might just be taking on a character, I don't know; maybe Donald Trump? But I haven't heard a richer, more interesting, more personally potent album from anyone in a long time, and I'm really glad I bought it. It would have been better if I'd bought it BEFORE the show, of course, so I could have enjoyed these songs more live, but things happened the way they did for a reason, maybe. Important thing is, after a few years away, I'm back to enjoying Art Bergmann's music.

Hope Art doesn't mind my inviting myself back in, here - it's not like he WANTS my attentions, you know? But maybe he'll play Misty for me sometime... or do an acoustic, Design-Flaw type show in Vancouver, hopefully not too long from now, after I've had a chance to digest some of these new songs more fully.

Promising now that I'll be there if he does.


JimmySlattery said...

Nicely done, Al

John Auber Armstrong

Gumbylives said...

you nailed it!

Allan MacInnis said...

Thanks, folks!

Allan MacInnis said...


art bergmann said...

hi Al MacInnis...Art B here...really would like to have a longer conversation with you about all this;many mistakes made over my life which you have nailed to some degree;the biggest mistake was not standing up for myself in studio situations(when you are being told by someone you formerly admired on what to do)...but lyrically the intent was never glorification of darkness;just trying to light a match to my songs are a more long-view look at the human predicament,instead of focusing on individual stories of persons caught up in forces they don't understand...thanks for your insight, will help me on my way...Art

Allan MacInnis said...

Holy shit... Thanks Art. I am tearing up a bit... Glad you are okay with me... Point taken about not glorifying darkness. I am goimg to see if I have a home for a feature on you... I might have a really good one... Will get back to you...

Nutana said...

Well that ended nicely. Allen & Art, totally copacetic. :)