Getting up to date with Art Bergmann

by • November 17, 2017 • BC Music History, BC Musicians, Front Page, Long Reads1011


By Allan MacInnis

One of the more unlikely comebacks in the Vancouver punk revival was and is Art Bergmann. See him in Susanne Tabata’s (essential and revealing) 2010 documentary Bloodied But Unbowed, and you’d never guess he’d ever return to making music: he’s embittered about record contracts that left him impoverished, stricken with arthritis, and painfully soft-spoken, seeming defeated enough to give lie to the film’s title (though the DVD version includes clips of his return to performance). While that return wasn’t without hitches – he was unable, due to his arthritis, to play guitar at his first comeback concert, at Richards on Richards in 2009 – he’s rallied with amazing fortitude, releasing an EP, an LP, and a reissue of a solid 1991 self-titled album since that time. That last was packaged with a new title, Remember Her Name, and updated cover art, so people not paying attention (there’s a prominent “1991” displayed on the spine-slip) might possibly mistake it for a new album. The Apostate is the real must-have of the three, but each has merits and is worthy of consideration.

To begin with what is simultaneously the oldest and the newest of these releases, Remember Her Name, has some of Art’s strongest songwriting; it also has a sound to it that I’ve never much cared for – a bit more fulsome than the stripped-down stark rock of Sexual Roulette, which is still the best sounding of Art’s early solo albums, by me, and the one truest to his guitar-centric presentation onstage. Anyone who does mistake Remember Her Name for a new release on purchase will doubtlessly realize it’s a 90’s product as soon as it spins: big drums, swirly keyboard textures (“Message from Paul”), even one song (“American Wife”) that, with hooky basslines, a persistent beat, and a possibly ironic “let’s dance” ambience, sounds like it was crafted to be a possible club hit (was it, ever?).

But that’s a small quibble – Art has frequently been the victim of less than perfect (or too time-bound) production, and many of his releases require you to work around that: there’s the somewhat tinny, too-keyboard-dominant demos of Vultura Freeway, the cheesy Billy Idol-esque 80’s riffage of Lost Art Bergmann, and of course the infamously bungled Crawl With Me, eviscerated in production by John Cale, who seemingly was at the wrong place in his own career to be tackling Art (Lost Art Bergmann may be “too 80’s” but it is the preferable option, presenting the demos for Crawl With Me with their potential intact).

But like I say, it’s about the songs, and there are several remarkable ones on Remember Her Name. The album shows a growing interest on Art’s part in geopolitical problems, from the Gulf War (“Baby Needs Oil”) to the fall of Communism (“American Wife,” which reminds one of the New Model Army’s similarly-themed “Luhrstaap,” from the same time period).  World politics (the fictional “Data Redux” aside) had never been a big concern on Art’s previous albums, which tended to take more autobiographical/ experiential themes, but remain key to his work post-Remember Her Name. In “If I Could Change the World,” Bergmann even pits the ineffectuality of artistic endeavours, including his own, against the horrors of the nightly news. As he put it during an interview I did with him in an upcoming issue of Big Takeover, “I’ve seen so many documentaries that I don’t know how much more I can take. Why should I watch it? To slide further into my despair? What can I do about the situation? I can write a song, but fuck, no one listens to my fuckin’ shit!” The song sees him tempted, facing his own powerlessness, to slide back into the addiction that dogged him through the 1980’s: “I’m losing my grip on this pen/ and I feel like searching for my syringe again.” It’s a pretty personal revelation, with lyrics mostly spoken by Art, who sounds a bit like a rappy Lou Reed on this cut.

More remarkable still is Art’s ability to identify with women, particularly in two songs on the album, the title track – about an aging hooker who still cares about her glamorous, Marianne-Faithfull-like image, and fears, for all the attention she gets, she will be too soon forgotten; and the standout track, “If She Could Sing,” which has Art imagining what a woman who has often been the subject of his songs would say if she turned the tables and wrote about Art. (We’re presuming this might be about Sherri Decembrini, Art’s wife, mentioned in the notes for the album, but Art’s not saying). It’s a song any married man who is aware he sometimes drowns out his partner will be able to identify with: “When she finds her voice I’ll listen/ for a clue to what was missing/ when I placed the emphasis on mine.” (I certainly think about my wife when I read that). It’s a brilliant idea for a song, and relatively unscathed by the dated production, as is the album’s single, “Faithlessly Yours,” one of Art’s easiest-consumed tunes.

Finally, you get the Replacements. For anyone (like me!) who thinks that Art Bergmann is ten times the songwriter that Paul Westerberg is, it might be surprising to discover that Art was a huge Replacements fan, and that “Message From Paul” is about a fan-relayed bit of praise Art got, supposedly from Westerberg, which Art knew was in fact a crock (it still served to inspire a song). There’s also “Ruin My Life,” which, apparently, shows Bergmann trying his hand at a guitar-driven rave up along the lines of the Replacements’ “Shootin’ Dirty Pool” or “Dose of Thunder” or such. (Art may indeed be the greater songwriter than Westerberg but the Replacements do this particular sort of thing much better, maybe because the expectations are lower on them). There’s also a bit of the Replacements (or maybe the Rolling Stones) to “Wide On Hard Body,” the final cut on the album, recorded at the time but previously unreleased, but there’s no lyrics provided for that one cut, so I have no idea what it might be about. It’s a fun cut, but no revelation.

Songs for the Underclass, meanwhile, was the first release of original material from Bergmann when he decided to return to the stage. It’s a four song EP, which continues Bergmann’s interest in geopolitics, and shows the potential for his return, even if it’s a mere appetizer for what was yet to come. “Drones of Democracy” outdoes Neil Young at creating an angry epic out of American adventurism overseas, taking in targeted assassinations, cluster bombs, and blown-up Yemeni weddings. The guitar interplay between Art and Joe McCaffery is pure Crazy Horse, and the runtime of 7:31 allows for plenty of discordant jamming. Meantime, Art’s ever-expressive voice ranges from the fragile to the roaring.  Around the time of this album Art was including a cover of “Cortez the Killer,” the most Bergmannesque song that Neil Young ever wrote, in his live set; “Drones of Democracy” makes for a welcome cross-fertilization of their styles, and for my money outdoes the Living With War-era Neil Young songs of a similar ilk.

The second track, “Company Store,” is a bluesy rave up, musically, and could seem quite the ebullient rocker, except for the incredibly dark, pointed lyrics, which take a page from Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” in bemoaning the ills of 21st century capitalism. Take, for instance, the opening lines, which reference a 2013 garment factory disaster at Rana Plaza: “You can’t smell the women burning in the clothes you wear/ 1100 crushed in the panic on the stairs/ Fire-exits locked, ‘cause, well, he’s an entrepreneur/ Gotta keep those women working/ But you’re lookin’ good, I swear!/ Because Bangladesh, whatta you care?”

Fuckin’ yikes, Art; don’t hold back, eh?

Mining, both historical and present-day, get the songs second and third verses, which describe “a race to the bottom of an open pit” – and you can see the influence of Howard Zinn, whose People’s History of the United States of America Bergmann calls “amazing,” also in that upcoming Big Takeover piece.  We continue with GMO’s, oil pipelines and finally capitalism itself. While there’s nothing remotely punk about Bergmann’s music at this point, it’s all still there in the rage and black humour of his words; the chorus of the song points an angry finger at our complicity in such injustices (“you’re all whores at the company store.”)  The song will either strike you as savagely funny, or just savage, but there’s no denying its potency or relevance; in fact, Art had called the lyrics for this EP the best he’s ever written, in interviews at the time of its release, and while they may not be as personally revealing (or self-scorching) as something like “The Hospital Song,” he probably has a point.

The rest of the EP, while solid, somewhat rests in the shadow of those first two cuts. “Ballad of a Crooked Man” starts much like “If I Could Change the World,” with Art speaking the lyrics (welcomingly minus the aforementioned Lou-rap quality), until it turns into a full-on rock song about three minutes in.  “Your Cold Appraising Eye” ends the EP on a waltz, but remains caustic, potent and accusatory in its lyrics. “The people that you piss on/ shit on your grave.” They fill out the EP just fine, but, hey, can we listen to “Company Store” again?

As welcome a return as Songs for the Underclass is, The Apostate is the full-meal deal of Art’s comeback, thus far, especially thanks to the contribution of multi-instrumentalist Paul Rigby, introduced to Art by drummer Jon Card when Jon sat in at a Commodore Ballroom show. Rigby’s ethereal steel and nylon string guitar gives “Atheist Prayer” a dreamy, haunting texture; he also provides 12-string guitar, mandolin, ebow, slide guitar, electric guitar, baritone guitar, acoustic guitar, and something described as a Gretsch Chet Atkins guitar on different songs on the album, never upstaging Art, but perfectly complimenting him and enriching both this album and Art’s recent live shows.

As for the songs, the second track, “Mirage (the Apostate)” is probably the hookiest on side one, but it’s less about religion than standing up for human rights “in a monolithic culture,” whether that be secular or religious. Art – a big reader – explained that he “got the idea for the song from a book called Death and the Dervish, by Meša Selimović.” That book, written by a Yugoslavian dissident, apparently uses a tale of religious persecution as a metaphor for political persecution, which couldn’t be taken on directly.

Whereas I’d always assumed The Apostate’s somewhat Catholic title and the faux-religious cover image of Art smirkingly praying had something to do with his “apostasy” from the music industry, which he’s complained bitterly about at times, in fact, again, the reference is political: “An apostate is someone who questions anything remotely in the fundamentalist world, right? These mean fuckers will cut your head off, for that kind of thought, expressed vocally.” Calgary musician Foon Yap’s Middle-Eastern-flavoured violin suits the song perfectly.

There isn’t really a weak track on the album (which comes closer in sound to roots music than anything else Art has done, though it’s an, um, “artful” form of roots music, one might say). “Cassandra” continues Art’s reflections on the female experience (he apparently thinks women must generally find men extremely frustrating; the chorus, with female backup vocals, reflects that “you want to put’em up against their own wall.”) “A Town Called Mean” owes a debt to Dashiell Hammett’s short story, “Nightmare Town,” and is sung from the point of view of a hired killer who ends up in a town so corrupt he gets a job with the government (“evil’s been good to me,” he boasts). “Live It Up” – with a catchy background chorus of “live it up/ you’re gonna die!” – jokes about Art’s own experience with opiates, which are now prescribed to him to keep his arthritis pain at bay: “now I’m old, you can up my dose,” he sings, cynically snarking about his return to celebrity: “kids come in adulation/ cunt-grab your close relations/ handshakes come on graduation day.” Seldom have joyfulness and cynicism been so thoroughly intertwined.

More soberly, “The Legend of Bobby Bird,” similar to the late Gord Downie’s The Secret Path and its story, about Chanie Wenjack, deals with a First Nations kid dying of exposure while fleeing a residential school. The starkest and most overtly touching song on the album, it’s presented with just Art and his acoustic guitar, identifying with Bird, “cold and alone” – a phrase inspired by a Calgary Herald headline – as he dies by a railway track, trying to get home. Bird’s body took three decades to find, adding poignancy to the story, which was apparently well-received by Bobby’s family, whose one caveat was that Art not use the word “Cree” in describing them – an inaccurate, colonial construct, it turns out.

About the only divisive track on The Apostate may prove to be “Pioneers,” which deals with the settling of the west, with the literary inspiration being Cormac McCarthy’s nightmarish masterpiece, Blood Meridian. It has brilliant black humour to it: the lyrics quickly go from how “sick children and women always ate first” to “sick women and children, we always ate first,” referencing Donner-party-like cannibalism. It’s less of a song, however, than a spoken rumination on what McCarthy called “the evening redness in the west” in the subtitle to said novel. It’s certainly thoughtful stuff, and the textural swirl of the music is quite lovely, but there’s really nothing very songlike to it, no hook, no catchy chorus – which isn’t really a problem, except it clocks in at nine and a half minutes, a very long time to spend on swirly storytellin’, sapping side two of some of its energy.

That one reservation aside, however – depending on what you come to Art Bergmann for, The Apostate is possibly his masterpiece (though if you want self-scathing confessionals about drugs, self-abuse, and nightmarish interpersonal relations, stick with Sexual Roulette). Certainly if there’s a meatier, more musically ambitious, more thought-provoking album that has come from a first-gen Vancouver punk, since they started going back to the studio some ten years ago, I haven’t heard it (Gerry Hannah’s under-rated Coming Home might be a contender, except it mostly reworks old songs, and isn’t as personally revealing; for political commentary, the Subhumans’ New Dark Age Parade might make a shortlist, too, but is just a little too uneven to be a masterpiece).

When I spoke to Art, shortly after he returned from a show in Halifax, he was hungry to continue playing live, and his muse is apparently still burning bright. If you get a chance to see him, do. And if you haven’t bought all three of these albums already – at the very least, if you like thoughtful, moving, musically complex roots music, with literate, provocative lyrics that strive to do justice to the complexity and occasional awfulness of the human condition, buy The Apostate. It’s a superb introduction to a Canadian songwriter every bit as accomplished and interesting – though nowhere near as famous – as Neil Young, and someone we’re extremely lucky to still have with us. All hail Art!

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