Published May 12, 2009The Canadian music scene needs Art Bergmann now more than ever. Although he established his snarling reputation during the first wave of Vancouver punk, Bergmann hit his songwriting stride during the late '80s and early '90s with a string of albums that somehow managed to channel Lou Reed, Paul Westerberg and Keith Richards all at once. With an unflinching eye he tackled subjects such as incest, domestic violence, addiction, AIDS, and just plain selling out, leaving a trail of destruction - in nearly every respect - in his wake. Now, despite serious arthritis curtailing his musical pursuits in recent years, many of Bergmann's best songs are available again, this time as they were intended to be heard, on the new release, Lost Art Bergmann. It's a compilation of sessions recorded by his band Poisoned in 1986, just prior to his first solo album, Crawl With Me. Bergmann was never happy with producer John Cale's work on the latter, making Lost Art Bergmann (originally mixed by Bob Rock) as close to a definitive representation of his vision at the time as can be presented. Bergmann was indeed as unrepentant as ever when discussing this and other topics from his home in Calgary, hot off the heels of his first live performances in half a decade.
I was really excited to listen to this new record.
Good. Does it sound like the '80s to you?
Yeah, in the best possible way.
Well, that's Bob Rock, pre-Aerosmith.
Before we talk about that, I wanted to ask how your set went opening for Great Lake Swimmers in Toronto?
Fantastic. Apparently, Tony Dekker specifically requested me because he'd stumbled upon Design Flaw, my acoustic CD I did with Chris Spedding. It's never happened before that someone's called and asked me to play, and I was kind of thrilled by that. I hadn't played in five years, except for the release party in Vancouver for this new album, and that was a drag for me actually. But for this show I played guitar and had some good rehearsals with Chris Wardman and Jason Sniderman. We did a lot of mid-tempo, Tom Petty kind of numbers.
So whose idea was it to put these Poisoned sessions out?
Well, all of us. It was always a case of woulda-coulda-shoulda. That was just a demo and it was better than the John Cale record, I think. It should have come out indie, instead of me getting management and a shitty Canadian record deal. Because of that, it never went anywhere.
Things were completely different back then though, wouldn't you say? Wasn't that the route everyone assumed you had to take? Yeah, apparently. Sam Feldman goes to the record company and says the usual thing, and I get 25 per cent and he gets 75. Fuck, you know? I guess I was pretty intimidated at the time and should have stood up for myself. But, you know what, I just finished watching The Future Is Unwritten, the Joe Strummer movie? Hearing him say, "We made every mistake you could make" was really great. He was making music with the Mescaleros at the end and seemed at peace with himself.
Is that something you think you can find too?
Well, playing the other night [in Toronto] felt good. It was a whole different sound, but I think it's a little too late. My body isn't working too well. I've got osteoarthritis, for which I've already had one surgery done. They went through my neck and put some titanium around my spinal cord, or else they said I would have been a paraplegic within a year. Too much pogoing at Subhumans shows. Seriously though, I don't know what caused it, but it's gone all through my spine. I've got a lot of pain in my legs that comes and goes, but before the surgery I couldn't even walk. I feel a lot better now, except I still can't play guitar very well because of the pain in my hands. In fact, at the Vancouver release show, my band mates - Ray [Fulber] and Susann [Richter] - talked me into thinking I couldn't play at all. That was a bitter day. In Toronto, it was no problem, so I'm not sure if it was old bad relationships causing stress or what. I was up there with no guitar, and it really pissed me off. They wouldn't let anyone else jam with me either, they just wanted to focus on this one little slice of my 30-year career. I told them that I can't do that; there's people I've played with longer that I wanted to get up on stage. Bob Rock wanted to jam, and somebody shut that down, I'm not sure who. As soon as we finished the set it was: turn on the lights, turn up the fucking disco, and it was over.
I remember that the solo shows you did in the late '90s were always exciting. Could you conceive of doing that again?
No, for me that just didn't cut it. I don't know if my body was falling apart already, but I don't remember ever feeling that electricity, you know? Whatever it is that keeps Iggy Pop on his feet.
How long have you been living in Calgary?
Since the end of '05. Four years already, my God. We're in a farmhouse about 20 minutes outside of town and rent's dirt cheap. It's been good for my wife Sherri to be closer to her daughter and granddaughter.
Were you happy to get out of Toronto?
No, not really. I like Toronto. I really enjoyed living downtown in the different neighbourhoods. We made a lot of good friends there.
So now that you're out there...
Out there, yeah. We haven't had too many people drop in. The one guy from the Northern Pikes, Jay Semko, he came by one day with his manager and that was a little bizarre. He gave me his latest CD, and I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. It didn't seem like either country people or rock people would get it. I mean, I grew up on old country music and Gram Parsons and stuff like that. In fact we did "Sin City" at the Toronto show with Bob Egan, the steel player, and that was great. I'd never played with a steel player before. Bob even gave me a hug when we first met.
Have you ever thought about doing an album of country songs?
Always, always. I've become a big fan of Buddy Miller, and whenever I hear one of his records I think, my God, that's the sound I've always wanted. Funnily enough, that's the same thing [Vancouver singer/songwriter] Herald Nix has been doing for years, but hardly anyone knows who he is.
In spite of all the pain you've had to endure, have you still tried to write?
I have been writing lyrics on paper, but as far as playing music, it's been hard for me to do that. I didn't play guitar for four years, until this year when I started to get in shape again.
Have you tried writing fiction?
Not really. Anything I've done in that vein just ends up being huge questions with no answers. Kind of like rants. Dennis Miller was good at that, until he turned yella. Now, what's he doing, I don't know. I just hope he gets thrown in jail with the rest of them.
You're right in the middle of the Conservative stronghold...
Yeah, the filthy oil patch. The whole Athabaska River is toxic from top to bottom. It takes 500 ducks dying to get anyone's attention. Assholes.
Is it hard to deal with that, living there?
There's good people and there's shitty people. But the problem is, people don't vote here, and if they do, it's Conservative. They don't even have a recycling system here, and everything is built for cars. I was working with my brother-in-law one day who's a roofer and we went to the landfill. What a fucking pathetic sight that was - TVs and electronic equipment and everything else you can imagine. There's a good story for you. People just don't learn.
I think that's why these songs on Lost Art Bergmann are still relevant.
Yeah, "My Empty House" is happening all over again.
Even still, I really hope that your health keeps improving and people can hear some new music from you soon.
Thanks, I'll try.