The ticking. It’s hard not to notice, harder still not to find extra meaning in.
It’s a frigid Friday morning and Art Bergmann is making some tea in the kitchen of the small, charming acreage abode just outside of Airdrie that he shares with his wife, Sherri, and their two rescue dogs. The veteran Canadian singer-songwriter has graciously agreed to a sit-down for a story to publicize his upcoming Alberta shows, his first in these parts for a good decade or more, and gigs that, hopefully, signal a welcome return to this country’s musical landscape.
But with that clock offering a reminder, breaking the silence every second, time, he admits, is running out. And he has some unfinished business to tend to.
“Unfinished business, yeah,” he says, propping himself up on the counter due to his almost debilitating arthritis. “I just want to put a pinprick on the great facade of consumer capitalism and let the air out of it where I can. Sustainable growth, an oxymoron. The Conservative party, conserve nothing. But, you know, the targets are endless aren’t they?”
For the past decade and a half and to the detriment of the world, the 60-year-old Bergmann has been sitting in rural Alberta, enjoying semi-retirement. Or rather resigned to semi-retirement. Time, addiction, industry apathy, depression and deteriorating health pushed the legendary West Coast-born musician to the sidelines, his legacy one that’s revered by some, forgotten by others and unknown to many — but ultimately less than he deserves.
“Do I deserve anything?” Bergmann says sardonically. “Do artists deserve anything? Usually a kick in the head if they’re any good.”
Good doesn’t come close to covering the career the musician had for the better part of 30 years, beginning with Vancouver punk act the K-Tels, which later changed it’s name to the Young Canadians, producing the seminal Canpunk song Hawaii, a poke at the locust-like vacation habits of First World folks. From there, Bergmann went the solo, raw and rockier route, backed by bands Los Popularos and Poisoned, releasing a handful of acclaimed albums including 1995’s Juno-winning What Fresh Hell Is This?
We move to the living room while one of those aforementioned mutts, an understandably nervous and yappy animal named Charlie, finally snoozes between us on the couch. The room and the house stacked with books, everything from Noam Chomsky to a library book featuring the work of Art Spiegelman to Chris Harman’s “weighty tome” A People’s History of the World. This, the bifocalled and mussed-haired Bergmann says, is what he’s spent the last 15 years consuming and he’s ready to take a break from intake.
“I’m at that point now,” he says. “I’m so full I gotta regurgitate and spit some s — t back now. I mean write some songs.”
To do that, though, to be able to make his “so-called art,” he understands that he has to get onstage and revisit that past for a paying public. Prior to this year, his last performances were in 2009 during a Poisoned reunion show and when the Great Lake Swimmers flew him out to Toronto as a special request of the band’s frontman Tony Dekker who was celebrating his birthday.
Then, out of necessity, to fund a trip this summer back to the West Coast so his wife could attend to some family matters, he agreed to a proper show on Canada Day with a backup band that featured Steven Drake from The Odds, and a set list that featured material from his entire rich career catalogue, including Hawaii which he’d long stopped playing live. It was so well received, and he enjoyed it so much, that he booked another in past October, admitting the wait before was “excruciating,” but the results — a larger, sold-out show — just as satisfying.
“My atrophying body, I’ve left it kind of late. I won’t be able to walk pretty soon,” he says, noting he should probably be focusing on recording despite the relief, both financially and physically, the shows provide.
“Performance gives me kind of levitation from my physical limitations. I’m really stiff and I have what is pleasantly described as degenerative disc disease, so I’m getting worse and worse. So I figured I better do something while I could, creatively.
To help him secure a few more shows and, possibly, further down the road, trap the new material for posterity, Bergmann reached out to Calgary producer Lorrie Matheson. Matheson, speaking in his Inglewood studio Arch Audio the day before the Bergmann interview, was, frankly, surprised, noting that the pair had played together and encountered one another in the past, but that it was a “weird relationship,” with the notoriously prickly Bergmann sometimes welcoming, sometimes antagonistic.
Matheson relates the story of the last time he played a show with the elder rock statesman in the late ’90s, a solo gig at the defunct Night Gallery, to which the local singer showed up to and was immediately and ominously informed that Bergmann was waiting for him in the club’s backroom.
“He’s sitting at the desk, slumped over, with a pint glass of scotch,” Matheson says. “He says, ‘You’ve got to go on last because I won’t be sober enough to play.’ And I said, ‘ How ’bout you stop drinking then?’ And he goes, ‘That’s not an option.’ ”
It only got worse, Matheson says, describing an, at that point typical, performance, which featured forgotten lyrics, half-finished songs and a mess of a show that the opener-cum-headliner inherited surreptitiously, setting up while Bergmann played, taking over when the soundman simply cut the mic of Bergmann, who simply went and sat in the crowd.
When Matheson began a cover of The Replacements’ classic Here Comes A Regular, Bergmann hopped back onstage, began yelling the lyrics into his ear, which caused Matheson to brush him aside, sending Bergmann tumbling over the speakers.
“He bounces back up, I look at him, and I go, ‘F — k you, Art. I love you.’ ”
That admiration is genuine — both musically and personally. It’s why Matheson has helped the singer set up his two Alberta shows, Friday in Edmonton and Saturday night at the Palomino in Calgary. And it’s why he may even take time out of his incredibly busy schedule to get Bergmann back in the studio, despite, once again, that reputation he long ago earned as being difficult, one that stuck with him and saw him alienated and cast out from the remarkably small and incestuous national music industry.
“He does not suffer fools at all,” says Matheson simply. “And this business is full of fools.
“People say he pissed it away. What did he piss away? Being famous? But what’s being famous? He’s on another level intellectually, he really is. And wanting to be famous is a fool’s pursuit. People who get into music to be famous, I hate them, I can’t stand it. And I think that’s probably why I totally admire that guy so much.
“And that guy right over there,” Matheson says, pointing to a poster of Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg. “Art is Canada’s Westerberg, for sure.”
As for that other reputation, that of not suffering fools, well, that he doesn’t necessarily consider a compliment, but rather a failing on his part for even getting into a position where they were to be endured.
“I was a sucker,” he says. “I should have stayed on the outside. I got suckered into this management (deal) ... and then three s — ty Canadian record deals. I didn’t know what it was and they didn’t realize they had a creative songwriter on their hands. They didn’t know what it was. They didn’t know whether I was rock ’n’ roll or not and that it was OK to be that way. They just wanted some clone of some, I don’t know what. I couldn’t nail it down.
“And there ended up being some financial conspiracy against me to keep me from playing. I couldn’t get any money to go on tour. The record would come out and then they wouldn’t know what to do with it, no idea.”
His well-known, oft-written about — including by him in his work — struggles with addiction certainly didn’t help matters, with many not wanting to deal with what many saw as Bergmann’s demons, a phrase he dismisses.
“No. I don’t believe in religious terminology. Other people might call it ‘demons,’ I call it research. Mental research,” he says. “But that’s 10 or 15 years back now.”
And unless it’s onstage, Bergmann would rather not spend too much time looking back. Not now, not when he can hear that creative clock ticking.
Again, he acknowledges that it’s getting louder, making things a little more urgent. But he’s also just as quick to point out that wanting and needing to be heard is what’s driving him now, not the fear that it may be too late.
“No, I’m not scared of that or death really. Just a little regret that I didn’t keep being creative. But I couldn’t keep up the confidence without any kind of input of support, enough support.” He pauses and then laughs. “Just a weepy old man, eh? Nothing worse.”
Soon after, the Herald photographer arrives, and Bergmann is coaxed out into the frigid prairie temperatures for a couple of shots and somehow, quite fittingly, the artist manages to look incredibly punk rock even while standing in the snow and shivering, wearing boots, a scarf and the grey peacoat left him by his late friend and beloved Calgary music journalist James Muretich.
After several minutes of chilly snaps beside a dilapidated red barn, Bergmann strikes a defiant, fist-in-front-of-face pose that should now be familiar to any music lover.
“Did you see the last photo of Lou Reed?” he asks, still statued in the stance that the recently departed icon was lastly immortalized in.