“Give me some emotion / Something I can chew on / Some honesty and hatred / Some lustful embraces.” These lyrics say a lot about the work of Art Bergmann. The Canadian singer/songwriter has never been a musical radical — his melodies tend to be easily digestible to anyone with a taste for heartland rock or widescreen pop and his arrangements are defiantly straightforward. But Bergmann’s lyrical sensibility comes from the side of the tracks inhabited by Lou Reed, Ian Hunter and Richard Hell — fueled by anger, sarcasm, disgust for homogeneity and a taste for the transgressive. He delivers his librettos in a cracking, often anguished howl, like a crime reporter failing to suppress his horror at the latest atrocity humankind has perpetrated on itself. His stinging, matter-of-fact guitar playing bolsters these artistic statements to excellent effect.
Bergmann first made himself known in the late ’70s with the Young Canadians, part of the original wave of Vancouver punk. Originally known at the K-Tels (before that corporation threatened litigation), the trio was punk less in style than in feel, playing stripped-down hard pop tunes with drive and attitude. No Escape collects the trio’s entire repertoire of singles, EPs and compilation tracks, and it makes a case for the YCs being every bit the equal of more celebrated brethren like the Payola$ and the Pointed Sticks. Bergmann and bassist Jim Bescott write and sing in urgent, artless voices with a winning combination of youthful energy and veteran professionalism. (Bergmann was in his late 20s and already had the wreckage of other bands in his rear view mirror by the time the YCs came to prominence.) “Picture of Health,” “Just a Loser,” “Hullabaloo Girls” and “Fuck Your Society” use catchy melodies, sardonic humor and considerable skill to express varying degrees of dissatisfaction, but it’s the withering sarcasm of “I Hate Music,” “Automan” and “Hawaii” (a certified Canadian punk classic) that hits the hardest. Punk fans who wonder where the non-hardcore side of the genre drifted in the ’80s would do well to pick up this excellent record.
After a stint playing guitar in Los Popularos, Bergmann recorded the tracks that would make up Vultura Freeway. Displaying confidence in his writing but uncertainty as to stylistic direction, Bergmann lays his fluid guitar work and ragged voice into a setting midpoint between danceable new wave and straight-up rock ‘n’ roll. The discofied basslines and synth fills seem at odds with Bergmann’s down-to-earth grit and, on “Poisoned” and “It Won’t Last,” they’re downright distracting. But the winning pop of “Yellow Pages,” the anthemic rage of of “Virgin Territory,” the lighter-waving balladry of “Grey Area” and the rocking melodicism of “Fade to Black” and “God’s Little Gift” play to Bergmann’s strengths, and the power of his songwriting overcomes any production fussiness. Several of these songs were re-recorded later, but there are enough tunes unique to this release to make it worth tracking down.
Following those sessions, Bergmann formed a likeminded quartet called Poisoned, releasing an incredibly rare cassette and a self-titled EP mixed by Payola$ guitarist Bob Rock. The vinyl includes three Vultura Freeway songs: “It Won’t Last” and “Emotion” benefit from stronger vocals, a better mix and bass that doesn’t call attention to itself, while “Yellow Pages” gets an almost adult contemporary spin, with the song shining through regardless. “Pretty Beat” explores similar rhythmic territory as “It Won’t Last,” while “Yeah I Guess” rocks in a way that probably cemented Bergmann’s rep as a Canadian Paul Westerberg. Perhaps the most telling song is “Guns and Heroin,” a cynical anthem that subverts Bruce Springsteen’s epic feel for a meditation on making a dishonest living in show business. While still feeling transitional, Poisoned lays the foundation for Bergmann’s subsequent work.
Replacing the bassist (with his manager) and keyboardist, Bergmann took Poisoned back into the studio with Rock and his Payola$ partner Paul Hyde to make a six-track demo that was supposed to snag the band an American record deal. That didn’t happen, but those 1986 sessions, plus the four songs on the Poisoned cassette, were eventually released as Lost Art Bergmann. Given a clean, surprisingly widescreen rock sound, Bergmann delivers a tremendous set of songs that convey raw emotions through an exploration of unsavory situations. Pitting bright piano against snarling guitar, Bergmann sneers at suicide on “Final Cliché” and the behavior of addicts on “Junkie Don’t Care.” “Our Little Secret” explores incest via shimmering guitar pop and “na na na” background vocals. “My Empty House” pairs upbeat rock thunder with a tale of family homicide. “Tell the Truth,” “Ill Repute” and “Black Heart” give society a chance to prove its worth and find it wanting. Only the powerful “Inside Your Love” offers any hope, and even that comes at a price. Sounding like a fully realized album instead of the demo it was intended to be, Lost Art Bergmann would have heralded the arrival of a major talent if it had been commercially released when it was made.
Signing with Canadian indie Duke Street (home of Jane Siberry, among others), Bergmann dropped the band name to avoid confusion with American hair metal act Poison and enlisted John Cale to re-record most of the demo as Crawl With Me. It’s unclear where the problem lay, but the missing energy on great tunes like “My Empty House,” “Runaway Train” and “Junkie Don’t Care” is palpable. The arrangements aren’t particularly different than on the original recordings, yet the tracks are mild, as if Bergmann and his band held back the passion of their previous performances. Even fine new songs like “(We Want) the Most Wanted Man in Town” and the title track lack fire. Only a remake of “Inside Your Love” escapes relatively unscathed. The finished record isn’t terrible, merely inferior to its sketches.
Sexual Roulette finds Bergmann almost boiling over with rage and disgust at the further decay of human relationships. But there’s no preaching here — just first-person narratives that border on self-loathing. “Gambol” shoves its hero out on the edge and watches him squirm, while “Bar of Pain” picks at an unhappy lover’s scabs. “Hospital Song” keeps a close eye on a co-dependent couple’s shared death dance (“Maybe later / We’ll get together / And have a relapse”), while “More Blue Shock” laments a friend already past the point of no return. The title track alludes to AIDS through the eyes of a selfish bastard, while the roiling “Dirge No. 1” puts the protagonist willingly in the middle of constant societal decay. Bergmann’s subjects grab desperately for love in “Sleep,” “She Hit Me” and the pretty “Deathwatch,” regardless of it being from all the wrong places. Flashes of humor (“I love you crazy / But please don’t steal my stereo”) occasionally leaven the cynicism, and “Bound for Vegas” roars out of the gate in a storm of defiance. But it’s Bergmann himself, cutting through the gloom with slashing guitars and a savage vocal performance, that really kicks a hole in the darkness. Producer Chris Wardmann, who would subsequently partner with Bergmann for most of his remaining albums, eschews studio fussiness, putting the author front and center and letting his talent carry the load. Sexual Roulette is a tremendous rock ‘n’ roll record.
Bergmann was nominated for a Juno, and the majors came calling. On the self-titled Polydor LP, Wardmann attempts to give Bergmann a slicker, more mainstream sound without compromising the man’s vision, and for the most part succeeds. Accompanied by shiny pop that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Tom Petty album, “If She Could Sing” ponders what a lover might say if artistically inclined, while “Faithlessly Yours” offers a sly parody of sex-as-sacrament. “American Wife” sets withering commentary about the cultural exports of the lower 48 to a dark groove. Stomping power rock drives the lustful “Baby Needs Oil” and “Remember Her Name,” which pays tribute to a party girl who’s like “Marianne Faithful / On a good day.” The self-destruction blues of “Ruin My Life” filters the Rolling Stones through Bergmann’s sensibilities. A remake of Vultura Freeway‘s “God’s Little Gift” closes out the record in a nice balance of Bergmann’s emotional power and ingenuity with Wardmann’s light commercial touch.
As is so often the case with iconoclastic performers, the record didn’t sell what Polygram hoped and Bergmann was dropped. He took an extended vacation to shake off drug addiction and came back strong in the mid-’90s with What Fresh Hell Is This? Sobriety clearly didn’t soften Bergmann’s outlook: the record begins with “There are no absolutes to human misery / Things can get worse.” His lyrical bile becomes more bitter and cynical even as he experiments with arrangements beyond teeth-gritting guitar rock. Suggesting that his old demons haven’t entirely left him, Bergmann revisits dissonant new wave funk in “Jones” and makes a post-punk anthem out of a junkie crawl in “Some Fresh Hell.” “Demolished” runs an R&B groove through a punk rock wringer for a bit of post-addiction philosophy (“Everything is best kept quiet / And a sordid past takes a poke at the future”). “Dive” is an atmospheric pop tune with a walloping drum track and a sense of urgent desperation. “Nearer My God to Thee” is a widescreen folk rocker that sneers at stone-throwers who ignore their own glass walls, while “Buried Alive” is a tender ballad of willingly accepted bad love for a woman or a substance (or both). “Another Train Song” and “In Betweens” are powerhouse rockers full of bitterness, anger and coruscating guitar hooks. Basically, the record documents a war between sober clarity and cynical rage, as summed up by a remake of the Poisoned track “Guns and Heroin”: “So if I seem close to danger / What does the Bible say / Nothing will ever change / Safe in our beds / Like the rich in their tombs.”
What Fresh Hell Is This? earned Bergmann a Juno for Best Alternative Rock Album, but he was dropped again anyway. When he reappeared in 1998 with the independent Design Flaw, he was taking stock rather than moving forward. Joined by English guitarist Chris Spedding (!), Bergmann recasts his repertoire in acoustic terms, shining a new light on tunes as diverse as “Faithlessly Yours” (wistful pop), “She Hit Me” (sardonic blues, with producer Peter J. Moore on harp), and “Our Little Secret” (resigned balladry). After a solid run through the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Sin City,” the lone new tune is “Hungout to Dry,” a lovely waltz which ends this shockingly beautiful record on a melancholy note.
That, unfortunately, was the end of Bergmann’s recording career. Health problems and industry indifference sent Canada’s punk poet laureate into retirement on a farm outside of Calgary, where, barring the occasional gig, he remains.