h1

Feeling numb about Art

March 29, 2009

I saw a lot of familiar faces at Art Bergmann’s concert last week. The Vancouver Sun’s John Mackie, who wrote many stories praising Art over the years, was there. Photographer Alex Waterhouse-Hayward, who captured Art’s rock and roll sneer better than anyone, was standing at the foot of the stage without a camera. A few bodies away Bev Davies, the Annie Leibovitz of Vancouver’s punk rock scene, did have her camera and she was snapping away. In another part of the packed Richard’s on Richards, Paul Wong – the video artist who created a stir at the VAG in 1984 – was holding court. I was with my friends David, Ian, Michael and Keith, all of whom I’ve known for more than 20 years.

I knew it would be like this. That anyone who was around in the 80s and experienced Art’s magnetism, absolutely had to be at the man’s first Vancouver show in years. What I wasn’t sure about was whether he could actually pull it off. The signs weren’t good. I read in the Straight that his hearing was damaged (no surprise) and because of his severe arthritis, Art would only sing and not play guitar. Then a friend told me that Art was interviewed on CBC Radio, and he sounded pretty rough.

“Junkie Don’t Care”, captured by ace videographer BunkleLife at the gig:

Art came on stage at 11:15 pm-ish and immediately plunked himself down behind a lectern that had been placed at the front of the stage. This was odd and worrying. But the musicians started playing, he picked himself up and put mouth to microphone. It quickly became apparent that the 56-year-old’s singing voice hasn’t aged well. While there were a few moments when he approximated the vigorously defiant punk from back in the day, he mostly came across as worn.

Seeing Art on stage without an electric guitar was just plain weird and wrong. Art’s guitar playing was never about technique. It was about drawing from his years of experience (in music and life) and summoning up an exhilarating sound. One that matched the raw passion of his vocals and the vivid imagery of his lyrics. At Richard’s, I kept hoping that Art would grab the guitar from Tony ‘Balony’ Walker (another punk survivor) and magically give us one more incendiary solo, or just a riff or two. It didn’t happen.

Art moved around the stage erratically. He had a mammoth, protracted struggle with his mic stand while obsessively adjusting it. When people brought Art some shooters, which he downed on stage, for some reason I got righteous. Even though Art had encouraged it, if these people really cared about Art’s survival they wouldn’t have plied him with drink.

“Our Little Secret”:

The morning after the show, a friend said this in an email: “I’m still recovering from the psychic shock of that one-man train wreck. That may have been the most dispiriting thing I have ever witnessed.” I won’t go that far; it wasn’t a complete train wreck. Art got through the songs, and he cared enough about the words to have the lyrics on the lectern, which he looked at through his thick glasses from time to time. And what did we expect? That Art would give a note-perfect performance, like the Pointed Sticks did at their reunion gigs two years ago in the same venue? That wouldn’t have been Art’s style. Plus there have been too many drinks, too much arthritic pain and time away from music, and too many broken promises from the music biz. Considering all of that, it was miraculous that Art performed at all.

The audience gave him a rousing response; they even jumped up and down during a few tunes. I didn’t clap or move at all. I just stood there feeling numb. It’s a tragedy that he never really got his due before it was too late. That hit home during the show.

On the way home, I put the just-released Lost Art Bergmann that I bought at the show in my car’s CD player. Listening to it brought back his ragged brilliance. The last few days I went a step further and searched around the house until I found it: his 10-song demo tape that was released in 1984 and re-released in 2000 as Vultura Freeway. In my view, these forgotten songs represent Art at his best, before the industry BS, lifestyle excesses and ill health took their toll. Despite the lo-fi format, the music crackles with vitality. If Art goes back to the Alberta farm he’s been living at and never does another gig, at least I have this old cassette. I’m going to listen to it some more.

BunkleLife’s review of Art’s show
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward’s take on the gig
My blog post previewing the concert

Advertisements

7 comments

  1. thanks Chris.

    your wrote:”When people brought Art some shooters, which he downed on stage, for some reason I got righteous. Even though Art had encouraged it, if these people really cared about Art’s survival they wouldn’t have plied him with drink.”

    the last time I saw him (playing solo at a hole in the wall on E Hastings) it was the same routine. those “fans” are assholes.

    that’s my last memory of Art Bergmann performing live and I didn’t think things would have improved 14 years later especially after hearing the CBC invu.

    some things are simply best left in the past.


  2. Well said…


  3. Rock n roll eats its own when the players in the drama believe and embrace their own bullshit. I hate to say it, but Art is one of them. He’s his own worst enemy. He left some blazing tracks on the way down, before the real entropy set in.


  4. it’s been a long time since he raised his voice above his usual whisper years infact, so if his voice wasn’t up to an album he did in his 30’s maybe lets call it age.
    he tried to play guitar, for an entire 2 weeks, until it had to be put to an end because he couldn’t walk anymore, his spinal surgery in october was like it never happened. back on the cane
    up until two days before the show, there was talk of calling it off, but for however kaotic his shows have been he’s never missed one…
    art practised everyday for almost three weeks, it did more than damage him physically but to find he really couldn’t play the way he wanted, crushed him.
    it took two years to talk him to even doing this, and maybe he wasn’t physically up to it. he was in incredible pain and the shots i am so sure were inpart to relieve his aching arms and legs so he could stand in front of a crowd that had paid to see him.
    as for the interview in the early am, after rehearsing the night before, sounding rough…give me a fucking break.
    art gave more than some you deserved, still paying for it as he hobbles from room to room, trying to stand up. i am glad you were so thankful he gave all he could and still got pissed on from a very low height.


  5. in case you were wondering, what kind of spinal surgery it was, it was to keep him from becoming paralyzed….years of giving all he could give…have given him nothing. drunk hardly–he could barely lift his feet to walk. i am glad everybody gets to say their two cents worth, it’s too bad they have to do it with only half the facts or in some cases, no facts at all


  6. Dear S,
    Thank you for placing comments on the blog. I’m very sorry to hear about the pain Art is in.

    In response to your comments, first of all, I never said that Art was drunk. There are two references to alcohol in the blog post. One reference is to the shooters that people gave him during the gig, and I didn’t criticize Art for that. Instead, I took issue with the people who gave him the drinks. The other reference was in this passage: “And what did we expect? That Art would give a note-perfect performance, like the Pointed Sticks did at their reunion gigs two years ago in the same venue? That wouldn’t have been Art’s style. Plus there have been too many drinks, too much arthritic pain and time away from music, and too many broken promises from the music biz.” This wasn’t about anything consumed at the show; this was a reference to the cumulative effect of past imbibing, and challenges Art has faced. Instead of thinking he was drunk, I could see that Art was firmly in character.

    What I wrote about Art’s voice was an honest reaction to what I heard. I’m sorry if you saw my words as denigrating Art, because that wasn’t my intention at all. I was actually writing from a place of respect for Art’s significant contributions, and sadness about the lack of proper acknowledgement.

    I sincerely hope that Art’s health improves, and that there’s more music to come from him.
    Chris


  7. don’t count on it



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: