Canadian rock legend set to retire some of the more electric material from his live shows while also reissuing his eponymous 1991 release as Remember Her Name.
While he recently wrote a song about the opening of the West partly from a horse’s perspective, Art Bergmann is no fan of rodeos.
That’s why it’s ironic that interviewing him is still the same bronc ride it’s been for decades — zero to sixty in less than a second, ups and downs, corkscrew turns, kicking at shit and sky, and, sometimes, hitting the dust.
“You should call me on my shit,” Bergmann begins, phoning from his tiny prairie house just outside of Airdrie.
When asked what shit he should be called on, there is a pause, then: “Blurting out the usual forked-tongue contradictions I usually spew.”
Then, as he asks about the recent sudden death of a friend, Art talks about suicide.
“It’s a big decision and I think about it once a day. I don’t want to be a burden on anybody, I don’t want to do 20 years of downhill living because I can’t do shit. You know, you think about this stuff; intelligent people do, I think. But then, people get angry with you — but, then, you’re gone so you don’t … they might get angry that you left them before you took care of everything. I don’t know.”
All of this within the first two minutes; you need more moves than a package of Ex-Lax to navigate arcs and bends in a conversation with Bergmann.
And as for years of “downhill living,” Bergmann’s spine has been twisting up with osteoarthritis to the point where he can’t walk around his acreage, but bikes instead, which he says is still worth it if just for the view of the Rockies out back. He claims his memory is as shot as his body is.
Thus, he brought his Calgary band — bassist Peter Clarke, guitarist Joe McCaffery and drummer Ian Grant — together for one last round of rehearsals in preparation for what Grant labeled Art’s Last Great Rock and Roll Show.
“Well, last electric show, put it that way,” Bergmann explains. “Last time I’m going to play a lot of those songs, a lot of rock and roll songs electrically, because there is no recovery time any more. My body just fails, so I feel embarrassed doing them sometimes. I lack physical confidence.”
He adds that before, he could rest after shows, but now that doesn’t help. He lists songs like Bound for Vegas (written with Iggy Pop in mind to sing it) and Contract as some up-tempo numbers due for retirement.
“When you’re young you can pull that stuff off and be cranky, but when you get even crankier because you know more when you’re older, you just look like a cranky old man. People start talking about that and you just get embarrassment rushes.”
It’s astounding that the man who caused a flap by unleashing a wagon train of F-bombs at the Juno awards before pawning said statue to buy drugs, a man who has lived most of his life giving zero fucks about what anyone thought, is capable of suffering embarrassment.
Especially when, far from needing to be called on his shit, Bergmann has made a career of calling out shit — from his punk gem Hawaii in the 1970s, which mocked escaping the collective treadmill for a brief, hazy vacation, then getting back on (“Let’s go to fucking Hawaii, get drunk in the sun”), to the fatted-calf hit machine Dive (“Kid said, ‘Where’s your car? Where are you parked?’ ‘Hmmm, maybe it’s in the garage, where I was a star’ ”) to his 2016 album, The Apostate (“Kind of a country record put through a Bowie filter, ha-ha,” as he describes it), that tackles the red carpet of genocide rolled out before the pioneers, violence against women, and corrupt, soulless politicians — particularly those who happen to live in Airdrie.
“We ignore Airdrie. Apart from the other towns that are up and down the line from the south to the north, they’ve kept some of the old charm and revitalized them. Airdrie has ripped everything down and turned Main Street into a parking lot.”
He mocks the world as “living at the zenith of American exceptionalism … Your system begat this grotesque person who is now the most powerful man in the world” in a rambling dialogue that roves through the lies governments pull over their citizens’ eyes and minds, to civil wars and injustices.
When Bergmann mentions we have strayed away from music, I remind him these things are connected.
“True. (Music’s) a great, straight method of speaking your own truth while trying to find your way through thickets and forests of swamps and lies.”
So how does it feel to be retiring songs that navigated those forests and swamps?
“Relief. Really, no one knows these songs any more, not many people. OK, a couple of thousand; maybe they’ll all be inspired and move not forward but laterally with it. Slide sideways like everything else does. I mean, I hate that term, ‘going forward.’ ”
He may be exaggerating about people not knowing the songs. His third album, 1991’s Art Bergmann, has been re-mastered and will be re-released on May 12 on Toronto-based (weewerk) records as Remember Her Name.
While the album spawned three minor hits, it is being re-released because the original label, PolyGram, no longer exists. Bergmann hopes to eventually get the rights to all his recordings back.
“Yes, Dive (from the ’95 album, What Fresh Hell Is This?) is a favourite of mine. We were actually homeless when I won the Juno for that record. Fuck those fuckers; no one has actually really worked those songs. It only takes a few plays, people! Chickenshit.”
So with such warm fuzzy feelings about the industry, what advice would he give a young musician just starting out?
“Don’t expect to get paid. Peter Clarke and I were talking about it the other night — he teaches students, underprivileged youth. He said you just have to play. ‘You played at least six hours a day, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah, from the moment I got home from school until bedtime usually.’ He said that’s what you have to do. There’s lots of young bands that just sort of stomp it out — more power to them, it’s a great way to learn.
“If somebody puts a limit on it, about how to be a great writer or player, like, 10,000 hours or something, that’s good for book sales, but I don’t know why that figure comes up. It needs a lot; you have to give your life to it and you can’t put a price on that.”
From those times past, nothing, he says — not one gig or era — really stands out. Well, maybe one thing.
“It might have been a review I got for a show at the Calgary Republik. There weren’t that many people there, not sure exactly when it was, early ‘90s. A reviewer, I forget, I don’t even know who it was, in Vox Magazine: ‘They flew, they burned, they crashed, they dusted themselves off, got up again, and kept playing, and bid the audience adieu.’
“That was great.”
So of all these years, miles, gigs, recordings, band members, break-ups and memories, what’s the best part?
“The best part is writing the song,” he says. “When it’s fully your own, and you have an epiphany, that is the thing that is truly ineffable. After you are done, you think, ‘Wow, this song could change the world!’ and you realize, ‘No, it can’t.’ And you have to go to the next one.
“The moment of creation is the payoff and after that it’s all bullshit when they try to label the song punk, folk, Americana, alternative, indie. I don’t think that way. I hate labels on anything. Who was that bandleader who said, ‘It’s either good music or it’s bad music’?
“I am just going to be a shoe gazing old folkie.”
Art Bergmann performs Friday at the Ironwood with The Love Bullies. For tickets and reservations please call 403-269-5581.
Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who covers her two passions, music and horses. She has written in the Calgary Herald, FFWD Weekly, Swerve, Western Horsemen, Western Horse Review, Horses All and other publications, for over 25 years.