Art Bergmann: Punk rock iconoclast, singer of hard truths and, now, Member of the Order of Canada

He got in trouble at the 1996 Juno awards for being in a bathroom stall with his stunning wife, Sherri Decembrini, doing things that were naughty, nice and, well, illegal. He pawned said Juno earned then for Best Alternative Album (What Fresh Hell is This?) and bought heroin. 

He recorded albums in the 1980s and ’90s chronicling the unreal things that happen in the underbelly of the world of sex, drugs, and punk rock. In 2015, he appeared on CBC’s As It Happens for a song he wrote, The Legend of Bobby Bird, about a 10-year-old Nêhiyawi (Cree) youth who ran away from a residential school and whose remains were discovered decades later; Bird’s family joined him with gratitude for bringing more of that story to light.

And now, Langley-born Art Bergmann has joined musicians like Stompin’ Tom Connors, Gordon Lightfoot, k.d. lang, and Bruce Cockburn in becoming a Member of the Order of Canada. Of course, Celine Dion also is a member, but bringing that up would be like bringing up the “shhh” word to Bergmann – you know, shhh. Like, hush! Literally, 2019 recipient S.H. as in “shhh.” Which, he does bring up, and it is not the sound of love. But, still. This is about Arthur, not our former PM.

After weeks of phoning and finding Bergmann was still in bed, we caught up on with him at his home in a cozy farmhouse outside of Airdrie, AB., a city to which Bergmann paid a backhanded (like if you were backhanded by your mom for swearing in church) tribute in his song Town Called Mean in 2016. The songwriter was his usual chaotic, charming self.

“It’s nice. And shocking. There’s a lot of skaters on the list,” Bergmann says, then asks who is on the list – like I have it memorized. I mention Lightfoot, but not, well, you know. Her.

“I have two minds about it. I’m not sure what I did to deserve this compared to some of the people who’ve gotten it. I’m honoured to be in the company of those who help people. But what did I do to deserve this? Nothing.”

Not true. After welding his love of ’60s songs by bands like The Electronic Prunes and The Balloon Farm with his newly discovered love of Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, Bergmann started out with his band The Shmorgs, then The K-Tels, who changed their name to Young Canadians under threat of a lawsuit, in Vancouver in the 1970s when punk rock made it OK to say all the things you thought about saying but couldn’t because, well, mom and her backhand, for one.

He then moved through bands Los Popularos, Poisoned, and into his solo career while speaking truth with glower while being brave, compassionate, and unwavering in both his idealism and his gritty realism — a rare feat. This resonated with thousands of youth trapped in suburbia like flies conquering the flypaper, drowning in visions of working at K-Mart or the bottle depot until death relieved them of their droll little lives. Now, thanks to Bergmann, there was something else, a fist pounded into the flabby, polite, gutless wonder of the Canadian daydream. In short, Bergmann saved lives and gave those lives words for their anger, curiosity, freakiness and strange textures.

But none of this seems to matter when he states, “John Lennon gave his back!” Well, the British version, anyway.

Due to the pandemic, there will be no ceremony in Ottawa until things are safer. Bergmann’s take on this? “That’s so they could avoid me. They want to wait until I’m dead to do it.” Well, maybe they’ve heard the stories.

So, here with 2021 knocking at the door, what would Bergmann have said over 40 years ago when he was hanging out with his punk peers The Subhumans, DOA and The Modernettes if he had known he would be offered an Order of Canada?

“I hate that question!” Bergmann replies. When pushed, he offers this: “I would have said, ‘Fuck them!’ They should legalize marijuana.”

They did, Art, they did. It just took a few decades.

“Maybe I’ll get a pardon for this. Possession of marijuana,1976, White Rock, BC. Busted in my very apartment by the most notorious narc in British Columbia.”

Ah, sometimes it’s better to let sleeping Arts lie. Actually, no, it isn’t. Not ever.

(Photo courtesy Lisa MacIntosh.)

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who thanks Bergmann for putting out music that made it worth staying alive to hear.