Art Bergmann reclaims his throne as punk’s great Canadian troubadour

Art Bergmann was Canada’s musical bad boy for two decades. Starting with the legendary Young Canadians, Poisoned and Los Popularos, appearing in classic films like Hardcore Logo and Highway 61, he went solo in the eighties and emerged in the nineties as an elder statesman of a nascent alternative punk scene finding a new form, alongside colleagues like DOA and upstarts (sic) like Nomeansno, all who provided influence on the Seattle sound that came up seemingly out of nowhere.

Canadians will be aware of Art Bergmann’s ubiquitous role in alternative music throughout the nineties, but most have forgotten about him. So, a few years ago, when Phil Klygo from Toronto’s indie stalwart Weewerk announced a new album by Bergmann, and a subsequent tour, what was more alarming was the fresh sound that Bergmann was making with his first release in nearly 15 years with Songs for the Underclass.

Barking out songs like the Dylan-esque Company Store and delicate self-effacing songs like Ballad of a Crooked Man, referencing heroes of the past like Lenin, Anarchists of Catalonia, Robespierre while coming across somewhat autobiographical at the same time, it was hard not to think this was just a burst of work he’d wanted us to hear.

But that wasn’t all. Bergmann then released Apostate, positioning himself as a disciple, daresay Messiah, and giving us a sound that twenty years ago would never have been associated with him. Soft and tender, the small collection of songs takes Bergmann to a singer-songwriter stance, seemingly more comfortable than being a pop star, which is what a misanthropic music industry tried so hard so desperately to position him.

“I’ve been listening to a lot of African Music, especially the work of Ry Cooder, who has embraced a lot of African artists in his work,” says Bergmann from his home in Airdrie, Alberta where he moved from his home in Vancouver years ago to help him cope with chronic arthritis.

But his latest release, comes to us from 1991, Remember Her Name, first released by Polygram records and largely ignored by the mainstream, not just by fans, but by an audience enamoured with so-called alt-rock emerging out of the US and parts of Canada, that claimed the quality of the music started with the quality of the production, the dirtier, the better and the industry was at a loss as to what to do about it (as usual).

Listening to Remember Her Name now is a revelation. As producer Chris Wardman says, “It’s amazing how well it stands up today.”

Wardman, who has played a big role in Bergmann’s resurgence, producing and playing with him live, says he can’t understand why Bergmann’s work isn’t more understood or appreciated. Wardman himself is a legend, having played in Blue Peter and produced a long list of records in the eighties and nineties said at the time, the opportunity to work with Bergmann was a gift. Wardman also produced Bergmann’s more well-known album Sexual Roulette.

What grips the listener as soon as Remember Her Name kicks off is the big sound. Especially those who are new to Bergmann’s work. Songs like American Wife and Baby Needs Oil, you will scratch your head as to why those songs didn’t become alternative rock classics, jump out immediately, sounding bombastic, allegorical and confrontational and as well-crafted as anything that passes today for classic alt-rock.

All considered the re-emergence of Art Bergmann is a girding revitalization that reminds a world inundated by auto-tune and drum machine beats that singer-songwriters are the foundation of what we call popular music. Bergmann is a treasure for those seeking authenticity and introspection peppered with the right amount of indignation and anger. God Bless Art Bergmann.

About Phil Saunders (17 Articles)
I have been a professional writer since 1988 when I began my career as a music journalist. In 1998 I began working at CBC, after returning to work with a Master's in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. In 2000 I co-produced a feature film that was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival among other North American film festivals. In 2016 I published a book on the Toronto underground music scene called No Flash Please: Underground Music in Toronto 1987-1992. I am also a photographer and documentary filmmaker.