By Jason Motz
“Some people take everything so goddamn literally. I’m in a really stupid business.”
“I just wanted to be good, like the Beatles in Hollywood.”
– Art Bergmann
The name Art Bergmann will never appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Neither will the counterculture zeitgeist ever acknowledge this Canadian wild man. The punk son of a Mennonite family, Art Bergmann earned his comparisons to Iggy Pop the hard way: drink, drug, and danger. As the frontman for The Young Canadians (Vancouver’s greatest, shortest-lived punk band), Los Popularos and Poisoned, Bergmann was frantic, frenetic and fanatical in his approach. In an era of Kenny Loggins’ stardom, Art Bergmann was the snotty rejoinder to MTV chic. Crass. Honest. Brutal. Real. Everything a pop star should not be. Most of all, Art being Art, he did not want to be anything other than himself.
But beneath Bergmann’s wild man persona, there lurked the soul of a writer, a street poet in the vein of Lou Reed and Jim Carroll. That he is little more than a cult figure in Canada is a shame. Not a surprise, given his enmity to the record industry (some artists bite the hand that feeds; Art ripped it off and spat it back).
But for those in the know, Bergmann’s work is one of the most endearing and enduring bodies of work. Canadian or otherwise. At the peak of his artistic/commercial talents lies one of the most vital albums of the 1990s, Sexual Roulette.
“I’m a never-was trying to be a has-been/A has-been on the comeback trail”
– ‘Bound For Vegas’
1990 has to go down as a banner year for druggy albums: Jane’s Addiction, Depeche Mode, Ragged Glory and every club thumping number in the UK provided free advertising for the cartels and purveyors of fine substances. And then there is Sexual Roulette. In an era of highly stylized pop, when Billboard asked if rock and roll was dead (AC/DC was the only rock act to have a #1 album in Canada that year), Sexual Roulette was the real deal: a warts-and-all collection of furious and scabrous garage rock; a dark ride through the perils of cocaine psychosis and domestic abuse; a filthy-sounding racket whose prettier moments are a dramatic ruse: beneath the summery lilt of ‘The Hospital Song’ was the year’s most disturbing chorus: “Maybe we’ll get together and have a relapse.”
At a time when the AIDS epidemic was only begining to be treated with serious attention by the music industry (The first Red Hot + Blue collection came out that year), no other writer was more direct than Bergmann: “What are the consequences? Are you giving me something/ that I’ll get in five years’ time?” Like Travis Bickle, Bergmann was taking listeners for a tour down the dark streets, showing the underbelly of a diseased city.
Sexual Roulette manages a deft trick: it’s a dark ride and a harrowing yarn, but in not a complete bummer (a la Tonight’s the Night.) Credit goes to producer Chris Wardman for orchestrating a rock sound that breathes fire. That ‘Bound For Vegas’ became a modest hit in Canada, is all on Wardman. Canadian radio listeners were bombarded with saccharin pop (Celine Dion), bland rock (Alannah Myles) and washed-out blues (Colin James and Jeff Healey Band). Art Bergmann was like snot smeared across the balustrade. From 1990-1994, there was more Canadian rock on the radio than ever before. (Thank you, 1971 CRTC ruling!) For every three Rush songs on the playlist, there were spasms of life from the likes of Bergmann, Sons of Freedom and Junkhouse. Canada’s own explosion of alternative bands brought a legitimacy to Canadian radio waves previously unheard: Sloan, Eric’s Trip, and the Tea Party.
“There are so many guitar bands now, guitar bands that detune on purpose, so that’s unfashionable. So what am I going to do? Maybe just go in there and walk on the guitar,” Bergmann once said.
Viewers of MuchMusic, the Canadian cousin to MTV, would see Bergmann videos crop up in a rotation alongside Midnight Oil and Sinead O’Connor. (These were weird times, Jim.)
WATCH THE VIDEO FOR ‘BOUND FOR VEGAS’
The first single off of Sexual Roulette, ‘Bound For Vegas,’ never failed to provide a jolt in me. There was an elemental sense of danger that I loved in the song -the same danger that links Little Richard with The Stooges: a carnal tone that threatens to come undone, but holds its own. ‘Bound For Vegas’, perhaps the best Canadian rock single of the decade, tells the story of a Bergmann-type artist who has to sell out to the Vegas circuit to achieve fame. Inspired by Iggy Pop, it was also a portal into the career path of Bergmann. If Bergmann had played the right cards, he could have fulfilled his own Iggy Pop destiny. (Bergmann came close with his appearance in Highway 61, a film nowhere near as impressive or iconic as the Iggy-fuelled Trainspotting.)
But Bergmann was not one to play the games that corporate children play. Case in point: Here’s one choice quote, delivered to Vancouver Sun reporter John Mackie in 1990. “They’re wimps … the whole Canadian music industry is a pile of wussies. Honeymoon Suit (sic). Alotta Miles (sic). It sounds like one big fucking beer ad, it’s disgusting. And all these heavy metal bands with their cynical ploy for radio play with their ballads – come on. They call me cynical.”
Abuse, suicide, madness and paranoia. The menu of bleak shit that is Sexual Roulette makes for one uncompromising record. Blunt as a hammer to the head, Art’s depictions of skid row life are far from Hollywood soundstages. Patrolling his own neighbourhood, Vancouver’s notorious East End, Bergmann chronicles the decaying motels, pissed-up alleys, titty bars and clinics, and barred-up convenience stores. Chronicles. Observes. There’s no moralizing narrator, no omnipresent Christian host offering absolution. There’s not even a Devil advocating to tell his side of the story.
Sexual Roulette is a 45 minute cab ride through a shithole urban DMZ. And Art’s the dude behind the wheel, a billowing fog of cigarette smoke about him. He chuckles with sardonic terseness, his voice accented with nicotine. He’s pointing out friends of his, telling you their stories, and he sounds as if he’s been numbed by the toll. There is a humanity at the core of Sexual Roulette, the very same conscience that Hank Williams died exploring. That Bergmann survived in more or less functional shape (he has semi-retired due to arthritis) is one of rock’s little miracles.
While Jane’s Addiction took a shamanistic view of drugs (and violence, sex and whatever else that goes bump in an L.A. night), and Depeche Mode took to drugs the way they did Gucci, Art played it to the bone. The hospital visits, suicides, and assault charges are all so breathtakingly mundane. As he told Chris Dafoe in a Toronto Star interview in 1990: “There’s a bit of autobiography there …although you’d have to take the songs line by line. Sometimes I’ll make up a character or play someone I know. And obviously things have to be embellished a bit. But the nastiest bits are usually true.”
‘Sexual Roulette’ depicts the paranoia brought on by AIDS. One of the few songs to treat the epidemic with gravity, Bergmann’s vocals sound like gargled glass and wire.
‘Dirge No.1‘ is the albums heaviest moment, netting scads of Led Zepplin comparisons at the time for the Page-ish orchestration. But unlike Led Zep, this is not fantasy world hokum about wizards and warlocks. What we have is Art’s recollections of spending seven nights with a friend undergoing a fit of cocaine psychosis: “I will be clean as Christ on the Cross/ Restitution for everyone who dies along the way having fun” he sings, in his way recalling Johnny Thunders, Stiv Bators and Iggy himself.
‘Sleep’ has the narcotic lure of a mellow nod. “If you’re sick of the cocaine, and driving around ’till it’s all gone,” Bergmann sings. The refrain of “Let’s go to sleep” glistens with the icy glaze of death.
‘More Blue Shock’ recounts the suicide of a friend with with benumbed matter-of-fact reportage.
‘Deathwatch’ is a solo acoustic number; it’s the oldest track here and dates back to Art’s early solo days. Recorded at the witching hour, it has the death rattle chill of Robert Johnson, the sparse aura of On the Beach and the knife-edge intensity of Blood on the Tracks. A quiet, sombre track, its closure provides something far more deafening than a primal scream; the vulnerability suggests that all of the stories that have just been relayed will repeat ad nauseam.
Sexual Roulette is not an artistic statement. It is a bar rag of truth, sopping up the blood and the sick of a hedonistic party. Few albums depict the lifestyle of drug and alcohol dependency with such bare-knuckle intensity. That Bergmann is still alive (and sporadically performing) in 2013 is a testament to his spirit. Though he would only record two more albums after Sexual Roulette, the now sober Bergmann has produced a legacy is intact. Preserved on a humble discography for all those who seek it to to cherish it. The punk equivalent of Townes Van Zandt, Art Bergmann deserves greater recognition. And people who do not like to rip off society’s scabs need to be forced into Sexual Roulette.
“I do what I do and a lot of people like it, a lot of people don’t, and a lot of people are scared of it. Personally, I like a good song.”
WATCH ART BERGMANN IN THIS VINTAGE CLIP WITH THE YOUNG CANADIANS PERFORMING ‘HAWAII’
WATCH ART BERGMANN’S VINTAGE CLIP FOR ‘ OUR LITTLE SECRET’