Art Bergmann doesn’t play “Hawaii” live anymore. That’s understandable. He’s written scores of great songs and doesn’t want people coming to his shows solely to hear one anthem from 30 years ago. Bergmann has a whole catalogue of fierce punk, he’s not a one hit wonder.
Still, “Hawaii” is a brilliant track. Many people thought the reference to that particular paradise was just one of many destinations that escapist sun-seekers fly off to, and in a way it was because he also lists Miami and Tahiti in the song. But if you lived in Western Canada, Hawaii was THE sun getaway throughout the ‘70s. On account of the baggage that went along with those kinds of jet-setters and lazy-ass tourists ranging from smarmy high-rollers, baked hippies, creatures from the cocktail lounge and complacent suburbanites who all jumped on the 747 fast dash, contempt was at peak levels towards that breed when punk hit. “Let’s go to fuckin’ Hawaii” blew bitter smoke in their faces.
It’s curious how Bergmann devised such a clever kiss-off, straight to the point. When punk started to break regionally, too many bands tried their best to behave badly, trying hard to be snarly, rude and condescending. But with Bergmann, the Lenny Bruce flowed naturally and freely.
Raised in south Surrey, Bergmann’s recalls it being “a very, very wild place. I lived around White Rock, which was on the US border. Nearby a little town called Cloverdale, population maybe 2,000, was the drug capital of Surrey. They’d be cutting up drugs in the old pool hall, right on the counter. And there was everything from marijuana to heroin. It was unbelievable.”
Bergmann has been writing songs and playing since he was in high school. But in the mid-70s there was no place a band could gig in the Fraser Valley unless you had four sets of covers that you did six nights a week.
“You had to play the hits. And this was the era,” says Bergmann, with the disgust rising in his voice, “of bloated, stinking, rotten bands like the Eagles and Steve Miller, just absolute crap. All these cover bands wore satin bell-bottoms. But we just dressed outrageously from the word go, however we wanted with whatever we had.”
Then things opened up with what Bergman calls “the godsend” of the Sex Pistols: “I thought, ‘OK, here’s some kindred minds screaming through the darkness. The Pistols ripped off the Dadaists, which I had read quite a lot about. Critical thinking was part of my education, but is it for many people anymore? We’re taught to forget, not remember. And we repeat histories and all of its stupidities. So here was this band that said, ‘We respect nothing, we create our own music.’”
Pursing the origins of his cynical nature, Bergmann also cites the radicalism of Albert Camus and Louis-Ferdinand Céline along with the barroom philosophies of Charles Bukowski and the brash, young blood of the Yardbirds and early Stones.
By the mid-80s, Bergmann was writing, recording and performing as a solo artist, prolific and potent. Up to and including 1995’s What Fresh Hell Is This?, which won a Juno for Best Alternative Record, Bergmann had released a series of albums that unquestionably rank him as this country’s fiercest, punk poet laureate. Singing the same dirty street serenade as Lou Reed, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, Bergmann was a lot lower to the ground. His first person accounts far more blunt, raw and direct—he just spat out the details, sandblasted off the glamour and any of its romantic inflections.
Bergmann reveals, “Yes, well I took part of certain experiences to further my art, shall we say. To my own detriment, I must add, and was addicted for awhile.”
Despite a bad patch with substances and never being fully embraced by the music industry or the media, Bergman reigns and remains his healthy cynical self. Cynicism is not a bad thing.
“I see it as realism,” concurs Bergmann. “People don’t want to hear the truth. But, you know, there’s no compromise. You’ve got to stand up for it.”
Art Bergmann, with No River and Night Committee, take the stage Sat. November 30 at the Palomino.
By B. Simm
Photo: Sharon Steele