‘This is a stick-up:’ In conversation with Art Bergmann on Songs For the Underclass

Monday 15th, December 2014 / 16:00
By B. Simm
Songs For the Underclass EP cover.

Songs For the Underclass EP cover.

CALGARY — Late last summer Art Bergmann released a four-track EP called Songs For the Underclass. When he played at the Commonwealth in October, I scooped the CD and slapped it in the car deck the morning after. Whooooa! The first track, “Drones Of Democracy,” hit like a jolt of lightning. Guitarist Joe McCaffery squeezing mesmerizing magic from his guitar. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Canadian play so damn compelling, very unusual! While it’s cliche to say a guitarist is mesmerizing, riveting, captivating, intoxicating, etc., the intro and solo on that song is all that and more, and totally unexpected. Yet a perfect rocket-ride for Bergmann’s intense statement concerning the convoluted state of democracy. The rest is of the EP is filled with potent, uncompromising political commentary from one of Canada’s finest rock ‘n’ roll writers. Smitten with the release, I tracked Bergmann down at his farmhouse outside Calgary and tossed him some questions asking to elaborate on all four tracks off Song For the Underclass.

“Drones of Democracy”

BeatRoute: William Gibson said his stories were about the “not-too-distant future.” Well the future is now, it’s arrived. Straight from the pages of Popular Science circa 1936, drone technology is now a reality. The technology is amusing, invasive, menacing and potentially far more destructive than most of us know or want to admit. We don’t have to resort to conspiracy theories either, drones already have a reputation that precedes its ability. When you attach the idea of democracy to drone technology, especially the political/military culture it’s evolved from, it’s about the kind of havoc the so-called free world can and does create with drones literally and more so figuratively. Would that be a correct assessment? 

Art Bergmann: Short answer, yea-uh… The idea originally came, of course, from the collateral damage caused by this technology, less euphemistically the thought of a person picking up their loved ones with a plastic bag. After the Boston bombing, Paul Theroux pointed out that these weapons (cluster bombs et. al) are made all over Massachusetts, most severely ironically near Newtown, site of the horrific murder of many children. As I worked on and cut and honed this lyric it seemed to expand to include four different types of drones: 1.) the military drone at the joystick; 2.) the drones of the West who acquiesce in this murder; 3.) the sleeper cell drone waiting for instruction, and, of course, 4.) the machine in the air. It will be interesting to see if enough citizens get enough drones of their own to fight off the militarized police forces in the street to come.

The William Gibson reference is good. Such an intelligent segue from the door-opener Philip K. Dick. Everyone should re-read Neuromancer, we are almost there.

“Company Store”

BR: Coming off the stratosphere guitar and trippy effects of “Drone,” “Company Store” with its farm chords blazes away in a different direction—commercialism, exploitation, sweatshops, slave labour, indignities, unethical, inhumane practices and shady operations that Adbusters only touches upon.

“Everything you buy is an act. There’s pain made from gain that’s a fact.” 

I know you’re talking about the atrocities delivered by capitalism on a global scale, but when you mentioned the pipeline runs that runs to the “little town of Calgary,” one of the company stores that springs to my mind is that the indulgence oil and gas clearly creates an unequal distribution of wealth not only for those that live here, but the rest of the country as well. I love the socialist imagery on the CD cover. Songs for the underclass, indeed. 

AB: “Company Store” is an update on the fighting union song “16 Tons”. I had just read a graphic/journalistic book by Chris Hedges and Joe Cacco called Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. One story was about the lonely fight of one man trying to save his island of land from big coal companies who have turned West Virginia into a wasteland of coal-slurry mudslides. The first line that came out [for “Company Store”] was, “You can cut down that mountain, and put it on a train, Peabody’s thugs keep comin’ ‘round again.” Trumping that was, “You can smell the women burning in the clothes you wear,” in reference to factories in Bangladesh. I could go on and on, the evidence keeps pouring in. This system won’t stop until everything is gone. The socialist/communist imagery is an attempt at double reverse branding. We know what big-C communism was: a toxic, cynical new version of absolute monarchy. In the West, our paperwork and bafflegab work a little better to hide our crimes.

“Ballad of a Crooked Man”

BR: The crooked man, the weary, weak man beaten down by it all, walking down that crooked, meandering path leading in and out of all the tragedies. And we are all crooked men, beaten down, and also guilty of contributing and collecting from the crimes we’re associated with. I really like the ballad intro, then the burst of rage, and then back down to the quiet reflective ballad… defeat. 

I’ve been thinking of Obama’s reign. All the promise, and yet did he really accomplish very much? Seems so futile sometimes. And frightening knowing the flipside, the political opposition to Obama in the States will use the full weight of their effectiveness to rally and propagate all their prejudicial horses shit to the extreme. It feels like this is a serious end point for America. They face capitalistic tyranny, cultural divisions and discrimination on every level. Gazing into the crystal ball, what do you see? 

AB: At first the crooked man was just self-referential to my decrepit body, but after a while (read Death and the Dervish by Mesa Selimovic, a beautiful allegory about how to face up to faceless authority with courage), I realized the crooked man was all of us, again. From that book came the lyrics, “Cowardice pervades us, the words fall out of our mouths even as we are ashamed to speak them.” In the song our cowardice makes us crooked with corruption. Gazing into the future, the only light here is the thought that Gaia will be the last reactionary when she kicks our asses. Before will be some of the darkest days we’ve ever created.

P.S. While rehearsing this song in Vancouver, Paul Rigby called the rage section, “When the revolution comes.”

“Your Cold Appraising Eye”

BR: Perhaps this is what appears staring back in the crystal ball. The aftermath: the cold, calculating appraising eye; the “gold” appraising eye that went for the brass ring… “Enough to choke a river.” It’s like a eulogy with its gospel backup vocals; a judgment in which the exploitative ambitions of capitalism merely results in a death that will not be revered or respected in the end. A universal truth repeated over and over. Yet greed still doesn’t register as a deadly sin with those obsessed by it. Yeah?

AB: The words at the end are “Saxon men with eyes for gold, in the hunger game, they always bid low.” The idiocy of passing on some monumental legacy, as the previous song asks…”This is your inheritance, can you live in your head with the crimes of man?”

BR: This is one helluva of a smart novella. Standing on a soapbox in a sense, but in a way that speaks an undeniable truth. Whose ears will hear and listen?

AB: At the beginning of all this, I was excited and thought, the world wants and needs these songs and I was in a big hurry. But now I realize “it doesn’t mean shit to a tree” and “the last thing the world needs is another folk-singer.” This business of art is anathema to me. If I got to do it all over again, I would do like Zapata/Guevara. Way more fun, funny. We do not have time for politically correct democratically waffling. This is a stick-up.

Songs For the Underclass is available now.

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