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Guilty of Everything

by John Armstrong

Art Bergmann and the band DOA are more familiar to Canadian rock fans now, but 20 years ago their contemporary John Armstrong was just as central to Vancouver’s punk scene. Under the alias Buck Cherry (an inversion of Chuck Berry, of course), Armstrong led the pop-inflected Modernettes and briefly joined Bergmann in the ill-fated Los Popularos. His new memoir documents those frantic days.

The slim Guilty of Everything begins with Armstrong’s teenage years in White Rock, B.C., and ends in the early 1980s, shortly after a joyless tour with Los Popularos. In between, he learns the guitar, discovers an appetite for stimulants, trades punches with street toughs and rival bands, and pilots ramshackle vehicles across province and state. It’s all very reminiscent of the Hard Core Logo mythos, but Armstrong’s sardonic and conversational writing style, studded with frequent one-liners, keeps the narrative energy high.

The book’s narrow chronological scope – with no coda to update us on the lives of the principals – also heightens its sense of immediacy. Writer and reader are always in the moment, and Armstrong never condescends to his younger self. Occasionally, though, a little more context would be welcome. On his relationship with bandmate and life partner Mary Jo Kopechne (another punk stage name), Armstrong never gets any more revealing than “we stayed together for almost ten years.”

Armstrong also wrote some songs and made some records during the period covered here, but you’d barely know it after reading the book. Reissued Modernettes recordings show him to be a talented songwriter, but here he avoids any discussion of artistic processes or aims, perhaps in deference to the shambolic punk ethos.

Unfortunately, this robs the narrative of potential distinguishing features – after all, pill-gobbling and grimy van rides are the most generic parts of being in a band. Guilty of Everything is diverting, but there’s little here to attract readers who don’t already have an interest in the scene it recounts.