Late last year, I saw this tweet from actor, comedian, writer and former BETA guest, Bob Odenkirk:
The book that Odenkirk praised was "Guilty of Everything: 21st Anniversary Edition." It was written by my fellow Vancouverite John Armstrong. He's the founding member of one of my favorite punk rock bands, the Modernettes.
It got me thinking: how did Odenkirk discover Armstrong's book before I did?
So I asked Odenkirk about Armstrong's memoir and the next thing I knew, Odenkirk sent us a video message to share with Armstrong. Odenkirk said he was "knocked out" by the book and he hoped to meet Armstrong one day.
Armstrong seemed thrilled that his memoir got the Odenkirk bump. He joined Wisconsin Public Radio's "BETA" to talk about the enduring legacy of the Modernettes and the life-changing friendship he had with fellow punk rocker, Art Bergmann.
Sometime in the mid-1970s, Armstrong quit school and moved into Bergmann's three-bedroom apartment in White Rock, British Columbia.
"The first thing he (Bergmann) taught me was you have to write songs," Armstrong told "BETA."
Bergmann told Armstrong" "You could probably throw a beer and hit a really good guitar player. But if you write songs, you're ahead of the game."
While Armstrong learned to play, Bergmann would lay on the couch and instruct him on what notes to play.
"And then (Bergmann would say), 'Don't look down, don't look at the neck. You can't stand on stage and look at the neck while you're playing. You have to look at the audience."
Armstrong loves Bergmann's guitar playing, calling him "The Man of a Million Chords."
"To get from A to D, he'd play like six chords in between.They're called passing chords, and he'd be adding a note with a finger and then changing it and adding another note and it just flowed. That's probably the most important thing I learned from him," Armstrong said.
As the lead singer and guitarist of the Modernettes, Armstrong went by the name of Buck Cherry. "Like Chuck Berry, only sideways, sort of," he writes in his book. Armstrong was able to monetize the name by licensing it to the American rock band, Buckcherry.
When the Modernettes first formed, it didn't have a bass player. Armstrong told "BETA" he knew of Mary Bethlehem Wiwchar — stage name Mary Jo Kopechne — from the early punk rock scene in Vancouver. A friend told Armstrong the band needed a bass player, and he should get Mary.
"Everybody called her Pebbles because she had her hair tied up in one of those weird pigtails that's on the top of her head. You know, just the one thing that kind of sprouts like asparagus. And she wore a leopard print, almost like a caveman dress," Armstrong recalled.
"And I said, 'Who's Mary? He says, 'You know, Pebbles.' And I went, 'Oh, well, sure. Her and I don't like each other so much,'" Armstrong said. "He talked me into it. She came over. Learned the songs pretty quick. And I thought, yeah, well, if it doesn't work, it's only one gig, right?
"Next thing I knew, it was six years later. And we're married."
The Modernettes' most popular song is "Barbra." Its origin comes from a mix of tequila and Jan and Dean.
"The drummer in the Pointed Sticks lived downstairs from me in a house that had been turned into two apartments," Armstrong said. "And I was downstairs with him, drinking. And he was on to a Jan and Dean kick. He had a double LP of Jan and Dean's greatest hits, and he played it. He turned it over, played the other side. Then he got the second LP and played both sides of that. And then he went back to the first one, put it on again, like he was just going to play it over and over.
"And I said, 'Oh, come on, Robert, please, can we have a break from Jan and Dean?'
"And he said, 'When you write something as good as 'Dead Man's Curve,' then you can tell me to take Jan and Dean off the record player. And I was about halfway through the tequila, and I went, 'Fine, then I'll go and do just that.' And I took my tequila and went upstairs.
"And I plugged my guitar into my little amp and wrote this song. I don't know where it came from. I wrote it in about as long as it takes to play it. And I was so drunk that I misspelled Barbara. And that's why it's 'B-a-r-b-r-a.'"
But despite the story, Armstrong doesn't like the song.
"I think it's like a lot of people. You know, the comedian wants to play Hamlet. The skinny guy wishes he had better hair and the fat guy wishes he was skinny. And everybody wants to be, but they're not," Armstrong said. "I wrote what's proved itself to be a pretty good pop rock song, but I wanted to write great art."
One of the Modernettes' songs that Armstrong is very proud of is "The Rebel Kind."
Somebody told Armstrong that "The Rebel Kind" was going to be included in the next "American Recordings" album that producer Rick Rubin was working on with Johnny Cash.
"That would have been, you know, like Johnny Cash singing my song. OK, I'll take that. The fact that it was even on the list, that was a pretty huge compliment," he said.
'The songs survive'
It's been 43 years since the Modernettes began. Why does Armstrong think we're still talking about his band?
"I wish I had a good answer for that. You're not supposed to say this kind of thing, but we were a really good band. I wrote really good songs, and Art (Bergmann) was right. You know, the songs survive," Armstrong said.
It's no wonder that Armstrong's memoir is so well-written. As a journalist for The Vancouver Sun, he won a B.C. (British Columbia) Newspaper Award in 1992 for his story, "Too Much, Too Often: The Lonesome Death of Johnny Thunders."