Bif Naked: Tough, Sexy, Cool

Straight edge, straight shooter Bif Naked writes candid memoir of close calls about rockin’ highs and great loves.

By Karen Bliss

Photos By David Leyes

Bif Naked

Rock singer Bif Naked is only turning 45 in June, but she has logged enough wild and inspiring stories to warrant a memoir. I, Bificus is released on HarperCollins and details her life thus far: born Beth Torbert in India, she was adopted by American missionaries and raised for the most part in Winnipeg, Manitoba, running into all kinds of trouble in her youth that could’ve got her killed. She discovered boys first—the source of many of her troubles and misadventures—which led to singing in eclectic troupe Jungle Milk and punk bands, Gorilla Gorilla and Chrome Dog.

In 1995, she launched her self-titled debut solo album and her career took off. Over two decades, she has released six studio albums, three EPs, a spoken word album and a compilation, leading to touring opportunities all over the world with dips into acting and hosting (she’s currently working on a new album called Heavy). In 2008, a year after marrying her second husband, a wedding that was televised through Bodog, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Afraid? Not Bif. The woman who has dusted herself off time and time again embraced it head-on with her secret weapon, humour—and lived to tell. Her marriage, however, didn’t survive, but on July 30 she will walk down the aisle in her home base of Vancouver with Snake, “the man of my dreams,” she says with certainty.

Bif spoke with ClearLife about her new perspective and what she might do next.

KB  Early in the memoir, still in the teen chapters, I’m thinking, “This girl has nine lives.” In hindsight, do you think you were just a rebel or was it the foolishness of youth
BN  I was validation-seeking.  I couldn’t relate to my parents, who were extremely strict, although I had a very positive relationship with both of my parents. As an adolescent, I don’t know if it was a response to some of the various sexual traumas I had when I was younger—which I didn’t identify as traumas until I was an adult because we didn’t have that language. It was just what we had to do as adolescent girls; we had to pick ourselves up and keep going. As a result, part of my coping technique was over sexualizing everything a little bit. I was still trying to find that validation and I wound up in a lot of potentially fucked up situations.

I, Bificus: A Memoir by Bif Naked

“We had to pick ourselves up and keep going.”

KB Humour is a big part of who you are. As a kid, you earned respect by becoming the class crown. You used humour after your cancer diagnosis. Is that a way to diffuse situations or connect with people or mask your true feelings?
BN Absolutely. All the above. It’s a great coping technique that kids have and carry with them throughout their adult lives.

KB There are so many details in the book, places and people you describe. One man you wrote looked like Ozzy Osbourne but talked liked a Muppet. Is your memory that good or did people help you fill in blanks?
BN If I was to ask my friends, they would say I had a memory like an elephant, but I feel I remember dumb things, not important things. I can’t remember my chart number for the cancer agency, for example, every time I go in there, nine years later. I don’t know my license plate. But the guy who was at the Personality Crises show in ‘97, I remember his name. Peter [Karroll, my manager] had to help with a lot of the touring details [and] I interviewed both of my parents for the book.

KB How was that?
BN  It was amazing. It both made me laugh, hysterically, especially my dad [he died in 2014] — he was an extremely funny person who made fun of himself and told these stories — but my mother’s description of her childhood was so dark and sad to me. When it comes to writing lyrics, I am really drawn to that type of emotion, so I loved hearing it. It was incredible, this story of this little girl who had no siblings, living in a house and her parents didn’t speak to her.

KB Did you know that before? Anderson Cooper just did a book with his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, and said most of us don’t really know much about our parents.
BN That’s very true.  I didn’t know those things at all about my mother, and it gave me a great deal of insight into why her personality is the way it is.

KB It must’ve been shocking for them to read some of your stories, especially from your teens.
BN My mother knew them all. My dad did to a point. My father would still think somehow that I caused it all. I could have been smarter; I am a knucklehead or something like that. I don’t think he thought it was as serious as it was. He thought I was a great exaggerator.

KB Probably better he thought that.
BN Yeah.

KB You say early on in the book, when you were already singing in a band, Jungle Milk, that you had no interest in singing. You just wanted to stare into the green eyes of Brett Hopkins [who became her first husband]. When did that change for you?
BN My first show with Gorilla Gorilla. It was still like, “Well, this is a great experiment—the performing art. This will be a great experience for me to have as a theatre actor.’ And then it was just natural. I loved writing lyrics and it was a great outlet for me. I don’t know if it would be different with a different genre or not, but it was a great fit. I just loved it.

KB You write that you had confidence about performing but not about real life. Is that the same to this day?
BN  I would say so [laughs]. It gets easier the older we get for sure, but now I find there are different things that happen as we get into our 40s that are less stupid, things I never I would think about, the skin on my neck; are you fucking kidding me? Wear turtlenecks. What’s going on? Stuff like that makes me feel insecure and that probably would’ve happened whether I was in nursing or teaching or performing. That’s a woman’s thing.

KB  What has changed for you in time, based on mistakes or insecurities?
BN  Now, I have a little more self-respect when it comes to people, whether they are being deliberately hurtful or I recognize that someone’s life is so toxic or they are always complaining. Before I would make excuses for them and try to help. Now I don’t. Now, I just find that I value my time a little more and I’ve less tolerance for those types of negative people.

KB What else has changed? The misogyny you experienced on the road?
BN  It still exists. Probably nine shows out of 10 shows somebody is going to yell, “Show us your tits.” And it gets defeating—I remember hearing it one time after I had already gone through chemo and had to do a tour in 2009. I felt really self-conscious the whole tour anyway; it was like people came to see the ‘cancer patient tour’ is how I framed it. And this guy yells it at a show and I remember thinking, “I should be exempt by now. I’m done. I can’t do this.” I was so shocked and offended. Now, I wouldn’t be offended. And I was never that offended. I’d do the eye roll to the guy: ‘You’re a fuckin’ Cro-Magnon.’ I always thought, “It’s like that in any job. It’s not necessarily the music business. It’s our society.” As years passed, I kept asking myself if I contributed to that? Maybe it was my fault because I wore a half-top. Eventually, I got to a place, “Whatever. I can’t analyze all of it now.”

KB  Why were you not afraid when you got cancer?
BN  I never thought once about my mortality. It never occurred to me that I was going to die, ever.  A lot of people are afraid of getting sick. They think the chemo is going to make them physically sick. Cancer for people, they visualize its end stage. They visualize all terrible stuff, but that’s not the reality.  And for me, the sad thing is it was a testament to where my life was at. It was my out. If I would’ve croaked, I would be completely happy. That’s a two-sided statement. One side is me saying, “My life was full. I did everything I ever wanted to do. I had a great life. I had a great upbringing. I fell in love. I fell out of love. What else is there? It’s okay. I am cool with dying.” And I could still make that statement today, except now I am in love with a boy and I don’t want to die.  At the time, my life was extremely lonely and isolated. I had realized that I had made a mistake getting married and I felt quite unsure of what I was going to do. My second husband and I were definitely not meant to be. The breast cancer expedited that revelation. I am grateful for it, but unfortunately, my relationship was so distracting, I never really had any trauma or fear surrounding any of my cancer treatment. It was my excuse not to go on tour because I wanted to be home with my dogs. I was burnt out from my job. I would say it was ‘my cancer vacation.’ Ultimately, I may or may not have been trying to minimize it and that was also for other people. When you have cancer, when you’re diagnosed you have to start consoling people because they fall at your feet sobbing. It’s not the other way around. Part of my clowning around just made other people feel better.

 

“My life was full. I did everything I ever wanted to do. I had a great life. I had a great upbringing. I fell in love. I fell out of love. What else is there? It’s okay. I am cool with dying.”

KB  You’re only in your mid-forties and you just wrote your memoir. How will book two end? You’ve got another 40 years.
BN  From your mouth or God’s. I don’t know. Vancouver is a chapter that I think is coming to an end for me. Plus, I am addicted to being in his hospital. I don’t mean as a patient; I mean as a volunteer. I also think I need to investigate how I can make this my job. Is that how I’m best going to serve people or am I just supposed to keep trying to get more speaking events with healthcare professionals? I don’t know. I also have to be realistic. I am still a self-employed artist. There’s zero revenue in music, unless you’re Taylor Swift. One thing that’s cool with our generation—life is very long—we can have two, three careers. We can do a lot of different things in one lifetime.