Bif Naked fondly recalls her initial set at the Town Pump. It was the early ’90s, a few years after she’d moved from Winnipeg to Vancouver to pursue a music career, and the former Gastown club was a prime venue. That night, she wore the dress from her first wedding, on which she’d scrawled a four-letter word that “if we were a little more British…would be very funny”.
“The riot grrrl was coming out in me,” Naked says now, seated at her dining-room table. “It was a very serendipitous time in music. I guess every generation says that about their era. But the Town Pump—that and the Commodore, for me at those times in my life I never thought I would ever be good enough to play either of those rooms.
“And to be able to not only play them, opening for my heroes, but to be able to headline, eventually, those rooms? I could have died happy. Really. It was just the dreams coming true all the time.”
The city’s music scene is a backdrop in her newly published memoir, I, Bificus, which charts her trajectory from Beth Torbert, the adopted daughter of Christian missionaries in India, to Bif Naked, beloved Canadian rock star and social advocate, as famed for her warmth and courage as for her dynamic presence behind the mike. “Dodging death by violence, misadventure, cancer, and chronic heartache,” she writes on these pages, “I remain committed to this life of gratitude and total optimism because of my limitless sense of humour, my yoga practice, and my complete faith in humanity, still undaunted and unchanged. I love life and I love all the shenanigans it provides.”
“It’s my nice little story,” she says to the Straight, “that hopefully honours my parents, honours my personal life—the history I’ve had—and hopefully touches on music enough that people know how I got from being a good kid to the punk-rock-shouting person that I am in my job.”
The autobiography, which riffs on the title of her 1998 album I Bificus, better acquainted Naked, 44, with long-form narrative. (Despite having accumulated personal essays over the years in notebooks around her home, she remarks that her 1996 spoken-word album, Okenspay Ordway I. (a.k.a. Things I Forgot to Tell Mommy), her favourite of her recordings, was pivotal to her creative development. “It’s just idiotic, but it’s so funny to me. And I think that that really is the first example, for me, of finding my voice as a writer.”)
Naked’s prose, spirited and sincere, resists self-mythologizing. She describes growing up with parents who encouraged her interests and were unwavering in their love during her tumultuous adolescence and beyond. Covering customary terrain—her inadvertent start as a vocalist in several bands, her introduction to vegetarianism (Naked is a well-known vegan), her encounters with misogyny, her tours as a solo act who engaged the public eye—she is also candid about hardships that include sexual assaults and her treatment for breast cancer shortly after beginning her ill-fated second marriage.
“I could’ve kept writing it,” Naked says. “And that’s the problem with a memoir. I think that they just keep going until the day you croak.”
Her willingness to be open here came from the assumption that “everything had been covered, and already uncovered, in my personal life through my lyrics. I don’t think that there was a deliberation particularly about any specific events, whether they were joyful events or traumas,” she says. “And plus, I had spent so long deliberately not carrying any shame, that weight of that shame, so it never occurred to me that there was anything private.”
Revealing herself in print was less daunting than in music. “I find it really difficult to sing songs that are emotionally poignant. I’m trying to learn some songs to add to the repertoire [for the book tour] that we’ve never performed, so that I can read the story and then have the relevant song to perform.”
Already working on a new album (“We’re in the writing phases and that’s a fun place to be”), Naked is considering ideas for a sophomore book that would “go a little more deeply into cancer, and specifically things that are very pragmatic, subjectwise. I would like to talk further.”
Reflecting on the past, at this point in her life and career, “I found that I was very changed in many of my perspectives,” she says. “I was extremely dramatic when I was 25 and 22 and a young performer.
“There were things that are still important to me now as a female, and particularly a female artist, but at that time I was extremely sensitive and extremely impatient with society,” she says. “And now I look back at some of the ways I would express myself and it makes me laugh out loud.”
Bif Naked appears along with poet Betsy Warland and author Carmen Aguirre at the next edition of the Vancouver Writers Fest’s Incite series, Wednesday (May 4) at the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library. Bif Naked will peform next Thursday (May 12) 2016 at the Venue.