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Bif Naked Rocks On
Written by Liberty Craig   

photo Bif NakedBorn Beth Torbert to teenage parents in India and raised by missionaries in Kentucky and Manitoba, Bif Naked revamped herself as the edgy, Juno-nominated punk rocker we know today: the genre-bending female vocalist with her unique look and sound; the outwardly brash but soft-on-the-inside persona. She is perhaps most well known for her smash hit “Spaceman,” which helped the 1998 album I Bificus go platinum. The iconic “I Love Myself Today” from 2001’s Purge inspires a rock-out, scream-along-in-the-car kind of love-fest with Bif; while her 2005 cover of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” on Superbeautifulmonster is breathy and haunting.

When Naked produced her recent album, The Promise, she thought she was dying. Yet she went to the studio every day to do her work. As soon as it was complete, she made the soon-to-be-released Jakarta (which, says Naked, is “just filthy”). An acoustic album is scheduled for release next. Through it all, Bif has been battling breast cancer. She underwent a year of chemotherapy, had her ovaries removed, and was thrown into menopause as a result. All the while, her brand-new marriage was falling apart. She became a dedicated volunteer at the BC Cancer Agency. She turned 40.

Despite the many dramatic changes in her life, Vancouver-based Bif Naked says she’s the same person she always was. She spoke with Fresh Vancouver about cancer, love, eating disorders and her unique world view.

Bif Naked: Then and Now

When I put my first record out, I was struggling to gain acceptance in a boy’s world. My management used to tell me not to talk on stage because it would betray my heavy image. As soon as I spoke, I would be thanking everyone for coming, saying “Oh my gosh, I’m so happy to be here,” and they’d be like, “Hey! Shhh!” It’s funny because now they can’t control that, thanks to tools like Twitter. I feel like I’ve always been the same person. I come from a completely religious home – my parents were missionaries who raised me Christian and Hindu. There was no smoking or drinking in my house. There were gratitude prayers before every meal. I realize that I’ve become my parents; I am the sum of my parents.

The Sum of Parents

Having had the opportunity to meet my birth mother, I know that there is also so much of her in me. I like having the ability to discern what part of me is genetic and what part of me is environmental. My birth mother is only 16 years older than me, and we have so much in common. We look identical. I follow my birth dad on twitter, but he doesn’t know it. He has no clue who I am – I would never go there with him. It doesn’t matter anymore. I already know that I’m predisposed to having cancer so I don’t need the medical history, which was the original reason I contacted him.

Bif Naked with Breast Cancer

photo Bif Naked standingI didn’t have time to be a cancer patient. I still had to work, still had to be “on” and be a public person. I was Bif Naked with cancer, and that’s very different. There was no time for me to be anonymous or sick. But there are cancer patients who take the bus in from Surrey for chemo, or who have four kids and can’t find child care so they lug their kids in with them. On my sickest days, I would just think of what these people could do.

My cancer treatment was as expected: all my hair fell out and I gained 30 pounds. Most breast cancer patients I worked with gained a minimum of 20 pounds because of the steroids and hormones. With chemotherapy, your fatigue and malaise is cumulative. It was like having narcolepsy! After 13 months of chemotherapy infusions, I’m still on medications because I had my ovaries out, which also threw me into menopause. It’s been very interesting to have that unfold – it’s really nothing like what we think, just like cancer.

A Heart Full of Help

A lot of people have an inability to speak about cancer, or are under such shock and duress in an appointment with a doctor, they don’t have any clue what the doctors are telling them. They’re terrified and their family is terrified – no one’s listening, or they disassociate, or they don’t really understand. I discovered that I could help by acting as a medical translator or protocol cheerleader. I spent more time at the cancer agency, just seeing if anyone needed anything. Had I had a comfortable home situation, I may not have been driven out of my house to volunteer, and thereby discovered how much I loved doing it.

Marriage in Sickness

I’m getting divorced, which has challenged my trust issues. There was a lot that transpired and it really tested my faith in humanity. It’s hard to say what happened. He wasn’t into me; I don’t know how else to frame it. It really speaks to my decision-making process: I’ve said yes to every boy who’s ever asked me to marry him, and I probably always will – without regret! My first husband was when I was 18, and then I was engaged about three times. You go into everything with the best of intentions, but the universe said no. The universe said, because you married this person and you don’t know him, I’m going to give you cancer so you get to know each other through your coping skills. And if your coping skills are not well matched, it’s going to be pretty obvious that it’s not the best decision you could have made. More than anything, I just feel bad. I wouldn’t wish a wife with cancer on anybody. I’ve met a lot of patients who have wonderful, loving husbands. It can facilitate a real deepening between people, but that was not my experience.

Cancer + Divorce Equals... A New Album?

I just went to the studio every day instead of staying in bed. It was tough, for sure, but it was better than being at home. And it was a good process – I love my work. I love songwriting and I’m lucky to be doing the same thing 25 years later. It’s been amazing. At the time when I was making The Promise, I still thought I was going to croak. And then of course, I didn’t, and I figure God wants me to get through more of this life without any short cuts! So we finished The Promise and right after that we made the Jakarta record, which is filthy, just filthy. It’s all about sex. A year later we made the acoustic record, which isn’t out yet.

Less than Zero

I didn’t have a period from age 25 until I had breast cancer. Orthorexia is about people who work out in the gym for hours every day and maintain a strict diet. I think it’s much more common than we think. Whenever I was feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, I would decide that, spiritually, I needed to have nothing. I’d also be stuck on a tour bus with no vegan food and with a bunch of beer-drinking, steak-eating boys – which is great, I wanted them to be happy, but I would just fast. I wound up getting really underweight. I was a size minus one. People always said, you look awesome!

Raw Foodist Revolt

I was very stubborn and very strict about being a raw foodist – I was almost 100 percent raw for ten years. The first time my white blood cell count plummeted during cancer treatment, all I wanted was yam rolls. Like a pregnant woman! When you begin to recover after a round of chemo, right before you’re ready for the next round, you feel so much better and your appetite goes bananas. I wanted piles of yam rolls and, I assure you, sushi rice is not a raw food. I just thought, I’m going to eat whatever my body wants. One month all I wanted was pineapple. The next month, pineapple made me throw up and all I wanted was papaya. I would say I’m about 70 percent raw now. I figure, God didn’t want me to survive cancer and not have a fucking cup of coffee. Technically, you lose your raw food badge if you have coffee, but I’m okay with that.

Love of Forty

On my fortieth birthday, I was on tour in Thunder Bay, Ontario. I was doing laundry in my hotel, by myself, sitting on the washer and thinking, well, here you go. This is your glamorous life at 40. And you know what? It was perfect. I’ve decided I like it so much, I’m always going to be 40. When I’m 75, my friends will know to throw me a fortieth birthday party. Our culture is changing as our population ages. I know two girls from my gym who get injections. They say I need them, but I’m like, doesn’t that hurt? I’m not there yet; I can’t envision it. But I get the whole facelift thing. I’ll probably get a facelift when I’m 70, or maybe 60 – I’ll just pull it up! Why not? I do notice a difference at forty, but I can’t tell whether it’s menopause or age.

The World According to Bif Naked

photo Bif Naked at pianoIt’s hard for me to look at cancer like a difficult thing because it was such an easy facet of my life during that time – cancer was the least of my problems. It brought me to all my volunteer work, and I never would have had that opportunity if I hadn’t been diagnosed. If I hadn’t been anorexic, I wouldn’t have found my lump. I’m really grateful for all the adversities. My dad thinks I find a way to justify any bad things in my life. My positivity is a justification, spinning a silver lining to make myself feel better. I always say it’s a good way to rationalize our own anxieties – why wouldn’t we do that?

When I was 22 or 23, I was studying Buddhism, and it occurred to me that everyone has sat down at some point and cried heaving, uncontrollable sobs. Look around at all the people on the bus one day and think: what’s the thing that made you feel that way? It’s a great exercise to help you tap into an immediate compassion. If I feel stressed out or overwhelmed, I admonish myself and think, why is this moment all about me? It really does take me out of my shit. There are always bigger problems, and none of them are mine.

Beautiful Bif

What I think is beautiful in women is confidence. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have any as a kid. Once I started getting tattoos and doing the whole “Bettie Page in a wife beater” thing when I was 18, it was like an armour to appear tougher or less approachable. I was in ballet for 13 years trying to be very thin, and it never worked for me. I was a big girl. I was called “big butt” at my first job in Winnipeg, and I was called “modern dairy” in high school because my boobs were big. I was a normal, average girl. The tiny muscle girl I became was because I stopped eating. But I’ve had such a great career; it’s so much fun. I would be happy if I were a hospital orderly for the rest of my life, with just these memories. Anywhere I go from this point in my career is just fun.

Liberty Craig - Editor

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