Like myself, Bif Naked was raised in Winnipeg and moved to Vancouver in the early nineties. Unlike me, she’s been successful. Ba dum tsh!
I like Bif. I think she’s a nice person (I’ve interviewed her – twice, I think; most recently for the Vancouver Sun). I had hopes for I, Bificus, her new memoir. This is against my better judgement, because I remember not thinking too highly of her spoken word CD, 1997’s Okenspay Ordway (actually, I think I gave it a rather harsh review in the Georgia Straight. If so, and if you’re reading this, Bif – I’m sorry. All – well, many – of my negatory reviews in those early years came from a place of fear and insecurity). Also, that title: I realize it’s taken from the album of the same name, but still.
Mostly, I guess, I wanted to read about her take on Vancouver in the early-to-mid-nineties, and on Winnipeg.
She’s led an interesting life, our Beth Torbert has, from being adopted in India to being one of the first frontwomen in the burgeoning post-Nirvana alt-rock scene to her recent bouts with breast cancer. In I, Bificus, the 44-year-old recounts her times in a haphazardly chronological fashion, touching on sexual assault, bad boyfriends, good boyfriends, her rock bands, her straight-edge vegan lifestyle, her earlier, not-so straight-edge lifestyle, her manager, some shows and a little bit about music. But detail and insight are hard to find, and some passages are confusing or add nothing to the story (see below: dildo encounter). Most of the band members she’s played with over the years barely register. A heavier editorial hand a co-writer could have helped immensely.
And yet I enjoyed the book – for the reason above (her journey has paralleled mine, etc) – but mostly for mentions of places like the Chopin Cafe in Winnipeg, the Cruel Elephant in Vancouver, and other haunts of yesteryear – as well as present-day locales, like Womyns’ Ware (to pick up a dildo for a bisexual encounter. Don’t get excited – it’s much less hot that it sounds).
Her “scene,” so to speak, was definitely different from mine. Torbert, either by passion or chance (it’s never clear) was part of Vancouver’s hard-rock scene, at least in the early days. The bands she fronted barely registered with me then, although I think I saw either Gorilla Gorilla (with whom she came out to the West Coast) or Chrome Dog once, at the Cruel Elephant when it was on Granville.
I know I saw Bif perform with her band at an all-ages show at the Commodore a number of years back, though. I remember taking my then-13-year-old nephew and being uncomfortable with how much she swore onstage. I know she had, or probably thought she had, a tough-talking reputation to uphold, and that’s what it seemed like she was doing – playing up to an image.
There’s not much image in I, Bificus, I’ll say that. Torbert is revealing and vulnerable – perhaps to a fault, as she comes across as a people-pleaser who is all too willing to leave decisions in the hands of others (usually men). At times, it seems she lacks the self-awareness to know that maybe this might be a problem, or that it contradicts the image many have of her as a strong-willed, aggressive rock chick who calls her own shots. Maybe if she’d played up the dichotomy between Bif Naked, rock star, and Beth Torbert, vulnerable kid, I, Bificus would have more substance. However (and this is not meant to be facetious), she does write movingly about her dogs.
Some other things I gleaned from I, Bificus:
Her first record was Judas Priest’s Unleashed in the East. It was given to her by her friend George, in Dauphin, Manitoba. Quote: “I lip-synced Rob Halford’s expert singing in the bathroom mirror.”
Her first band, in Winnipeg, was called Jungle Milk, which sounds absolutely loathsome (in both name and musical aesthetic).
She references sitcoms (Cheers, WKRP in Cincinnati, Welcome Back Kotter). Literary references include Anais Nin and Irving Layton.
This: “She was the coolest girl I had ever seen…. She had big lips and wore the shade of blue-red lipstick that makes men weep.” I am unfamiliar with this shade.
There is a reference to Chocolate Bunnies from Hell (a Winnipeg band of the ’80s that I’d forgotten about).
It turns out that she adopted the nickname “Bif” because that’s what the lead singer of Chocolate Bunnies from Hell shouted at her while she was onstage with Jungle Milk, although it’s not clear why.
Quote: “The world-famous punk band The New York Dolls was scheduled to come to Winnipeg to our little cabaret… She [a friend of Bif’s] thought Johnny Thunders of The New York Dolls was the best-looking and most prolific guitar player in history.” Bif might have seen Johnny Thunders in Winnipeg, but he would have been with his band The Heartbreakers by then; he left the New York Dolls in 1975, when Bif was four. Also, he might have been a lot of things when it came to his guitar-playing, but I don’t think “prolific” is what Naked means. Editor, please!
Quote: “The great Voltaire is said to have distrusted democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses. Perhaps no truer sentiment has been so beautifully put. Well, that is until my manager, Peter, later said, ‘It was meant to be this way, otherwise it would be different.’ Or, as is said in the film Slumdog Millionaire (quoting the Gospel of Matthew), ‘It is written.’ Any way you say it, sometimes you just can’t stop fate. Fate is fate, and that’s all there is to it.” Huh?
“San Francisco was where Danielle Steel lived…”
At one point she is abandoned by her friend (the same one who thought highly of Johnny Thunders) and left in a Hells Angels clubhouse. “They [the bikers] had probably never even heard of GWAR, never rode a skateboard or snowboard. What did I want with these men?”
“‘Paradise by the Dashboard Lights’ by Meatloaf and Kiki Dee…” Editor, please!!!
“I don’t care what I have to do; I want a record deal.” What she tells her manager when she’s offered a deal as a solo artist.
“I was always amazed, and appreciative, when the press was interested in my music or in me as an artist.” I take it all back! How often do rock memoirs have nice quotes about the press?
From the Office of Useless Information: her guitar player Doug Fury’s favourite snack is nougat.
“I never met anyone I didn’t like at a record company, except maybe Polly Anthony [a label head who refused to promote one of Bif’s records]. I love the people in the business more than I ever loved the business itself.”
There was once something called Bodog Battle of the Bands. The winner was Fall From Grace, from Seattle. Their record Sifting Through the Wreckage was released in 2008, on Bodog Music. Bif was one of the jurors, along with Johnny Rotten (he made Bif cry, apparently) and The Cult’s Billy Duffy.
“Having dated MMA fighters and bodybuilders, and having a history with athletes and sociopaths, I felt I might have more in common with someone like Ian [Walker, a sportswriter], who was a gym rat, a Vancouverite, and a bit of a hippie like me.”
I, Bificus ends on an upbeat note – “Butterfly hearts everywhere!” And why shouldn’t it? Torbert/Naked has been through a lot, and seen a lot, but remains an eternal optimist (“I never met anyone I didn’t like at a record company…”). I’m not sure I, Bificus will interest readers beyond Bif Naked fans, and those remaining few of us who remember the Chocolate Bunnies from Hell.