October 1, 2011
The Cambie pub is dripping, as always—from the tables, the taps, the sloppy mouths of the patrons. The music is too loud when it’s an R&B number, too quiet when the Stooges are on. The red and blue lights cast patrons in the same dirty glow. At a table of stupid-eyed teenagers, Mr. Chi Pig, frontman for the seminal punk band SNFU, holds court. Now 49, he’s grown far from the slender, handsome figure of his youth. Malnourished, no teeth, facial hair with its own agenda, Chi transcends cool.
SNFU—Society’s No Fucking Use—was born in 1981 in the muddy skate parks of Edmonton. The youth scene was spoiled with teenagers all twisted on their boards riding through downtown, Sex Pistols or the Clash blasting from their Clairtone boom boxes. “It’s all I needed,” says Chi. “To be able to skate. And punk music.” Chi’s father was often in prison for running common bawdyhouses, and his siblings, though close, were scattered. He was very close to his mother, but spent most of his time hanging at the skating joints. That’s where he met the Belke brothers, Marc and Brent, who formed the writing core of SNFU for the better part of 20 years.
Following their first LP, in 1985, and the subsequent tour, the trio established itself as one of the best live shows of the era. Full of energy and yaw, the shows left Chi anywhere from being stuck in the rafters to pulling pieces of cymbal out of his eye. During live shows he has hit marshmallows and hot dogs into the audience with a tennis racket, dressed up like a pig, like kd lang, like a giant chicken. He likes riding inflated whales into the crowd.
The touring and boozing and drugs and nights spent in cramped vans took their toll. In 1989, the band split up and Chi moved to Vancouver. That was the first time he did meth. On the whole, Vancouver is softer than Edmonton. It’s not blue collar. It’s not built on farm money or oil money. Rarely does it drop below freezing. It’s well suited to anyone fond of excess.
When the Belkes moved west in 1991 to re-form SNFU, Chi was using recreationally. He would smoke up after shows or at parties, never at practice or on stage. SNFU had just been signed to L.A.-based Epitaph Records, the most important punk label of the ’90s. As it turned out, the grunge era was the perfect springboard for their reunion. They embarked on tours with bands they had influenced, like Green Day and Tool, as well as those who had influenced them, like Iggy Pop. Between ’93 and ’96, they sold over 100,000 units—more than they ever had—with the affecting Something Green and Leafy This Way Comes, The One Voted Most Likely to Succeed, and Fuck You Up Like a Bad Accident. Chi was the face of this roiling energy, this mess. Fans stormed their shows.
By the mid ’90s Chi’s meth use had begun to take over. Brent Belke left the band, and they were dropped by Epitaph, with a $250,000 outstanding tab. But it was the death of Chi’s mother that kicked his fragile health over. Edna Chinn, a long-time alcoholic, died in 1994. Chi’s own use worsened. He began hearing voices. The medical explanation is that drug use actualized a pre-schizophrenic potential. The voices were only small suggestions at first, but they grew.
Chi chose booze, smokes, and meth over meds. His priorities centred on getting high and staying high. Music and the pain of his mother’s death were kept at one remove. The ’90s, begun as a decade of expansion, devolved into decline and loss. By the beginning of the new millennium, Chi Pig had lost his home, his band, and all his personal possessions.
Amid the heavy crimsons of Funky Winker Bean’s Pub on Hastings, with a jug of draught in hand, Chi is surrounded by a motley bunch. It’s a friend’s birthday, and the table is crowded with skaters and punks and addicts and musicians. It’s also karaoke night. Chi can often be found around town at various karaoke bars, singing Johnny Cash’s version of the Nine Inch Nails classic “Hurt.”
He moves from seat to seat, chatting and embracing friends. It’s these people who make all the difference for him. They’ve seen Chi ugly and seen him magnificent, but they never judge. He exudes this value as well. “I don’t care where I sleep. In a van or on the floor or on a bench. I have slept on things you would not believe. Tables, on sidewalks. On rooftops. Do you know what sleeping on the floor means? You give up your bed to someone else. What the floor does is, it keeps your feet to the ground. It keeps you grounded. You want the bed, take the bed. I’m sleeping in the fuckin’ closet.”
His drug addiction lasted nearly 20 years. The outcome seemed clear: another tragic singer; another victim of the life. Then he got a visit from a ghost. “This woman was hovering over me while I’m lying in bed, and she says, ‘Kenny’—my real name is Ken, right?—‘you keep this up you’re gonna die. I don’t wanna see you die yet.’ It was my mum. She had her finger out, on her right hand, shaking it in my face. In her left hand was the wooden spoon.”
He started taking anti-psychotics and is now two-and-a-half years clean. “Well, I like my beer and I like my cigarettes. But I don’t do any hard drugs. I don’t even smoke marijuana.”
SNFU has new members. They just finished a tour to Saskatoon (hitting the small gems along the way, like Fort McMurray and Kamloops). Chi still has smokes. He still has a beer in his hands. He still has his brothers and sisters, and his friends.
“We had a funny experience a few months ago. A lot of us got drunk after karaoke and there was about eight of us and we stayed over at a friend’s house. And I wake up on the fucking floor. A friend of mine is on the couch, I’m on the floor. And then, as I get up, I realize somebody had shoved 89 cents up my asshole while I was sleeping. And my friend had a spatula in her ass. That’s a great night!” VM