First there was the music, heavy and wild, the band’s name an acronym unspeakable to parents and still unprintable in this newspaper. And there was the scene, the kind of thing that thrilled youth and terrified adults in equal measure, with punks slamming into each other in mosh pits at the Spartans Men’s Club in Edmonton, or belly-flopping off the balcony of Regina’s Schnitzel Haus into the swirl of bodies below.
And there, at the centre of it all, was Mr. Chi Pig.
“You’d look out at the crowd and everybody was just so focused on Chi. He had so much charisma,” said Dave Bacon, a longtime friend and SNFU bassist. “You couldn’t take your eyes off him.”
Mr. Chi Pig, whose real name was Kendall Stephen Chinn, died in Vancouver on July 16. He was 57.
Mr. Chinn was born in Edmonton on Oct. 19, 1962, the 11th of 12 children born to a Chinese father and German mother. He had a difficult upbringing, and as a young man turned to skateboarding, and then to music, as both an escape and release. As he would say later, “I saw a life through skateboarding and hardcore punk.”
Mr. Chinn once said he started writing songs when he was eight, and, Mr. Bacon says his friend’s life changed when he saw the Sex Pistols on television during dinner one night.
“It was his destiny,” Mr. Bacon says.
Mr. Chinn formed SNFU with friends in 1981, and by 1985 the group put out their first full album and began touring. With advice from American punk singer Jello Biafra – SNFU had opened for his band the Dead Kennedys on a short prairie tour – Mr. Chinn began developing both the persona and voice that would profoundly impact a generation of fans and fellow musicians.
On stage, he was wild and mischievous and glorious, spraying the audience with water, dumping bags of puffed wheat or popcorn, batting them with hot dogs. He performed as though he had been shot through with electricity, so lithe and free as he moved across the stage, at times it seemed like he was flying.
“It was truly a life-altering experience for many young people at that point,” says Cameron Noyes, a longtime friend and former roommate in Edmonton.
Mr. Chinn was funny and cheeky, unexpected. He did an early show dressed as k.d. lang, and at other times performed what he called “oddball covers” of songs by Cat Stevens or Doris Day. Though he once described SNFU’s music as being “like getting beat on the head with a hammer for an hour,” he said the songs he wrote also had a message, which he summed up for a reporter in 1989 as: “Have fun, but don’t hurt anyone else or yourself. And if there’s a way to help someone, do it.”
In the days since his death, the impact and influence of his work and performance has been clear. Among the tributes, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong called Mr. Chinn “one of the greatest front people I’ve ever seen.”
Faith No More’s Mike Patton described Mr. Chinn a “HUGE influence,” writing, “His vocal approach and ferocious stage attack was something that impacted me deeply.” Cadence Weapon called him, “an Edmonton legend.” Record executive and band manager David Bason wrote on Facebook that, for those who grew up in a certain time and place, “this man was your Elvis, your James Brown, your Robert Plant, your HR [the lead singer of Bad Brains], your Jello Biafra. The ultimate showman, the best singer, the strong leader of our scene.”
Other tributes have included posts and messages from DOA, Bif Naked, Propagandhi, NOFX and Sloan, who opened for SNFU twice in the early 1990s. On Facebook, Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley called Mr. Chinn “a trailblazer in independent music.”
Without a major label behind them and before the internet, word about SNFU and its shows spread largely through buzz, merch and marathon tours, to staggering independent success. By the late 1980s, the band had sold a reported 50,000 records and 20,000 T-shirts. Still, several years in and broadly considered to be one of the best hard core bands in the world, Mr. Chinn sometimes asked from the stage whether anyone could give them a place to stay.
The tours were long and intense, and Mr. Chinn was moody and troubled at times. Mr. Bacon said even in those years, signs of Mr. Chinn’s mental health problems were starting to show. When Mr. Chinn seemed to be struggling, Mr. Bacon says his bandmates found that tickling or hugging him made him feel better.
When the group disbanded for the first time in 1989, Mr. Chinn moved to Vancouver and started a new band, The Wongs. It was also around that time he came out as gay.
“I think he influenced a lot of people. He was an important voice for the punk rock queer community because he came out, people accepted it, he talked about it openly,” Mr. Bacon says. “A lot of queer kids at the time who were unsure looked at him as a leader. I mean, he was Chi Pig.”
But his mental health problems, and soon addictions to both alcohol and serious street drugs, were starting to take hold. Mr. Chinn was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and friends say he struggled with trauma from his childhood. He also wondered whether having hit his head hard on stage during a concert had had an effect. He was homeless at times, and suicidal.
Through it all, there was the music. SNFU got back together many times in various incarnations, with about 30 different musicians passing through the roster. Getting Mr. Chinn in a position where he could function on tour was difficult, but when they did, Mr. Bacon says, the music seemed to make him stronger.
However when the tours ended, Mr. Chinn would be back at the bar, talking and drawing, selling or trading his pictures for beer, getting people to buy him drinks and shots. He lived in a home for men with mental health issues a short distance away from his regular haunt, Pub 340.
Old friends, like Mr. Bacon and Mr. Noyes, would phone him at Pub 340 to check in, and others in the community kept an eye out for him. Fans regularly approached him on the street, even travelling to find him.
“My mom always told me I was born with a gift,” Mr. Chinn said, in a video recorded by a fan last fall. He was very thin, dressed in a sequined shirt and a fur hat. “But she said the gift comes with a curse, and she was right.”
While friends urged him to get help for his drinking and his mental health, Mr. Chinn’s physical health became increasingly poor, including multiple bouts of pneumonia and cachexia, a wasting syndrome related to his chronic alcoholism and malnutrition. Mr. Bacon said Mr. Chinn was told last summer by his doctor that he was going to die in a month.
He outlived the prediction, and died in July surrounded by a small group of friends.
“He was a complicated human,” Mr. Bacon says. “Very complicated, but absolutely beautiful.”
A few years ago, Mr. Chinn recorded a song called Cement Mixer, to be released after his death.
“It’s time for me to go to bed,” he sings. “Goodbye to all my beautiful friends.”
As the music ends, he adds: “Gonna miss you guys.”