D.O.A.’s Joe Keithley on how punk rock prepared him to become a politician
D.O.A. are the longest-running survivors of Vancouver, BC’s late ‘70s punk scene, as well as one of the architects of hardcore. It was begun in 1978 by singer/guitarist Joe Keithley — who operated for several years under "Joey Shithead" — out of the ashes of the Skulls, which also spun off the other great Vancouver punk outfit the Subhumans (not to be confused with the U.K. anarcho-punk band of the same name). They were “wild mountain men from Burnaby,” weaned on ‘70s hard rock, welding a broad sense of humor and fiercely left-wing politics to a gonzo take on ‘77 Britpunk most akin to the early Damned.
They came off as a more down-to-earth, rabid take on obvious inspirations the Clash, especially in their classic lineup — Keithley, bassist Randy Rampage, genius 14-year-old drummer Chuck Biscuits and co-guitarist Dave Gregg. The site of these sweaty lumberjacks clad in dilapidated homemade punk fashions leaping around — as Shithead headbanged until his skull would nearly fall off, and Biscuits flailed around his kit in clothes he hadn’t grow into — is one not soon forgotten.
Keithley has led several D.O.A. lineups over the years, sometimes intermittently. Currently featuring drummer Paddy Duddy and bassist Mike Corkscrew Maggot, the band recently roared through America celebrating the 40th anniversary of Hardcore '81, the album that helped pioneer and popularize the punk subgenre. In D.O.A.’s hands, as in Black Flag’s, “hardcore” had more to do with die-hard commitment to ideals than how fast you played. That intensity is still felt on their most recent studio release, last year’s savage indictment of the Trump administration Treason. That Keithley runs D.O.A. and his Sudden Death Records between sessions of the Burnaby B.C. City Council — to which he was elected as Green Party candidate in the 2018 municipal elections — is a testament to just how hardcore he is.
D.O.A. have long been one of the political consciences of punk rock. Now you’re putting your money where your mouth is. The last time we spoke for Alternative Press in ‘96 or ‘97, you told me then you were planning to enter politics.
I always thought about it, especially after I got out of high school and I went to SFU. I was gonna become a civil rights lawyer because I was a fan of William Kunstler, who represented the Chicago Seven. That was my ambition in high school. At first, I was gonna play defense for the Boston Bruins. That didn’t work out. So, I thought I’d be a lawyer. That didn’t work out either.
So you became a punk-rock guitarist.
Exactly. First, I wanted to get a drum set and saved all my money from my paper route. I told my father, and he told me, “You wanna be a drummer?! You’ll end up a hop head, like Gene Krupa!” [Laughs.] “What’s a hop head? That sounds like fun!” I didn’t have enough money for a drum set, but my mother said, “I’ll pay for half of it. Just don’t tell your father!” My mom was sweet. My dad was not.
Politics was something I wanted to get into early. In ‘96, somebody called me up and said, “We want you to run for the Green Party in the upcoming British Columbia election.” And I said, “Do you know who you’re talking to? This is Joey Shithead! I’m not running for election!” Click! [Laughs.] Then a couple of weeks later, I heard more about the election, and I thought maybe I would.
I think I got all of 500 votes the first time out. There were six candidates, and I came out fourth. At least I didn’t come out dead last. I beat out the guy who was in the flying yogic party [Natural Law Party]. He apparently levitated. [Laughs.] He got a couple of votes, which was really surprising. He had a promo video where you could watch him do this, too, part of his campaign effort. That was really good, too, because I learned a couple of things not to do in politics.
Yes, don’t levitate! [Laughs.] But it’s gotta be interesting for the man who wrote “Smash The State” to be in local government now.
Yeah. I don’t know if you know the show 22 Minutes? It’s a big comedy show in Canada, a popular CBC show. Two days after I got elected, they called me up: “You wanna be on 22 Minutes?” “Oh, yeah! That’d be great!” They shoot in Hallifax, so I went down to the Vancouver studios where I was looking at the monitor and listening in an earphone to the audio feed. First thing the guy says, “Tonight, we have Joe Keithley, also known as Joey Shithead, punk rocker from D.O.A. He’s just been elected to Burnaby City Council. Welcome, Mr. Keithley.” “Hi, how ya doin’?” Then he says, “We were just looking over your lyrics, and there’s this one called ‘Smash The State!’
And at the end, one of the lines says, ‘Kill Pierre Trudeau!’ [Laughs.] What do you think our current prime minister would think about you wanting to have his dad killed at the time?” [Laughs.] I said, “Well, certainly you know I was completely misquoted, right? I never said anything like that in my life!” That got a big laugh right away. They’re comedians, so it was all in good fun.
Well, I would imagine you have had to learn to maybe finesse things a little more than a lifetime career in punk rock taught you?
[Laughs.] Yeah. When I first started campaigning, people would come to the door and recognize me and go, “Where’s your mohawk? Where’s your leather jacket?” You’d get people like that, but they’re generally disarmed. You do have to take a different tact with people. But a lot of people that voted for me did so not because they were D.O.A. fans, but because they respected the politics of D.O.A. So some people were expecting maybe that kind of stand, that pro-ordinary person stand that D.O.A.’s always been about. That really worked in my favor. But the local press could not believe it: “Joe Shithead has been elected?” But it all worked out because once the vote was certified, they couldn’t do anything about it.
But your politics have always struck me as more like a John Fogerty or a Woody Guthrie.
Yeah, John Fogerty wrote lots of great songs, anti-war songs and things like that — “Who’ll Stop The Rain?” Great songwriter. Of course, Woody Gutherie was the king of telling it is.
They both exercised a populist leftism, rather than anarchism or something like that.
Yeah, I think I got a lot of flack from my anarchist friends. This one guy, we nicknamed him Captain Anarchy. [Laughs.] He’s a really good buddy of mine, and he just hates elected politicians. But we’re still friends, so he understands. Other people are like, “Aw, man! You sold out! What about anarchy, man?” What people don’t understand about anarchy is it tries to correct the system and make it fair and just for regular people.
A punk rocker standing in a corner, throwing a bottle through the window of a club because he just got thrown out? That’s not anarchy. He might have an anarchy tattoo, or the symbol painted on his jacket. But it’s a progressive political thought. I don’t know that it’s the most practical one. But it genuinely is a more pro-people organization. It was very successful in Spain in ‘36 or ‘37. It took over Barcelona, and the water was still running, the garbage got picked up, people were still alive. Then people said, “You cannot have the anarchists running the city!” So the fascists took over the whole country.
That does seem to happen in anarchistic situations. We saw a good example of that the last four years in America, unfortunately.
That’s the funny thing I get from punks who don’t fight the politics that got him elected. They like Donald Trump because he’s not an old-school Republican. He’s more like an unhinged libertarian. To me, that’s the difference. Now I get all these punks who are like, “Fuck, man! How can you be punk rock? This is bullshit! How can you be elected? You used to stand up for people. Now you don’t.” Usually, these people come from this unhinged libertarian attitude. I really don’t agree with it because libertarians say you shouldn’t tax people. If you don’t tax people, how do you get roads? How do you get schools? These are necessary things in life.
I constantly have arguments with people who are like that. “Yeah, you want good roads, you want good schools, you want clean water and you want food that won’t kill you. But you don’t wanna pay for it!”
This is the thing: They don’t want to pay for it. It’s really tough, when you’ve got the angle, like in California for example. They have a hard time paying for schools because 20 years ago, they had a proposition that froze school taxes. They couldn’t go up. Most other jurisdictions, you put into the school system, whether you have kids or not, because you need to have educated kids that come along and work at hospitals or whatever. It’s a funny thing, taxes. I’m not a big fan of paying taxes myself, and the government does waste a lot of money. I would not deny that at all.
Yeah, it’s just common sense. It’s one of the things I love about D.O.A. Maybe the Clash were an inspiration in some ways.
Oh, for sure!
But you guys were more down-to-earth than the Clash in some ways. And I love the Clash.
One of my all-time favorite bands. I think that we're just down-to-earth about really obvious things because we’ve always had a really right-wing government in British Columbia. Once in a blue moon, the leftists would get elected. But it’s so rare. The government was really run for the business owners who supported the right-wing government.
I got really involved in a lot of protests, like Greenpeace protesting American nuclear weapons testing in the Aleutian Islands. When I was 17, Greenpeace came to all the schools in Greater Vancouver. I thought it was just a couple of schools. Then I ran into other people who said, “Oh, I was at that protest, too.” Three-hundred kids walked out of class, and we weren’t supposed to go. I remember the principal standing in the driveway with his arms out, trying to stop us. And we all just laughed. My friends Dimwit, rest his soul, he brought a bass drum with him. So he was at the front of the parade.
The funny thing was that me, Wimpy and Dimwit ended up in the picture on the front page of the newspaper. My father was super right wing. Missing school, even though I was 17? There was no way. So that day, I saw the newspaper, and I looked aghast. So I grabbed the front page of the newspaper, ran up and hid it in the closet in my room. My dad got home from work about 5, and he says, “Where’s the newspaper?” “Oh, it’s right here, Dad!” And he was always complaining about the newspaper boy. So, he asks, “Where’s the front page?” “Oh, it must be that newspaper boy. You know he’s no good!” [Laughs.] But I wish I had kept that. So, that was the real launch into political awareness.