Fittingly, I catch up with Joe Keithley at a coffee shop in East Van. Keithley is, of course, the epic front-man, guitarist and driving force of our own homegrown D.O.A. We speak for over an hour in the middle of his election campaign as provincial Green Party candidate for the Coquitlam-Burke Mountain riding by-election, a contest that will be decided by the time you read this. During our interview, Keithley speaks with passion, conviction and candour on a variety of topics, his responses laced with humour and the hard-won wisdom he’s gained from a music career spanning five-continents. Politics, it seems, is a natural progression.
I bring John Lydon’s Anger Is An Energy (2014) along to start our conversation, since both Lydon and Keithley hold passionate views that are powerfully stated. Has Keithley read it, I wonder? “Not yet,” he says, “but we opened at the War Memorial for PiL.” Cool, I was at that gig in 1984. Keithley wrote his own band memoir in 2003 called I, Shithead: A Life in Punk Rock. He tells me that he was wary of not wanting to copy anyone else’s style, so he limited his band-bio reading beforehand to Henry Rollins’ Get In the Van about the hardcore punk band Black Flag.
Through everything, Keithley has managed to maintain his integrity in the music business. He credits the DIY credo that D.O.A. is known for: “When I was 18 at SFU I went to some Pied Pumkin shows, and they sold their records at shows for $5.” This gave Keithley the idea that D.O.A. could do the same. Early singles were pressed at the local IRC pressing plant for 75 cents, and the band sold them to record stores for $1.25, who then retailed them to fans for $1.50. “I think I made a smart choice [when we formed] our own label Sudden Death Records because we figured: One, nobody likes us. Two, we have no fans. Three, we’ll never get a record deal.” A too modest estimation of their own talents to be sure, but their DIY ethos and “just go for it” attitude has allowed D.O.A. to keep their own souls.
For their first out of town show at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens in 1978, Keithley recalls: “We had no car to tour in. Chuck and Randy took the Greyhound and I took the train. Brad Kent hitchhiked with his Les Paul guitar.” The rest of the gear they borrowed from Negative Trend (later, Flipper), who shared the bill.
Keithley has wide-ranging influences, from Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath, to CCR and Woody Guthrie. He tells me he cut his teeth on his older sister’s collection of folk music, which included Bob Dylan, The Weavers, and Pete Seeger. “[Seeger] is my #1 inspiration because he inspired people, got blacklisted, and came back from it. He led a protest movement and wrote great songs. ‘On Top of Old Smoky’ was the first song I ever learned.”
Keithley has his own music heroes and now he is an inspiration to others. I ask him how that feels, and he considers the question thoughtfully before answering: “It’s a nice position to be in, to be able to inspire people to do something positive.”
When I mention that I love the song and video for “Pipeline Fever,” a song off D.O.A.’s recent album Hard Rain Falling, his response is personal. “I grew up on Burnaby Mountain. The only thing these pipelines are meant to do is make money. We’d be taking a chance on spoiling one of the last unspoiled places in the world.” The antic and powerful music video has D.O.A. performing the song like a television newscast, with Keithley as the anchorman. The lyrics scroll across the screen like urgent headlines.
Since he is on the campaign trail when our interview takes place, I ask Keithley about his position on forests — an important question, as we also witness the daily ‘logging’ of our city by developers. What Keithley has to say is simple and profound: “It’s not smart to get rid of trees. They are there for a reason.”
At the Punk Gone Green fundraiser January 15, Keithley’s charisma is evident. The event is emceed by the inimitable Ian Tiles (of Buddy Selfish and Pointed Sticks fame) and includes Keithley performing a reggae dub version of the tremendous song “War in the East” off D.O.A.’s 1982 War On 45 EP. Enhancing the evening are Bev Davies’ freshly reprinted action shots of early D.O.A. and friends, including superb band and audience photos from Hardcore ’81.
Hard Rain Falling charted in the 20s on CiTR throughout late November and early December. Proffered for your listening pleasure is an exciting set of short, sharp, new songs — classic D.O.A., yet still fresh and thrilling. D.O.A. songs are never too long; they always leave you wanting more. In addition to the environment, other themes touched upon include the resilience of the human spirit, the message to help one another and a clear-eyed call for tolerance and understanding between all people. The words and the delivery are passionate as always. Old D.O.A. fans will be very pleased, and newcomers to the fold will love what they hear. This is what mastery sounds like.
Charming, talented and tough as nails, there is a depth of humanity in Keithley’s forthright gaze. He has seen the world touring with D.O.A., yet is not world-weary. Rather, he is ready to take on the dark side, like a white knight riding out on our behalf. A champion. He is not only Joey Shithead, the punk rock warrior, but also Joe the parent, who cares enough about what the future holds for his children, that he is willing to put his money where his mouth is and do the hard slogging work of effecting change through the political process. He is living up to his motto: “Talk minus action equals zero”
For more information on Joe Keithley, D.O.A. and Sudden Death Records, or to hear Hard Rain Falling visit suddendeath.com.