Joey Shithead: Forever Punk
Thirty years after founding the legendary band D.O.A., Joe Keithley figures the system still sucks
March 1, 2010
In their rented van at a rest area high in Manning Park, neither Joe Keithley nor his four companions could find much humour in what had happened the night before. Even the joint they passed around failed to lessen their sense of disbelief. It had been their first commercial gig, June 5, 1977, at Merritt’s Grasslands Motor Inn—and their band’s launch toward rock ’n’ roll fame. They’d been greeted with boos and shouts of “Turn it down!” Keithley, the band’s frontman, just 21, had instead turned the amp to 10.
“Turn it down!” from the beefy audience again. Louder.
“You the management?” taunted Keithley. “You don’t have the balls to accept this music.”
“We’ll have your balls for bookends!” someone yelled, as the band rushed offstage amid a chorus of boos.
Backstage, the hotel manager threw $30 at Keithley and fired them over their protests that they had a signed contract, $500 for four nights. “You get on that stage again,” the manager said, “and they’ll kill you.”
So they’d fled for Manning Park. “This rock ’n’ roll isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” band member Ken Montgomery said. But Keithley wasn’t deterred. If he could ignite a bunch of redneck loggers with his overamped rock ’n’ roll, a whole world of provocation lay ahead!
It wasn’t long from that June day to Keithley’s reincarnation as Joey Shithead, Vancouver punk rocker, pogo meister, mosh-pit survivor, and lightning rod for all things loud and iconoclastic. Within a year, the band too had a new name—D.O.A.—and a growing notoriety for some of the rawest, beer-soaked performances ever seen. Keithley’ssong list came to include titles like “Woke Up Screaming,” “Marijuana Motherfucker,” “Smash the State,” “Let’s Wreck the Party,” “World War 3,” “My Old Man’s a Bum,” and his very first songwriting effort, “Disco Sucks,” with a chorus that goes: “Disco sucks / disco sucks / disco sucks / like shit.” Disco may be long dead, but Joe Keithley is very much alive and well: still angry, still punk, and still rocking at 53.
That Keithley’s songs are performed at Krakatoan volume—with dark, anti-authoritarian lyrics and a lot of airborne spit—means D.O.A. draws crowds where radical idealism and nihilism often collide. The back of his 2003 autobiography, I, Shithead: A Life in Punk, reads “30 COUNTRIES, 212,000 BEERS, 9 RIOTS, 28 PUNCH-UPS, 27 BUSTS, 12 DEAF SOUNDMEN, 9 LIVES” and suggests—even if the facts aren’t perfectly true—the edginess of his performances.
There was that battle in Berlin, where local punk-hating skinheads tried to storm the dance hall. There were the four brawls in L.A. as riot police attempted to apprehend the chain-wearing, mohawk-crested, cop-taunting fans. There were more fisticuffs in Detroit during a 1980s Republican convention. Throughout, D.O.A. would play on—like the orchestra on the Titanic as the deck began to tilt. Most fondly of all, Keithley recalls an early D.O.A. concert in White Rock that ended in a riot. He’d phoned Tom Harrison, the Georgia Straight music critic at the time, to report this accomplishment. Harrison later described D.O.A. as “the most hated band in the city.” Hated! Keithley loved being hated. It mirrored his contempt of conformist society. There was, he knew, a market for his rabble-rousing, screw-the-system music, all at 110 decibels.
“Chaos is D.O.A.’s best friend,” he says today. “The places where we do well, there’s dissonance between the people and the government. Italy, Eastern Europe, the States, China—D.O.A. embodies the rebel mind. If you get too set and secure, you get stuck in time.”
Joe Keithley grew up in North Burnaby in a working-class family with strong union views. There were the Weavers and Woody Guthrie on the stereo and discussion of social justice at the dinner table. He might have become a lawyer—his goal in late adolescence—had he not acquired a guitar on his first day at SFU. “It’s been downhill ever since,” he says. There was his teenage garage band, the Lead Balloons. There was his next band, Stone Crazy, which didn’t last much longer than that ill-fated Merritt set.
There was also a growing realization, shared by many of his peers, that the musical revolution that had propelled the ’60s generation had succumbed to time, ennui, and corporate dissembling. 1967’s fabled Summer of Love was a memory. Jimi Hendrix was dead. So was Janis Joplin. Like puka shells and acid, rebellion had become passé. Looking around for inspiration, for a way to seize the initiative dropped by syrupy Fleetwood Mac-type lyrics (and, later, by brain-dead disco), he saw a poster on a Vancouver street pole promoting something new, something slouching this way from the disenfranchised, working-class rowhouses of urban Britain. The poster read: “PUNK ROCK: This Will Make You Puke.”
Soon, he was learning expletive-laced Iggy Pop covers. He and his band took on new names: Dimwit, Brad Kunt, Randy Rampage, Chuck Biscuits. If Keithley wouldn’t join rock ’n’ roll’s spiral into late-’70s vapidity, he’d save it from its own corporate success as Joey Shithead of D.O.A. His mother tried to convince him that assuming the name “Shithead” might not be a great career move. And a friend suggested that D.O.A. might be more successful if it were renamed the Bluebirds. (Keithley, reporting this, holds a fist to his lips, and—in CBC Radio baritone—announces: “Yes, Joe Keithley says he’s still hoping to revive his band, the Bluebirds, after 30 years as a McDonald’s assistant manager.”)
If Keithley had dreams of rock immortality, they may have ended the day he met with Bruce Allen, the Shiva of B.C. musical careers. Allen looked at the kid with spiky dyed-blond hair and shredded jeans, and asked: “How much money ya gonna make me?” Keithley was too stunned to respond. Until then, his total earnings as a punk musician were in the low three figures. “I know I should have said, ‘More money than the Beatles!’ ” he says today with a laugh. “But D.O.A.’s about causing trouble, being shit disturbers, fomenting revolution. You have to kick the giant—even if it’s only in the toe. If you don’t, the authorities will take advantage of you. That leads to musicians being more concerned with bling than ideas. Kicking the giant helps keep the powerful from feeling too secure.” Allen, he realized, was not the type to back an anarchist.
Among Keithley’s North Burnaby friends were people like keyboardist Gerry Hannah, who found in punk an escape from the emptiness of suburban life. In its idealism—hard as it may be to discern above the guitars and hammering percussion—punk lyrics exhorted the continuation of the ’60s rock rebellion its young advocates feared was waning. Punk was—is—meant to expose our hypocrisy (consumerism, policing, drug laws, the environment, sexuality, corporate manipulations, war-mongering, free speech—take your pick) and release the demons of nonconformity, crowd-surfing, et al.
While Keithley’s crusading efforts ran to songwriting, Hannah’s led him beyond music, to violence. He wrote the lyrics of “Fuck You”: “You call us weirdos / You call us crazy / Say we’re evil / Say we’re lazy / Say we’re just the violent type / Kinda dumb and not too bright / We don’t care what you say / Fuck you!” Hannah became Gerry Useless, and, later, better known as an imprisoned member of B.C.’s eco-terrorist group, Direct Action, which had bombed B.C. Hydro substations in the weeks before he joined them; his connection to firebombing Red Hot Video outlets around the Lower Mainland led to a 10-year jail sentence. By 1983, the punk anarchists had proven their most virulent critics correct.
“Punk is about freedom,” says Tom Harrison, now the Province’s music reporter. “Since the ’70s, corporations have taken over rock ’n’ roll. It’s rock lite now. It’s safe. But punk rock…it’s this whiny little bastard—saying things aren’t all right. Joe Keithley doesn’t play it safe. You do have to kick against the structures. You do have to question conformity. These ideas are more important today than when he started saying them decades ago.”
There’s little to suggest that the comfortable, Spanish-moderne house on a quiet Burnaby cul-de-sac—little different than thousands of its pastel clones across the Lower Mainland—is home to a rebel icon. There’s nothing that hints this is also the headquarters of the self-proclaimed “El Presidente” of D.O.A.’s label, Sudden Death Records, Keithley’s long-time independent production company, which has 83 current releases, including those of 19 other B.C. punk bands. Despite the neatly mown lawn and beige curtains, this is the place B.C.’s scowling, perforated rockers go when Bruce Allen refuses to return their calls. It is home, as well, to one of the few unincarcerated men who can boast “I’ve drunk and pissed enough beer to fill B.C. Place—no, the Coliseum maybe—to the rim.”
Inside, there’s little that reveals the occupation of its owner. Nothing—other than Keithley’s sleeveless, gun-emblazoned D.O.A. T-shirt—to suggest incipient mayhem. Keithley’s wife of 23 years, Laura, is Sudden Death’s financial manager. Their three strangely normal adolescent kids have tastes in music that do not, Keithley accepts with parental equanimity, include punk.
Except for stints in the ’80s and ’90s driving taxi, or keeping track of workshop tools at BCIT, Keithley is, he admits, a stay-at-home dad. He can look across suburban rooftops to the slopes of Burnaby Mountain where, 40 years ago, he and Gerry Hannah dreamed of escaping suburban conformity. From his garage come no neighbour-infuriating cannonades of drumming, no amplified guitar riffs, no obscene lyrics likely to provoke 911 calls.
In preparation for one of their regular road trips, or their upcoming anti-Olympic protest gig planned for late February, D.O.A. rehearses at Charts, a $15-an-hour Burnaby studio facility off Kingsway with orange-and-brown walls, and enough soundproofing to contain the band’s viscera-perforating music. They run through half of their 30-song set: Keithley, wearing earplugs and singing, on lead guitar; James Hayden on drums; Dirty Dan Yaremko on bass. Here’s what “Still a Punk” says, if you could actually hear the words:
Now I know that you might think, that punk rock has lost its guts
An’ I know that you might think, it never made no fuckin’ sense
You might think all of our noise, and all of our god damn rage
An’ all of that crazy fury, was just a fuckin’ fake
But I still take aim, at lawyers and bankers
’Cause the world they sell, it really sucks
I’m gonna smash it, till it shatters
They gotta look out, ’cause I’m still punk
The only visible clue to the identity of the home’s owner is the beat-up 1988 GM step van parked at the curb out front. Keithley has christened it “Reid Fleming” after the Georgia Straight comic-strip milkman known for his quick temper and righteous fists. Inside the van are bunks, a card table, and posters of Keithley’s heroes: Cassius Clay, Johnny Cash, and the Three Stooges. The vehicle has, over the past two decades, taken D.O.A. on dozens of North American tours, covering some of the two million kilometres Keithley estimates he and the band have travelled worldwide.
Of the famous hardcore bands Keithley has admired and emulated—Nirvana, the Clash, Led Zeppelin, the Sex Pistols—most are gone, along with more than a few of their suicidal, drug-addicted frontmen. Of the 300 or so rock bands currently active in Vancouver, virtually none can boast D.O.A.’s longevity. As well, few Canadian bands can claim credit for having 40 releases: singles, EPs, studio albums, anthologies. Or sales of one million records and CDs.
Despite its name, D.O.A. clearly wasn’t, and isn’t, dead. In fact, Keithley—unrepentant in middle age—plans to be a pain-in-the-ass until he’s mulch. He admits it’s a bit incongruous that, as professional mavericks, he and his band were honoured on December 21, 2002, by the City of Vancouver with an officially designated D.O.A. Day. He’s also amused that he made it onto the Vancouver Sun’s 2008 list as one of the 150 most influential people in B.C. history. Punk success, Keithley knows, is a sort of oxymoron—like, say, a club for misanthropes.
And so, prompted by the evidence that the world has a need for outrage, Keithley and D.O.A. carry the torch of anti-authoritarianism to the alienated, fuchsia-haired, and pierced, wherever they reside. In 2009: from Beijing to Shanghai to Paris, and onward to Zagreb, San Diego, Barcelona, Chicago, Houston, Rome, Cologne, plus three dozen other cities as part of their D.O.A.—The Men of Action world tour. There’s no lack of targets for Keithley’s music, no shortage of proof all isn’t well. Robert Dziekanski’s Tasering death at the hands of Mounties prompted his song “Police Brutality.” Religious fanaticism yielded “Set Them Free.” The looming global water crisis produced “Last Chance.” While viewers of MTV may be lulled into thinking it’s all about bling and booty, Keithley is concerned with real dangers and injustices.
“When I started out, the world was a screwed-up place,” he says, while his kids and their friends root in the fridge and his wife reminds him of undone errands. It’s far removed from D.O.A.’s amped-up, molecule-rearranging bombardment of sound. But if suburban life has brought comfort, it has not, Keithley makes clear, brought complacency. “You turn on the TV today and you see that all the things wrong are still there. The companies are bigger, the police more out of control, the proximity of fascism nearer. The whole Orwellian thing. I don’t get plastered anymore—the angry young man is gone—but I like to think I can still change things.”