Written by Johnny Papan
Cover Story: June/July 2021
WE USED TO CALL HIM "SHITHEAD", NOW WE CALL HIM CITY COUNCILLOR
If you were to jump back in time to Vancouver 1981 and tell a spiky-haired patch-vest wearing punk that D.O.A. frontman “Joey Shithead'' would one day become an elected politician, you might be met with ridicule, a bloody nose or loogie-shined shoes. However, in 2021, the notion is true and “Joey Shithead” is now commonly known as City Councillor Joe Keithley in Burnaby, British Columbia.
It took Keithley six tries over twenty years before he was finally elected to the city council. He was scoffed at by both punks and politicians throughout his early political journey. Some punks saw Keithley as someone “used to fight the man and was now becoming the man” and political suits didn’t think “City Councillor Shithead” had the right ring for office. Regardless, Keithley stuck to his guns so he can fight for what’s right.
"I have a thick skin, especially from being in the punk rock music business, I am fine with criticism. I believe I am here changing things for the better as an elected official," Keithley says. "[Getting into politics] was really fun because there's a ton of interaction with people. During the last few campaigns, I probably knocked on 15,000 doors and talked to people right on their doorstep which is a hard thing to do. What was interesting is how many people knew me through the music. Being in D.O.A. was a real asset as opposed to being negative.”
“Even people who weren't really D.O.A. fans knew me from stuff they've seen [about D.O.A.] on T.V., the newspapers, and that was something they had respect for. That I was fighting for people's rights and helping the regular person. That was a great experience. I've signed a few records on people's doorsteps and stuff like that too which is fun,” he laughs.
Keithley’s dive into politics doesn’t seem all that surprising when you look into his music career and personal life. At the age of 18, Keithley was studying to become an activist lawyer at Simon Fraser University before dropping out to pursue his musical career with D.O.A.
D.O.A. is recognized as a pioneer in hardcore punk, bringing attention to this raw, aggressive sound alongside acts like Black Flag, Circle Jerks and Bad Brains, to name a few. Writer Steven Blush went as far as to say the genre got its name from D.O.A.'s second album Hardcore '81. Since the band's formation in 1978, D.O.A. has been at the forefront of social and political activism in Canada. The band’s fight against war, greed, sexism and racism has spanned over four decades.
Keithley’s interest in activism stemmed from around the age of 10. During the height of the Vietnam war, Keithley was exposed to “guys getting their guts blown out on colour T.V. every night at 6 o’clock.” This would lay the seed to Keithley’s anti-war campaigning as well as involvement in organizations like Greenpeace and the musician-led Rock Against Racism cultural movement.
“When I started D.O.A. in 1978 we were fighting against war, racism, greed, sexism,” says Keithley. “Now, 42 years later, we are still fighting against war, racism, greed, sexism. Sadly it's all the same thing and we haven't really defeated any of them yet. But what that means is you have to keep up the fight because obviously the forces of people creating horrible ideas along those lines. The people that know what's right and what's wrong just have to keep fighting.”
A film about Keithley, Something Better Change, named after D.O.A. 's debut record, is currently filming. It will follow his musical and political journey, including his upcoming campaign for re-election as Burnaby City Councillor in 2022.
“The world is a really big, messed up place and Canada is no exception,” he explains. “The biggest grievance here, I would think, is the treatment of indigenous people. That's clearly something that has been woefully lacking in respect and fairness ever since Canada was established. That's one of the main areas we have to put work into with concrete action. Since I've been [in office] there's more affordable housing coming, there's housing for indigenous people being built, there are homeless shelters being built and have been built when there were none before.”
Politics aside, Keithley’s punk rock career is still thriving. In 2020, D.O.A. released their 18th studio LP Treason, a record inspired by the political mishandlings of former United States President Donald Trump.
“We had played a show in Washington, D.C. and a bunch of people were protesting with loud music, trying to annoy Trump in front of the White House,” Keithley recalls. “We saw someone holding a big sign that said ‘treason’ and we thought that would be a fantastic name for an album. Of course, Trump is a treasonous person so that worked.”
D.O.A. will release their first-ever livestream set at the Rickshaw Theatre on Friday, June 25 and the show will be available until June 27.
“We’re playing old punk rock songs from the first album, second album, things like that and some new songs,” Keithley concludes. “We’re going to take a more humorous approach, make fun of ourselves. When we were thinking about how COVID has been affecting people, we just wanted to do something that would entertain people.”
D.O.A.'s live stream at the Rickshaw Theatre runs from June 25 to June 27. Click here for tickets.