Joey “Shithead” Keithley has a lot to be proud of. D.O.A., his band of 35 years, is the most widely recognized act in the history of Canadian punk. He’s the lone Canadian figure in the documentary American Hardcore, and could hardly be excluded, since D.O.A.’s classic Hardcore ’81 either originated the term hardcore punk or was key in popularizing it. Keithley’s inimitable growl and tireless performances have seen the band through countless tours and innumerable lineup changes and crises.
It’s hard to believe, given his tenacity, that Keithley is hanging up his skates: D.O.A.’s current tour—17 dates, through B.C., down to California, back up to Alberta, and ending February 24 in Banff—will be its last.
“I’m sorry the Vancouver shows aren’t the final ones—it’s just the way the tour plans fell,” Keithley tells the Straight, interviewed at his family’s townhouse in Burnaby. “We did a tour of Ontario and Quebec and the Maritimes in October, and that was announced as farewell dates as well—obviously not as well-publicized as this one. But when we got the date for the Rickshaw, a lot of people contacted us—‘Hey, why don’t you do some shows here too?’ ”
Keithley is sitting at his kitchen table, wearing a D.O.A. hoodie and sipping coffee from a dainty china cup. A long way from the squalor of notorious punk houses he’s lived in—including the infamous Plaza and Fort Gore—his home is like any normal middle-class dwelling, with well-stocked bookshelves, family pictures, and a large, intimidating black Lab cross named Merlin, who growls and barks at me, before retreating to sentry duty in the foyer. Keithley’s decision to retire the band, he explains, has everything to do with his bid to win the NDP nomination for the Coquitlam–Burke Mountain riding, which will be decided on March 3.
“If I have the honour of serving the people of Coquitlam–Burke Mountain as their MLA,” Keithley says, “it deserves as much concentration and brainpower and time and hard work as I put into D.O.A. and the music business. You can’t divide yourself. People are surprised and go, ‘What, you’re not going to play in D.O.A. anymore?’ and I go, ‘Look, it’s the people that elect you, the people that are paying the freight, and they expect a full-time MLA, not a part-time one.’ ” He sets the saucer on top of his cup to keep his coffee warm while talking.
“I mean, it’s not like I’m not going to pick up a guitar,” the 56-year-old father of three assures readers. “Playing guitar and singing is like riding a bike: it’s something I’ll always do. One of my biggest influences—the guy I admire most, probably—is Pete Seeger. The guy’s, like, 93, and he’s been doing it since he’s been 15, playing his banjo and writing songs and doing good things for people. I’m not saying I’m Pete Seeger, but I’ll take a cue from one of the all-time greats.”
Still, there are all sorts of things Keithley won’t miss about the music business. “Not gettin’ paid, that’s a good point. PAs that don’t work, promoters that don’t keep promises—that kind of usual stuff that’s the bane of every musician’s life. Like, everybody goes through that, except maybe the über-successful 100th of one percent, y’know? Pretty well every musician, if you want to keep playing, has to find a way to make it work—you have to be a jack of all trades. And I’ve run a record company, I’ve promoted shows, I’ve done posters, I’ve been the doorman-bouncer. I’ve done everything from A to Z.”
Asked what he will miss most, Keithley shrugs. “Obviously, getting up on-stage is a thrill. That’s why I still like to do it, because you get people really cranked up and wanting to go crazy, and that’s why I still like punk rock, because it’s got a lot of go to it.”
For its two Vancouver farewell shows, the trio—also featuring drummer FloorTom Jones (James Hayden) and long-time bassist “Dirty” Dan Yaremko—plans a lengthy set, with songs from all phases of the band.
“I think we’ve learned pretty much all of War on 45—that’s maybe my personal favourite of all the early albums,” Keithley says. “We’ll play for about an hour-and-a-half and then for the encore start bringing up guests to sing or play guitar. [Randy] Rampage will be there, Ford [Pier] will be there, I’m sure Wimpy [aka Subhumans vocalist Brian Goble] will show, and a few other reprobates will be there as well—let ’em out of the asylum for a while.”
And what is Keithley proudest of, when it comes to D.O.A.?
“I run into a lot of people who recognize me and say, ‘You and your band, Joe, made a positive difference in my life.’ And I think that’s a great thing, that we effected some positive change with people,” he says. “Some people see punk rock as being, like, a negative thing. Obviously, you get that side early on as portrayed by Sid Vicious—‘Here’s the nihilistic side of this crazy music.’ But they missed the whole positive aspect. It’s taught people that they can do things for themselves—the DIY ethic. I think that’s the major influence of punk. It’s not the sound or the style or the hair or the clothes or this crazy nihilistic side. It’s the idea that you can get out and do things on your own.”
D.O.A.’s farewell to Vancouver takes place Friday and Saturday (January 18 and 19) at the Rickshaw Theatre.