There's no shortage of hipster-approved hot spots on Main Street, so it says something about Joey Only that he chooses Duffin's Donuts as a meeting place. When the Georgia Straight sits down with the ex-squeegee kid turned anti-folksinger, there's not a white-belted scenester to be found. At the tables out front, 40-something labourers slurp coffee served in white Styrofoam cups. Inside, pensioners who moved to Main decades before it was cool occupy tables that, two years from now, will no doubt be packed with the same indie-rock kids who line up at Bon's Off Broadway. For now, though, Duffin's is the domain of the poor and the working class, which is why Only likes it.
If the Ontario expat identifies with those who don't have a lot, it's because he's been there. A few years back, he spent time thumbing rides on Canadian roads and highways. That taught him a valuable lesson: we're not all created equal. It's no surprise then that Only's debut disc, Radical Folk of the Great White North, finds him coming down passionately on the side of the world's socially and economically disenfranchised.
"Hitchhiking all over the place in my teenage years taught me a lot about the class system in this country," says the singer, wearing a military-green baseball cap and sporting a variety of crudely inked tattoos. "The people in silver SUVs were the ones that would never pick you up. It would always be the poor and the working people. Those are the same people who support you when you're busking or squeegeeing."
Radical Folk of the Great White North casts Only as a wry social commentator who sets often-personal stories to ragged-ass acoustic guitar, footstomp percussion, wheezy harmonica, and, occasionally, back-porch fiddle. The album's standouts-which include "The Best Years" and "Song for a BC Fightback"-sound a bit like a defiantly DIY version of a young Bob Dylan, this being partly because of Only's world-weary voice and partly because of his phrasing. Indeed, "The Best Years" is more than a bit indebted to "Subterranean Homesick Blues", making it a great mix-tape companion to the beat-generation classic. Bring this up, though, and Only isn't necessarily flattered.
"I like Bob Dylan, but in a lot of ways he pisses me off," he says. "I mean you hear his music in Starbucks commercials and bank commercials. That's really horrible. But Bob Dylan once said, 'Trust the art, not the artist' and that's probably the only reason I still listen to him."
Raised in Madoc, Ontario, Only didn't set out to become the next Dylan-or, for that matter, the next Utah Phillips, Woody Guthrie, or Billy Bragg. Nonetheless, his journey to the frontlines as an activist started early. Although Madoc's local record store wasn't exactly stocked with records that turn wide-eyed small-town kids into political agitators, there were outlets for those who didn't fit the big picture. For the past 15 years, the crustiest of Canada's crusty punks have descended on a nearby property known as Spiderland Acres for an annual event called Punkfest.
"This guy Spider, who turned 69 this year, puts on this totally wild party," Only says. "The craziest punk bands in Canada ever play it. You name them, and every year they are there."
The festival made an impact on Only, who attended his first one as a kid. By the time he was in his teens, he was solidly into Toronto gutter punks like Random Killing, Bunchofuckingoofs, and Armed and Hammered. From there, Only got truly hardcore, playing in bands, living on the streets, becoming pissed off at the world and not afraid to show it.
"I was a youth who came from poverty, so I was really angry about a lot of things," he says. "When you're bitter, the punk scene is a good place to go. The gutter-punk scene was where I fit in-I squeegeed and all that shit, led that totally nasty life. For a long time I was killing myself with drinking.
"Eventually I went back to the country with nothing but an acoustic guitar," Only continues. "That was about five years ago, and I found myself playing Johnny Cash songs. Next thing I knew I was doing acoustic-type stuff and, thanks to my involvement with radical groups, singing at protests across Canada."
He ended up living in Vancouver by accident. After moving out West to take part in the Woodward's squat a couple of years back, Only ended up with pneumonia. Forced to cancel a trip back home, he grew to like the West Coast, which is where he recorded Radical Folk.
At the moment, the future is a bit unclear for Only; arrested in Montreal in 2004 at an Anarchist Bookfair march, he was charged with smashing out the windows of a Ferrari. In a couple of weeks, he'll head back East for the court case. What Only-at Under the Volcano on Sunday (August 7)-does know, however, is what he'd like to do with the rest of his life.
"The only reason that I wanted to be a folksinger was, with things like this big nasty trial coming up, I couldn't be on the frontlines anymore," he says. "So I needed to find a new way to speak my piece to the world. What people like about me is that I've been there. When I started singing and playing at benefits, I didn't go 'This is what I want to do for the next 20 years.' But now I see that it's very possible."