Joe Keithley Punks the Vote: “Politics is Not All Bullshit”

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      It sounded like a formula for frustration: when longtime DOA frontman and Green Party candidate Joe Keithley won a seat on Burnaby City Council in October 2018, he and new Mayor Mike Hurley were two of the only fresh faces to get voted in. The remainder of council seats went to Burnaby Citizens’ Association incumbents.

      “A lot of people were going, ‘Oh great, so we got two new guys and seven of the old guard; then nothing will change,’ type-thing,” Keithley tells the Straight via cellphone.  “But I guess the thing is, there’s enough positive change brought in by Mike and I that some of the other councillors have come along and voted with us on pretty well everything we’ve presented. It’s been really, really positive! I’m actually pleasantly surprised at how well we’ve done, and how open-minded some of the other councillors have been.”

      One of the coolest developments since Keithley’s victory last October is the Harmony For All program, which relates directly to his history as a musician. It started when Keithley was door-knocking in a past campaign, asking if he could put signs on people’s lawns.

      “A guy” – Tim Deaton, related to Keithley through marriage – “said, ‘Why don’t you do something like a music charity?’”

       The two talked about the idea at the time, but “nothing came of it. Now that I’m a city councillor, I thought, ‘Okay, that was a really good idea, I’m going to revive it.’”

      Keithley took it up with the mayor and the other councillors, and eventually found a source of funds for the project: Jeff Clark, the President of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 323.

      “I said, ‘we’re going to take underprivileged kids in Burnaby who aspire to play music, and try to put a musical instrument into their hands and maybe like a years’ worth of lessons, to get them going.’”

      Keithley knew from his own experiences in high school that music can change lives.

      “There were a lot of unpopular kids, a lot of kids being pushed around,” he recalls, “but if you learned how to play music, it was a door opener to making friends. And I explained this all to Jeff, and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea. I love music, and my dad loved music.’ His dad, sadly, had just passed away. And he said, ‘I can get you five grand a year for 10 years. And then a week later, he said, ‘I can get you ten grand a year, for ten years.’ And my jaw was on the floor, I was so overwhelmed by his ongoing generosity.”

      Keithley has been ironing out details with schools to see how the program should be best implemented.

      “It won’t be exclusively for kids going to school, but we’ll start there.”

      The play is for music teachers to help identify students with “great aptitude” and no money for an instrument.

      “We’ll have a board made up of music people ,” Keithley says. “I would not be on this board– I want to remain completely impartial – and we’ll start it with 10 kids by November, and another 10 kids in March. We’re fundraising and trying to build that up; if we can build up more funds, then the program will expand.”

      Another positive change since Keithley won his seat: the city of Burnaby recently declared a climate-change emergency.  

      “I helped lead the charge on climate change in Burnaby, and our goal is in line with the U.N's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change greenhouse gas emission reductions, between now and 2050,” he reports proudly.

       The gravel-throated punk rocker understands why some people might be burned out or cynical about hearing doom and gloom predictions about the environment.

      “There’s just one crisis after another,” he says. “Another thing is, there’s this giant blob of plastic that’s equivalent to the size of Texas, floating in our oceans. I don’t blame people for getting cynical, but unfortunately, these are all problems that are human-made, and we’re going to have to tackle them sooner or later. What I’m trying to do in my own way, as a civic politician, is present the alternatives. I can’t change the world, I can only really affect the one town that I live in, but I can help influence people along the way to take some action. Which is, to me, akin to what D.O.A.’s always been about.”

      With federal election campaigning ongoing, Keithley says,

      “I think people have got to look at whatever riding they’re in,” and vote for “the best guy to win to fight climate change. It’s clear that there’s one party that won’t do anything about climate change, and we know who they are. And there’s one big party in the middle that goes back and forth – I don’t want to name names. But if people go out in enough numbers – and I’m talking about young people finally voting – they can elect some really unique candidates.”

      Keithley lives in the riding of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, Burnaby South, where the Greens are running Brennan Wauters, an electrician whose platform focuses on “energy policy as it relates to economic and ecological health”. But even though Keithley himself is Green Party, he says that he’s trying to take a non-partisan stance on the matter, and encourages others to do the same. Vote for the candidate in your riding best suited to help fight climate change – whatever party they belong to.  

      To help spread the word, both about the need to fight climate change and the imperative to get out and vote, Keithley has announced a “Punk the Vote” concert for September 21st at the WISE Hall, with D.O.A. headlining; the event will also feature Tony Balony and the Rubes, the Corner Boys, and Chain Whip, subject of a recent Straight article

      The event will also serve as a sort of unofficial release party for 1978, a collection of singles, compilation tracks, and previously unreleased demos, most of which feature the classic lineup of Randy Rampage, Chuck Biscuits, and Keithley (sometimes Dave Gregg rounds out the lineup).

      Mike Usinger weighs in on the compilation here. For me, the high point is a bafflingly upbeat homage to the Rolling Stones, entitled “Rip Dis Joint,”with Chuck Biscuits on lead vocals (Biscuits is also the lead vocalist on “Kill Kill This is Pop.”)

      "We went into the studio with Ron Obvious and Bob Rock, at Little Mountain, and recorded 'World War 3' and 'Whatcha Gonna Do' for the single, and then, while we were recording, we had that version of that version of 'The Enemy' that starts off the record, and 'Rip Dis Joint.' And I'd kind of forgotten about them. And then two or three years ago, Ron Obvious got a hold of me and said, 'I bumped into a couple of tracks; I'll send them to you,' right? And then I forgot about them again, and then the summer before, Ron mixed a show for us over on the island, in Port Alberni, and I said, 'Hey, I lost those tracks you gave me.' He gave me another copy, and I listened to them again: 'Okay, this is hilarious.'" 

      Dubious that that song will make it into the set on Saturday, but a few of Keithley’s other collaborations with Biscuits no doubt will get played. Though Biscuits – disillusioned with the music business – and Keithley rarely talk, Keithley credits his former drummer with being a great songwriter.

      “I gotta say, in all honesty, he’s the only guy I was successful writing songs together with. We wrote ‘The Enemy,’ ‘World War Three,’ ‘2+2,’ some really stalwart D.O.A. songs, Chuck and I wrote together, and if we’d carried on together, we probably would have co-written a ton of songs.”

      As for the show, “I don’t think this one concert with D.O.A. playing is going to make a generational change, but you’ve gotta start somewhere, you’ve got to get people to get involved and realize that politics is not all bullshit. And I think when people look at it – ‘Wow, Burnaby elected a punk rocker as a city councillor’ – it says something about the ability of people to be open-minded.

      “I’m a unique candidate,” Keithley continues, “that has a different kind of perspective on the world. I’ve travelled all over the world, and met all sorts of people. It’s a different kind of experience than being a lawyer or union leader. Not that they’re not qualified, but if you get musicians in there, or people in the arts, it’s a really different perspective. It’s a good thing, I think.”

      The Punk the Vote Festival is at the WISE Hall, 1882 Adanac. For more information, go here.