He’s been getting into the political ring while getting out of the rock ‘n’ roll ring of late—but for the legendary punk singer, nothing is forever, and the future’s unwritten.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Can you imagine how punk rock it would be for Canada to have D.O.A. founder Joey Shithead as a national politician? Well, technically he was running using his birth name Joe Keithley, but still…
But sadly, despite being one of the founding fathers of Canadian punk rock and having a slew of solid, left-leaning ideas, he lost the nomination for the British Columbia National Democratic party recently to a former Olympic wrestler (so just like high school, the jocks win again). Shortly before starting his campaign earlier this year, Keithley shocked many in the music world by announcing that he was finally putting an end to D.O.A.’s impressive 35-year run to put all of his attention on running for office.
We spoke with the musician shortly after he lost the nomination to talk about his future in politics, the band and about possibly trying his hand at jazz and R&B (though he could have just been screwing with me on that last topic. But he certainly sounded genuine…).
BLURT: I’m sorry to hear that things didn’t turn out the way you planned with the nomination.
KEITHLEY: Well, no apology necessary, that’s politics. We were well organized, but I went up against a guy that was an Olympic hero – when the Olympics were here in Vancouver, he was the one who lit the torch. It was a bit of a tough go and I ended up losing by five votes, but that’s life, right?
So you wasted your time playing punk rock when you should have been in sports?
Yeah, I thought about that, but my hero was Ted Green, not Bobby Orr [Ed. note: Green was a professional hockey player known for his less than sportsmanlike behavior on the ice.] I was more of a stick swinger.
So the guy you lost to, did he play hockey?
No, he was a wrestler. He kept offering to wrestle me and I said “No problem just let me get my hockey stick and I’ll wrestle all you want.” It was a bit odd; he was a bit aggressive when we were trying to project an image as a bit milder party, because we’re a left wing party. Who knows? I’m not through with politics, but with this particular part, I’m through because I’ve been knocked out.
I started getting into punk rock because of music like yours and The Clash – that had a strong focus on politics. Music that was covering issues no other genre was talking about.
I think musicians have a lot to say and that’s one of the reasons they got into it in the first place. Besides the love of music, that’s really what drives you in the first place, right? The Clash are an absolutely great example.
Did it take you a long time to convince yourself that you should actually run for office instead of just talk about it?
Well, I ran for the Green Party twice provincially – our provincial elections are like the equivalent of your state elections… I had also run in my own hometown. So this was actually my fourth foray into political office, but with the first three I never really thought I’d get elected; I was really just making a point more than anything else, right? But this time I thought I would win the nomination and I thought I would get elected, but obviously that has not happened.
So has this latest experience soured you on politics or do you think you’re going to regroup and come back and run again?
I may or may not. Some people are trying to convince me I should try it at a federal level, like a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but I don’t know about that. I’ve got a lot of stuff I’m working on musically and media-wise, so we’ll see what happens. The federal election is not for a couple of years. We don’t have this enormous run up of primaries like you do in the United States.
Do you mind talking a little bit about some of the political issues that you are interested in?
The real bread and butter ones that I was pushing was education; better access to education for all. One of the things that I believe is that secondary education, whether it be skills training or university, is a right and not a privilege. Post-Secondary education in the U.S. is much more expensive than in Canada, but at the same time, we have people from remote, poor areas that have a really hard time affording a secondary education. Not only do you have to get enough money together to go to school, but you have to get together money to leave your tiny town to get to one of the larger cities. We need to help people like that. To me, that’s the number one issue because an educated population will benefit society as a whole…
Switching to something a little bittersweet, you just ended you last run of shows with D.O.A. (pictured above ) Can you talk a little but about what those last shows were like?
Well, we called this a farewell tour, but we still intend on keeping some dates in the Midwest and Europe and we have an offer to go to China and we have an offer to go to South America.
Have you guys played China before?
We did about four years ago and it was fantastic. It was the most interesting and vital trip I have ever been on – apart from when I was 20 and went to Europe for the first time. To see this giant, powerful society with so many people and the music scene was really good. It was great, so I’m looking forward to going back.
So, back to your question, D.O.A. will still play the occasional show, but to be honest I really thought I was getting elected and, well now I’m not, so I have to rethink a whole bunch of things. I was very nostalgic (about the shows) and really, part of D.O.A. as a band is not to be stuck in the past, but to be forward thinking. And we would do that in various ways, from the lyrics we wrote to how we approached the records and shows and tours. The band, in essence, is a product of my philosophical thinking. Rather than being “Oh my God this is all over; I am so sad,” I didn’t feel that way even once. I always knew I would go on and do other things.
One of the guys I model myself on is the great Pete Seeger. He was a song writer, a pop singer, an activist, he did instructional videos to teach people how to play banjo; he was the leader in reviving the American folk scene in the late Fifties and early Sixties. And it just so happens that folk music and punk music have a lot of things in common. It’s the music of the people. Punk is just a lot louder and a lot faster with obnoxious looking haircuts. You just keep doing stuff until you can’t do it anymore and then you move on. If I can accomplish one quarter of what Pete Seeger has done, I’d be doing pretty well.
Was it a tough decision for you at the time to put an end to D.O.A., at least slow it down a bit, to focus on politics?
Yeah, I can’t say my band mates were that happy, right? The clarity of my decision was the hard part. I remember I turned in my paperwork and then we left on a plane for Europe the next day.
Well, this is a little odd to ask you now with everything up in the air, but what’s next for you musically?
We have a D.O.A. live album in the can that we recorded in bits and pieces over the last year or two. Obviously we just came out with a new album (We Come in Peace)… and I want to do some music in some different styles, perhaps a bit of an R&B album and perhaps a bit of a jazz album. I really think that what happens is that people – I’m 56 now – when they get to be between 50 and 60, you really start to lose your vocal chords, so I’m just going to try and record whatever I can over the next 10 years and then live off the fat of the land (laughs).