The Many Outfits of D.O.A.’s Joe Keithley

Depending how you know D.O.A. frontman and Burnaby City Councillor Joe Keithley, you may not be used to seeing him in a suit.

I’ve seen him most often onstage in a D.O.A. T-shirt and cutoff red flannel vest, though for our interview at a Waves Coffee near Edmonds Station, not far from Keithley’s home, he wears a Canucks hoodie and jeans. It’s the sort of man-of-the-people attire he favours when I catch him at political events.

But it turns out suits are what he wears at work “most of the time,” when he serves as a Burnaby city councillor.

So does the suit fit? By which I mean, it must be a bit of an adjustment for a punk rocker like Joe to function in an institutional governmental job, no?

“Well, it is,” he says with his distinctive, high-energy gravel. “But I kinda take the same approach that I do with D.O.A.. You’ve got to stick to your ideals, keep working on what you believe in. Obviously it’s a different way—I don’t do it with a guitar. But y’know, I actually really enjoy it, because you get to help people, and you get to meet a lot of different people from around the world. Burnaby’s a very diverse place, right? There’s 130 languages spoken here…”

Keithley is no stranger to diversity. Over the course of 4,500 shows, in fifty different countries, D.O.A. has made groundbreaking treks to China, Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur, Thailand, and Taiwan. “One thing I’ve learned from travelling around the world is, there’s a lot of ways of looking at things, because different cultures have different ways of dealing with problems,” he says. “And D.O.A. was considered a radical band, so the authorities didn’t always treat us with kid gloves. I’ve spent a lot of time working my way out of jams with border guards and police.”

Joe Keithley

Diplomacy is key at such junctures. Keithley remembers almost being arrested by “these guys with big red stars on their blue policeman’s hats” in the former Yugoslavia, which D.O.A. toured in 1984-1985 (they also played in Communist Bloc Poland). Later, in 2016, D.O.A. got into a bit of trouble when a Serbian audience failed to recognize that “America the Beautiful”, off D.O.A.’s classic 1982 EP War on 45, was criticizing America, not celebrating it.

Joe first told me the story for a 2018 interview for Germany’s Ox Fanzine: “We played in Novi Sad, and the show was going great. People were going berserk. And then we played ‘America the Beautiful.’ Of course, Bill Clinton and the U.S. Air Force had bombed Serbia to end the war with Bosnia-Herzegovina, back in the 1990’s. So we started playing that song⁠—‘America, home of the brave!’ And the whole dance floor stopped, and they just looked at us.”

Remembering it now, he laughs at his panic: “Oh my god how do we get out of this? Do I edit it on the fly? ‘Hey, that was a joke, okay, now we got another one for ya!’” D.O.A. quickly moved on to a fan favourite, and “all was forgiven.”

Keithley taps the table with his hands. “To apply that practical experience to city government was a natural fit,” he says. “And that’s my take on politics, too. I think what we really need is for people with more diverse backgrounds to run for office. There’s a lot of that now, but there’s also an awful lot of lawyers, real estate agents, businesspeople. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t run for office, but what we need more of is people like, a woman who runs a daycare, a plumber, an actor. Maybe not Ronald Reagan! But you know what I mean? Then if you get diverse types of politicians like myself, well, what’s our town made up from? A really diverse bunch of people with different customs. So you’ve gotta get people that can roll with the punches…”

Keithley had always considered a political career. His older brother Jef, he explains, worked as a union organizer for the Canadian Association of Industrial, Mechanical and Allied Workers and Canadian Auto Workers, “so I was well informed on labour issues from an early age.” At 19, he thought he might become a civil rights lawyer, and eventually maybe even Prime Minister. The political environment at SFU was less exciting than he’d hoped, however. “I’d thought that SFU was going to be more adventurous, and more, like, radical politics. But that was a few years before, in 1971, and I got there in 1975. I quit after one term.”

He focused on music instead, but since D.O.A. got started in 1978, he has always kept politics in the fore of his songwriting, including the anti-prison song “Burn It Down,” the labour-solidarity song “General Strike,” and a solo song about the murder of BC labour activist Ginger Goodwin. D.O.A. has covered everything from the Temptations “War” to Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” which I once saw D.O.A. play at an anti-war rally in Vancouver with no less than Jack Layton and Noam Chomsky in attendance.

But it took Keithley two decades to make it into office, running unsuccessfully in provincial elections from 1996 to 2017 as both a green and NDP candidate before landing on Burnaby City Council. These days, as chair of the Burnaby environmental committee⁠—one of his many roles in council⁠—he oversees reports on everything from decarbonizing housing to installing EV chargers in parking lots.

Central to Keithley’s enjoyment of his job is his relationship with Mayor Mike Hurley⁠—who emigrated to Canada in 1983 from Northern Ireland: “I actually really like the Mayor. I think he’s a listener and a really good guy.” Keithley and Hurley were both elected to Burnaby’s municipal government in 2018⁠—an epochal election that ended the 16-year mayorship of Derek Corrigan, replacing him with the independent Hurley. Corrigan’s party, the Burnaby Citizen Association, held onto 7 of 8 city council seats⁠—all but the one claimed by Keithley. “That broke the logjam of having one party run the city forever,” Keithley says. Hurley and Keithley found common ground on the issue of housing⁠—a topic D.O.A. has tackled in their music. “If you lose your job, you lose your place, you end up sleeping on couches or in your car, and when you’ve got no money for a license fee or insurance on the car, you end up sleeping under a bridge…”

Joe Keithley

Like Keithley, Hurley has a musical background, and the two have recorded two videos together, with the Mayor on bass⁠—an anti-racist anthem called “You Won’t Stand Alone” and a song about weathering COVID, “We’re All in this Together.” “Neither of them were big hits or anything, but they made a good point with the citizens of Burnaby, and it was fun to do. And Mike and I have played Ethiopian New Year’s Eve over at the Nikkei centre, and we’ve played at the legion and the youth jam at Deer Lake, joined by eight or nine students, which was pretty funny, because there’d be six guys trying to play solo on the guitar: ‘Okay, your turn!’”

Keithley still has two years and a few months to go on his current city council term (he was reelected in 2022), but he plans to run again. Meantime, D.O.A. has a new album, as yet untitled, in the works for 2024, and continues to play, with a show lined up on May 11 for the Commodore, where they first played in 1979 opening for the Ramones. The May 11 bill will include Dead Bob, featuring D.O.A. alum Ford Pier and John Wright, the latter also formerly of Nomeansno; both Wright and Pier appear on D.O.A.’s 1995 album The Black Spot, while Dead Bob’s bassist is Colin MacRae of Vancouver Island math rock cult heroes Pigment Vehicle, who were on Keithley’s label Sudden Death Records.

He may turn 68 in June, but he has given up talking about retiring D.O.A.; he figures he’ll keep going until he simply can’t anymore, like his hero Pete Seeger, who he’s had the “real good fortune” of playing with. “I met him a couple of times, and I was amazed that ten years after he played with me, he still remembered me! And he kept going ’til he was 93… When I play, it’s like, ‘Who knows, maybe it’s the last time I’ll ever get to this town,’ so I’m going to play as hard as I can,” taking the same “no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners type approach that D.O.A. has always had. You just get up there and try to kick ass. That’s what people are expecting, and it’s what I’m expecting out of myself.”

Joe Keithley


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May 6, 2024