Talk Minus Action Still Equals Zero: Interview with DOA's Joe Keithley
Talking with the Canadian Punk Rock legend about politics, Pete Seeger, the Guthries and that acoustic album he keeps threatening to record.
Activist Summit: Joe Keithley and DOA talking backstage with Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie at Vancouver's Malkin Bowl before the 'Expo Hurts Everyone' free concert, May 25 1986
Not many punk rockers get profiled on roots music websites. It wouldn't make sense. What could - say - Merle Haggard and The Sex Pistols possibly have in common? It's a valid question, but it kinda misses the boat and it doesn't take the huge breadth of subject matter that's featured in country, blues and folk music into account. There's always been corporate music, music that exists to further the needs and desires of the mainstream, and there's always been music that has stood outside of that. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were blessed with great senses of melody and turn of phrase and could've made decent livings singing and writing for TinPan Alley, but they took it in another direction. Hank Williams pushed the envelope, and it's easy to imagine the young Johnny Cash singing hardcore if he'd been born in a different era.
Every genre of music has artists that are bigger than the imaginary confines that have been drawn up to keep them apart. Joey Keithley (or Joey Shithead as everyone called him for years) is such an artist. In the same way that people who don't like country have grudging soft spots for Willie Nelson, it's hard to imagine anyone not being impressed by Joe Keithley and the vitality that has kept his band DOA at the forefront of political punk music for more than thirty years.
People of my generation were too young to experience Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan (in his protest singer phase) in anything but a kind of rear view mirror type of way. Punk and reggae music expressed the dreams and frustrations of kids coming of age in the late seventies and early eighties better and more directly than anything else could. We watched the news on TV, but Bob Marley and the Clash made sense of it for us. Their music opened up a world of injustice, revealed sufferers and exposed evil governments, but it was all still going on a universe away as far as most young people in North America was concerned.
That all changed with DOA who brought it all back home. Hearing Joe Keithley and DOA sing at the local high school I attended was a revelation. Here was somebody a few years older than me singing about local politicians, union troubles, and the dangers of conformity in a way that was more real than anything I'd ever heard. He sang like he really meant every word. That was 1980, and over the years I've been lucky enough to hear DOA play more times than I can count. There haven't been many protests, Earth Day and Peace marches, or any gatherings for justice and the common good that haven't featured DOA as a perennial headliner. And, you can hear why. More than thirty years later and he still sings like he means it.
I met Joe Keithley at his home in Burnaby, BC and hung out for a couple of hours while he was preparing to go out on another leg of his own version of the never-ending tour. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Doug: Joe, the first thing I have to ask you about is whether or not DOA is really over. I think I’ve been to quite a few ‘farewell’ shows over the years.
Joe: (laughs) No, not really. I mean that obviously I tried to get elected and that didn’t really happen so…
Doug: You were trying to get nominated to run for the NDP in our last provincial election. (The NDP or New Democratic Party is Canada’s most left of centre mainstream political party)
Joe: I presumed wrongly that I would win the nomination and get elected, but the party heavyweights didn't see me as a candidate. They endorsed my nearest rival two days before the election date and I ended up losing by five votes. I think they didn't want to elect anyone who had a strong opinion about anything. I guess I had too many definite ideas! (laughs)
Doug: That would never do! So, music must have started looking good again after that experience.
Joe: True enough! It shouldn't have been a big surprise to anyone. I don’t think in the short time I took out, I forgot how to play the guitar, sing or write songs. Those are skills that I built up over a lifetime, so - no DOA isn’t over. We were doing a farewell tour for a while and I guess that the tour I’m still on is vaguely referred to as a farewell tour – because that’s what it was while I was booking it - but it’s not really the case anymore.
Doug: I was just going to say that when I was listening to your newest live CD ‘Welcome To Chinatown’ from last year, I was amazed by the energy and commitment you still have. I don’t know how you do it. It was mesmerizing to listen to.
Joe: It’s funny since announcing a farewell tour, we’ve never had so many offers to play. I think I saw the Ramones three times on their farewell tours, and then there’s the Who. That’s a whole other story. DOA is going strong and we just got a new drummer. We started breaking him in two nights ago and that’s working out well. We’re going to do some shows now in Washington and Oregon – down to Eugene.
Doug: I think of Eugene as a hippie town. That’s where we always used to go to see the Grateful Dead. How do you go over down there?
Joe: It is a hippie town. We have spent a lot of time there because it’s one of those stops when you’re going down the coast. It has always been part of our stomping grounds ever since we got started. Since the late seventies, we’ve been playing every town down the coast from Vancouver to San Diego. Eugene’s great – one third hippies, one third punks and one third rednecks. Then there are the University of Oregon students who fall somewhere in between –
Doug: In between – you mean, logger hippies? Punk rednecks?
Joe: Yeah. Hilarious! I was telling Paddy, our new drummer that he’s going to love Eugene a lot because it’s like a really big Nelson with the same vibe. A town full of ex-loggers and their offspring who are either punks or hippies!
Doug: Do you think there is a political connection between punks and hippies? After so many years of playing in some very weird settings with all kinds of music, you must have had a chance to think about this -
Joe: Yeah, I think there’s a real connection. It’s an underplayed idea. My friend David Spanner who used to manage the Subhumans… we get together about once a year or so to talk about the old days and one of the points we always come back to is how similar punk rock is to the hippie movement. Neither side will admit it. Obviously when we look at it from a distance, the hairstyles, the presentation is so much different and the sound of the music is so much different. You think of folk music or the long drawn out rock music of the late sixties and seventies and then you think of punk rock and it’s hard to reconcile them. But the same kind of ideal of confronting authority and thinking for yourself and trying to take control of your life that I’ve always sung about is really similar to what the hippies were talking about. But, obviously the hippie culture was commercialized in a massive form very quickly, but it took at least 20 years for them to figure out how to commercialize punk. Now, I see these mall punks. What I mean is that you can go into a mall and buy a t shirt that says ‘anarchy’ on it. Is that anarchy? No! I am amazed. It’s just one of those things. As time has passed on, there have been new generations and they don’t take the music seriously. Not like you or I or other people who were there at the beginning do.
Doug: There isn’t the context anymore. Do you feel any sense of obligation to educate mall punks about where the style they’ve just affected or bought with their Visa cards originated?
Joe: I don’t think it’s an obligation. You can only do what you can do to get them to think. A big part of DOA has always been to get people to think about what’s happening around them in their neighbourhood, in their country and in the world. It’s always been important to us to get people to think about issues that are important to them. We’ve always said ‘Talk Minus Action Equals Zero.” That’s where it comes from.
Doug: It’s in that spirit where I see your biggest connection with guys like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger or Billy Bragg…. It’s daily stuff. It’s broadsheet stuff. For me, the song ‘General Strike’ from 1983 was like that. In many ways, it’s your most perfect song.
Joe: Right. Woody Guthrie would see something and he’d write about it right away. I was really sad when I heard about the passing of Pete Seeger. He was a giant who even at 90 could totally get people riled up and make some change.
Doug: Did you ever meet him?
Joe: Yes I did! A couple of times. We played with him once at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park in 1986. He came with Arlo Guthrie. They had a contract to play at the Expo World Fair in Vancouver and a lot of activists and people who cared were boycotting Expo. So, somebody contacted Seeger and Guthrie and told them the background to Expo where a lot of people were displaced and lost their homes to make way for tourists to stay at the fair. It was all for tourists for six months. It peaked with this guy in his eighties, I think his name was Olaf Solheim who jumped out of his window at the Patricia Hotel where he had been living for many years. Very kindly, Guthrie and Seeger said they couldn’t break their contract, but they agreed to do a free show at Malkin Bowl. It was partly organized by my good friend, Jim Green for the Downtown Eastside Residents Association and he thought it would be a good idea if DOA opened for Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, so we thought that would be fabulous except for the Parks Board thought it was the worst idea they ever heard. They thought our fans would trample the flora and fauna in the park. The city council also thought that our music would frighten the animals in the zoo. We said that no, it was simply untrue, though if you think about it, they were probably completely right on both points! (big laughter) So, the compromise was to play acoustically. We had an electric bass, stand up drum kit and two acoustic guitars, so it wasn’t out and out as blaringly loud.
Doug: I remember that show well. It was rocking.
Joe: It was a great show and we played eight or nine songs. We had a quick rehearsal the night before because we had never tried to play anything acoustically. It was a great experience. So, I met Pete Seeger there and I met him again twelve years later in Toronto at the Folk Convention. He was a great guy.
Doug: Did he have any understanding or appreciation of what you were doing?
Joe: I think so, I mean I wouldn’t describe him as a punk rock fan or anything like that, but he got it. The motto I’ve always gone on since meeting him is that if I could do a quarter of what he’s done, I’d feel I’d done amazingly well! Not only was he a top artist who wrote a lot of great songs, many of them protest songs – he was a good player. He taught lots of people how to play the banjo and so much more. He was a fascinating guy. Tireless right until the end!
Doug: So, we've been talking about political songs. When you think of Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan or even Joe Strummer , they're singing their lyrics in a way that's easy to understand what they're about. With you, there's some great, great insightful lyrics, but unless you really listen, it's hard to know what you're singing about at times. How do you - ah - cope with that when you're trying to get something across to an audience?
Joe: Yeah, I've been to shows where I've thought 'that was loud and fast. I wonder what they were saying?'
Doug: Has your audience changed? That's another way of looking at this. How many people are coming to a DOA show these days to hear your political views or to hear you share your perceptions of the news?
Joe: You get all kinds. Because it's a rock show, people come to hang out, people come to get wasted, people will come to meet guys and girls, and some of them come to hear the message. I've always tried to make things really clear at a show if I think a song is important. I usually tell the audience what the song is about or I give them the key lines so it's not just a 'blah blah blah blah.' DOA is an extremely loud band most of the time, right! Of course lyrics are hard to understand, but they're an important part of the whole trip.
Doug: For sure. It's always impressed me how you have responded so quickly to events and written about them. Broadsheet style - kinda like Woody Guthrie again. A song like 'General Strike' that was about a specific political situation has that very simple line 'Everything is not all right!' and it ripped through all the rhetoric that we were getting buried under. It's very precise.
Joe: It was very quick. The General Strike situation was happening in 1983 and it was escalating through the Solidarity Coalition here in BC and we all thought we should write a song about it. So, Dave Gregg, my old guitar player and myself sat down and wrote the song in about half an hour. Once we had the key line and a couple of the riffs, everything else was a snap. We'd been doing what we called 'instant singles' about the Expo situation that involved evicting seniors from their homes and other things and this seemed like a natural thing for us to do. So, we'd write, record, press and get singles to the record store in a week to ten days which is amazingly quick if you understand what's involved. It's not like today where you can put out a digital single and get it distributed instantly. There was plastic, trucking, all kinds of physical processes involved. But, then again, I've spent months on some songs that really should have been thrown out! (big laugh)
Doug: So, you mentioned Dave Gregg. What's he doing these days? For me, he was the quintessential DOA guitarist. You guys never sounded better than when he was with you.
Joe: He's selling T shirts for bands. He lives in New York, but he comes back here frequently. He has a place up at Whistler. He still plays music but not full time. He was playing with The Real McKenzies for a while as one of their three guitarists.
Doug: I was watching your new DVD 'To Hell and Back' - which I really enjoyed - and I have to say the first thing I noticed is how much energy you have and how young your bass player and drummer are. Is that because most guys your age can't keep up with you?
Joe: Well, we have a lot of fun together. The current lineup is a good combo, for sure. DOA has always been blessed with good musicians. In DOA - we've gone through a lot of different members - and when people have left because they don't fit in anymore, its usually not been acrimonious. It's just been the right time for them to do something else.
Doug: You've always worked a lot, so there must be an understood commitment involved when you sign on with DOA.
Joe: Yeah, that's true. The two things that you need to play in DOA are musical ability and a sense of camaraderie. Otherwise, you become like the Who that don't have any sense of camaraderie at all. I'm not putting them down because they have a library of some of the best songs ever written that they can draw on, but to be a good band you have to have some kind of common vision. That doesn't mean you have to think exactly alike, that's impossible. But, when you're rowing you'd better all be pulling at the same time or the boat's gonna go in a circle.
Doug: Do you have much contact with your contemporaries these days? I'm thinking people like Henry Rollins and Jello Biafra.
Joe: I talk to Biafra frequently. He's doing okay. He's got a new band called 'Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School Of Medicine.'
Doug: Great name.
Joe: Oh yeah. He's always got an acerbic take on American culture. They're very good. Rollins and I are friends, but we haven't spoken for a while. He's got a really great thing going with his spoken word act. He's turned his singing into ultra confident speaking engagements.
Doug: I think of you three as pillars of old school...
Joe: ... North American Punk. There's also Ian Mackay of Fugazi who's doing really well. He's another pillar.
Doug: Shit, we're getting old. It's like you guys are the new old guys - y'know the Woody, Pete, Lee Hays and Burl Ives of the old guard punk scene.
Joe: (laughs) Oh yeah, we have contact and know what we've all been through. But, it's not like we all get together for a punk rock picnic. There is a huge punk rock bowling extravaganza that I've never been to. It's grown from a hundred people with bowling teams to a big event of around three thousand. That would be the place to go if you wanted to see the old hands. I guess that's as close as it gets for nostalgia for me. I run into people when the time is right. Everybody is busy working at something.
Doug: So, how far does this all go for you? I'm not speaking about music in particular, but more about your stance and perspective of life.
Joe: When I was a kid growing up in North Burnaby (a suburb of Vancouver), we'd be running around and we could smell the gas from the local refinery. They told us they were just burning off effluent and there was no leakage. I don't know if it was true, but of course we didn't believe them! We didn't believe anything! Everything was bullshit! I grew up a block from where they're talking about putting the Kinder Morgan terminal now to transport oil down to the States. At the time, it was wide open and you could walk all around in there. We used to swim in there and skate during the winter in the reservoir ponds. They were innocent times. Now, things have changed and everything is locked up. This was around 1971 -1972 - right at the beginning of the environmental movement. We were high school activists from around the time we were sixteen years old. We went to Greenpeace protests, we were against the Amchitka bomb test and nuclear blasts. All that kind of thing.
Doug: Can you remember your first political impulse - the time when you first thought 'everything is not all right'?
Joe: Well, my older brother, Jeff was an organizer for the United Auto Workers for a long time, and while I was still in high school, he told me all about Chile and the whole thing with Allende. There was a big Canadian component to that story because of Noranda Copper was the biggest company in the country at the time. He was really organizing a lot of protests about that. But, I guess the biggest one that started me off was Amchitka in 1971. But, I mean, that was a much different time. I wrote a song once called 'War Monger' about watching the Vietnam war on TV when I was a kid. I was born in '56, so when I was about ten, at that point, all of the cameramen were like Dennis Hopper in 'Apocalypse Now.' They were right on the front lines.
Doug: The press did not co-operate with the government on that war, and I think they learned a huge lesson from that.
Joe: It wasn't censored then. The big shift happened with the rise of the 'embedded reporter' during the first Iraq war. What does embedded mean? It means that the captain of each unit censors the photos you take or the things you write before you can send them off to be published. But, back then, Nixon got elected, the Vietnam war got even gorier and at the same time my family got a coloured TV. That made the blood red instead of grey. That politicized me - along with the riots in Watts and New Jersey. That all happened during one summer of my life. Everything boiled up. Combine that with the activist music of the day - Jimi Hendrix, Country Joe McDonald.... I was young when Hendrix died and a lot of this music was written, so it kind of really hit me as powerful music later on. Of course, there's Bob Marley who I saw about six months before he died. I was really glad I got to saw him. It was fucking great. Easily one of the best shows I've ever seen. The background to all of that growing up was the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, the arms buildup and all those SALT talks when Ronald Reagan became president in 1980. The landscape really changed again then. We played in Germany a lot in the old days and people were always bitching about Helmet Kohl.
Doug: This period we're talking about - the mid eighties - seemed to be an era during which you were the most popular. You threatened to really enter the big time a few times with your association with David Lee Roth, other big artists who praised you in the rock press of the day.
Joe: Yeah, there was a lot going on then. It's interesting, even though we had so much influence as you say, during the last half of our career - say from the mid nineties on - we've actually played for way more people than during the first half of our career. People perceive the early days as the peak of punk, but I have to tell you back then we'd go into a town and if there was 200 people who came out to see us, we'd think we had a successful gig.
Doug: It happens. Like The Grateful Dead are seen as a sixties band, but they were most popular in the late eighties and nineties.
Joe: Exactly. Other than Los Angeles, New York and London, our shows in the heyday were smaller shows by today's standards. Los Angeles was always biggest because they'd put together strong bills where we'd play with Black Flag, The Exploited, Husker Du and The Minutemen. Those were the continent's biggest punk rock shows. But, the early shows from say '77 to '83 were the shows that blew people away and are still really well remembered.
Doug: Do you think part of the reason you're doing so well now is that there simply aren't that many of punk's first generation out and touring anymore?
Joe: A few years ago I would have agreed with that assessment, but recently a lot of my old cronies have reformed and started playing again. (huge laugh) They're going 'hey this isn't so bad. We're all in a middle aged crisis and we have to find something to do with our time.' It's really funny because it's not like a lot of them quit music altogether. They just stopped touring. DOA is one of the rare bands - other than the Ramones and the Dickies - who have kept going for the whole time.
Doug: Is it just a case of it takes a long time for the mainstream culture to catch up with ideas that have been around the fringes for years, even decades at times?
Joe: Yes, I think it is. I was just talking to a guy who's writing a book about Nirvana and he was talking about them being the band that finally broke punk through. But, Nirvana aren't punk rock. Not to be a fundamentalist, but the whole grunge scene just developed at the right time when the people who were deciding on programming for radio stations and such were familiar with our music and had grown up on it. When we were trying to break through the programmers had all grown up listening to the Rolling Stones. So, they heard us and thought 'what is this crap?' but by the time Nirvana came along fifteen years later the programmers' sense of what sounded good was much different. Nirvana had a great singer and songwriter, a well produced album 'Nevermind' that came out at just the right time. It's really sad the way it all ended. The smack scene has never been my scene, but it's really shown me the dark side of music.
Doug: It's in every music scene - even country.
Joe: It's really strange. A lot of creative people get drawn into it. I've lost a lot of friends. But, I have looked after myself. I've lived a totally different type of life. I moved out to the suburbs, had three kids who are all pretty well grown up now, and been married for around 28 years, so things are going well. But, I still love playing music.
Doug: I think I already mentioned it, but when I watched your concert DVD 'To Hell and Back' last night, I was amazed at your focus and energy. Obviously you knew you were being filmed, but still - how do you keep it up?
Joe: It's my belief that you always have to move forward and create new things. We've always done that. We still sound like a punk rock band, but we've tried to progress with the times. We try to expand what we can do lyrically. We sing about what's going on now. We don't hearken back to the glory days of punk. Who cares about 1977? It's over. While there's still a sense of nostalgia with DOA, we've got lots of old songs, we always have to have lots of new ones to sing. Otherwise, what's the point? We're not a nostalgia act. We play some old songs, but if you don't play some new stuff, too, you end up sounding like The Beach Boys or The Eagles who play the same fifteen songs every night for life. Man, I've been listening to the same Beach Boys songs on the radio since I was a kid. When you put on those classic rock stations they play some good songs, but after about twenty minutes, you realize 'oh man' I've heard every one of these songs nine hundred times. But, then again, you've got Neil Young who comes and wants $150 for you to come and hear him play all new songs. He's one of my all time favourites - him and Stomping Tom are my all time Canadian favourites - but I'm sure if I shelled out for Neil Young I'd want to hear some of the old songs, too. There is a balance. We know that our fans want to hear 'World War 3' and 'Fucked Up Ronnie' - even though Reagan's been dead for eighteen years. We sometimes substitute other politician's names. But, we try and mix it up.
Doug: And, before we go, I've got to ask you about that acoustic album you've been threatening to record for decades now....
Joe: I’d still like to put out some acoustic, rootsy type thing as opposed to a DOA type punk album. I really have been thinking of it. You know I’m going to do it, but any time I pick up the acoustic guitar, you know, it’s like it won’t behave. I lean into it expecting it to go ‘bwaaaaaah’ and it only gives me this little twang. But, don’t worry. I’ll figure it out and we’ll really have something to talk about for your folk and country website! Right on!
You can order DOA music, books and DVDS from: www.suddendeath.com
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Since speaking with Joe in the middle of March, Dave Gregg his longtime friend and lead guitarist during DOA’s greatest years passed away of a heart attack. You can read Joe’s tribute to Dave Gregg here:
" It is with unbelievable sorrow that I have to talk about the passing of Dave Gregg. He died of a heart attack this past weekend. I can't even come close to being able to express strong enough condolences to his wife Cathy and the rest of Dave's family.
Dave was a member of D.O.A. from 1980-88 and played some screaming guitar licks on the following albums: Something Better Change, Hardcore 81, War on 45, Let's Wreck The Party, True North Strong and Free and finally on Murder. He was a great guitarist and an unbelievable showman.
But more importantly he was genuinely nice guy and a caring human being, who had one of the most wicked senses of humour I have ever come across.
On long D.O.A. tours Dave (usually the overnight driver) and I along with our comrades Chuck Biscuits, Randy Rampage, Ken Lester, Dimwit (R.I.P.), Brian "Wimpy Roy" Goble, Greg "Peckerwood" James and Jon Card would while away the hours with almost endless conversation. But it
usually came down to Dave and I still gabbing into the wee hours. We would scheme about how to change the world and possible wild scientific breakthroughs as we endlessly put up really shitty music on the radio (not much has changed). Dave and I also became very familiar with prices of every kind of crop grown across America and many a gospel preacher on that same radio in the Dodge van we called the Blue Bullet. At one point when D.O.A. had been playing close to 10 years, Dave and I calculated that we had spent four of those 10 years in vans, traveling to shows. As Dave drove he would furiously work his way through bag after bag of spits (sunflower seeds), he would deposit the shells in the door sill of the driver side door until the pile would reach a height of about 12 inches, that was a badge of honour.
On our first tour with Dave he got really drunk at the second show and forgot about half the arrangements,as he stood on the opposite side of the circular bar at the venue we had just played, he smirked at me with a particularly dazed look, I realized I had to get him to shape up, so I threw my 3/4 full can of beer across the bar and nailed him in the forehead. Dave rarely forgot an arrangement after that and went on to become a consummate musician and performer.
I could probably write a book about funny Dave Gregg stories and maybe even promote his one man organization: The New Spartans! LOL
I really wish I had one more chance to sit down with him and cover some of that ground again and explore new avenues of thought, but I can't and that sucks.
Dave, we will all miss you tremendously, but you will live on in our hearts.
Long live the spirit of Dave Gregg !!!
Joe Shithead Keithley - March 31st, 2014
Be Your Own Boss. Think For Yourself. Talk - Action = 0 (still)
This posting originally appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.ca