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Keithley, who is legendary in the punk world, says he has knocked on about 2,000 doors over two months in the runup to the NDP nomination in the riding of Coquitlam-Burke Mountain. (Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail)
Keithley, who is legendary in the punk world, says he has knocked on about 2,000 doors over two months in the runup to the NDP nomination in the riding of Coquitlam-Burke Mountain. (Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail)

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What happens when an old punk rocker enters politics Add to ...

Too poor to actually buy magazines, the young, scruffy members of Vancouver punk group D.O.A. used to bring notepads to record stores and jot down potential industry contacts from the back pages of trade publications. That’s how, shortly after the band formed in 1978, they got the name and address of a college station in San Francisco to which they sent their first single. A month later, Disco Sucks was the station’s No. 1 track.

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Riding on the strength of that unexpected success, Joe Keithley, the band’s founder – and its only continuous member to this day – called up a San Francisco club, hunting down a gig. “Hey, we’re D.O.A. We’re No. 1,” he recalls telling the club’s bewildered manager, who did some checking around, confirmed the information, and booked them for two shows. Although money was scarce, the four members managed to make their way to San Francisco – one by train, two by Greyhound, and one by hitchhiking. Their first night onstage, sensing the audience was bored, and needing to go to the bathroom fairly urgently, Keithley took it upon himself to urinate. “I unzipped and sent forth a stream that went clear across the dance floor,” he writes in Talk – Action = 0: An Illustrated History of D.O.A. “The yellow liquid ended up in some girl’s drink about 20 feet away.”

D.O.A. had instant punk cred.

Indeed, it was a huge moment not just for the band, but for the Vancouver punk movement: D.O.A. would go on to become ambassadors – perhaps honkin’ quadraphonic speakers would be a more apt term – for the local scene.

They toured relentlessly and got word out that there was something happening here – and it wasn’t hippie folk stuff, it wasn’t rock ’n’ roll.

“They were the first band to introduce the punk scene or any other artists from Vancouver to the rest of the world,” says Susanne Tabata, who documented Vancouver punk history in her 2010 film, Bloodied But Unbowed, which is still touring the festival circuit internationally. “They really, really did open the door and crack the ice for the Canadian bands who followed.”

Soon, however, DOA will take its final bow – at least for now – as Keithley prepares for what he hopes will be a political career: In anticipation of the spring provincial election, he is going after the NDP nomination in the suburban riding of Coquitlam-Burke Mountain. Next week, D.O.A. kicks off a farewell tour with a show at Vancouver’s Rickshaw Theatre, followed by dates elsewhere in B.C., in Alberta and in California.

Politics might seem like a departure for the guy who, back when he was known as Joey Shithead, thought nothing of not only urinating on but tackling inattentive audience members. Yet, looking at D.O.A.’s history, it also seems a natural extension of the political outrage that has always been so central to the band’s ethos. From the beginning, they spoke out on issues such as racism and nuclear arms, and raised money for everything from rape relief to the local food bank.

Like many Canadian kids, Keithley, who grew up in Burnaby, started out wanting to be a hockey player. That all changed in Grade 10 when he attended a Greenpeace demonstration against the arms race. There was a new left wing in his life: Suddenly, he wanted to be a civil-rights lawyer. Three years later, in 1976, when he first learned about punk rock, he saw an opportunity to marry his love of music with his social concerns.

“I’ve been a student of politics since I was 14, 15, 16,” Keithley said in an interview this week. “We realized what was happening with right-wing parties in Europe and Canada and the United States … with people like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. These were really right-wing people running the government, running society, that had really no interest in helping anybody except their rich friends. And we took a stand against that.”

Keithley, amazingly, has been at it for some 35 years, never letting up, keeping the band going in one incarnation or another. A consummate self-promoter, he started off making business cards out of construction paper, and drove around town, using a Sharpie to add his band’s name to tacked-up concert posters.

Eventually, he started his own label. At 56, with 14 studio albums and thousands of live shows under his studded belt, Keithley is

living history: the embodiment of a scene that grew to be legendary.

That Vancouver should have given birth to such a thriving movement seems at odds with what the city was in the 1970s: a sleepy provincial town geographically cut off from the important cultural centres where record labels had head offices. But that isolation is credited with contributing to the scene’s growth. “The bands … in New York and Toronto and L.A. would tailor, a little bit, what they did to try to get a record deal, but there was no chance of getting one, being in Vancouver … and that made people just go and take chances, because there was no chance you’d get successful,” says Keithley.

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