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Joe Keithley's Road to Punk and Politics

NDP candidate hopeful for Coquitlam-Burke Mountain wants to bring DIY ethics to BC's legislature.

Rachel Bergen 3 Jan

Rachel Bergen is a graduate student of journalism at UBC who recently completed a practicum at The Tyee.

Don't call him Joey "Shithead" anymore.

One of the founding members of the Vancouver punk band, D.O.A., Joe Keithley has shed the edginess of his punk rock persona (for the time being) and now wants to work with the B.C. New Democrats to stick up for the little guy in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain.

While he hasn't won the nomination just yet -- he's up against three other candidates to compete in the riding, with the decision slated for March 3 -- he's one of a number of former rockers who've thrown themselves into the political ring. Charlie Angus and Andrew Cash of the Canadian punk band, L'Éntranger, (ca. 1980s) are both New Democrat MPs in Ontario.

What can rock do for politics? The Tyee wanted to know, so we called up Keithley and met at a noisy coffee shop on Vancouver's Main Street. He was eager to talk shop, and in an hour-long interview he was recognized by punk fans twice. Both wished him luck in his upcoming nomination bid.

As it turns out, the two seemingly polar aspects of his life -- punk and politics -- are in reality connected and rooted in his upbringing, he said. D.O.A. songs like "World War Three," "Waste Riot," "The Enemy," and "General Strike" all have strong political themes.

"I'm a political junkie. I've always been that way. D.O.A. has always been that way," Keithley said.

Keithley grew up in B.C. and graduated from Burnaby North Secondary School in 1974. Growing up, his older sister would being home folk records, the likes of Bob Dylan and The Weavers, whose songs spouted their ideals: how people were wronged, and efforts to correct the wrongs.

"That seeped into my subconscious," he said.

In high school, Keithley's political nature really started to come out, he said. And the rest, as the old cliché goes, is history -- even if he doesn't run in this election, he would consider running for city council or provincially in a different riding.

Here's what else The Tyee learned about the freewheelin' Joe Keithley...

On sticking it to the man, Cold War style:

"The first political act that I was a part of was when I was 16; Greenpeace organized a protest against nuclear testing in the Amchitka Islands, which is off the end of Alaska. They were doing underground testing with nuclear bombs. This was the build-up of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.

"Kids would leave their schools and go march around the American Consulate on Pender Street. We were quite conscious of what was going on with the Vietnam War and the arms race. Some kids weren't, they were just into cars, the way kids are, right? Me and my friends, we were quite aware of this.

"There was no way we could get permission to be a part of this, so we just left school one day for the march, and the principal physically got in front of us with his arms outstretched like this and he said, 'Stop, you kids, stop! Get back to class.' We kind of thumbed our noses at him. By the time we got downtown there was close to a thousand kids. My buddy brought his bass drum with him, so he was leading the parade as all the usual kind of chants were going on, like 'No nukes!' That was the first political action I took."

On rainy treks through Coquitlam to get out the vote:

"I've spent two and a half months walking around, knocking on people's doors in Coquitlam. I knocked on about 2,000 doors and I talked to a lot of people. I got some great feedback about what those people thought the issues were.

"I think that's really important because the number one thing that a politician has to know how to do is listen to people. If they don't listen to people, they shouldn't get there in the first place, and if they stop listening to people, they should get booted out of office. Because those are the people who put you there, who pay your wage, and you're supposed to be their representative.

"By knocking on the doors I also got the chance to talk to people about what I thought was important, too. It was a great experience. I was out there four or five times a week, for two to five hours a day. I got really good at holding the clipboard with my notes and holding an umbrella and trying not to get bit by dogs, step in puddles or get hit by cars.

"You wouldn't believe the amount of people I met that said, 'Nah, I don't vote, I hate politics, all you guys are liars, you're all full of...' -- fill in the blank. Rather than saying that I'm not going to waste my time, 60 or 70 per cent of the time I convinced that person on the door step why they should vote.

"Democracy is a hard fought right that we have that people went to jail for, that people were executed for, it's the basis of our system. Some people might not like it, but it's the best system we've got. People have got to realize that democracy is a lot more than going to the polls every four years. If you don't like something, talk to your MLA, MP, city councillor or mayor. Rattle their ears. That's what they're getting paid for, not just 'My way or the highway.'

"I'm running because I think I can get a lot of young people involved."

On the Green party and why he's running to be an NDP MLA:

"I became a single-issue candidate for the Green Party in the 1996 provincial election. In 2001 I ran for the Green party again in Burnaby-Willingdon and I came in third. In 2002, I didn't renew my Green Party leadership.

"I found them to be vote splitters. I couldn't stand Gordon Campbell, and I found that the Green Party didn't have a great social policy. There were a lot of people with great environmental policies in the party, but they don't have concrete fiscal policy or a good social policy, which is the one thing that NDP has over every other party -- so here I am."

On the B.C. Liberals, jobs and the HST:

"They have done a poor job. The big claim that they have is that they're good managers of the economy. I think they're mis-managers of the economy. They give away too much to their big business pals. The B.C. Liberals don't foster small business; their job action plan, $15 million was wasted. Since they started that, unemployment is about the same.

"The other really great case is the Chinese migrant miners. We should be training people with skills in trades... There's got to be Canadians who can do the job or be trained a lot quicker than these Chinese migrant workers. We still don't have answers in the BC Rail case. We have a myriad of questions there. And look at the HST -- we still don't have the answers to the HST. At least Dalton McGuinty [the current premier of Ontario, who recently announced his resignation] had the guts to debate it in front of people. The middle class built this country and they're just getting screwed by this government and by the Conservative government in Ottawa."

On the main points of his platform:

"Education is the main one, trying to help middle class families, helping seniors. They're really stuck with medicine, food prices have taken a big jump.

"Education is really lacking in this province. Tuition fees are too high, student debt load is too high, there's not enough training spaces within the trades, and there's a lack of teachers within the system for ESL and special needs. Everyone should be able to learn to their maximum potential, whatever that is.

"We can also benefit B.C. and the Greater Vancouver area, especially by fostering our arts community. We have a great arts community -- people might not be aware of it -- (the) film industry is big, we need to keep fostering that, that's really essential for the economy. We have a really talented bunch of people here. We have to find ways to enable people to grow their art to make it a cultural destination. That's one industry we could really excel at here."

On the 'DIY ethic' of punk rock, and how it serves him now:

"Punk rock came along with The Clash, The Damned, and The Sex Pistols, and we realized that there's actually a coherent thing. Some bands were more political than others. The most publicized side of punk rock when it first came out was the nihilistic side of it; Sid Vicious personified that 30 years ago. It was in rock n' roll, jazz in the '50s, psychedelia...

"The biggest thing wasn't the hairstyle or the clothes, and it wasn't the music. It was the DIY [or do-it-yourself] ethic. People realized they can do things for themselves without necessarily using big companies to do it. So they made their own record labels and magazines. If there's an alternative way of doing stuff, people from that generation found a way.

"I run a recording company [Sudden Death Records] myself. I was D.O.A's road manager, I managed the band myself. Whenever we had t-shirts made, I would go and pick them up myself. We got friends to do the printing themselves. Any step you can take to help local businesses, that's a part of my platform.

"One thing I want to emphasize, though, is that a community is always stronger together than it is apart. It's good for people to take initiative and do things for themselves than to be totally dependent on big businesses or big governments. But some people are not in the position to do that. We have to look after people; it's part of being a Canadian. I don't think the B.C. Liberals are doing that and the federal Conservatives aren't either."  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Music, Elections

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