D.O.A. Is Alive
Published Jan 01, 2006www.suddendeath.com
You'd be hard pressed to think of any Canadian rock bands that have been together 25 years, never mind punk bands. Yet with only two brief break-ups under their belt, Joe "Shithead" Keithley and D.O.A. have been consistently touring the world, putting Canadian punk on the map, and penning political tracts of varying eloquence, from "Disco Sucks" to "Just Say No to the WTO." Along the way there's been a lot of blood'n'beer, and even more piss'n'shit to chase down the rock'n'roll. It's all documented in Keithley's new autobiography I, Shithead: A Life In Punk, which is out on Arsenal Pulp Press in November. There's also a new retrospective, War and Peace, and a 25th anniversary tour this fall. For Keithley – punk icon, activist, husband, father of three, label owner and engaging storyteller – writing a book was inevitable. "Whenever there was someone new in the band or the road crew, I'd always tell these stories," he explains. "Finally the rest of them got so sick of it they told me to write a book, because they could practically mouth the lines as I told the story." Other than the fact that he lumps the last 13 years into a cursory final chapter, it's an extremely entertaining read. Alongside the numerous confrontations with racists, internal band fights and pranks, there are also countless benefit shows and singles. DOA have always put their money where their mouth is; their live album was called Talk — Action = Zero. "I think you have to get in there and make a statement, otherwise you're just sitting on your ass," says Keithley matter-of-factly. "If you're quiet, you get what you deserve."
1965 to 1975
Joe Keithley sees his first band at his sister's wedding and decides he wants to be a drummer. He starts saving paper route money to buy a drum kit. In high school in suburban Burnaby, he starts his first band, which includes future Subhumans' singer Gerry Hannah and Ken Montgomery, aka Dimwit. He falls in love with both Black Sabbath and Greenpeace activism. He decides to become a civil rights lawyer and enrolls at Simon Fraser University, only to drop out four months later. Joe becomes increasingly disgusted with mid-'70s rock, particularly hometown heroes Prism. "Years later, we were doing a big benefit for the APEC protesters, and one of the guys from Prism came up to say, 'Hey Joe, really nice to meet you, I'm a longtime fan.' I told him it was nice to meet him too, but I didn't have the heart to tell him how much his band sucked."
1975 to 1976
Joe moves to rural Lumby, BC with some squatter friends at a commune. They start a band called the Resurrection and their first gig is a wake for a dead logger. After repeated redneck harassment, they move back to Burnaby and change the name to Stone Crazy. Covering Sabbath and the Ramones doesn't get them very far, and they decide to go punk and become the Skulls. Joe becomes a "Shithead" at Dimwit's suggestion. The first Skulls show is a free beach show in suburban White Rock, with Art Bergmann's the Smorgs, where they are pelted with garbage and get in a fight with John Armstrong (aka Buck Cherry of the Modernettes). Joe tells the story to Georgia Straight reporter Tom Harrison, who gives them their first publicity and calls them "Vancouver's most hated band." The Skulls fall into the burgeoning Vancouver punk scene, and also claim to launch the concept of the "fuck" band, where band members trade instruments and goof off, partly for fun, partly because there usually weren't enough punk bands to put one bill together. The Skulls' fuck band is called Victorian Pork.
The Skulls play a Labour Day Hell's Angels party, where the bikers won't let them get off the stage until four a.m., even though they only know one set of music. After two hours of sleep, the bikers demand they start again at six a.m. They also made other demands. "All these six-foot-five, 300-pound bikers started chanting, 'C'mon Shithead, take a shit on stage!' So I figured if I wanted to get out alive, I should at least try it." Despite his valiant effort, no shit hits the fans. The Skulls decide to move to Toronto to make it big. Other than crashing a Goddo gig and opening for the Misfits, there is neither fame nor fortune after five months in the Big Smoke. Half the band head for England, the other half head back to Vancouver.
D.O.A., consisting of Joe, drummer Chuck Biscuits (Dimwit's brother) and bassist Randy Rampage, play their first gig at the Japanese Hall in Vancouver, later becoming staples at the Smilin' Buddha club. By the end of the year they use Joe's girlfriend's UI payments to finance a seven-inch single with four songs, including "Disco Sucks." It goes to #1 at San Francisco's campus radio station, and D.O.A. travel there for two gigs at Mabuhay Gardens. At the second show, Joe breaks the ice in the crowd by pissing on the dance floor. The next night the Dead Kennedys are playing, and Joe gets kicked out for the comparatively tame offence of bringing in outside beer. Jello Biafra threatens to stop the show unless Joe is let back in, beginning a long friendship.
D.O.A. move from the Smilin' Buddha to the slightly more upscale Windmill club, where they up the door price from $2 to $2.50 and are "vilified for that gross act of capitalism." They embark on their first shoestring tour of North America. D.O.A. opens for the Clash at the PNE Gardens, where they are denied a sound check and their set is cut short, leading to a nasty exchange with their heroes. After releasing a second seven-inch, D.O.A. breaks up following a riotous gig at UBC. Joe reforms the band months later and they continue work on their debut album. They play "Fucked Up Ronnie" outside the Republican convention in Detroit.
The first show D.O.A. plays with Black Flag is in Santa Cruz in front of ten people; D.O.A. makes $8. The second time is at the Whisky A-Go-Go in L.A. D.O.A. travel non-stop overnight from Vancouver in Joe's VW Rabbit to play one early show for 500 people. The later show is cancelled after a riot between punks and the LAPD, possibly premeditated by the latter, who show up with helicopters and riot gear. This landmark event makes D.O.A. infamous in California punk culture. After opening for X, Chuck Biscuits meets David Lee Roth backstage, who tells him, "You guys are doing the same thing as us, you just package it differently!" D.O.A.'s roadie puts him in a headlock and demands one of Roth's trademark rock'n'roll screams. Roth eventually obliges.
D.O.A. borrow a term from a San Francisco article about West Coast punk and name their third album Hardcore 81, which introduces the rest of the world to the term. Alongside classics like "Smash the State," they cover Led Zeppelin's "Communication Breakdown," one of many nods to classic rock they make in the course of their career. In Bloomington, Indiana, Chuck and Randy get into a fight over a woman at a house party, and Chuck ends up throwing the band's cash all over the lawn and wielding a large butcher knife before he's talked down. Joe is talked out of quitting in Winnipeg. D.O.A. has been playing the same 20 songs for the past three years. Randy is fired after New Year's Eve when he refuses to learn new songs.
Chuck's brother Dimwit steps in on bass, only to move to drums after the brothers argue over a reggae groove. Wimpy is the new bassist, reuniting the original Skulls line-up. Chuck Biscuits joins Black Flag, and later the Circle Jerks, Danzig and Social Distortion. With some advance money from Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles, D.O.A. record War on 45 with Thom Wilson, king of the SoCal sound. It includes their rather lugheaded cover of Edwin Starr's "War," which is a minor hit and for which they shoot an unintentionally hilarious video on a Hollywood soundstage.
Joe's old friend Gerry Hannah is arrested with the Squamish Five, who are charged with blowing up Litton Systems in Toronto, a company with links to defence contractors, as well as two video porn stores and a BC Hydro plant. D.O.A. record the benefit single The Right To Be Wild, which includes a cover of Hannah's "Fuck You." Although they renounce the tactics of the Squamish Five, the band is accused of sending mixed messages, especially when the flip side of the single is a new song called "Burn It Down." "We got involved because Gerry was a friend, and because we agreed with their politics but not the violence. Before it was clear they were guilty, it felt like a witch hunt, and we wanted to raise money for a legal defence to make sure they got a fair trial. Thankfully no one was killed in the Litton blast, although one person was seriously injured." Dimwit leaves for the Pointed Sticks, who can afford to pay him, only to return a year later. Despite being Canada's most successful punk band, Joe makes a living driving a taxi, working construction, and as a bouncer at the PNE beer garden. Most of the band stand in soup lines for food. He doesn't regret this. "If you play music forever and don't do anything else, you lose some perspective on how the world operates."
An extensive tour of Europe, mostly in squats, marks the first time many Europeans witness a North American punk band. There are also gigs behind the Iron Curtain, in Slovenia and Yugoslavia. They close with a triumphant gig at a Venice squat in front of 3,000 people. A BBC Peel Session is released as the EP Don't Turn Your Back on Desperate Times. Joe notes that D.O.A.'s political nature helped them considerably in Europe. "The places where we're most popular are the UK, Germany and Italy. Those countries have strong squatter movements and people who are really into politics. Whereas Sweden, which is a nice place with little political upheaval, we're box office poison up there!"
D.O.A. record Let's Wreck the Party with Brian "Too Loud" MacLeod of the considerably more mainstream Vancouver band the Headpins. They have their hometown release show at the upscale Club Soda, where MacLeod joins them for a cover of BTO's "Taking Care of Business," a song D.O.A. was also invited to play with Hüsker Dü at an early '80s gig. The LP also features their thoroughly embarrassing rap parody "Dance o' Death," which MTV names one of the two worst rap videos of the year; the other is by Dee Dee Ramone. After Youth Brigade, D.O.A. is the second Western punk band to play in Poland. This is the year they name the "Endless Tour," with 132 shows in 105 cities in 13 countries, covering 63,000 miles.
Dimwit leaves the band on the eve of a Western Canadian tour, offering to stay if the band pays him $700, which they reluctantly do. Ex-SNFU and Personality Crisis drummer Jon Card replaces him. D.O.A. contributes "Billy and the Socreds" (a mangled cover of CCR's "Willy and the Poor Boys") to an EP entitled Expo Hurts Everyone, assembled by their manager Ken Lester. They open a free benefit show in Stanley Park with Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie protesting the Expo evictions, which raised $10,000. Bowing to noise concerns, the band plays acoustically for the first time. They also play a Stein Valley benefit show "and almost got killed by loggers," before it becomes a Sarah MacLachlan-endorsed cause celebre. D.O.A. signs a deal with Profile Records, known mostly for Run-DMC, which had also recently signed Montreal's the Nils. The next day Joe gets engaged to his girlfriend Laura.
Their major label debut is called True (North) Strong and Free. It features their cover of "Taking Care of Business." Before they record it, Joe gets a call from Randy Bachman asking if he can play on it. He does, and he also joins them on stage at several gigs and in the classic Canadiana video, in which Team D.O.A., coached by Bachman and decked out in red flannel, plays hockey against corporate suits. Ironically, the album is never released in Canada. "It was probably the most Canadian album we'd done, with four songs about Canada and the BTO cover. They could have sold tons of records up here!" The album also features Joe's debut on musical chainsaw. Joe becomes a father for the first time.
D.O.A. get a last-minute opening for David Lee Roth at Vancouver's Pacific Coliseum when a member of Skid Row breaks their leg and cancels. They're pelted with coins, and D.O.A. guitarist Dave Gregg tells the audience, "Thanks, now I have enough for dinner." D.O.A. is also asked to play a main stage gig at the Vancouver Folk Festival. "For the festival to hire us was extremely unusual. I'd never played so bloody quiet in my life, and they were like, 'Oh, it's so loud!' And the TV footage showed people packing up their blankets and leaving, so that was the pay-off for us. But a lot of people really liked it. I've always thought punk rock was the new folk music, singing about troubles in the world." They're also asked to play at a maximum security prison in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan with BTO at the request of MuchMusic. During a rain delay that threatened to cancel the show, prisoners started banging on their cell bars and chanting: "BTO, DOA, BTO, DOA." Joe changes the words of Johnny Cash's "San Quentin" to "Saskatchewan Pen, I hate every inch of you." The band parts ways with both manager Ken Lester and guitarist Dave Gregg.
Nirvana's second show is opening for D.O.A. in Seattle. D.O.A. sign a new deal with Restless Records. They also start performing as Drunks On Acoustic, which involves incredibly inebriated country songs. Vancouver Folk Festival programmer Gary Crystal diversifies their repertoire by introducing them to the songs of early 20th century leftists the Wobblies (International Workers of the World). At an acoustic benefit show with the Hard Rock Miners, that band's Michael Turner gets the idea for his book Hard Core Logo. Joe co-stars in Terminal City Ricochet, a local Orwellian film also starring Jello Biafra. Jello and D.O.A. collaborate on "That's Progress" for the soundtrack, which leads to the full-length album The Last Scream of the Missing Neighbours. It's the best selling D.O.A. album ever. "It sold close to 200,000 copies. The next closest one would be [the 1984 compilation] Bloodied and Unbowed, which is about 80,000 copies, but it's hard to tell with all the different labels it's been on." D.O.A. plays two benefit shows with Bryan Adams for Environment Watch, who are protesting pollution from the pulp and paper industry. "His manager, Bruce Allen, is a difficult person to deal with at the best of times. He tried to boot us off the second show, even though we came up with the idea to do this thing. At the end of the second night, I was watching Bryan Adams from the side of the stage while he was singing 'Stand By Me,' and he motioned for me to come join him. I love that song – it was my wife and I's first dance at our wedding – so it seemed like the thing to do. A picture of the two of us made all the papers the next day." A year later, the pulp industry agrees to new emission guidelines.
In Europe, D.O.A. make money for the first time in their career. "We took some old D.O.A. albums and singles to London with us and sold them to shops, who then doubled the price, but I walked away with about 500 pounds. That was the first time I'd made a penny off of the early singles. When we re-formed in 1992, we went to Europe three years in a row and actually made money, to the point where we could actually take a few months off when we got home." Joe lands some more acting roles on TV shows, but says, "I kinda gave up acting because all I'd get would be security guard roles with one line: 'Hey you, stop!'" Meanwhile, Joe's baby daughter lands a starring role in Look Who's Talking Too with John Travolta, although she doesn't get many lines either.
At a gig in Dayton, Ohio, Joe gets in a fight with a "fuckwit" who starts attacking the band with mic stands. Joe ends up getting his faced smashed in. Later that night he decides to call it quits. They play a farewell tour down the West Coast, including a show in San Francisco that is filmed for a video. In Seattle, Joe severs part of a finger during his infamous chainsaw routine. "The Last Hurrah" is held at the Commodore Ballroom, where after the third song, Joe is pelted with two beer cans, which silences the room. After glowering a bit, he doesn't dignify the stupidity with a response, and the set continues, including several encores.
After several months of moving office furniture, Joe reforms D.O.A. with Wimpy and drummer Ken Jansen. "I felt there hadn't been a new band coming along who was doing what we were doing, which was kicking the establishment square in the groin, combining the obnoxious loud qualities with humour and social activism." D.O.A. sign to Alternative Tentacles and release the compilation Dawning of a New Error and a new album, 13 Flavours of Doom.
Keyboardist Ford Pier (Jr. Gone Wild, Roots Roundup) straps on a guitar and joins D.O.A. Dimwit dies of a heroin overdose in the fall. "He hadn't been in the band for a long time, but he was one of my best friends. We met when we were 11 years old and went to high school together, formed our first bands, went to Toronto with the Skulls together, everything. I think he and his brother Chuck are two of the top five rock drummers of all time in Canada. He was not a junkie, I want to make that clear. He was an occasional user, but at that time the heroin in Vancouver was a lot more pure and he got nailed by it. It's a lesson to people who might think it's a fun thing; it's a stupid, bloody horrible thing."
1995 to 1996
Ken Jansen dies in a tragic house fire. D.O.A. sign to Essential Noise, a new label started by D.O.A./NoMeansNo manager Laurie Mercer, which has major label backing by Virgin. NoMeansNo's John Wright plays drums on The Black Spot; Brian O'Brien takes the drummer's stool after that. Ford Pier leaves, making D.O.A. a trio once again. After fighting a neighbourhood battle against development in a second-growth forest, Joe is asked to run in Burnaby for the Green Party in the BC election. "I hadn't been a party member before, but I knew that they were still pure and hadn't had a chance yet to be corrupted. I also thought I could do my own thing, which is be a maverick. The politics I like are about people power, about doing what's logical for the people in your town, your province, your country or the world. When you see these big struggles across the world where people overthrow evil governments, it's the greatest thing ever. You can't engineer any change without starting at the grassroots level. If you can get people motivated about the neighbourhoods they live in, then they start to think they can change things." D.O.A. get kicked off of MuchMusic for performing their song "Unchained Melody," a showpiece for Joe's chainsaw skills. "Sook-Yin Lee told us it was because they thought we were promoting violence. I said, 'Isn't television all about violence?'"
1997 to 1998
When Essential Noise goes under, Wimpy leaves the band out of frustration with the business. He's replaced by Kuba of the Sweaters and Dog Eats Dogma. Joe relaunches Sudden Death Records as more than just a D.O.A. vehicle. "Sudden Death started in 1978 when we put out our first three singles. After that it was mostly used for emergency benefit singles, and then in 1998 we got serious and put out three CDs in a row. Now we have 53 releases."
Joe launches a solo acoustic career with the album Beat Trash, as well as doing the occasional spoken word show recounting past adventures. "The spoken word thing started the same way as the book. My friends pointed out that my friends Rollins and Biafra were doing pretty well at it – 20 bucks a pop and they got no band!" The Great Baldini becomes D.O.A.'s umpteenth drummer; the fact that he's also an excellent auto mechanic helps land him the job.
On his third run for office as a Green candidate, Joe gets 15 percent of the vote in the provincial election, higher than the provincial average. "We got 12 percent across the board, and that was actually the highest numbers for any Green Party in the world at a state or federal level, even higher than in Germany." Joe tries his hand at hosting a talk show for mycityradio.com, which goes under after ten months. He starts pitching some TV ideas, including a comedy show and a travel show.
2001 to 2002
Randy Rampage rejoins the band after bassist Kuba leaves. "I thought it would be fun to do something with Randy, because I was still really good friends with him. Baldini said, 'Jesus, hanging out with Joe and Randy after one beer is like hanging out at the Punk Rock Legion, talking about back in the day.' We toured Europe and Japan with him, recorded Win the Battle, and then he went back to longshoring, because there's more money in that."
Joe releases his autobiography and takes D.O.A. on the road for their 25th anniversary, with new bassist Damned Dan Yarenko (Econoline Crush, Bif Naked). Joe has no plans for stopping. "I have 25 new songs written, and we're just starting to learn them. Once we start recording, I'll see which ones work for D.O.A. and which ones are for my next solo album, which will probably come out at the same time."