Lit up by gaudy signage outside Granville Street’s pop fashion retailers, a crowd paid tribute Thursday to Vancouver punk hero Joe Keithley as he was awarded a rare honour in local show business.
Keithley, perhaps better known as “Joey Shithead,” accepted his place in the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame with classic panache, joking that the sidewalk star engraved with his name — minus the cheeky pseudonym — amounted only to a target for late-night revellers.
“I’m not going to be down here cleaning it every day,” he said with a laugh.
The star, embedded in the pavement like a memorial plaque, might cause onlookers to think punk long dead. But Keithley argues otherwise.
“The reason we played punk rock was to change the world,” Keithley said of his band, D.O.A., which shook up Vancouver’s music scene in the 1980s. “But look at it today. It still needs a lot of fucking changing.”
Keithley led D.O.A. to international acclaim with the band’s seminal album Hardcore ’81. The title, according to fans, marked the first use of the term “hardcore,” which symbolized the era’s wave of raw, thrashy rhythms and impassioned political antagonism.
Geoff Turner, a senior producer with the CBC, first saw D.O.A. perform in ’83.
“The show was a big eye-opener for a kid from the suburbs,” he said. “They were these great gods walking among us… They were tight as hell, they toured like crazy. It gave the Vancouver scene credibility.”
But as pioneers of a burgeoning genre, Turner says the band often struggled for acceptance.
“[Keithley] had to work so hard just to convince old-timers that him and his reprobate friends could have a show [in their venues]. That takes a lot of gumption.”
After all the effort required just to play a gig, Keithley frequently dealt with a rowdy crowd. He regularly ended up “covered in gob,” said Turner. “He deserves a medal just for enduring all the spitting.”
Groundbreaking induction embraced by punk community
Today, Keithley continues to use music as a conduit for community activism, graying hair be damned. D.O.A. released tracks last year criticizing the B.C. government, bashing both pipelines and politicians in the band’s classic satirical style.
Despite Keithley’s history of loud-mouthed protest, the decision to award him a star was “unanimous,” said Hall of Fame president Rob Haynes. “Joe is known all around the world, but the point is that he’s given so much to this province.”
Haynes added that recognizing a punk artist is unprecedented for the non-profit society, which has celebrated over 300 B.C. artists including Sarah McLachlan, Michael Bublé and Diana Krall.
“Who would have thought a few years ago that we’d have a punk rocker in the Hall of Fame?” he chuckled.
Cecil English, D.O.A’s long-time producer, said it’s about time Vancouver’s punk history was formally acknowledged.
“Punk’s more relevant now than it’s ever been,” English said of the recent U.S. election results. “Punk rock was literally spawned in response to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. We learned to surf back then. Now the wave’s even bigger.”
Donna Mabbett, who managed one of the venues that launched D.O.A. in the ‘80s, agrees. But she says Vancouver today doesn’t resemble its glory years.
“It was buzzing,” she said of the city back then. “There’s a lot of apathy right now.”
Others in the crowd shared Mabbett’s sentiment.
“Is there still a punk scene?” teased one onlooker, who described the pleasure of discovering his first D.O.A. record at age 11.
“It was exactly what I wanted to listen to,” he said.
Keithley merges punk rock and politics
Perhaps unlike the city’s hardcore ethos, Keithley himself refuses to pass into a bygone era. He ran for Green party nomination earlier this year as well as in 1996 and 2001 and tried unsuccessfully to win an NDP spot in 2013.
He finally landed the B.C. Greens’ slot for the Burnaby-Lougheed riding last week. Keithley will be running against Liberal party candidate Steve Darling and the NDP’s Katrina Chen in the provincial election next May.
“I grew up in Burnaby. I lived two blocks from where Kinder Morgan wants to put their pipeline,” Keithley told The Thunderbird. “It’s a wrongheaded idea, giving oil companies tax breaks.”
Besides taking on the fossil-fuel industry, Keithley, true to his radical roots, wants to introduce free post-secondary education in B.C.
“It’s ridiculous that we don’t have this in Canada when it’s possible elsewhere — France, Germany, and so on,” he said. “It’s doable. It’s just a matter of where your priorities lie.”