I, Shithead: A Life in Punk by D.O.A.s Joey Keithley

When Ted Koppel and the Dixie Chicks are arguably more ‘punk’ than most politically lazy Generation-Y rock bands, you know something’s amiss.

I, Shithead: A Life in Punk
Joe Keithley
Arsenal Pulp

D.O.A. were straight up moonshine whiskey in a Bartles and James’ world.

– Jack Rabid, from the introduction

Now that a globalist Reaganite regime reigns in the US – spreading NASCAR-dad nationalism, masterminding deficits, waging illegal war – today’s mainstream cultural and political landscape isn’t much different than it was 20 years ago. The Soviet “evil empire” has been replaced by the “axis of evil.” “The Rock” has taken over for Rambo as Hollywood’s symbol for reactionary American might. Toby Keith is the new Lee Greenwood. But where’s the current opposition industry’s anti-Reagan-style punk rock? When Ted Koppel and the Dixie Chicks are arguably more “punk” than most politically lazy Generation-Y rock bands, you know something’s amiss.

Unless you count the efforts of aging ’80s holdovers like NOFX (and a few other bands on Fat Wreck Chords), mixing political content and power chords seems like an increasingly unpopular venture among latter-day punks. So what better time for the reemergence of politico-punk exemplar Joey “Shithead” Keithley, sometimes Green Party candidate, Sudden Death records founder, family man, self-proclaimed “shit-disturber,” and 25-year frontman for legendary Canadian hardcore outfit, D.O.A.

I, Shithead chronicles, in Keithley’s own words, his pre-punk beginnings in small-town working-class British Columbia, and the pre-history and subsequent rise, fall, and rise again of D.O.A. We get accounts of the first paying gigs (as Stone Crazy, and later, The Skulls) at motor inns, raucous biker parties, local “Gong Shows,” and at Vancouver’s sleazy Smilin’ Buddha nightclub. Thus began the perilous and tragi-comical road to punk heavyweight status — touring and playing with the Clash, Ramones, Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, and dozens of other first-wave punk/hardcore bands.

Keithley’s political activism began in high school when he marched in a 1,500 strong demonstration against nuclear testing. His early songwriting combined a piss-taking gonzo approach (hence the first single, “Disco Sucks”) with the more outraged political rants, until the rise of Reagan Republicanism in 1979-80. This was around the time D.O.A.’s “W W III” and “General Strike” were recorded, and “Fucked Up Baby” became “Fucked Up Ronnie.” This more focused political path led to the groundbreaking album Hardcore 81. Canadian prime minister Bill Bennett’s Social Credit party and Reagan’s trickle-down economics gave D.O.A. plenty to protest in the 1980s. The band played every “Rock Against” benefit around: Rock Against Reagan, Racism, Radiation, Globalization, etc. – over 200 benefit shows in all.

Much of I, Shithead is Keithley’s graphic retelling of D.O.A.’s tour-or-starve lifestyle. It’s a daily struggle for sanity and solvency which makes for a high turnover rate, both with band members and the unreliable vans that lurch and sputter from gig to uncertain gig. Sometimes a McDonald’s parking lot served as a makeshift RV park– the band “showering” in Mickey D’s bathrooms and snoozing al fresco. It wasn’t uncommon to drive thousands of miles only to find certain shows mysteriously rescheduled, or gigs canceled due to riots. With minimal to no label support, you sense that D.O.A. gained a substantial following almost solely through ‘zines, word-of-mouth, college radio, and sheer ubiquity.

Although Keithley and Co. aren’t as antagonistic as you might assume, anyone setting off their bullshit detectors could expect swift retribution – spray-painted vans, trashed dressing rooms, or sundry adolescent scare tactics (as even the Clash find out). But it’s often senseless violence that becomes an ongoing occupational hazard. They fend off angry lumberjacks in Canada, belligerent bikers in England, drug-seeking border guards in Italy, racist rednecks in Texas, and skinheads in France and Germany. As the ideologically divided 80s hardcore scene unfolds in the book, we begin to get plenty of variations on the same observation: “before long, a bunch of racist skinheads showed up.”

Keithley’s attention seems particularly focused when describing the anarchic European hardcore scene. Overseas, the band finds itself smack-dab in one heated political atmosphere after another – whether it’s the rising youth fascism in Germany or class-related turmoil in England. His accounts of the economically destitute Eastern bloc countries – the “black market” economy, the bread lines, squats, and scam artists – are among the most vivid and compelling observations in the book. Oddly enough, the Eastern Bloc police seem like fair-minded diplomats compared to the average punk-baiting North American flatfoot.

Unlike many similar rock n’ roll memoirs, I, Shithead isn’t merely a glimpse into an egoist’s troubled psyche. Keithley is part hard-ass workaholic and part merry prankster, but rarely does he resemble a seething Nietzschean uber-jerk like Henry Rollins. For Keithley, it’s often unspoken forms of communication that resonate most effectively with bandmates: “I hefted my half-full can of beer and hurled it across the bar at him [guitarist Dave Gregg] nailing him in the forehead soon he became a good guitar player.”

Keithley’s unedited stream-of-unselfconsciousness narrative, much like his lyrics, reads like graffitti sprayed on the side of a building. With handwritten lyric sheets conveniently scaled-down and included in the book’s margins, you find Keithley’s conversational prose to be a logical extension of his simple, direct song lyrics. Often in the span of a single page, you’ll get soft-hearted sentiments, punk sloganeering, eagle-eye reportage, and bust-a-gut hilarity. One moment he’ll recount breaking his guitar over a skinhead’s skull, observing “the guy obviously had a hard head,” the next he’ll be touting the joys of parenthood.

And surprisingly, D.O.A.’s activities don’t always carry the imprimatur of “punk” cool: they play a prison with classic-rockers BTO (“Takin’ Care of Business” was a staple of D.O.A.’s set), acoustic Folk Festivals, and shows with Bryan Adams and David Lee Roth. And probably unfathomable to today’s Irony Age hipster is Keithley’s sincere appreciation for unhip rock icons like Randy Bachman, Herb Alpert, Terry Jacks, and Pete Seeger.

Ideally, D.O.A.’s trials, errors, and small victories should inspire a new generation of badly needed “shit disturbed”. True, it’s tough to quantify either the constructive or destructive effects of Keithley’s punk-activist efforts. But what’s most impressive is the guy’s dogged persistence in creating and sustaining an uncompromising musical career outside accepted mainstream channels. But the often messy, inglorious details of the DIY lifestyle could just as easily function as a deterrent for the faint-of-heart potential punk.

If today’s well-behaved young punk bands can quickly acquire and maintain blank-check financial backing, then bully for them. But think of the rock autobiographies that would replace against-all-odds punk memoirs like I, Shithead. I, Sybarite: My Life with Clear Channel anyone?