Burnaby councillor and businessman Joe Keithley refuses to put down the guitar
We’ll start with the obvious: calling Joe Keithley a Weekend Warrior might be a tad reductive. After all, the front man for iconic punk rock band D.O.A. has been playing about 70 (often sold-out) shows a year for the past 20.
But jamming out and running his record label, Sudden Death Records, ceased being the main items on Keithley’s plate when he snagged the eighth and final spot on Burnaby city council in 2018.
It’s hard to say which version of Keithley is the alter ego. Is it the mild-mannered councillor or the leather jacket–adorned “Joey Shithead” personality he cultivated over 40 years of rock ’n’ roll? Even at 64, it still might be neither.
D.O.A. has always stuffed its songs with political messaging: anti-racism and environmentalism figure heavily, and the band’s slogan is “talk minus action equals zero.” So it makes sense that Keithley took runs at provincial office in 1996, 2001 and 2017 as a member of the BC Green Party. (He currently represents the Burnaby Green Party on council.)
Still, it was a bit of a shock to the system when he actually won. “I went, Wow, I’m elected. What do I do now?” Keithley recalls with a deep laugh. “I knew what I wanted to do, but there was that moment.” So far, at least (and before the COVID-19 pandemic), the rocker has been able to keep his band’s schedule more or less full.
“It took a bit to figure out what the schedule was and how it worked and what kind of time we had,” Keithley says, noting that the group was able to play about 60 shows in his first full year as councillor. “My first duty is to the citizens of Burnaby—they elected me, and being a councillor is a serious, full-time job. But I realized that there was time, in the summer especially. So once I found out the schedule for committees, council meetings and public hearings, I was able to say, OK, we can play this weekend; I’ll make sure I’m back in council on Monday. Instead of reading the newspaper while I’m sitting in the van on tour, I’m reading council reports.”
Keithley and his bandmates (currently Paddy Duddy on drums and Mike Hodsall on bass) had played nine shows in 2020, mostly on the East Coast, before the pandemic came to North America and the trio had to scramble out of New York in mid-March.
Back home, Keithley noticed that not everyone was following government-recommended protocols. He and Mayor Mike Hurley were “talking about how people weren’t social distancing; you see it in Florida and the U.K. and even in Burnaby at the parks, guys playing basketball on a small court.”
After Hurley encouraged him to write a song about it, they rehearsed “We’re All in This Together” on Keithley’s porch, with the mayor a safe distance away, and recorded it at Deer Lake Park in April.
Perhaps there’s some symbolism in the pairing, given that Hurley and Keithley really have been in this together. All the other members of council were elected as part of the Burnaby Citizens Association party. Abandoning an early attempt at the mayor’s seat, Keithley threw his support behind independent candidate Hurley. “We ran on the same platform,” he says of their shared mission to “provide affordable housing, help those in need and give people good government in a compassionate way.”
To date, Keithley has been happy with what he’s seen from the inside of Burnaby city hall. Three councillors resigning from the BCA probably doesn’t hurt. “Everything we’ve tried to do so far pretty well has passed,” Keithley says. “There’s been cooperation from the other councillors; things are moving ahead in a really progressive way.”
Asked if a particular accomplishment stands out in his year-and-a-half on the job, Keithley points to the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Housing. He and four other councillors were part of the 18-member committee that laid the path to building 1,300 units of non-market housing in Burnaby within two years. “It’s the biggest issue in Metro Vancouver,” Keithley says. “We had a wide range of people involved—the development community, advocacy groups, renters—that could put their two cents in.”
So no, though many D.O.A. followers might appreciate it, Keithley doesn’t plan to quit his day job anytime soon.
Joe Keithley is a city councillor, a musician and the owner of Sudden Death Records, a Burnaby-based independent record label. Keithley is the sole employee, but he leans on contractors for support with tasks like PR. The label, started in 1978 to put out his band D.O.A.’s first record, has released all of the group’s 20-plus albums.
Keithley estimates that Sudden Death has issued about 100 albums over the past two decades (by bands like English punk rockers the Vibrators and new wave Vancouver outfit the Pointed Sticks), but he acknowledges that his recent council win has eaten into his time at the label.
“We sell the records around the world, but if I’m on tour or there’s a bunch of council stuff happening, at times the record company will take a back seat,” he says. “But we do have our distributors, and they will get the product out to the customer, which is fortunate for me.”