BURNABY (NEWS 1130) — It was a year ago a local punk rock icon won a seat on Burnaby city council.
Joe ‘Shithead’ Keithley has spent decades on the road with his band D.O.A. and is still at it, at the age of 63.
So, how does one transition from a life of loud music and screaming fans to reading planning documents and lengthy council meetings?
The following is NEWS 1130 reporter Renee Bernard’s interview with the punk legend.
Wednesday was the one year anniversary of your being elected as a Burnaby city councillor. Has public life lived up to your expectations?
I knew was going to be a lot of work. I was ready for that, but it was a bit more than I even expected. But it’s actually been really fun. And people may find that odd, to think that politics is fun. But if you go at it the right way with the right intentions, it can be.
How many times did you run before getting elected?
This was my sixth attempt, six times lucky.
Why did you want to get into public office?
When I was just starting out as a musician, as a really young guy, one of the ideas besides playing music and having fun was to change the world. I always had a deep interest in politics. And I guess you might say that I’ve been an unofficial politician in a sense, an unofficial cultural politician or spokesman for a long time. Now, I’m actually official. I guess I’m on the inside now.
So you wanted to make some changes for the better?
I was involved, when I was younger, in a lot of protests, about the environment, against racism, protests against weapons proliferation, and more. It just seemed like a natural step to get into this as I got older.
What’s happened to your music career in the past year? Do you still perform?
We were doing 60 to 70 shows a year. This year, we’re doing 30. Now that I know the council schedule, and we have a little bit of a break sometimes, we can do some really short tours in between some council stuff. We try to do an average of three shows a month. We were a lot busier in the ’80s and early ‘90s. We’ve done over 4,500 shows, in 46 countries, on five continents over the years.
And the band never plays without you? They don’t have a replacement?
No, no, of course not. I started the band. I wrote the songs. I’m the leader so it’d be pretty odd.
What’s the most surprising thing about being a city councillor?
I don’t know if it’s surprising but it’s interesting. It’s the people you meet and what they have to say. That’s kind of the fun part because you get to deal with people one on one, and go ‘Okay, what is your problem?’ And then look into it and see if you can deal with it.
The one thing that took the most learning–I think a lot of our new councillors and new mayors would say this– was the procedure at council meetings. The so-called Robert’s Rules of Order, which are all slightly different in every city.
I thought Robert’s Rules were the same everywhere?
Every city has developed their own version of it. Even experienced mayors, people chairing meetings, experienced councillors, they usually have somebody from their clerk’s departments going: ‘No, you have to put the motion in this order, not that order,’ or ‘If you want to amend that you have vote on this first.’
What’s the most difficult thing but maybe you just answered that about being a city councillor?
What I’ve tried to do since I got elected is be a sponge and try and learn everything as quickly as I could because I knew that people elected me and the city was paying me, the taxpayers are. That’s my responsibility. I better learn the stuff as quick as I can so I can be effective as I can.
Are you going to run for another term?
There’s no stopping me now, no stopping me now! I love it. I think it’s great. We’ve done some really good stuff. We stopped the ‘demovictions’ in Burnaby. We’re working on creating affordable housing. I created, through the city, a charity that’s called “Harmony for All.” They’ll be up and running in the New Year to get some musical instruments and music lessons into the hands of underprivileged kids in Burnaby. We’ve raised money, people are donating instruments, and we’ll get is officially kicked off about February next year.
What’s in the future in terms of your agenda on city council?
One thing that we did pass that we still have to figure out exactly how to do – we passed the strongest greenhouse gas reductions in Metro. We did that a couple months ago. So we’re working with our staff to see how we can enact that. I’ve initiated a move to ban single-use plastics in Burnaby. We know Victoria tried that and had a bit of a problem with the provincial government. But I think we’ll get that worked out. The other thing I’m working hard on, as other people in the city are too, is trying to make the city more sustainable. To get people out of their cars, get them walking, and get them cycling. So that means improving the walking and cycling [infra]structure.
I realize I’m probably the first punk rocker in North America to get elected to something like this. You know, I just believe you’ve got to make positive change for people and help people out. To me that was part the positive power of punk rock in the first place. Right? We’re out to change the world into a better place. And this is just one way I’m trying to affect that.
Did you have a problem convincing people to take you seriously?
I don’t think I could’ve got elected 20 years ago, but there’s been such a generational change that it actually really helped when I went door-knocking because people knew the band. That didn’t necessarily mean they were fans or had records or T-Shirts, but they respected what DOA had done–like playing 300 benefit shows for good and just causes over the years. So, they knew that the politics were in the right place and that my heart was in the right place.
What skills did you bring from your career in music to your new role as city councillor?
The most important thing with politicians is listening to what people have to say, rather than just, you know, going in with your own preconceived ideas, so you’ve got to be a learner and you’ve got to have communication skills. I’ve learned a lot of that over the years. There’s negotiating, there’s give-and-take. I’ve run a record company for 20 years so I spent a lot of time with contracts and negotiating. So I had a lot of those skills built up beforehand from the music business.
I think the other thing too is, I think now people are looking for politicians that are coming from a different background, that have some different experience. So like I said, I have been all over the world experienced all sorts of different types of cultures. And I’ve seen that things run differently in different parts of the world. So, I think that’s a good thing to apply to Burnaby. We have one of the most ethnically rich cities in the world with 103 different languages being spoken here.
When’s the next DOA show?
We’re playing up in the middle of November on a weekend, in between council meetings. I’m making sure I’m not missing anything important. I’m on three different committees. Those are really important because those are the nuts and bolts to where most of the stuff gets done. I’m available but my number one duty is to the city.
Are you trying to change people’s minds about who can go into politics?
I think people from different backgrounds can get into politics. I think that’s really important because you get some different points of view. I mean, there’s a lot of skilled people that have run for office, and they’re in there now. But I mean, typically, it’s a lot of labour leaders or lawyers. Nothing wrong with that. But why not change it up and get some other people with some different points of view?
You’re 63. Do you plan on retiring any time soon?
No, not at all. Not from music and not from not politics. I’m going strong, going strong for a long time.