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Book Reviews

I, Shithead: A Life in Punk

by Joe Keithley

Still ringing hell’s bells after all these years, punk, provocateur, and regular guy Joe Shithead won’t be leaving the stage any time soon. In 1977 he formed the now-legendary Vancouver band D.O.A., at which point Burnaby-bred Joe Keithley became Joe Shithead. Since then, Joe has played so many towns, frozen in the back of so many vans, and ducked so many flying bodies that he has become a sort of awesome punk Energizer Bunny: always falling down the stairs, and always coming back for more.

I, Shithead is a memoir of the days and nights of one dissatisfied kid from evergreen nowhere, a kid who didn’t live anywhere near English or New York punk musicians but picked up an instrument at the same time they did. The book is Keithley’s account of foot soldier status in The Movement That Shook the World, from D.O.A’s shambolic first gigs performing for hippies and greaseballs to the battles still being fought and won today.

The book is fast, dogged, conversational, assiduous about dates and events, and crammed with wall-to-wall anecdotes, a tour diary through the history of a politically minded scenester. Like all showbiz memoirs, Keithley’s follows a certain chronological arc. There are the struggling early days (hilariously, one of the band’s first managers “suggested we should try to sound more like Boston, the big rock band of the time”), followed by problems with initial success – one of Keithley’s punk girlfriends sees so little of him that she leaves him for a Mike’s Steak House manager.

During the next stage, things get bigger but not necessarily more fun, and later there’s a breakdown (in 1990 an exhausted Keithley broke up the band for two years). The final chapters sum up the band’s hard-won but still hard-ass maturity. But it is the Spinal-Tap-like tour moments that transport the reader to the heart of the action: “Those of us who wanted to crash would often be directed to a room where the resident kept three or four kitty litter boxes that hadn’t been cleaned in months.”

By the third quarter of the book the reader is almost as tired as the band. But the book’s message is clear: noise can change the world. Today, it’s hard to imagine how backward the 1970s were. Sexism, racism, and environmental abuse were so entrenched as to be invisible. Without punk’s merry band of shits, we would all be substantially worse off than we are – and, of course, we would still be listening to Boston.