This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2004

Lords Of The New Church

Liisa Ladouceur

From the godfather of punk to the underground’s fairy gothmother, meet the leaders of a lifestyle revolution, whose style and attitude long ago transcend the mainstream

Photo Caption

Joey is a punk. His hair is bleached white blonde and styled to spiky points. He wears a black leather jacket and ripped jeans; his wrists are ringed with leather cuffs, one studded, one bearing a silver skull. He goes to protests and is known to spout revolutionary slogans. Joey is not unlike hundreds of thousands of kids who listen to punk and wear its signature look. Except this Joey is 47 years old.

Joe Keithley is the singer for D.O.A., the British Columbia band that has defined the sound and style of Canadian punk rock for 25 years. In the pages of music history, D.O.A. is right beside the Ramones and Dead Kennedys, bands that created the soundtrack to a new North American subculture seeking loud, hard, fast music that reflected their outsider social status and anti-establishment views.

Keithley (who also goes by the stage name Joey Shithead) is hardcore. His commitment to a punk lifestyle hasn’t waned with age. Even though he’s married with three children, Keithley is much the same as in 1978, when he formed D.O.A. and released the independent single “Disco Sucks.” He still dresses the part, still tours with the band, still puts out his own records (the latest is War and Peace, a greatest hits compilation), still participates in political causes, and still promotes the D.O.A. mantra “Talk – Action = 0.” He’s been called the godfather of punk, but his longevity makes Keithley a poster boy for all grown-ups who identify themselves with adolescent-oriented subcultures, who refuses to abandon the ideals—and hairstyles—of their youth. “I believe in what I do,” explains Keithley, on a visit to Toronto for Canadian Music Week. “This is how I make a living and support my family, which is the number one thing in my life. But music is just a part of it. When I started out, I wanted to change the world. I still do. That’s why I haven’t stopped.”

Ancestry, race, nationality, and (often) religion are thrust upon us at birth, but we can choose our cultural identities, our tribes. For most, this occurs in high school. While some teens dabble in different peer groups the way they flirt with drugs or bisexuality, others are drawn to specific subcultures—because they reflect their true natures. For some, being punk or goth is not just style as revolt. The way they dress and decorate their rooms is the visual embodiment of their psyches. Much to their parents’ dismay and society’s derision, these young people don’t grow out of the phase, they grow into it.

There’s an old joke that non-conformists all dress exactly alike, and it’s easy to pick on people who look funny (see celebrity worst dressed lists). But to dismiss those engaging in these lifestyles well into middle-age as vain or quixotic is to ignore the fact that consistent commitment to ideals is a much praised quality in other parts of society, and that these subcultures have more in common with other forms of devotion than many would like to admit.

Joe Keithley wasn’t able to follow punk rock as a teen: it hadn’t been invented yet. But his recent autobiography, I, Shithead: A Life in Punk (Arsenal Pulp Press), reveals his rebellious tendencies formed early in life. The first time his picture appeared in the paper, it was on the cover of the Vancouver Sun. He was demonstrating with Greenpeace against nuclear testing off Alaska in the early seventies.

“I got politicized early by anti-Vietnam war protests,” he remembers. “I liked rebellion. My favourite songwriter is Bob Dylan. I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, but I left SFU [Simon Fraser University] after four months to play guitar. Then I wanted to be hippie but that scene was dead. All those people were co-opted and had given up. My gang had heard about punk rock and thought it was just the strangest bloody thing. Then we went to see the Ramones. “I was reborn when we saw this punk band. It was really ugly, snarling and unpleasant. It totally turned us on. I kind of learned to become a punk. But because so much of it is political, the grounding was there in high school.” In I, Shithead, Keithley outlines the early D.O.A. ethos: “Think for yourself. Don’t back down. Change your world. Be free.”

This is the kind of movement Thomas Frank referred to as “revolution through lifestyle rather than politics,” in his 1997 book The Conquest of Cool. The idea is that you can make a difference every moment of every day, not just by protesting the status quo, but by actually creating an alternative universe and living in it. Punk’s confrontational music and dress forces others—the suits—to think about why they are not. Also, a green mohawk looks really cool.

But a quarter century later, punk music and fashions are hardly as subversive. While bands such as D.O.A. have remained committed to Do It Yourself ethics, the accoutrements of punk culture are now 100% mainstream. The fundamental elements of its style—Doc Martens boots, unnaturally coloured hair, bricollage clothing, the ironic appropriation of political symbols—have been used to make “street” haute couture and market corporate products. The biggest punk group of the past decade is Blink-182, an apolitical MTV-sanctioned pop-punk trio best known for its dumb pranks. Suburban mall chains like America’s Hot Topic sell mass-produced, pre-fab fashions racked by “scene.”

Keithley knows all about this new generation of punks: he lives with one. “My daughter is the biggest Blink-182 fan,” he says. “Talk about prefab, she wanted a sweatshirt that said ‘Anarchy’ on it for Christmas. I bought it for her. I don’t care. Kids go through these things.”

One of the reasons subcultural fashion is so easily co-opted by mall culture is that it is possible to buy things that signify punkdom, gothdom or raverdom. But while dressing up announces membership in the distinct group, it cannot automatically admit you into it. Call it T-shirt – Action = 0. For every person sporting an anarchy symbol without understanding it there’s an older punk who thinks they’re a poseur. In I, Shithead, Keithley calls them “pukes”—audience members who dress as punks but pick fights or push others around. “It’s way more punk rock to come to a D.O.A. show in a business suit than a mohawk,” he says.

While he too copped some misguided fashions in his youth (he laughs about the home-made razor blade sunglasses he could barely see through), Keithley is best known for wearing working-class flannel shirts, which became regulation punk, and eventually grunge, wear because punks like Keithley wore them.

This is how punks (and goths, and ravers, and mods) end up dressed alike; they almost all start out mimicking the style of their favourite band. Then, as the group’s followers grow in number, the original devotees abandon it, the same way an underground band that scores a top 10 hit becomes uncool, not because the music has changed, but because it is now attracting too many poseurs—people the core group does not want to be associated with. In subcultures, it’s only somewhat important to look like other members of the tribe, people you admire. It’s more important to be different from people you don’t respect. A real member is defined even more by what they hate than what they love: Joey Keithley’s first original song was not called “Punk rocks!” but “Disco Sucks!”

While copying older punks is a rite of passage for the young rebels, 50-year-old punks adopting new teen looks seems, well, slightly sad. And now that the first generation of punks is about to hit retirement age, you just know it’s going to happen. Keithley says he won’t be one of those guys, but just because he’s giving up the look doesn’t mean he plans to give up the lifestyle.

“People who are middle-aged like I am should not go around pretending they are teenagers,” he says. “Lots of my friends are caught in a time warp of punk rock. But blind faith in anything, that’s crazy. I’m way too old for that. To get along in this life you have to adapt. That’s the prime reason humankind is at the top of the food chain. Still, I believe in my art, in music. When I get up there and play, I still get a similar charge I got when I was a teenager. I still want to drive the audience nuts and make them think. I may not always be in a punk band or dress like this, but I will always be an activist.”

I can totally relate to Joe Keithley. For more than half my life now, I’ve been pursuing a lifestyle that should have been a passing adolescent fad. I admit I never gave it much thought until other people started asking about it, but I’m proud to acknowledge I’m of the black cloak-pasty face-poetry reading persuasion. When I started they called us death rockers; these days we’re simply goth.

Like punk, goth is generally the domain of the teenager. It’s a lot easier to pine for immortality, spend three hours on one’s hair and hang out in graveyards when death is a distant concept and you’ve got no job. And yet, some of us continue to dress up like the walking dead long after it shocks our friends and families, although it does tend to shock strangers on the street. Growing up in a small town, it wasn’t so much a subculture as a lifestyle, because there was no group. Just me, trying to emulate the bands I saw on TV. It all started with The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary.” I had tried to be a punk, but was pretty much a poseur. I related to the attitude, but not the aesthetic. But The Cult’s Ian Astbury was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. His song’s chorus “and the world drags me down,” spoke more to me than “Anarchy In The U.K.”

At the time, I had no idea there was a goth subculture, a gloomy-post punk musical movement that would soon be associated with wannabe vampires, suicidal tendencies and bad poetry. I just liked the music, dark and heavy with sexual longing and despair. Then I discovered the divine decadence of candlelight, velvet and late nights indulging in grand artistic ideals. In my personal elysium, I practised ritual dressing, draping myself in black clothing, painting a dramatic face of alabaster powder and dark shadows atop mine own then covering it in impractically long blue-black bangs. The look—which I didn’t exactly master at first—was a great conversation starter. Those who weren’t scared to come ask me what I was all about earned my respect, and an earful about the beauty of decay, the blight of “normal” society and why we should all abandon the capitalist system so we’d have more time for reading Shakespeare and listening to Skinny Puppy.

Paul Samuels had a similar revelation. The 34-year-old co-owner of The Savage Garden, Toronto’s oldest goth nightclub, grew up in England, where the scene began. He too heard the music and was drawn to it like sailor to siren.

“Me and my friends were sitting around the stereo at school and ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ came on,” he recalls. “We didn’t know anything about goth subculture, but we fell in love with that song. I always liked punk sounds and horror movies. I identified a bit with New Romantic, the make-up wearing rogues. Then The Sisters of Mercy hooked me in 1984. I couldn’t get enough. Soon we were wearing [pointy] boots, black jeans and tour t-shirts; after that it was the frilly shirts with long sleeves. Then I mashed in make-up and black, backcombed hair with lots of hairspray. We became the freaks of the town.”

At Savage Garden, Samuels is known as DJ Pale. He still wears black exclusively but his hair is light brown and rests in a short ponytail rather than straight in the air. He doesn’t have to maintain an extreme look. With his entire life intertwined in the goth scene, his membership in the tribe is well established. He’s what’s known as an ElderGoth.

“If you don’t dress the same or listen to the same music anymore, it’s because there is more to it than the stereotype you follow as a teenager,” he says. “When you’re young, all you want to do is conform with other non-conformists, buy the latest album you’re supposed to. As you get older, you realize it’s more than just dressing up and partying. You realize you’ve got some weird kink in the back of your head. For me, my experience has only expanded. The only difference is a greater perspective. Everything I believe in hasn’t changed. It never will.”

Sociologist Linda Andes, in her essay “Growing Up Punk: Meaning and Commitment Careers in a Contemporary Youth Subculture” calls this “transcendence,” the stage in which members cease to concern themselves primarily with their clothes or communities. I call it “nothing to prove.” She also points out that adult punks who do continue to express themselves through image and association are generally connected to the scene on an organization level, as musicians, promoters or writers, for example. Certainly this is true of goths as well. Apart from the CorpGoths—who trade tips on dressing cool for regular jobs—most grown-up goths who aren’t in artistic careers must choose between look and livelihood.

But then there’s the weekend. Clubs like Savage Garden attract plenty of older denizens who suit themselves up in their off-hours only. Since they have no goth identity during the day, they really make up for it at night. For that, they go to Toronto’s one-stop goth shop, Siren, which outfits goths of all ages from head to pointy toe.

Groovella Blak, proprietor of Siren, is a sort of fairy gothmother. Although she won’t reveal her birth date, she was already considered an ElderGoth when the store opened in 1988. “It’s interesting. I get mother and daughter pairs coming in,” she says. “I don’t know if the parent was doing it first and the son or daughter caught on or the other way around but I have a few of those customers. The mother isn’t going to clubs anymore, she just likes the look and the way it feels. If that’s what they want to do, who are we to question? If you can still look good at 60 or 70, that’s great.”

Groovella admits she was a “late bloomer,” a private-school kid who discovered goth in London when she was already in her twenties. Soon she became Toronto’s best-known goth girl. She claims she’s not “hardcore goth” anymore, but to anyone else’s eyes, she’s still a dark princess, petite, pale, poised. Her smile betrays her devotion.

At the height of vampire mania in the mid-nineties, Groovella had her canine teeth filed into fangs. She doesn’t like to make a big deal out of it, but it definitely secures her a spot in the goth-for-life camp, which if you subscribe to one of goth’s most treasured myths, could be a very, very long time.

“Vampires are immortal, so it doesn’t matter how old you are,” she says. “Goth is the one culture you can age gracefully in. You can slip through the cracks of time.”

When I was 16, I thought the most beautiful girls on earth were goth. I still do, which is why I continue to dress like one myself. Over the years, I’ve been asked what it all means, something I’m not equipped to answer. I do know that it is more
than a fashion statement. It’s about allegiance to ideals, and the rituals—hair crimping, pit moshing, whatever—simply intensify the devotion. You become what you believe.

Like religions, subcultures have their own ideals, ethical codes, rituals and aesthetics. And as in religions, members express their devotion to their group and their faith through modes of dress. But like devout members of religious groups, goths, punks, mods and ravers will tell you that it’s not really about the outfits. It’s about what they stand for.

I’m reminded of this while interviewing Joe Keithley. Into the coffee shop where we are talking steps a sister in full habit. An actual Blue Nun. I think we’re not so different, the three of us in our regalia, at odds with the rest of the world. I wonder how often anyone asks her when she’s going to grow out of it.

Liisa Ladouceur is a music and pop culture writer for eye Weekly, CBC Radio’s Definitely Not the Opera, Rue Morgue magazine and others. She is a member of the Royal Sarcophagus Society, a shadowy collective of artists and rogues in love with lofty Pre-Raphaelite ideals.

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