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Talk-Action= Zero: An Illustrated History of D.O.A.

By Joe Keithley

Review By Adele Perry

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 174 Summer 2012  | p. 152-3

Somewhere in a Vancouver basement is my copy of “Expo Hurts Everyone.” The seven-inch EP record came out in 1986, the same year my unimpressive high-school career drew to a close and Vancouver entered a new phase in its infatuation with grandiose capitalism. The album had a grainy black and white cover that gestured to local and wider politics of the day: photos of US president Ronald Regan, a smiling BC Social Credit Premier Bill Bennet, and Olaf Solhiem, the old miner who threw himself out of his single-occupancy room in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside when he heard that he would be evicted to make way for tourist dollars. “Expo Hurts Everyone” included songs by a number of Vancouver’s alternative bands, most of all D.O.A. 

Formed in 1978, D.O.A. was by then firmly established at the centre of a thriving and seasoned local punk-rock scene. Talk-Action =Zero: An Illustrated History of D.O.A. is written by the bands’ founding member and lead-singer Joe Keithley. In addition to being a musician, Keithley is a failed Green Party candidate, a political activist, a record-label proprietor, and, in his 2003 I, Shithead: A Life in Punk, an autobiographer. Talk-Action=Zero is a handsome, substantial and almost stately book published by Arsenal Pulp Press, and it makes clear that Keithley is also a remarkable recorder and preserver of more than three decades of D.O.A.’s history.

In many ways, Talk – Action =Zero is an archive. For all the salty language, Keithley’s prose is plain and sometimes even dour. Keithley offers a remarkably conventional historical narrative that focuses on who was in the band, where they travelled, what they wrote, played, and recorded, and the causes and movements they allied themselves with. Documenting the changes in line-up is no easy task, and the hand-drawn “family tree” at the end of the book reminds readers just how many musicians joined the band, left it, or died. Keithley’s narrative carefully traces D.O.A.’s engagement with and vocal support for a remarkably wide range of causes. D.O.A. didn’t just protest Expo, but lent their support to campaigns to preserve British Columbia’s environment, protest war and militarism, and to raise awareness of the threat of house-fires in Vancouver’s eastside. Keithley’s narrative also suggests some informal social politics that are far from uncomplicated. Casual violence is everywhere. A roadie becomes “One-Punch Bernie,” [113] and a broken beer-bottle stabbing becomes “the Winnipeg handshake.”[164]

It is the visual archive in Talk –Action =Zero that steals the show. The bulk of the book is made up of posters, playbills, photographs, set lists, and other ephemera from Keithley’s collection. Some of the most visually striking posters are designed by artist, author, and musician David Lester, a member of Mecca Normal, one of the other bands featured on “Expo Hurts Everyone.” Bev Davies’ photographs are another highlight. These images document D.O.A.’s ability to celebrate and recontextualize some of the most enduring symbols of white, masculine working-class British Columbia culture – the mack jacket, beer, and hockey.

People interested in the early days of punk rock in Vancouver might read Keithley’s Talk-Action=Zero alongside Suzanne Tabata’s remarkable 2010 documentary, Bloodied but Unbowed. As the teenagers of the 1970s and 80s become middle-aged we will see more and more cultural products that recall, recast and sell the memory of punk rock. At worst these will be cloying and nostalgic, while at best they will give readers tools and resources with which to have a discussion of punk and the work it did and did not do. D.O.A. is not itself history. The band, anchored by the now-venerable Keithley, plays, records, and tours still, and this book is a revealing window into the history of punk rock and a testament to the resilience of some of its most enduring practitioners.

Joe Keithley
Talk-Action+Zero: An Illustrated History of D.O.A.
Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011   pp. $27.95