Punk and politics
Part One: the Tom Shypitka Interview
Kootenay East MLA recalls youthful adventures in Vancouver’s legendary Punk Rock scene in lead-up to WinterBlast 2019
By Ferdy Belland
Tom Shypitka is certainly one of the more colourful local characters to have entered political office.
Prior to his current standing as the Kootenay East member of British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly (Official Opposition Critics for Energy and Mines), he served many good years as a City of Cranbrook Councillor, financial advisor, nightclub-owner extraordinaire, and he’s into curling the way Wil E. Coyote was into the Road Runner (provincial champion and everything). But few of his regional constituents realize that, yes, Tom Shypitka was young once, and the young Tom Shypitka was an unabashed Punk Rocker.
Which is why he will gladly be the Master of Ceremonies at the upcoming WinterBlast 2019 event at the Cranbrook Hotel Pub on Saturday December 7, which will feature live performances from local rock bands Crooked Line and Zero People, as well as a headlining set from Vancouver’s legendary punk rockers D.O.A. (which, politically enough, features City of Burnaby Councillor – and notable BC Green Party member – Joey “Shithead” Keithley on lead vocals and lead guitar).
“To paraphrase the old country song: I was a Punk Rocker before it was cool!” says Shypitka. “There were a handful of us Cranbrook punks back in high school – we’re talking seven or eight of us – who were into this new phenomenon the media was calling ‘Punk Rock.’ We’d heard about the cultural invasion coming over here from overseas, and a lot of us gravitated to bands like the Rezillos, the Clash, the Damned, and the Sex Pistols. Then we discovered there were grassroots punk bands right here in Canada! Teenage Head were one of my first loves. DOA, of course, followed after that, along with the Subhumans and such.”
Punk Rock as we know it today owes its seminal roots in 1960s American garage-rock bands, but the anti-authoritarian / anti-establishment / anti-cultural-stagnation Big Bang came in 1976 when the Ramones and the Sex Pistols erupted across the mainstream like a retro-powered musical version of a lanced boil, startling the hell out of the shag-haircuts-and-flares bands then dominating rock culture – and enthusing untold hundreds of thousands of bored teenagers who just couldn’t stand listening to Electric Light Orchestra and Pablo Cruise anymore.
“It was a great style of music!” gushes Shypitka. “Before punk, we were listening to Deep Purple and Blue Oyster Cult – groups that featured 20-minute drum solos, 15-minute bass solos…which is all fine and dandy, but when this new version of rock and roll burst out – three chords, ear-splitting songs that were less than two-and-a-half-minutes long, lyrics yelling out teenage angst and teenage fun – and yes, some of it was political – it was just a breath of fresh air for a lot of us who felt that rock culture was stagnating. We all fell down the rabbit-hole. It was a lot of fun! We all wore our wraparound skinny shades to signify we were Punk Rockers. And yeah, what a different time it was. Punk has certainly stood the test of time.”
True indeed. Although “Punk” (a title that encompasses one’s political stance, social movement, fashion style, personal lifestyle brand, and/or a lens of critical appraisal) has been safe for the shopping malls since bands like Green Day and the Offspring ruled the Billboard Top 40 charts in the early 1990s, the sound can be found in virtually any modern band with an electric guitar these days, and the echo of that first cultural explosion will be heard for years to come.
“After I graduated from Mount Baker Senior Secondary in 1980,” Shypitka recalled, “the plan was that I was gonna go to university… at least, that was the rationale I sold to my parents! I finally moved down to Vancouver, and was so stoked to be in what was, and still remains, one of the world’s great urban hotbeds of Punk. Hardcore ’81 was DOA’s current release then, and of course I knew their first album well, and the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret was THE place to go! If you were going to hang out anywhere in Vancouver where the punks were, you HAD to go to the Buddha.”
Shypitka’s eyebrows still arch in amazement when remembering his eye-bulging introduction to the dying neon wasteland of Hastings Street.
“The first time I went to the Smilin’ Buddha was to see a DOA show, and it was my 19th birthday! My first time walking around the Downtown Eastside…? What a culture shock. Here’s a young guy from the backsticks of the Rocky Mountains who doesn’t know the world – except for Cranbrook and Kimberley, basically – and here I am in the urban wilderness…the seedy depths of abject poverty, streetwalkers working the sidewalks, people openly shooting drugs, and I’m thinking: Holy Smokes, where AM I?
“So I make it through all that unscathed and walk up to the double doors of the Buddha…and no, it wasn’t very glamorous to look at. And it wasn’t any more glamorous when you got inside. Here I am thinking it was going to be the Taj Mahal or something. You walk into this dark, ominous vestibule that channeled you into a small corridor, where a big ugly bouncer glares out at you from a hole in a big black wall and checks your ID. So it’s intimidating right from the start.
“We arrived early, ’cause we sure didn’t want to miss the show! There was nobody in the bar except for a few grizzled old-timers, guys who probably lived in the Balmoral Hotel up the street. They must have been 70, 80 years old, sitting in there and slugging away on their stale draft beer. I’m thinking to myself: this isn’t Punk Rock! What IS this? Picnic-table-style seating, duct-tape holding half of the upholstery together…a VERY seedy place. There was an old beat-to-crap Wurlitzer jukebox sagging in a corner of the room, and I brighten right up, thinking I’m going to jam my nickels into the thing and play some Sex Pistols, but no – it’s just loaded up with half-warped, scratched-up 45s of Hank Williams Sr. and George Jones and crap like that…stuff that hadn’t been changed out since Lester Pearson was Prime Minister! And I was so disheartened…man, I can’t even play my music in here! What gives?
“So you sit there and start having beers and start forgetting where you are and what you’re doing, just getting a glow on, and the next thing you know the resident punkers finally start walking in and filling the place, and THEN you see the spiked hair, and the safety pins stuck through the cheeks, and the chains on the leather jackets – just like the photos I saw in Trouser Pressmagazine. And now you’re starting to wish you DIDN’T see these folks, since they all look pretty rough! Then the first band finally comes on – I believe it was the Braineaters, led by artist-extraordinaire Jim Cummins – just awesome! That was also the night that one of the local Vancouver TV stations was filming a documentary on the local punk scene. They were filming the bands playing live, and interviewing punks in the audience – and I was one of them! I’d LOVE to get the footage! Just a real eye-opener.”
Vancouver’s punk rock scene is as world-renowned as that of London or New York, and the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret was as legendary a punk venue as CBGBs, or Max’s Kansas City, or the 100 Club.
“I ended up going to punk shows at the Smilin’ Buddha all the time when I lived in Vancouver. I saw the Subhumans, the Pointed Sticks, the Dayglos, the Scissors, the Young Canadians, David Raven and the Escorts…all those legendary Vancouver punk bands! There was ALWAYS something going on at that place. It was a great place to hang out with your fellow punks.”
Inevitably, the frequency of Shypitka attending punk shows on a virtually weekly basis led him to forming friendships with notable Vancouver punk stars.
“I knew (legendary drummer) Zippy Pinhead quite well – his real name was William Chobotar, and his family are Cranbrook residents – go figure! I knew (D.O.A. bassist/party-animal) Randy Rampage a bit, through Zip. The guys in the bands would be hanging out in the crowd after their sets, and you could sit there and talk with them, but usually it never made it to – hey, let’s go for a beer next Friday night! I had my own group of ex-pat Cranbrook friends in Vancouver that we would tour the bars with, guys like Amrit Prasad and Lance Thompson and Mike Walls and Glen Eidsness – a fun group, for sure! I was able to reunite with that old crew last November to see Stiff Little Fingers in concert! A true re-bonding experience.”
And despite the many paths Tom Shypitka has taken through his life, he never seems to completely dodge his punk history.
“It’s a series of full circles. I had my 19th birthday with D.O.A. at the Smilin’ Buddha. I had my 39th birthday with D.O.A. when they played the old Tudor House Pub – Randy Rampage fell off the stage in mid-song, he was so wasted! And now here I am, closing in soon on my 59th birthday and I’ll be spending it once again with D.O.A. at the Cranbrook Hotel Pub! Talk about numerology, huh? And maybe Joey Keithley and I will reunite in the Legislature in Victoria for the next provincial election! Who knows?”
Shypitka takes the time to reflect on the sociopolitical parallels between his life as a Punk Rocker versus his life as a public servant.
“My current place in life does strike me as kind of odd, at times. I never thought I would ever be a politician. I don’t even consider myself to be a politician now. And to see Joey of D.O.A. doing what he’s doing…wow! In Joey’s case, that’s completely consistent with what he’s done his entire life. He’s always been outspoken, and he’s always fought for a cause he felt was right. And that’s what he’s doing now.
“A lot of the first-generation punk icons are passing away now. These guys lived a life of ‘not-growing-old. They wanted to die while they were young. They didn’t want to conform. They were gonna fight the establishment. So, the ones who didn’t make it here now were the ones who succeeded, to some sad extent. That sort of hardcore lifestyle takes a toll. Joe Keithley really does represent the Last of the Mohicans, in a sense. Not just for Vancouver, but for Canadian Punk as a whole. To see him still giving it his all onstage, a guy in his 60s who can rock harder than guys one-third his age? It’s a wonderful thing. And speaking for myself – in some degree I’ve always worked in hospitality my whole life, and I’m still serving the public right now. A lot of people think this is some complete 180-degree flip-around from what I used to do, and a lot of people think Joey serving on Burnaby City Council is a 180-degree flip-around from what he used to do, too. But I think it’s all consistent and makes all the sense in the world.”
Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka ends his reflections with some surprisingly frank observations, which isn’t surprising given how frank Tom Shypitka is, overall.
“Punk and politics are the complete circle. You grow up with teenage angst, and with Punk it’s the complete destruction of everything that is law and order. ‘ANARCHY’ was the battle cry – and the logo on my ripped T-shirts. But did we truly understand the concept? You end up eventually conforming, not only relationship-wise but professionally. Some battle it, but not in the true sense. I never thought I would be into politics. When I was young and naive, I just wrote the whole thing off as a bunch of jerks grabbing quick pensions and stacking the system for themselves. What I’ve learned so far is that, for the most part, the politicians give more than you can possibly realize. The biggest irony is that the bad rap the politicians get comes from themselves.
“Everyone wants to be valued. Everyone needs to be recognized. Whether you’re volunteering at the Salvation Army or whether you’re serving in Opposition Government. In government, the end result is that we finger-point, and we blame, and we slam our fists on the desk to be valued. But it works in reverse. Politicians can become corrupt, irresponsible, uncaring – by the perception that politicians label each other as. Not because it’s necessarily true, but because it makes themselves appear more valuable, and deserving to be elected or promoted. The public looks at it and says – you’re all jerks! This brings us back to the root of Punk. ‘Get rid of the jerks – we can self-rule better than them!’ It’s an endless loop. Punk rules because it’s pure. Maybe not ultimately realistic…but very few things are ever fun AND realistic.”
And so we stand to see something unique in Cranbrook history: two of British Columbia’s most visible politicians, shelving their niggling differences for an enjoyable evening to unite the community in a fun-loving spirit of Rock and Roll, inside the venerable old walls of the longest-running licensed establishment in Cranbrook… serving beer over three separate centuries, from 1897 onward. Who would’ve thought?
“To have both Joey and I in the same room again, connecting once more through Punk Rock?” asks Shypitka, still amazed at the idea. “This will be one for the ages. A once in a lifetime opportunity to see the Blue versus the Green – with the loudest guitars in Cranbrook!”
WinterBlast 2019 kicks off Saturday, December 7 at the Cranbrook Hotel Pub (719 Baker Street, downtown Cranbrook), with live performances from Vancouver’s punk legends D.O.A., as well as local rock heroes Crooked Line and Zero People.
Tickets $20 advance, $25 door (Doors open 7:30 p.m., showtime 9 p.m. – get there early!) Advance tickets available at Huckleberry Books (Downtown Cranbrook), Ray’s Music (Marysville Strip), Sprout Health Market (Kimberley Platzl). See You There!
Lead image: The two lives of Joe Keithley with Tom Shypitka inset. Photos submitted