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Woodstock on Wheels

by James Cullingham

From the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, Thursday, May 25, 2000. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

Thirty years ago next month, a who's who of the era's rock stars grooved their way across the land on the legendary Festival Express

Festival program with an ad for The Band
Toronto -- As he pads about his studio apartment north of Toronto, the balding, mustachioed, 54-year-old Ken Walker looks every bit the short, plump businessman in a track suit. Despite present appearances, 30 years ago he was a bona fide rock 'n' roll marvel. Walker, son of a Russian-immigrant jeweller whose family had worked for the czars, and Thor Eaton, scion of Canada's blue-blood retail concern, scored an international coup in 1969 when they lured John Lennon and his Plastic Ono Band, with Eric Clapton, to play the Toronto Rock 'n' Roll Revival.

As 1969 turned to 1970, Walker had an audacious new idea: a sort of Woodstock on wheels or, more particularly, a transcontinental set of stadium shows featuring the biggest rock acts of the time. These would include The Band, Janis Joplin with her Full-Tilt Boogie Band, the Grateful Dead, Delaney and Bonnie, Buddy Guy, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Canada's Mashmakhan and Robert Charlebois, all travelling from venue to venue by train. Thus, the Trans-Continental Pop Festival, better known as Festival Express, was born.

Last fall, just weeks before his death, Rick Danko of the Band chortled with delight as he recalled the Festival Express: "It was one of the greatest jam sessions ever. There was a couple of cars for music. A couple of cars for drinking. A couple of cars for food. A couple of cars for [sex]. It was a pretty wild ride. It was sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll at its best."

The youthful chutzpah that put the Festival Express on rails impressed singer-songwriter Eric Andersen. In 1970, Andersen was one of the few solo acts featured on the Festival Express. "Kenny is a very powerful figure," Andersen said in an interview. "He has his dictatorial side and he has his soulful side. He was an ace organizer. If Napoleon had him they would have had toilets on their retreat!"

The Festival Express was dogged with problems from the get-go. Jean Drapeau, then mayor of Montreal, cancelled a show there that would have been held on June 24, St-Jean-Baptiste Day. It was decided to begin the tour in Toronto on June 27, 1970.

In Toronto, Vietnam War protesters immediately set their sights on Walker and his establishment friend Eaton. The May 4th Movement (M4M), inspired by the killing of four students by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University, demanded free music and an end to "The RRRRip-Off Express."

The feud had spilled over into the grounds of Toronto's half-filled Exhibition Stadium, and the furor was quite a shock for a young guitar player arriving from Chicago. "I drove my van," recounts Buddy Guy, "and they [the M4M protesters] climbed on top of it and bent it down to the top of my head trying to get in there. It would hold the weight of one person, but there was more than that. They bent the top right down." Mounted police amid swarming hippies and young men climbing chainlink fences overshadowed the musical event. It cost only $14 for a two-day pass, but the protesters made their point. Musicologist Rob Bowman was then a teenaged Don Mills rock fan. "I remember very, very clearly people constantly storming CNE Stadium to get in. I remember at one point some guy racing across the roof of the old grandstand with the cops chasing him up the roof. We're inside watching this maniac up on the roof." Eventually, the Grateful Dead agreed to play a free concert on the back of a truck in a nearby park to quell the gatecrashers.

A page about The Band from the program to the 1970 Festival Express tour.
Danko was able to keep the furor in perspective: "I didn't think it was gonna get out of hand. You gotta remember that I'd just been around the world with Bob Dylan, where people had booed and cheered us all over the world just for going electric. It was pretty lighthearted compared to what I had just been through."

The protest did not mar two days of extraordinary music. The Globe And Mail praised the performances of the Grateful Dead and the Band. On Monday, June 29, 1970, the Festival Express hit the rails -- 12 cars long, equipped with lounges, sleeping compartments and wired for musical instruments. On board, the musicians and retinue settled in for the trip across the pink granite, pine and lakes of the Canadian Shield and on to the great plains. Guy knew he was in for the ride of his life: "They was real wild. They almost got me to go wild but something kept telling me, 'No, Buddy, you can't follow that crowd in that respect.' I would get sleepy and they wouldn't. I'd go get me a nap in my little private cabin and I'd come back and the band would still be rockin' and I'd plug up and play again until I got sleepy again. I'd take a little shot of beer or whisky, but I couldn't keep up with those guys in that respect. They was all usin' reefer or whatever else they used to get high."

Joplin was queen of the proceedings, singing country songs with Danko and Jerry Garcia and belting out the blues with Delaney Bramlett and Guy. "Janis was the great feathered spirit," says Andersen. She was the one who loved to boogie, have fun and laugh, throw 'em back. She also had a serious side. She was a very intelligent person. She possessed great native intelligence. She was able to cut through the shit real fast. Very smart. It was meeting a formidable brain in addition to her persona. That was really a kick."

The songs of Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Lennon and McCartney made the rounds. In film footage shot on the train, a ubiquitous Garcia seems to be playing acoustic or electric guitar with everyone at once. (A documentary film is in the works, expected out later this year.)

A clean and sober Sylvia Tyson of the Great Speckled Bird took it all in, book in hand, in bemused horror. "It was Delaney Bramlett's birthday, and the Grateful Dead had made him this enormous cake. And I remember this young woman saying to me, 'Which side of the cake do you want?' And I laughingly said, 'One side of the cake makes you smaller and the other side makes you larger, right?' and she said 'Yes.' "

In Chapleau, a tiny rail stop in the Ontario bush, a sudden crisis arose: The train was running out of booze. Commander Walker seized the moment: "I told CN if you can't supply it, we have a right to replace what you can't supply. So we passed around a hat, and a delegation got into a station wagon and walked into the liquor store and bought it out. There was a display bottle of Canadian Club with a pump on top. I said, 'We'll take that, too.' "

As the train approached the Prairies, Walker says the Festival Express got an unlikely conductor. "I remember sitting down in the bar car with Joplin, and she was giggling, saying we were gonna boogie across the country. Garcia joined us. At this point, I had been up for about four days. One of my crew asked me if I wanted any uppers, any speed. And so Garcia looked and said, 'Speed kills. And, besides that, I want to go up to the engine. I want to drive this train.' " So he called over one of their roadies and he put out a line of coke on the table and we all did it. And I took him up to the engine and I told the engineer that he wanted to sit in the driver's seat and wanted to pull the whistle. The engineer said, 'I don't know if I'm allowed to let him in the seat.' And I said, 'This is my train, do it!' So Jerry got into the seat and, as we were going into Manitoba, he pulled the whistle."

In Winnipeg, fortified by shots of vitamin B12 supplied by Walker's personal physician, the musicians went for a swim at the city's Olympic pool.

Graydon McCrea is now an executive producer at the National Film Board of Canada's Prairie Studio in Edmonton. In 1970, on the eve of the Festival Express show in Winnipeg, McCrea, equipped with a dog-eared university press pass, headed for a remote rail siding on the outskirts of town. Arriving at the train, McCrea waved his lapsed pass and clambered into the bar car full of disc jockeys and journalists. "I wound up seating myself at the only table in the corner that had a chair," McCrea says. "There was kind of a flurry of activity and when I looked up, there -- standing beside me, wrapped in feathers and God knows what all -- was Janis Joplin. She had a drink in one hand. Everyone crowded towards her. She looked around and the only empty seat in the place was next to me. So she asked me if it would be all right if she joined me, and I said that would be perfectly fine with me. She held court, really, and was wonderful. On a couple of occasions to reinforce a point she was making, she would slap me on the thigh or squeeze me on the knee, and it made me feel like the luckiest guy on the train. She stayed for maybe 40-45 minutes. And she left. There may have been some competition for the chair while it was still warm."

A crowd of 8,000 turned out for the show at Winnipeg Stadium on Canada Day. Protesters surrounded the place. Inside, the music was, by all contemporary accounts, wonderful. McCrea was not disappointed by Joplin: "She came out like she was shot out of a cannon. She strutted. She almost bellowed. She had the most incredible voice. You knew you were in the presence of a performance that you would remember for the rest of your life."

Pulling out of Winnipeg, the express chugged across the rest of Manitoba, through Saskatchewan and up to the foothills of Alberta, where, in Calgary's McMahon Stadium, 16-year-old JoAnn McCaig was ready to rock 'n' roll. Now a novelist, English professor and mother of three, McCaig defied her parents -- after all, Alberta was still a Social Credit province -- and attended the first day of the Festival Express. "It was a beautiful sunny day," she recalls. "I remember a beautiful young man, bare-chested, with a pair of jeans on. He was a traveller. The kind of guy we drooled over. It was the perfect dream of an outdoor rock festival."

McCaig remembers being enthralled by the performances, especially that of the doomed Joplin, who less than four months after her Calgary appearance would be dead of a drug overdose in a Los Angeles motel room. "When you're 16, self-destruction is kind of romantic. When you're 16, you're invulnerable. So this kind of ragged, sort of 'out-there' attitude toward life has a certain romance to it. Now I'm in my mid-40s and I have a lot of people depending on me. Southern Comfort and heroin don't seem nearly as attractive as they did at that age."

There was yet more political trouble in Calgary. With protesters decrying ticket prices, then mayor Rod Sykes took it upon himself to appeal publicly for a free concert. Walker refused and had to be restrained from physically attacking Sykes. In the end, the Festival Express lost $534,000. The extravaganza marked the end of Walker's career in rock 'n' roll. "I just didn't want any more to do with concerts. I decided to quit. I felt the audiences weren't worth the effort. They didn't turn out, and they were protesting."

Sylvia Tyson, the sober passenger on the Festival Express, still thinks it was a helluva ride: "I think it was a heroic endeavour. I give Kenny and Thor very high marks for thinking of it and putting the whole thing together and staying with it. I know that Kenny and Thor were a couple of rich kids who really liked being part of the music scene, but that goes way above and beyond in terms of just wanting to hang out."

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