Film

PEACE, LOVE & LOCOMOTION

Festival Express salvages a lost epilogue to the ’60s, a rock extravaganza that rolled across Canada by rail

Brian D. Johnson August 2 2004
Film

PEACE, LOVE & LOCOMOTION

Festival Express salvages a lost epilogue to the ’60s, a rock extravaganza that rolled across Canada by rail

Brian D. Johnson August 2 2004

PEACE, LOVE & LOCOMOTION

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Festival Express salvages a lost epilogue to the ’60s, a rock extravaganza that rolled across Canada by rail

BY THE END of the ’60s, the Summer of Love had come and gone. Woodstock was enshrined as an epic pageant of mud and traffic. And the dream of hippie utopia had died in the blood of Altamont, with the Rolling Stones delivering the last rites. But it wasn’t over, not quite. In the summer of 1970, Canada played host to an extraordinary rock festival that crossed the country on its own chartered train. Travelling from Toronto to Calgary, and

fuelled with psychedelics and booze, Festival Express had a passenger list that included the Band, the Grateful Dead—and Janis Joplin, who gave the performances of her life three months before her death at age 27. It was a weirdly Canadian event, and not just because a railway was involved. Stoked with idealism, and steaming towards insolvency, it was almost derailed by demonstrators who felt the music should be free, like medicare.

A leftist group called the May 4th Movement-named after the date when four Ohio students were shot dead by National Guardsmen—branded the event a “rip-off.” And as 20,000 fans gathered in Toronto’s CNE stadium for the opening concert, outside the gates riot police on horseback waded into a crowd of protestors trying to force their way in. I was among them. Not because I thought paying $14 to see Janis, the Band and the Dead was an outrage worth getting

arrested over. But because, at the time, the idea of breaking into a rock concert seemed appropriate, and irresistible. Like pirating live music. A bunch of us did get inside when someone opened a gate. The strange thing is, I have vivid memories of the riot, yet no recollection of the concert. But as they say with Woodstock, if you can remember it, you weren’t there.

Now I’ve been able to see what I feel I missed. Culled from a buried treasure of footage that sat in archival limbo for 25 years, Festival Express is a big-screen documentary that offers an enchanting trip through an unsung epilogue to the ’60s. Organized by two young Toronto promoters, Ken Walker and Thor Eaton (of the retail dynasty), the tour was beset by controversy. It was supposed to begin in Montreal on June 24, Quebec’s politically charged St. Jean Baptiste Day, but mayor Jean Drapeau cancelled

OFF THE RAILS On the party train of Festival Express, Janis Joplin didn’t know when to quit. “She never slept,” recalls actress Jackie Burroughs, who was part of the film crew. “But nobody slept. And nobody washed.” In Winnipeg, however, promoter Ken Walker booked the city’s Olympic-sized pool and had it closed to the public so his performers could freshen up. “Then I got a call from the manager saying some of them were naked,” Walker recalls. Janis was one of them. “He said,

‘We don’t normally allow people to swim naked in our pool.’

I said, ‘If that’s all they’re doing, you should consider yourself lucky.’ ” Jerry Garcia called Festival Express “the best time I’ve had in rock ’n’ roll. It was the musicians’ train. There wasn’t any showbiz bullshit.” And at the final show in Calgary, Joplin said, “Next time you throw a train, make sure you invite me!”

This previously unpublished photo was taken in Toronto by V. Tony Hauser, who was told to lie onstage right in front of the singer “and don’t get up.”

the show, fearing riots between separatists and Anglo hippies. Vancouver’s politicians vetoed the tour’s final stop. That left Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary—where Walker punched out Calgary mayor Rod Sykes backstage after Sykes sided with the protestors and called him “an eastern scum and capitalist rip-off son of a bitch.”

The tour ended in financial disaster, and litigation between the promoters and producers who had documented the event on 75 hours of film. The negatives languished, well-preserved, in Ottawa’s National Archives for 25 years. Cans of work prints sat in producer Willem Poolman’s Toronto garage, to be used as hockey goalposts by his son, Gavin Poolman. Now based in London, Gavin grew up to become the producer who would bring Festival Express to the screen. British director Bob Smeaton (The Beatles Anthology) put together the film, which he says “was like being handed a jigsaw puzzle without the lid on the box.” And recording legend Eddie Kramer mixed the music, using digital techniques to build a far better sound than would have been possible in 1970.

There are amazing performances. Now that the Band’s image has been engraved by The Last Waltz, it’s a treat to see them in a younger, more relaxed incarnation—Robbie Robertson as a puckish kid with a beard, a sinewy Levon Helm cracking the whip behind the drums, sweet Rick Danko clinging to the harmonies on The Weight, and Richard Manuel, his gothic features cast in a blue light, singing I Shall Be Released with such a tender ache it seems his life hangs in the balance. Other highlights include some blazing R&B from Buddy Guy, a lot of masterful grooves from Jerry Garcia, a blast of frantic pop kisch from Sha Na Na, and Ian & Sylvia descretely jamming with the Grateful Dead. But Joplin, backed by her Canadian Full Tilt Boogie Band, is the star, and this is her best performance on film. In her climactic number, Cry Baby, swooping from supernatural screams to bedroom whispers to prowling monologues, she displays a virtuosity, and candour, unmatched in rock ’n’ roll.

On the train, Joplin was “the party queen,” says Walker, who had the lounge car equipped with drums, amps and a Hammond B3 organ. “We were making music night and day,” recalls Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, “and occasionally we’d get off the train and play a concert.” There’s a priceless scene

where Walker has the train make an unscheduled stop in front of a Saskatoon liquor store and buys everything in sight, including a giant display bottle of Canadian Club. “Most of us were new to drinking,” muses Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir. “We’d been doing LSD and smoking pot, but this was a whole new thing.” The film captures some delirious moments, including an intoxicated jam led by a rubbery Danko, with Joplin howling vagrant harmonies and Garcia calmly holding it all together like a camp counsellor—three innocents in a snapshot of paradise lost, all of them now dead.

It’s touching to see rock stars in such a raw,

‘WE WERE making

music night and day, and occasionally we’d get off the train and play a concert.’

uncommercial state. And the film, shot on richgrained 16 mm, has none of the hyper, fastcutting style of contemporary concert videos. “There was nobody in a booth telling the cameramen where to point their cameras,” says Smeaton, who tried to preserve the spirit of the era in the film. “I didn’t want to put my fingerprints all over it. I wanted it to look like it had been made in 1971.”

What’s also astonishing is the affection between musicians and promoters-Joplin gives Walker a model train and bottle of tequila onstage at the end of the tour. Hard to imagine in this age of corporate rock. But then Walker was a renegade promoter with unusual impulses. Six years ago, devastated by the breakup of his marriage, he put a .38-calibre pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He can still show you the exit wound—along with the tooth marks left by the “knuckle sandwich” he gave Calgary’s mayor. And when I told Walker I’d snuck into his festival, he didn’t miss a beat. “You owe me $14.” HI