Day 922: Riding That Train, High On Cocaine & Pretty Much Everything Else

originally published July 10, 2014

Within a span of about five months, the notion of the Grand Hippie Music Festival had deteriorated from a three-day swoon of good vibes, great drugs and phenomenal tuneage at Woodstock into an angry and disorganized mess at the Altamont Speedway in northern California. I’ve written about the latter already, and I’ll have plenty to say about the former in an upcoming piece, but the question left unanswered by Altamont can only be: “what happens next?”

The digestible myth is that the disastrous Altamont concert nudged the nail in the sixties’ coffin, not only landing near the decade’s calendar terminus but also smushing into ash any hopes that the peace ‘n love generation could haul their good vibes into adulthood. But beyond Altamont you’ll still find the stellar 1970 Isle of Wight festival and the poorly-managed (but heartily rock-tastic) Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. The dream wasn’t dead, it just took a nasty little hit in late ’69.

One of the first post-Altamont gathering of groups took place in Canada in the triumphant early days of 1970’s summer. Where festivals like Woodstock and Monterey Pop had previously lured fans from neighboring time zones and beyond to the event, the Festival Express was set to cruse across the country, bringing the idea of a super-conglomeration of super-groups to a myriad of cities. It was a concert game-changer, and solid proof that the perpetual party of the previous decade had not yet reached last call.

Originally known as the Transcontinental Pop Festival, Ken Walker (above) along with his partners Thor and George Eaton aimed for four cities: Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. They secured a 14-car Canadian National Railways train for the artists, and booked a documentary crew to film the entire event. Walker and his associates booked passage for themselves on the train also, as no self-respecting businessman of that era was foolish enough to throw a party like that without attending it.

Problems arose right away in Vancouver; PNE Empire Stadium was slated to have fresh phony turf installed, and the backup venue – Capilano Stadium – was nixed by the city. Montreal was also axed because the event was to be held over St. Jean-Baptiste Day, and they were worried about a diluted security force. This was the residue film of the Altamont nightmare: the authorities feared that any mass-gaggle of inebriated youth would smear the city with a breakout of violence.

Turns out they were right to worry.

If there was truly an insidious fall-out from the mighty Woodstock festival the previous August, it was the bizarre misconception that music festivals as a whole should be free. Altamont was a free concert from the start, and a number of fans were upset at the price-gouging promoters of the Festival Express demanding actual money for people to see the show. What a filthy notion – these promoters should be staging these shows for no motivation less pure than unflappable kindness! The performers, along with everyone else involved with the shows’ operation, should work for free, dammit.

Roughly 2500 protestors gathered outside the CNE Grandstand in Toronto to protest the exorbitant price ($14 for two days of music) of this festival. The group behind the protests stemmed from the May 4th Movement (the M4M), a leftist rebel group that had grown grey with fury and distrust since their formation after the May 4th Kent State shootings. They tried to crash the gate and scale the fences, resulting in a violent clash with the police that left several on both sides with injuries.

And these are the people who call their grandkids The Entitled Generation.

Fortunately for everyone, Ken Walker had had the foresight to book the Grateful Dead on this tour. Jerry Garcia – ever the peace-maker and concoctor of calm – arranged with Metro Police inspector Walter Magahay to wheel some equipment down the block to Coronation Park for a free concert for the “spurned” Toronto youth. A number of the headlining groups, including the Dead, Ian & Sylvia and the New Riders of the Purple Sage, jammed until 4:00am, long past the 12:30 curtain of the actual concert.

The following day, most of the protestors who craved more music simply paid for a ticket. The performances were stellar. The acts were immeasurably phenomenal: in addition to the above, Torontonians got to enjoy The Band, Ten Years After, Traffic, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Mashmakan, Mountain, Delaney & Bonnie, Buddy Guy, and an effervescent Janis Joplin at her most luminous.

Then, when the show had wrapped up, the performers boarded the train. That’s where the real action happened.

Imagine a train filled to the overhead compartments with musicians, instruments, alcohol, drugs, and free time (a full-on drum kit and Hammond B3 organ had been installed to encourage creativity). The jam sessions were endless. The documentary footage is priceless. Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead, summed it up beautifully when he said, “Woodstock was a treat for the audience, but the train was a treat for the performers.”

This phenomenal fleet of musicians (minus Traffic and Ten Years After who were too lame to stay with the party after Toronto) lit up the rails between Toronto and Winnipeg, stopping in Chapleau, Ontario to buy the entire contents of a liquor store when their supply ran low. The turnout for the one-day show in Winnipeg was low, possibly out of fear that the Toronto violence would rise up again, or maybe because Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was also in town for Canada Day. But there was no violence – only the glow of beautiful music.

Calgary had been added as Vancouver’s replacement (geography often screws Edmonton out of great concerts), and when the train pulled up the protests over ticket prices began. This time the most vocal critic was the city’s mayor, Rod Sykes. Sykes confronted promoter Ken Walker and demanded that Calgary fans be treated to a free concert. According to Walker, the altercation ended with Walker punching Mayor Sykes in the mouth. Take that, prairie communism.

Roughly 1000 people still managed to squeak into the festival for free before security was tightened on the afternoon of the first day. Nevertheless, the show was yet another success. For the performers it was an unforgettable week. While she and Jerry Garcia were thanking the promoters on stage during the final show, Janis Joplin laughed that she had “finally found someone who could throw a better party than me.”

The lesson of the Festival Express experience is that there were still great times to be had in a music festival. Yes, the promoters lost between $350,000 and $500,000, and yes, festival-goers had to endure the group Sha-Na-Na’s weird 50’s-revival performance, but the music was absolutely magical. The Dead were easing into their much-revered American Beauty-era groove, The Band was at the peak of their prowess, and Buddy Guy could screech the blues better than most anyone else in the business. And Janis… wow. Only about three months away from her premature demise (which, along with the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison would truly signal the end of the 60’s love-in), Janis turns in a performance of “Cry Baby” that could leave Garnet Mims crying in his beer and a rendition of “Tell Mama” that will produce a non-stop parade of chills upon your arm.

And that’s only what you can see in the 2003 movie, Festival Express – well worth the investment of 90 minutes. It helps that the original footage aboard the train was shot by Peter Biziou, the award-winning cinematographer who would go on to shoot Time Bandits, Pink Floyd: The Wall, Mississippi Burning and The Truman Show. It’s a perfect time capsule of utter timelessness.

My parents’ generation may not have solved all the world’s problems, and they may have forgotten a lot of the selfishness and ego that had slightly stained the hippies’ righteous legacy, but dammit they had the greatest music of any time.

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