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The tracks of his tears
Since piling Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and other 'drug-crazed hippies' onto a CN train in 1970, impresario Ken Walker has survived business failures, jail and a bullet to the head. With the rockumentary Festival Express set to open, he unloads to JAMES ADAMS
By JAMES ADAMS
Saturday, July 24, 2004 - Page R1
It's too bad Warren Zevon is dead. The singer-songwriter responsible for the classics Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner and Lawyers, Guns and Money would have found Ken Walker a fitting subject for one of his sardonic yarns about bad deals, best-laid plans and duplicity.
Admittedly, finding a title for the ditty would have been problematic. Zevon probably would have wound up calling it simply The Ballad of Kenny Walker, simply because Ken Walker, born to a life of affluence and privilege in Toronto's posh, conservative Forest Hill neighbourhood, has crammed a lot of experiences (and one near-death experience) into 58 round-shouldered, chain-smoking years. In fact, he really shouldn't be here, but he is.
These experiences include, in no particular order, jail time in the United States for allegedly facilitating gun smuggling into South America; a personal lecture from Jerry Garcia (Jerry Garcia!) on the dangers of drugs; speculation in pork bellies, sulphur, gold and wheat; buying up singer Nana Mouskouri's North American contract; a bust for illegal possession of narcotics in 1971; and organizing one of the most glorious failures in the history of rock 'n' roll, 1970's trans-Canada Festival Express.
Somewhere in there -- in the fall of 1998, to be precise -- Walker tried to kill himself by jamming a Second World War-vintage .38-calibre pistol owned by his jeweller father into his mouth, and pulling the trigger as two astonished police constables watched. The bullet blew through the top of his skull and into the ceiling of the basement family room of what was then his Richmond Hill, Ont., home.
Amazingly, it didn't kill him. It put him in a coma for a month, removed a chunk from the right side of his brain, and left a still-noticeable dent in the skin of his skull. But it didn't kill him. And that is why, when his seizures are in abeyance, and the 17 pills he takes every 24 hours are working just fine, Walker is able to spend some of his days reminiscing about his pivotal role in Festival Express, the memories fuelled by seemingly bottomless cups of coffee and one Player's Light after another held between stubby, nicotine-stained fingers.
It's a role that is going to get renewed scrutiny with the release of the much-delayed documentary chronicling the legendary high times, also called Festival Express. "I fooled them all," says Walker with a mordant chuckle as he settles into a booth in the dark smoking room of a restaurant, near his cramped north Toronto apartment, that he visits several times a week.
And with the promise, at least, of a resurrection of sorts at hand, Walker is feeling as feisty as a man with a hole in his brain can possibly feel: "I've been thinking for a while now that I should come out of my cocoon, end my sabbatical and get back into the music business." There might even be some memoirs, if the right writer can be found.
How to explain Festival Express? Well, it happened in late June and early July of 1970 and involved some of the most potent musical acts of the time -- the Band, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Traffic, Mountain, Ian and Sylvia, Tom Rush, the Buddy Guy Band, Robert Charlebois, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends -- playing stadium concerts in Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary.
It was hoped that a total of 150,000 to 200,000 Canucks would attend the concerts -- the price for a two-day pass for the July 4 and 5 Calgary dates was $14, roughly $72 in today's currency -- but fewer than 70,000 did. Losses totalled an estimated $539,000.
Outdoor rock festivals were, of course, commonplace back then. What made Festival Express unique was its portability. Most of the musicians were transported from city to city over five days and nights in a 17-car railroad caravan powered by two CN Rail locomotives.
The train was, in effect, "wired for sound," meaning the musicians could plug in their instruments and jam at all hours. Which they did, goosed along by sundry intoxicants (Canadian Club, vodka, marijuana, LSD, cocaine) as the train clickety-clacked over the Canadian Shield through the Prairies to the cusp of the Rocky Mountains.
Luckily, a camera crew was on board, and by the time the express pulled into Calgary it had shot anywhere from 50 to 75 hours of 16-mm footage on the train and off. It's that footage -- long thought by many to have gone the way of headbands and patchouli oil, but culled from a variety of sources, including Archives Canada in Ottawa -- that forms the essence of Festival Express, the rollicking two-hour rockumentary that hits theatres this Friday.
Festival Express -- the concept, the event -- was largely the brainchild of Walker who, in 1969, was a 23-year-old business-administration graduate of what is now Ryerson University in Toronto. True, he got some help, monetary and otherwise, from his long-time Forest Hill friend Thor Eaton, (yes, of that Eaton family) and J. Lyn Craig, an executive with Maclean Hunter. ("It was the sixties," Walker says, "and Maclean Hunter wanted to get in on the youth market.")
But it was Walker who had the vision of taking a train east to west stuffed with "a bunch of drunken, drug-crazed musical hippies" on a sort of Canadian version of the Orient Express. "I thought of myself more as a producer than a promoter. In an artistic sense, presentation was what mattered most to me."
And it was Walker who, after being turned down by two CN underlings in Toronto, took his plan to the railway's vice-president of passenger sales and service in Montreal ("Thor's uncle got us the appointment") and threatened to make a fuss in the House of Commons if CN didn't lease him a train complete with a proper dining car, two bar cars, and a fully staffed galley, among other amenities. "Here I am, trying to pay the coin of the realm, real money" -- today Walker estimates the train rental cost $200,000 -- "and in the meantime, they're going to Ottawa for handouts. I was going to expose the whole thing. When I met the vice-president, I said to him: 'How long have you worked here, not including tomorrow?' "
Walker wasn't entirely a novice in the hard-knuckle, often scuzzy world of rock-'n'-roll promotion. Much to the chagrin of his family, he'd earlier formed a promotion company with fellow impresario John Brower as his partner, and Thor and George Eaton as shareholders. "My mother's family were successful developers and my uncle on that side was sort of the family patriarch," Walker recalls. At one point he said, 'Ken should come up to the office with me to work.' But I was into the sound of music, not the smell of cement."
In June, 1969, Brower-Walker Enterprises Ltd. put on the first (and only) Toronto Pop Festival, spending more than $150,000 to bring the Velvet Underground, Alice Cooper, Johnny Winter, Steppenwolf and Blood, Sweat and Tears, among others, to a crowd of 50,000. Three months later, the duo pulled its greatest coup: the now-famous live appearance by John Lennon and Yoko Ono accompanied by Eric Clapton on guitar, as part of the Toronto Rock 'n' Roll Revival in the city's Varsity Stadium.
The partnership with Brower broke up shortly thereafter, but Walker, his gut now scored with ulcers, kept plugging away. He became convinced that the only way, post-Woodstock, that a promoter might make money from the outdoor-festival concept, "short of building a cinderblock wall around the site," was to put the festival in an established stadium setting. Furthermore, he reasoned, instead of trying to lure 200,000 or 400,000 fans to one place, why not break up the festival into manageable chunks, drawing, say, 50,000 to one location and 40,000 to another?
On paper, at least, it seemed a brilliant solution. But by the time Walker and company were ready to test its validity, the counterculture, with its ethos of "free music" and "death to hip capitalism," was in full sway in Canada. The murder of four students by "Nixon's tin soldiers" at Kent State University in Ohio in May, 1970, also contributed to the confrontational atmosphere between the Establishment, hip capitalists included, and the kids. Even before the Festival Express started to roll down the tracks, Walker knew he was in a deep financial well, but decided to "party on" regardless.
And what a party it was, captured in much of its woozy, wobbly glory in Festival Express. Setting up a command post in a double roomette, Walker proceeded to stay awake for more than 120 consecutive hours, letting a steady inhalation of methamphetamines (a.k.a. speed) carry him onward, ever onward. (A year earlier, Walker had told a reporter, "I don't like sleeping or waiting.")
Walker's blood pressure soared to such dangerous heights that the on-board doctor felt the promoter was going to have a stroke. He recommended hospitalization, but Walker refused: The train must keep going. No emergency stops or detours. Eventually, the doctor gave him a mammoth injection of Valium, then a bottle of Valium pills, which Walker proceeded to take, two at a time, every hour, in between toots of speed.
One evening he found himself chatting in the dining car with Garcia, the Grateful Dead's charismatic lead guitarist. As a Mountie disguised in a CN waiter's uniform hovered nearby, an associate poured out some powdered speed for Walker. "Want a line?" Walker asked. Intrigued, Garcia asked what was being consumed. When told, he proceeded to upbraid Walker for using such a dangerous illegal drug. "Speed kills, man. Get off it," he told the promoter. Opening his guitar case, he pulled out a bag of white powder. "Here, try this." -- "this" being cocaine. "It's better for ya."
When Festival Express concluded on July 5, a very burned-out Walker and some associates headed to the Banff Springs Hotel for four days of rest and recovery. "I felt like I had personally dragged that train kicking and screaming down the track from Toronto to Calgary," Walker says now. While in Banff, he decided that "that was enough rock 'n' roll for me; I wasn't going to do it any more. It was too much of a hassle for too small rewards. Everywhere I turned, I had a fight."
Sometimes the fights were for real: To this day, Walker claims the tiny white scar you can see on the knuckle of his left hand was the result of his fist connecting with the teeth of pint-sized Calgary Mayor Rod Sykes. This after the mayor said the Calgary portion of Festival Express should be free, and he called Walker (as confirmed later by a civic enquiry into Sykes's management) "Eastern scum" and "an animal who had come to this city to try to make a fast buck."
Returning to Toronto, Walker joined his father in his jewellery factory, and started to trade in gold and diamonds. Eventually, he moved on to pork bellies, sulphur, wheat, even excess inventories of Rubbermaid products and flower pots that could be melted into rubber. By the early eighties, he was married, the first of what would be three children was on its way, and he was "trading on paper -- zero-coupon bonds, letters of credit, bank guarantees."
The show-biz bug hadn't left Walker entirely: He formed a company, Grand Entertainment, with a friend, that bought up the VHS and Betamax licences for 10 years to 700 Hollywood films. Grand also bought up, for $150,000, the North American rights for the bespectacled Greek chanteuse Nana Mouskouri, and struck a pressing-and-distribution deal with Capitol/EMI Records for her albums.
In the summer of 1989 Walker got a phone call from a friend in New York asking him if he could rustle up 1,000 Smith & Wesson chrome-plated handguns to ship to a customer that the friend said he had in Ecuador. While Walker had brokered many commodities over the years, scoring guns was a first, and initially he was reluctant to get involved. However, he relented because his friend was bankrupt, was living with his mother-in-law, had a house that was about to be repossessed and oil investments in Texas that had sunk. Besides, when Walker did locate a supplier for the weapons, in Switzerland, it was determined that the deal to buy and ship the guns would be worth more than $600,000 (U.S.), for which Walker would get a $15,000 commission.
It proved a fateful decision, unleashing a fantastic chain of events that eventually saw Walker unwittingly lured into the United States by American arms-control and customs agents, arrested at New York's LaGuardia Airport, declared "an international arms dealer" to a "banned destination" (Chile, not Ecuador), denied bail, and incarcerated in various jails for almost five months. Desperate to get back to his family, he pleaded guilty to one charge in March, 1990, and was granted bail set at $100,000 (U.S.).
Scheduled to appear for sentencing a year later, Walker announced he was withdrawing his plea and staying put in Toronto. To this day, he faces arrest in the U.S. In the meantime, he continues to pursue a multimillion-dollar lawsuit for "abduction by fraud" against the U.S. government and the Bank of New York which, Walker claims, was in collusion on the sting with customs agents.
The ordeal and its fallout proved onerous to Walker, his family and his marriage. Matters came to a flashpoint in 1998 after a confrontation with his then-teenage son. "He was being very disrespectful, running wild, not doing his homework and failing at school," he recalls. "No matter what I did, it was like talking to a brick." Walker became convinced that his wife was "undermining my authority" in disciplining his son, and bolted from the house one fraught evening to stay in a motel. The next day his wife said she was going to put their house in Richmond Hill up for sale, and take the kids.
"I went into a deep depression," Walker says now. One afternoon, after a distressing appearance in court, he came home and, pulling out his father's old .38-calibre pistol, "put a couple of shots in the chamber." He phoned his lawyer, and as he talked, "tears streaming down my cheeks," he spun the chamber Russian-roulette style. Sensing something was amiss, the lawyer phoned 911, and within minutes two police officers were in Walker's basement, their guns drawn.
"Mr. Walker," one of them asked, "what is it you are doing here?"
"What am I gonna do?" Walker replied. "This," he shouted, and placed his gun in his mouth and squeezed the trigger.
Walker spent the next year in hospital. At one point, in a fever dream, he saw an ex-fiancée (who had died years before of an overdose) "in this white light, summoning me to join her." But then, he says, the spirit of Walker's deceased father "stepped in and said, 'Don't go. It's not your time.' "
After all this, it would be nice to report that Walker and his wife of 16 years -- a lawyer who is now a highly placed administrator in a Toronto-area law school -- got back together. They didn't, although he remains close to her and his two daughters, 18 and 16, and son, now 21. It would be nice, too, to report that Walker is back on his feet in all senses of that expression, especially now that his glory days as the most audacious rock-'n'-roll promoter on the continent are going to be celebrated in Festival Express.
But it's not like that. While Walker is mobile and lucid (in a long-winded sort of way), he's prone to crippling stress, depression and fatigue. Then there's the constant threat of those epileptic-like seizures, all of which give him the look of a 70-year-old man.
If you want to find Ken Walker these days, don't look among the leafy streets of Forest Hill, or the boardrooms, say, of the Royal Ontario Museum, to which his former business partner, Thor Eaton, recently donated $5-million. No, most days you'll find Walker shuttling between his rent-subsidized bachelor apartment far to the northwest of downtown, near Toronto's troubled Jane-Finch area, and his "haunt" three blocks to the north, one of those suburban family-style restaurants with framed faded photographs of the Maple Leafs on the walls and pepper steak and garlic cheese bread on the menu.
The apartment, Walker himself admits, is "a disaster" -- a cluttered mess of unopened mail and Player's Light packages strewn on the dirty floor, pill bottles, a narrow unmade bed, a dust-covered computer terminal, a three-wheel bike missing one of its wheels, a rattling air-conditioner stuck in a greasy window. When your sole source of income is the $600 or so you get each month from the Ontario Disability Support Program, what you get is what you see, it seems.
Enlivening the gloom somewhat, if heightening the poignancy, are souvenirs of Walker's happier days, including a framed junior-high graduating diploma from 1961, photographs of his children, a gold record and a silver record from Nana Mouskouri, and a large, mounted poster for the Festival Express concerts. Also in the tiny apartment is a dilapidated model train track mounted on a two-by-four, with a key and a car or two affixed to the rails.
It was presented to Walker on-stage at Calgary's McMahon Stadium 34 years ago this month as a "thank-you" from the musicians on Festival Express, each of whom autographed the plank and scrawled little witticisms on it. Some of the names are still legible, but most, including those of Joplin and Garcia, are badly faded. What stands out the most aren't the names, however, but the words -- "With Love" -- printed in big letters in pen alongside the track.
"I was thinking the [board] should actually go into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [in Cleveland]," says Walker. Sold? Donated? Who knows. In the meantime, he says, "Now that my son is old enough and interested enough to be partners with me," Walker is thinking of getting back into business in some fashion. "Yes, I've been mulling over in my mind a new approach to the concert. There's no denying it needs one."
Of course, Ken Walker isn't about to reveal what this new approach entails. At least not yet. "All I can say is, 'Rock 'n' roll, look out!' " Then he chuckles and lights up another cigarette.
5 hours ago