Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay. Somewhere, Janis Joplin is smiling.

December 6, 2009

There were several positives about my stint as a Features writer with the Calgary Herald, starting with the fact I was paid a wage that truly reflected my talent and experience.

I also appreciated the monthly sale of various items the Entertainment department had been sent to review. These were mostly books but, on occasion, a DVD movie would also be available and that’s how I happened to own a copy of the documentary Festival Express. At the time I bought it, I knew only that it concerned a series of concerts held in Canada several decades ago, and it featured several of the musicians who had provided the soundtrack to my teenage years.

I’ve finally watched the movie, only because an early-summer downpour meant it was too miserable to walk to the video store, forcing me to access my own small film collection.

As it turned out, I was thankful Mother Nature had been in such a foul mood because the movie was even more enjoyable than I’d anticipated.

The events in this documentary occurred during the summer of 1970, when a couple of Ontario-based promoters decided to put on concerts across Canada, starting in Toronto, carrying on to Winnipeg and ending in Calgary. A fourth was originally planned for Vancouver but the mayor at the time, Tom Campbell, was so paranoid about the Apocalyptic menace posed by a gathering of long-haired, bra-less youth that he nixed the idea. (FYI, Tom. Turns out we didn’t destroy the world after all. In fact, we pretty much run it now. More gruel?)

Rather than have the acts arrive separately at the venues, the promoters decided to rent a train and transport the musicians and their assorted crews, equipment and entourages across the Great White North in what was basically one big party on the rails. A film crew was onboard to document the event and it is their footage that provides the foundation for Festival Express.

Thus we are witness to  various superstars of that era’s musical scene — the likes of Janis Joplin, Buddy Guy, Jerry Garcia and his fellow Grateful Dead, members of The Band and The Flying Burrito Brothers — playing together in one of the most talent-laden jams this side of Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven.

There was drinking — serious drinking — and, although it isn’t alluded to in the film, most likely a good deal of pharmaceuticals were also consumed during that journey into history. But mostly it was just a gathering of like-minded people strumming guitars, pounding drums and singing together in a relaxed atmosphere away from the stage and the spotlight and the pressure imposed by cutthroat record company executives and fawning sycophants.

There is a sadness in watching these images nearly 40 years later. There are ghosts here: Joplin was dead, at 27, a mere three months later. In the intervening years, Garcia and bandmate Ron “Pigpen” McKernan have left us as well, along with Richard Manuel and Rick Danko of The Band.

They were never so young and so carefree and so talented as on that train ride across the Canadian Prairie. They didn’t care that the promoters practically drowned in debt, or that young people at every stop nearly rioted outside the gates, incensed at having to pay the princely sum of $14 for a ticket.

Janis, Jerry, Ian Tyson, Robbie Robertson: all they wanted to do was make music.

And it was that music that made me most nostalgic as I sat in front of my TV as a late-spring storm licked at the windows. This is the music I was listening to in the summer of 1970, the gap between Grades 11 and 12 (and, before you sprain something trying to do the math, yes, I am that frickin’ old). That was the year I scored my first real job, although the experience of working with the cretins at Brookswood Shell would inflict deep scars.

I had no way of knowing that, while I went home each night smelling of gas and grease and oil and frustration, to turn on the radio and let the music help me forget yet another shift filled with verbal abuse, a Lord Beaverbrook High School student was attending the July 4 and 5 concerts in Calgary.

She babysat to earn the ticket money and, while on the grounds of McMahon Stadium, met a group of young American boys who talked to her with genuine fear in their voices about their upcoming tour of duty in Vietnam. These young men, some of whom were doomed to spill their lifeblood in the rice paddies and steaming jungles of Southeast Asia, had no way of knowing that beneath the poncho the pretty blonde wore on that hot summer day, her belly was swollen with new life.

It was more than 30 years later when the pretty blonde met the former gas jockey. At the time, people shook their heads at what could possibly attract the supreme extrovert to the frowning hermit. These people didn’t know about the connection these two opposites shared: that in the summer of 1970, they both believed the world was a magical place of endless possibilities. They believed that because the music told them so.

Having seen Festival Express, I realize that it still does.

Addendum: After reading this posting, Viking Woman asked to see Festival Express and so we watched it tonight. She was bopping her head to the music and reliving the Calgary concert when she suddenly yelled, “That’s me! Rewind!”

Sure enough, at the movie’s 1:10 mark, there is a quick shot of a young, pregnant blonde near the stage, dancing and grooving as Sylvia Tyson sings C.C. Rider. Caught in a moment of youthful exuberance and immortalized forever. Rock on!

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One Response to “Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay. Somewhere, Janis Joplin is smiling.”

  1. brooke said

    Well, I’M definitely smiling. Love this one Dad.

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