The story behind the guy in “Festival Express”

In an earlier post I described our experience seeing the film “Festival Express.” Today the Globe and Mail has a profile of Ken Walker, the person who put the who concert experience together back in 1970, and who has had a troubled but very interesting life.

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.


About Steve