Cultural Rebel Ken Lester
(May 5, 1949 - March 31, 2021)
By David Lester
Ken Lester was a journalist, poet, editor, publisher, punk band manager
and a 60s/70s/80s radical. Friends described him as smart, funny, and a
super creative person whose passions combined politics and culture. He
passed away in his sleep, age 71, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Ken was born in East Vancouver, and grew up in a house built by his
father, a member of the Union of Canadian Postal Workers. His
grandfather was at one time a member of the Industrial Workers of the
World. During his teen years Ken amassed a great wall of books in his
room, vociferously reading the Beats, Jack Kerouac, poetry by Allen
Ginsburg and political and philosophical history while listening to Bob
Dylan, Phil Ochs, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and The Fugs. He adorned the
walls of his room with a psychedelic collage and black and white
painted shapes. He made drawings, rode a motorcycle and wrote poetry:
and they cried
oh god and they cried
and I cried
and it didn’t matter
and the talking machines on the streets
failed to recognize the death
of love and beauty
Ken attended Windermere Secondary School, where he was known as The
Beast for his long hair. During a campaign for school president,
supporters chanted “beast… beast… beast…” as he went on stage to
deliver a speech. Much to the relief of school officials he was only
elected vice-president. After graduation he hitchhiked to San Francisco
with his friend Bill Kelton, just in time for the Summer of Love in
Ken started classes at Simon FraserUniversity, which at the time was a
hotbed of radicalism (referred to as the Berkeley of the North). In
1969, he would travel again to California, becoming involved by
supporting the work of the Third World Liberation Front, a coalition of
Asian, Latino, African, and Native American student groups in Berkeley.
Energized, he wanted to continue activism back in Vancouver.
Ken became a journalist when he joined the collective that put out the
Georgia Straight -- one of the hundreds of underground newspapers
across North America. He wrote a two-page spread called ”Sorting it out
from Canada” about the need for youth to participate in direct actions
such as campus shutdowns, guerilla theatre and the reclamation of space
for use of all people.
Ken was involved in organizing The Clark Park Freedom Rally to bring attention to police brutality in East Vancouver.
Ken, age 33, photo by Rose Kapp, 1982.
proved to be a pivotal year of dynamism for Ken when he organized a
benefit concert to free John Sinclair, a Detroit-based poet / political
activist who had been given a 10-year sentence for possession of two
joints. He joined the Youth International Party (Yippies), a
revolutionary, countercultural, anti-authoritarian, anarchist group.
The Yippies founded the irreverent radical newspaper, The Yellow
Journal, and Ken contributed articles.
"When I became active in 1970, no one in all of Canada was more
inspiring than my comrade-in-bohemian-insurrection Ken Lester. He was
an outrageously funny Yippie original, a brilliant underground
journalist and a loyal, supportive friend." -- Activist writer David
Ken helped organize the Yippies' Bay Sip-In, an action protesting the
Hudson Bay Department Store's refusal to serve people with long hair.
The riot squad was called in to remove protesters. A Yippie People's
Defense Fund was founded to provide lawyers and other legal help to the
city's counter-culture community.
Then came The Blaine Invasion, where Yippies protested the U.S.
invasion of Cambodia. It was meant to be a symbolic trip to the edge of
the American border, but when the crowd of 600 saw no one there to stop
them, they simply continued over the border. The invasion lasted two
hours and it became an international news story.
In 1970, Ken married Peggy Simpson and they had a daughter named
Richelle in 1971. Richelle was named after Black activist Ruchell
Magee. Ken and Peggy had attended his trial in California. Magee is
currently the longest incarcerated political prisoner in the U.S.,
having been locked up since 1963.
Also in 1971, Ken helped plan the All Season's Park, an occupation of
the proposed site of a large Four Seasons hotel at the entrance to
Stanley Park. Because of the protest, city officials relented and
cancelled the project.
In advance of a Yippie protest called the Grasstown Smoke-In about
police harassment of young people in Vancouver’s Gastown, Ken wrote
several articles in the Georgia Straight. On the day of the protest a
10-foot joint was paraded around the packed streets with chants of
“legalize dope.” Ken gave a speech at the protest in front of a crowd
of 2,000. Police moved in on horseback swinging clubs, and a riot
ensued. Ken and others were trapped in a doorway at one point as a
policeman on his horse thrust his club at them.
Ken and fellow Yippie journalist Eric Sommer were subpoenaed to testify
at the inquiry into the riot but they refused to reveal their sources
and the judge reluctantly upheld their rights. The final report
concluded that “the violence erupted only when the police intervened,”
and that the police used “unnecessary, unwarranted and excessive
force.” The judge also stated “In my opinion, Messrs Lester and Sommer,
who testified at this inquiry, are two intelligent and dangerous,
radical young men. Their true motivation is their desire to challenge
authority in every way possible.” The inquiry made riveting front page
The staff of The Georgia Grape, the underground paper that was started
up by Georgia Straight staffers wanting a collective ownership of the
Georgia Straight: 1. Mick Lowe, 2. Tony Tugwell, 3. Irving Stowe, 4.
Mike Quigley, 5. Korky Day, 6. David Garrick, 7. Peter Burton, 8. Rick
McGrath, 9. Robert Sarti, 10. Jeff Marvin, 11. Ken Lester, 12. Eric
Sommer, 13. Sylvia Hawreliak, 14. Brad Robinson, 15. Lori Rosenthal,
16. Shelley Reitberger, 17. Ellie Waldman, 18. Dara Culhane
1972, Georgia Straight staff members occupied the office in an attempt
to restore the Straight’s legal status as a co-operative. They
published a strike issue called The Georgia Grape. Ken and staff
members went on to start their own newspaper called The Grape.
In the mid seventies, Ken went on to edit a number of publications
including the community newspaper The Mount Pleasant Mouthpiece, where
he set in motion the building of a children’s community playground;
Help Yourself, published by Vancouver Opportunities Program, and the
cultural periodical Terminal City Express.
Around 1975, Ken became a vice-president of The Service, Office and
Retail Workers Union of Canada (SORWUC), an independent feminist,
member-controlled union. One member recalled, Ken worked on the union’s
Ken and other activists started a study group, which read the anarchist
classics. Out of these gatherings, Ken got the idea to start an
international anti-authoritarian publication, later named Open Road.
The first issue of Open Road newsjournal was born in 1976. The original
collective included top notch writers, Ken, David Spaner, Bob Sarti,
and a great graphic designer Bob Mercer. It was an instant success,
with print runs reaching 12,000 but even more readers as copies were
shared across the world.
Open Road covered a wide range of radical activities around the globe
but also included film and book reviews, and reflected Ken’s original
interest in the arts as resistance culture, which saw him travel to
Jamaica and report on reggae and later witness the last Sex Pistols
concert. Ken wrote enthusiastically about punk and reggae in a
political and social context, clearly seeing the connection to radical
culture. Open Road would publish for fourteen years, with an
ever-changing collective, including Norman Nawrocki, Angie Graham, Alan
Zisman, David Lester and Marian (brooke) Lydbrooke.
In the late seventies, Ken’s activism included prisoner rights and
justice support; the Betsy Wood and Gay Hoon trial; hosting a speaker
from the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist union The National Confederation
of Labour (CNT); a campaign to Free The Murrays, imprisoned Irish
activists; the fight against a city anti-poster bylaw; and an
anti-nuclear Rock Against Radiation concert that was a success despite
the city denying a permit. Ken and other organizers feigned not knowing
the permit was denied. When the concert started in front of thousands
of people, city officials just let it go on.
In 1979-80, Ken edited Public Enemy, a punk rock focused newspaper. In
1981, he helped instigate the Open Road international political poster
exhibit in Vancouver.
During this period, in 1979, Ken was hired by Vancouver punk band,
D.O.A. to be their manager. He booked the band’s first North American
tour and designed the cover of their first album, Something Better
Change. Over the course of nine years, Ken toured with the band around
the world, and instigated many of their political releases, including a
Free the Five benefit EP (1982); General Strike, a 7” at the time of
mass labour strikes (1983); a benefit EP for striking British miners
(1985); and an anti-expo EP called Expo Hurts Everyone (1986). During
this time he also worked with other bands and artists such as Jello
Biafra and was once asked by The Red Hot Chilli Peppers to be their
manager but he did not pursue that opportunity.
Ken, in a 1982 interview talked about the role of art in social change:
“The reason why I think it's important to be involved with rock music
right now is that it's the only area -- not the only area, the arts,
culture is the only area -- where you can approach people where they
have an open mind. They are coming to see you because they have an
interest in what you're doing so they're open to it -- at least listen
to what you have to say. If you're into politics nobody wants to listen
to more lying politicians, nobody is interested in listening to the
latest manifesto, but they will come and listen to music and will see
art and will be affected by that art and that opens their minds so they
become more expansive and exploratory in their daily lives and perhaps
change the way they view the world.”
Ken booked the first Black Wedge Tour of mostly anarchist poets and
musicians (Mecca Normal, Rhythm Activism, Bryan James, Dave Pritchett
and Ken) in 1986, travelling down the west coast after two sold out
shows in Vancouver. Ken read his poetry accompanied on guitar by his
brother David. Ken also wrote the tour poster text:
"1 step EASIER than punk. 5 political dynamos. Hardcore poems, wild
vocals, shredding guitars. Radical voices crushing MILITARISM, smashing
SEXISM. We want to set some wild hearts and imaginations free. We want
to release a riot of emotion -- opening up a new arena for activist
resistance culture. Disintegrating CONFORMITY. And hey, it's going to
be fun too."
1987 was another significant year for Ken, when he came up with the
idea of a multi-staged non-stop evening featuring film, animation,
poets, social justice displays, and ten bands called the Intens-i-thon,
a forerunner of the Lollapalooza tours of the 1990s.
When Beat poet Michael McClure, accompanied by The Doors’ keyboardist
Ray Manzarek, performed in Vancouver in 1987, Ken opened for them
reading poetry with his brother David on guitar.
When the opportunity to be involved in a feature film came along, Ken
dived in as a co-screenwriter for the cult classic Terminal City
Ricochet (1987), which included performances by Jello Biafra, Peter
Breck, D.O.A.’s Joe Keithley and was directed by Zale Dalen.
Ken returned to performing his poetry in 1989 with guitarist Dave Gregg
(D.O.A.). During the 1990s and beyond he kept a more low key profile,
amassing his collection of books, travelling to India, and attending
political and cultural events.
Ken Lester lived during a remarkably fertile time of radicalism in
Vancouver, building on the left-wing tradition the city already had. He
was lucky to work with gifted writers, organizers, musicians and
graphic designers who shared a creative chemistry and a desire for
Ken is passionately remembered by friends for his positive contribution
to social justice in Vancouver and beyond and his generosity and
support for the work of others, and his ability to bring people
together. With friends, Ken was always up for long political and
personal conversations about projects and dreams.
As activist-artist Norman Nawrocki put it, “He was the best of
Vancouver’s counter culture, a giant, a warrior, a creative, spirited
soul who helped make the city a better place to live, helped put it on
the anarchist world map, helped make it stimulating, helped raise
issues and contribute to debates, and certainly broke ground for the
politicization of the punk music scene.”
Normal's Jean Smith sums up the feelings of many, “Ken made things
happen. He had so much enthusiasm -- a better world for more people was
at the heart of it all.”
Ken is survived by his daughter Richelle, brother David (Wendy),
sister, Barbara (Rick), ex wife Peggy Simpson (Bill). Pre-deceased by
his parents Gertrude and Fred Lester. He will be cremated and his ashes
scattered at a future date.
The last words go to Ken, from a poem he wrote in 1987:
if change is insecurity
and freedom confusion…
If rebellion is danger
and revolution chaos…
how the hell
do we get out of here?