Open Road
Memories of Bob Mercer

by Larry Gambone 2021-02-28

Bob Mercer
photo by David Boswell at Georgia Straight offices, 1977
Early Fall 1967 someone told me I ought to meet this new guy on campus who was involved in opposition to the Vietnam War. I was with the remnants of SUPA (Student Union for Peace Action) trying to keep the New Left flame burning. There stood the 18 year old Bob Mercer, anti-war badge and all. This is my first conscious memory of him, though years later he recounted how we had both crashed on the living room floor of the New West Coop, the summer before.

Bob moved into the Coop and at first seemed a bit shy (Bob Mercer shy???) but soon transformed himself in a manner that amazed me. We both got involved in the new campus radical group, SDU (Students for a Democratic University) Bob was soon producing an amusing satirical comic called “The Little Man” based around a time-travelling Karl Marx. Around the same time he was given a nickname. In the same way a 300 pound, six foot six guy is Tiny, Mercer got called Ugly Bob, later shortened to Ugly.

Bob was one of the earliest male supporters of Women's Liberation, which at SFU was known as the Women's Caucus. Later in 1968 we were involved in the occupation of the Administration Building and Bob was arrested along with one hundred and thirteen other students in an act of civil disobedience. I had a terrible cold and went home, thus missing out on the excitement.

By the Spring of 1969 we were both becoming disenchanted with SDU and began exploring alternatives. Bob came up with the FART Party – NLF of YIP (Front for Anarchist Revolutionary Terrorism – Northern Lunatic Fringe of the Youth International Party) This marks the beginning of the infamous Vancouver Yippie and the first group of Yippies in Canada. With some pressure, he convinced me to run on the FART slate for the Student Society elections. I got 75 votes. The point of the action was to inject humour, satire, imagination and 'zen politics' into an increasingly staid campus radicalism.

Around the same time, I had joined the IWW and decided to form a campus branch to unite all the anarchistic elements of the New Left under one umbrella. Bob was one of the first to join. I produced several issues of our branch zine, “Solidarity Magazine” and Bob cheerfully contributed. his Little Man Cartoons. Meanwhile, influenced by the San Francisco Mime Troupe, members of which had stayed at the Coop, Bob helped create the Vancouver Street Theatre. The Street Theatre, used the comedia del arte style to satirize events and played in parks and public events. The police, avid protectors of the right of assembly and freedom of speech as always, arrested Bob while he was performing in one of these parks.

Bob Mercer 2Bob dropped out of SFU and went East with the troupe and I did not see him for some months. About to graduate and looking for new action, I got involved with Vancouver Yippie. Bob was there too and with a head full of ideas for a new radical newspaper he called “The Yellow Journal”, which became the mouthpiece for the alliance between Van-Yip and the VLF (Vancouver Liberation Front) Not restricted to newspaper lay-out and stories, he was always front and center in all the Yippie actions, at one point getting arrested. (He got off)

Two years of wild action later, most of the Yippies gravitated toward anarchism, largely from reading Murray Bookchin's “Post-Scarcity Anarchism”. Not missing a beat, he was there too and became co-founder, designer and lay-out artist for the Open Road, later called – thanks to Bob's professional level of work – the Rolling Stone of anarchism.

If journalism, cartoons, graphic art and activism weren't enough to fill his plate, Bob joined a band, The Warts, and began writing songs. He also sang and played mouth harp. Over the years, he was to be in a succession of rock 'n roll bands.

We simultaneously got interested in the punk rock movement. Bob was instrumental in promoting the bands by organizing gigs as well as poster design and the formation of the music tabloid, Public Enemy. He did this while also holding down the position of editor of the Georgia Straight, replacing Bob Geldof, I believe.
In the mid-1980s I left Vancouver and moved to Montreal. Bob left the Straight and was hired to edit Calgary Life. Somewhere along the line, Bob returned to university and got a degree. With his knowledge and experience of the print medium he was hired as a lecturer in Communications for Simon Fraser University. Bob also edited, and later owned, Vancouver Life magazine. In 2013 he designed my book, “No Regrets - Anarchism and Counter-Culture in Vancouver” for which I was short-listed for the George Riga Prize. After retiring from the work force, he returned to music and in the last decade of his life became a popular blues-rock musician, performing at numerous venues and making recordings.

He once said that I was his mentor, but I would say the same about him. Early in our friendship, I found him somewhat intimidating, with his acerbic wit and straight-shooting. But I soon learned as my wits were honed by him. Absolute in his honesty, highly ethical without ever degenerating into the moralism that sometimes plagues the left, he had a bullshit detector possessed by few others. My first attempts to write for an audience larger than a photocopied zine came as a result of Bob's encouragement and publishing in the Georgia Straight and Public Enemy. His editing skills helped me to understand how to improve my writing ability. I always fired my ideas at him and knew I would receive an intelligent and honest response. The way I look at the world today is in no small measure a result of our discussions. Bob encouraged me to learn to play guitar and write songs and one of my great joys was when we jammed together. Whenever we did, he would always teach me something.

In his last words to me, Bob said that he had a full and good life, implying that he too, had 'no regrets'. Cartoonist, actor, artist, musician, editor, activist, writer, father of three children – did I miss anything? - Yes indeed, he had a good life. He chided me in his humourous way for saying he was leaving too early. Sorry Bob, this is one area we still disagree...

Vancouver Sun obituary for Bob Mercer by John Mackie