Cultural Rebel Ken Lester (May 5, 1949-March 31, 2021)

Cultural Rebel Ken Lester (May 5, 1949-March 31, 2021)

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, British Columbia, Canada.

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, political history and philosophy. He listened to music by Phil Ochs, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, 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 1967.

Ken started classes at Simon Fraser University, 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.

In Vancouver’s Gastown, Ken, with others, opened The Bazy Ballroom, a shop selling art and crafts. I made sand candles and sold them in the shop.

1970 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 Spaner

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 for riveting front page news.

In 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 newsletter.

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 [see]. 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.

Following in the footsteps of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman who once opened an ice cream parlour, Ken opened Figaro’s Frozen Yogurt (when frozen yogurt was very uncommon). A framed photo of Goldman was prominently displayed in the shop.

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 social change.

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.”

Mecca 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?

* * *

David Lester is the author/artist of Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay, A Graphic Novel (Beacon Press). He illustrated the award-winning 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike (published in English, German and French editions). His poster of anti-war protester Malachi Ritscher was exhibited at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. He is guitarist in the rock duo Mecca Normal, cited as an influence on the founders of the feminist social movement Riot Grrrl. In the late 1970s he was a member of the collective that produced the Open Road news-journal. He is currently working on a graphic novel about the last year in the life of Emma Goldman. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.