By Peter Lindblad
Roaring like an army of souped-up, exhaust-spewing choppers, Steppenwolf’s gritty, garage-rock growl gave voice to the political and social unrest of the times.
Bikers adopted the primal scream of “Born to be Wild,” with its smoldering organ and savage, hot-wired guitars, as their mission statement, and the song’s use of the term “heavy metal” would give rise to a whole new genre of rock.
Exploring more psychedelic territory, “Magic Carpet Ride” took listeners on a mind-blowing journey as visionary as any drug experience. And with the LP Monster, Steppenwolf made America take a good hard look at whether it was living up to its high ideals. That mirror Steppenwolf held up was also meant for hippies.
While the band and its outspoken leader, John Kay, subscribed to much of what the counterculture espoused — mainly, the freedom to live a lifestyle the mainstream wanted to crush — they also felt it wasn’t always in touch with reality.
“We did feel that while we related to some of those things, we also felt that a lot of this ‘peace and love and flowers in your hair’ was a little bit too idealistic and based on too much youthful ignorance and arrogance…” says Kay. “We felt [that] speaking out, rather than just everything is everything and peace, love and brotherhood… against what was still not right with the country and the world was a little bit more the direction we wanted to go.”
To understand what a maverick Kay is, and how Steppenwolf took on his spirit of independence, it’s crucial to know his background. His remarkable journey from an impoverished childhood in East Germany to rock ’n’ roll fame and riches in America, and the story of the band he would front for decades, is captured in the new Rainman Records DVD “John Kay & Steppenwolf: A Rock & Roll Odyssey,” an unfiltered band history told by Kay and those nearest to Steppenwolf that has little of the tabloid fodder found in the band’s VH-1 “Behind The Music” special.
“When we first showed a rough cut to someone, just as a sort of trial balloon to get a reaction — this was a person not entirely keen on rock ’n’ roll to begin with — and what he commented was very telling, because he said, ‘Well, the story of the band is pretty interesting, but it’s really sort of a train that takes you through the time tunnel of all these different decades; all these different places you guys were in were either culturally or artistically, or because of the times, politically or socially, there were major events that are part of this bigger picture,’” says Kay.
Had all not gone right on one tense night in 1949, however, Steppenwolf might never have come to life.
During a daring border crossing, such as the one Joachim Fritz Krauledat, the future John Kay, and his mother were about to make, a sick boy can be a liability. Any noise made could cost everyone their lives.
“I had a cold, and I was told to suppress the cough, to keep my mouth shut, to pay attention to what was going on and do exactly as told,” recalls Kay.
Kay and his mother, along with a group of others, had arranged to flee bleak, post-World War II East Germany for the promise of a better life in the West.
“They paid what they could to a couple of brothers that worked for the railroad that knew the region, and who, at night, would smuggle people across,” says Kay.
His memories of that night still vivid, Kay remembers seeing “… barbed wire, ditches and towers every so many hundreds of yards, and searchlights and dog patrols.”
This was before the Berlin Wall was erected, and Kay admits, “This was still in ’49. It wasn’t as heavily secured as it later became,” but it was still dangerous.
“They cut some barbed wire,” says Kay. “It was mainly women and children in our group. They basically said, once you are through there, just keep running.”
And so they did, ending up in a refugee camp, where, after a couple of days, they were given West German citizenship and a few Marks. They had arrived.
Behind them was a life shattered by war. Ahead of Kay, though he didn’t know it at the time, lay all the glory that comes with being a rock icon. Along the way, he would find himself at the epicenter of a revolution, bearing witness to, and helping bring about, great changes.
The wheels for Kay’s escape from his native East Prussia were set in motion before he was born. Months prior to his birth, Kay’s father died in a Russian prison camp.
In a whirlwind series of events during the evacuation of East Prussia in the harsh winter of 1945, Kay and his mother “… wound up on a train heading west, which came to a halt because the tracks were bombed,” says Kay.
“And so, my mother, with an infant in her arms, was in a strange place, and the kindness of strangers… a family that had lost their sons in the war basically gave us shelter in one of the rooms that they had. And that’s where we lived for about five years.”
After the Potsdam Agreement cleaved Germany, Kay and his mother found
themselves living behind the Iron Curtain, where basic necessities were scarce.
“Well, food was in short supply,” says Kay. “There were rations of food stamps. It seemed like a never-ending stream of fish. I had an aversion when I came out of there (laughs) for fish that lasted until I was in my 30s.”
Making matters worse, Kay’s eyesight was deteroriating. He was deemed legally blind, and “… the doctor had inferred that there was a chance at least that my vision may improve if I had a better diet. And that was code-speak for ‘in the West, there is a better diet.”
Which led to the family’s great escape, a legendary story in the annals of rock history that’s been told time and time again — the true impact of which is rarely ever realized… that is, until you hear it directly from Kay himself.
After such a dramatic entry into this world, Kay grew up in the relative safety of West Germany, watching his mother work as a seamstress. “Eventually, [she] met a fellow that had been in a Russian prisoner of war camp and had just been released after three or four years in that hellhole, and those two got married, and I had a stepdad all of a sudden,” says Kay.
His family life stabilized, Kay was free to determine the course his life would take. Listening to U.S. Armed Forces Radio, and hearing rock ’n’ roll for the first time, set him on the right path.
“This type of music was totally foreign to me, and I would imagine most young people in Western Europe after the war, because jazz had already, decades before that, made inroads in Europe and Germany and had quite a fan base,” says Kay. “But, this kind of music was, of course, new more or less even in the early to mid ’50s in the United States. So, when I first heard Little Richard, I mean, I was just, ‘What is that?’ It really caused me to have goose bumps.”
Other avenues of exploring rock ’n’ roll opened up for Kay, including traveling carnivals.
“Each of the separate attractions, the rides — primarily things like bumper cars, circular, wild rides of certain kinds — they would attract young people to hang around these rides,” explains Kay. “[They would get them to] spend their money riding them by basically putting DJs in charge of the music they were playing, and if you got onto one of those rides and the guy came to collect your money, you could request a certain song, and when the guy handed in his money at the box office, it would say, this guy in this gondola for whatever had requested Fats Domino or something… so, those of us who had barely a Mark or two to spend, we would just literally hang around there in the evening for three to four hours at a time listening to this unending stream of rock ’n’ roll.”
Kay would follow that stream all the way to North America. In March 1958, his family moved to Canada. He had seen the rock ’n’ roll movies of the day — like “Don’t Knock The Rock” with Bill Haley — and was floored by them. “Seeing Little Richard perform in one of these films was really just an eye-opener,” says Kay. “I had never seen such unabashed exuberance, and as a 13-year-old, that just had an enormous impact on me.”
Living in Toronto and feeling lonely, Kay found solace through the radio. “I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t speak the language yet,” says Kay. “When I arrived, it was in March. They put me in high school, but within a couple of months or so, the summer vacation was there, and so I spent the summer listening to the radio and buying my first couple of LPs.”
Up and down the radio dial, Kay found all kinds of music. There was gospel from the black church services broadcast out of Buffalo, N.Y. There was Ray Charles. There was Hank Williams.
“I was totally agnostic in terms of the stuff I would listen to,” says Kay. “All I really cared about was, if it didn’t have a really powerful beat, like Chuck Berry [and] Little Richard, did it at least have something in the lyrics, which many country tunes did, that told a story, where there was some sort of powerful connection.”
Inspired, Kay bought a cheap guitar and took to the stage.
“I wound up going to an amateur country and western radio show and did my first Hank Williams impression,” says Kay.
Kay made a connection of another sort in Buffalo, when Kay’s family migrated there in the early ’60s. By this time, rock ’n’ roll “… in my opinion, had basically become a mere ghost of its former self,” says Kay. “It was really just pop music with a slightly heavier beat.” Kay found “… nothing that had that kind of primal stuff in it,” besides what was happening in R&B. So, he turned to folk, immersing himself in the music of Peter, Paul & Mary, The Kingston Trio and Ian and Sylvia.
Delving further, Kay learned about Pete Seeger and The Weavers, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. But, he was about to enter graduate-level training in the discipline through a contact he made in the Buffalo coffeehouse scene.
“I was given a tip to, if I really wanted to find out where this stuff originally came from, to go to the main Buffalo library, where they had a music department with Library of Congress recordings recorded by John and Alan Lomax,” says Kay. “So, I discovered Appalachian dulcimer music and Cajun this and that, Tex-Mex…”
As revelatory as it all was, Kay was drawn to the blues. In it, he recognized the origins of rock ’n’ roll. He traced its roots from Delta recordings and Muddy Waters — stopping to marvel at the simple beauty of prison work songs, levee songs and the like — to Robert Johnson, Son House and its migration to Chicago.
“I also learned that there was kind of a coded language in terms of the lyrics, because of where it orginated, and, of course, the black and white tensions that existed in the rural South,” says Kay.
Furthermore, Kay went to the Newport Folk Festivals to see those he’d come to know only through their records and to take part in “topical song workshops” that opened Kay up to the work of Phil Ochs, Dylan, Richard Fariña and Tom Paxton.
Digesting this massive amount of material only whetted his appetite for more.
Inspired by the folk scene he had embraced, Kay began playing coffeehouses, assuming the part of a troubadour going from town to town to play.
“It was actually quite enjoyable to grab a guitar, sling it over your back and have a duffel bag with your clothes, stick your thumb out and hitchhike around and play wherever they let you,” says Kay. “It was a very carefree life.”
Finding places to lay his head wasn’t difficult. “It was usually a kind-hearted young woman that liked folk singers that, you know… it’s the old joke: What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless,” laughs Kay. “So, there was usually someone who was willing to share their humble abode, so you didn’t have to make a lot of money, and you were usually in the company of others with whom you had a good time in music and so on.”
Meanwhile, The Sparrows, a Toronto-based blues-rock outfit, were trying to take flight. Formed in 1964 by brothers Jerry and Dennis Edmonton and Nick St. Nicholas, The Sparrows welcomed Kay into the fold a year later, when lead singer Jack London bowed out. Keyboardist Goldy McJohn, formerly of The Mynah Birds, would later be brought aboard.
“The moment I started to sit in with The Sparrow (the shortened name the band would assume in May 1966) and started doing some blues tunes, the broader, richer palette of electric instruments and heavy drums and everything else… well, you know, I was back, more or less, where I started in terms of the electric band-recorded rock ’n’ roll and blues [that] really got me going in the first place,” says Kay.
To go electric, Kay “… simply slapped a Diarmond pickup into that round hole of my Gibson acoustic guitar and plugged it into a Fender Bassman and just joined in.”
Around Toronto, The Sparrow experienced enough success to convince the group’s newly hired manager, Stanton J. Freeman, to take them to New York. A deal with Columbia Records was struck, but the band seemed to be spinning its wheels in the Big Apple.
“A couple of singles were recorded, but they didn’t go anywhere, because they didn’t really focus on what most of us in the band felt was really our core sound,” says Kay.
Interestingly, the first single the label chose to release was a song called “Tomorrow’s Ship,” written by Dennis Edmonton. It was not indicative of the band’s sound.
“Dennis had a very soft voice and wrote the song as sort of a jingly, jangly, 12-string, semi-Byrds kind of sound,” says Kay. “It had nothing to do with blues or kind of a funky sound [that was The Sparrow’s bread and butter].”
In New York, The Sparrow ran in fast circles, playing clubs like Arthur’s and the Downtown Club, “… which was Sheraton Square in the Village, and it was a basement,” says Kay. The Sparrow alternated playing there with the Chambers Brothers.
Another hotspot The Sparrow frequented was a Long Island place called The Barge, the place where The Rascals had been discovered. Just down the street was a place called The Action House, where The Vagrants, fronted by future Mountain guitarist Leslie West, played.
“So… there was stuff going on,” says Kay. “The Blue Magoos (a psych-garage rock band from that era) and so on, and we were living at the Hotel Albert, and there were numerous other bands and acts in New York, but we somehow didn’t feel there was much going on.”
Kay, who had already spent some time on the West Coast, felt that California was calling the band, and “… so, we convinced our agency to book us into the Whisky A Go Go, and we took the leased band station wagon and a U-Haul full of gear and went out to the West Coast,” says Kay. “And our first gig playing was playing at the Whisky, I think, with the Sir Douglas Quintet.”
Arriving in Los Angeles, the band had a front-row seat to the Sunset Strip riots.
A place called Pandora’s Box was a magnet for restless teenagers who couldn’t get into clubs where liquor was served.
“Many of them would spill out into the streets, and that element, these young people and the hippies… that wasn’t sitting too well with the merchants and businesses there,” relates Kay. “And, of course, having hundreds of kids all over the streets was something that attracted the attention of the L.A.P.D. to begin with. So, they would show up and more of them would show up, and it really became a confrontational thing.”
Whether it was the “… kids who caused the problem or the baton-swinging army of blue and helmeted enforcement officials,” the result was a change in booking policies at places like the Whisky that brought in more R&B bands. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Sparrow hightailed it to San Francisco.
Finding plenty of places to play — from The Matrix to the Avalon Ballroom to The Arc, an old, permanenantly beached paddlewheeler renovated into a club — and a musical environment that fostered wild creativity, the Sparrow thrived. And yet, something was missing.
“At least we were able to make our overhead, but as much as we enjoyed the local talent and being influenced by some of the other bands that were stretching out and doing 20-minute songs and that sort of thing, we also felt, after a time, isolated from the recording industry,” says Kay. “Because we always felt that unless we could get a recording deal that put us on the map to some extent, we would be perpetually treading water on a sort of ‘hand to mouth’ level.”
So, the Sparrow flew back to L.A., but before it did, Kay remembers being part of the Human Be-In in January 1967 in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. By the time the “Summer of Love” took over the Bay Area, however, the Sparrow had flown the coop. Back in L.A., the band was coming apart at the seams due to tensions within. In short order, the Sparrow was no more.
“But three of the ex-Sparrow members, myself being one of the three, were still in L.A. going, ‘Now what?’” says Kay.
Out of the ashes of the Sparrow some months later, Steppenwolf was created in the summer of ’67.
Living in a low-rent “crackerjack” apartment, as Kay describes it, with his then-girlfriend, and soon-to-be wife, Jutta, the only income the couple had came from her job as a cocktail waitress.
Kay and a friend, Morgan Cavett, beat the bushes to try to find jobs as songwriters for publishing companies. Then came a stroke of luck. A girlfriend of Jutta’s married a record producer for ABC-Dunhill named Gabriel Mekler, and they moved next door to Kay and Jutta. Kay played some of the Sparrow’s tapes for Mekler.
Impressed, Mekler advised Kay to form a band. Immediately, Kay called up McJohn and Jerry Edmonton, and then 17-year-old guitar wunderkind Michael Monarch, who was lined up to be Dennis Edmonton’s replacment in the Sparrow before that band’s demise, was recruited.
Posting a “bass player wanted” ad at a record store, the band found Rushton Moreve, and the five-piece rehearsed in the garage below Kay’s apartment.
With the help of Gabriel, also an excellent pianist, according to Kay, Steppenwolf cut some demos that Gabriel took to ABC-Dunhill. That helped the band get some of its equipment out of hock.
Their gear returned, the band played some regional dates, and in early 1968, wasting little time, the outfit that became Steppenwolf recorded its punched-up, self-titled debut in a mere four days at American Studios, a renovated Chinese restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. Kay knew right away Steppenwolf was a different animal.
“Sound-wise, it was obvious from the get-go, because we [had] a much more raunchier, more aggressive, more intense sound [than the Sparrow],” says Kay. “That was partially because of Michael Monarch’s sound, which was a much thicker kind of sound than Dennis’ guitar playing. Also, Rushton, the bass player, was just a very intuitive, natural sort of player, and the songs that I, along with some of the other band members, would write… I don’t know, they just took on a flavor that was less pop and more blues-rock oriented.”
Just as uncompromising as its sound was, Steppenwolf’s lyrics didn’t back down from anything.
“The opportunity to kind of state your feelings and thoughts on certain conditions and situations in the lyrics, even on the first album in songs like ‘The Ostrich,’ and, obviously, ‘The Pusher’ (a Hoyt Axton original that Kay was enamored with) and ‘Your Wall’s Too High’ and ‘Desperation’ and other songs, we had a greater freedom to just kind of… well, most of the tunes I’m mentioning were written before we had the deal with ABC-Dunhill, so, fortunately, there wasn’t anybody saying, ‘Well, this is not radio friendly’ or ‘this song wouldn’t get on the air because it’s not about peace, love and a flower in your hair.’ We just wrote what we felt.”
Fortunately, the head of the label, Jay Lasker, had an open mind and a teenage daughter who, “… gave us the thumbs up,” says Kay. Gaining favor with the music-buying public wasn’t quite so easy. “A Girl I Knew” was the band’s first single, and it languished on the charts.
“I felt that that was misrepresentative of what we were about primarily,” admits Kay.
Next came Steppenwolf’s version of the Don Covay-Steve Cropper original “Sookie Sookie,” “… which did pretty good on both coasts, but it didn’t build any further,” says Kay. With two strikes against the band, Steppenwolf tried “Born to be Wild,” a song written by Dennis Edmonton, who had changed his name to Mars Bonfire after leaving the Sparrow. Kay wasn’t impressed with it at first.
“Mars had recorded it in the middle of the night in his small abode, and he had to keep things quiet, so the demo that resulted was very low-key, [in] very hushed singing tones, and quite frankly, when I heard it [I] didn’t really hear potential in it,” says Kay.
Jerry Edmonton pushed the band to try doing it in another key, with Kay giving it his iconic, brooding vocal snarl. “[It] didn’t really take very long before — particularly when Michael Monarch played it in that raunchy, semi-distorted guitar thing that he had going — it took on a whole different flavor,” says Kay. However, there was a disagreement between the band and the label about what should be the A-side on its third single. “So, they said, ‘Well, we’ll put [out] two sides and see if radio likes either of them,’” recalls Kay.
Radio smartly chose “Born to Be Wild,” and it flew up the charts. Two years later, it was prominently featured in “Easy Rider,” a film that captured the zeitgeist of a generation. Shortly thereafter, with Steppenwolf’s second LP, 1968’s The Second, came another of Steppenwolf’s biggest hits, “Magic Carpet Ride.”
“That’s one of those things that had a life of its own,” says Kay of the song. “It was rooted in a bass riff that Rushton kept coming up with when we were doing soundchecks or rehearsing, and he happened to play it again.
The rest of the band, including Bonfire, who had stopped by the studio to showcase a new song, fell in behind Moreve. Bonfire came up with the bridge, but after recording their initial “vamping,” as Kay calls it, on Moreve’s riff, the band wondered, “What else did it need?”
Kay took a quick cassette mix of the song home. Listening to it on a recently purchased hi-fi system, he says, “It popped something into my head — it was a tune I wrote, the melody and the lyrics in about 20 minutes.” More was added the next day.
“I literally went back in the studio the next day and laid down the vocal and the harmonies of the chorus lines,” says Kay. “And then, when we listened to it, we said, yeah, but that long vamp needs a better intro. We overdubbed these kind of tortured instrumental sounds. There was some slide things. There was some feedback stuff that Michael milked out of his amplifier, a la Hendrix. And when that part was done, they said, well, that groove section really has some character to it.”
An “… angry, animal kind of jet-plane engine thing” was spliced in as the intro and “Magic Carpet Ride” was finished.
“Everybody in the booth, when that thing was done, said, ‘Well, you know, ‘Born to be Wild’ we weren’t 100 percent certain of, but if this thing does not go up the charts, then we may as well hang up our guitar picks and drum sticks and go into another line of work, because I don’t know what we could do that would be more of a cool-sounding tune,” Kay says.
While “Magic Carpet Ride” shone brightly, The Second was a bit of a struggle to cobble together. “The second album was done when we were already on the run promoting and touring and doing television shows,,” says Kay. “And while I had a couple of tunes ready to go… it didn’t have the benefit of having an overabundance of material lying around.”
Steppenwolf’s meteoric rise produced hits like “Rock Me,” “Straight Shootin’ Woman”
and “Monster.” But, as the band lurched into the 1970s, Steppenwolf burned out and broke up in 1972. Contractual obligations requiring two albums per year from the band caused its creativity to gradually dry up after the 1969 LPs At Your Birthday and Monster, a socio-political concept album that critics bashed but Kay thought was a “substantial leap forward.”
Lineup changes kept the band in a state of flux. Monarch left after the Birthday album due to disagreements with Kay. He was replaced by Larry Byrom, who brought a renewed zeal to Monster. But, Byrom departed in 1971, after the politically charged Steppenwolf 7 LP. Moreve, fearing an earthquake would push L.A. into the ocean, stopped going to band rehearsals and was fired. Nick St. Nicholas replaced him. But, he wouldn’t last long. In 1974, the band did a “farewell” tour. Response was so strong that Steppenwolf reformed with Kay, McJohn, Jerry Edmonton, George Biondo and guitarist Bobby Cochran and released three more albums before retiring in 1976.
Later, St. Nicholas and McJohn became embroiled in a legal battle over use of the name Steppenwolf with Kay and Jerry Edmonton. A revamped John Kay and Steppenwolf then went back on the road to restore the Steppenwolf reputation that McJohn and St. Nicholas had almost destroyed on their “bogus ’wolf” tour, as Kay calls it. It’s never been stronger.
“When you look over your shoulder to all those things that transpired, the ups and downs, the moments of ecstasy and the agony of defeat, it’s one of those things where we had a story to tell.” says Kay.