We sat down w/John Kay and asked him the hard questions...
Well of course, when we started out years ago, I don't think anybody planned 30 days ahead, let alone consider that 30 years would some day come. I must also say that there was really no master plan or some ingenious revelation that is responsible for us still being around. It was really two factors more than anything, I believe....number one, the fact that there were enough people on various parts of the globe that were into what we were doing, be it the old stuff or the more recent recordings.....and the other one was that a number of people within our 'Wolf organization have seen to it that we have always made the very most out of what we had to work with as far as fan loyalty, reputation in the business, doing good, consistent live shows, so that we were maximizing on what there was for us. It was a roller coaster ride, and there were times when things were not going our way, and so then you had to be kind of tenacious, and stick to it, and grit your teeth a little bit, and play twice as hard and hope that the word of mouth brings on another wave of resurgence of your popularity....and that really has been the case.
That's not that easy, because when you are in it you have a totally different perspective than when you're outside of it standing looking at it and I'm not sure whether I am the person most qualified to say what Steppenwolf is about. Maybe some of the fans that are part of the Wolfpack Fanclub, and so forth, who have been following us (some of them for up to 29 years) would be more qualified. And I think it varies from person to person. Certainly the cards and letters with their respective stories about Steppenwolf music or songs or lyrics would indicate that. Steppenwolf is about giving a damn and doing it to music, I suppose.
Steppenwolf was originally a book written by Herman Hesse, (a German author) and it was a book I was totally unfamiliar with when the band that became Steppenwolf was in its infancy. The young man who lived next door to where Steppenwolf started to rehearse (by the name of Gabriel Mekler, born and raised in Israel) he had read the book. When it came time to put a name on the demo box that was going to go to the first label, he said "Well, what is the band called?" and aside from the obvious joke names and other obscene suggestions which were not marketable, he finally said, "Well look, how about 'Steppenwolf'? I think it's a word that looks good in print, and it denotes a certain degree of mystery and power and you guys are kind of rough and ready types." Everybody said that sounds pretty interesting and if we don't get a deal we can always scrawl another name on the box and send it to somebody else, so let's go with that for now. Well, that's what it's been now for many years and, to be honest, it's been a very good name.
Well, I supposed to some extent our experience is perhaps a little bit outside the mainstream in the sense that we, Steppenwolf, were just catching our first big wave of success. So, in addition to living through the 60's in the way that all other Americans, or for that matter people in various parts of the world were, we had the added bonus, so to speak, of having our music hit the charts and all the rest that went with the success of a rock & roll band. My personal recollection of the 60's was one of a tremendous amount of activity, both in terms of what we were up to (zipping all over the country and the world and TV shows and recording and what have you) and to some extent also a very frantic time as far as what was going on in the streets and the halls of government etc. Were they as groovy? Well, I personally feel it was a mixed bag of blessings...I felt this was a rare opportunity for the idealism and the energy of youth to join forces with the experience and know-how of the previous generation and like two horses on the same wagon pull us, as a species, forward in terms of our joint development. Unfortunately, what seemed to have happened is the normal youth with its arrogance and it's ignorance thought it knew it all, and naturally the older generation knew that they didn't know it all and resented them claiming to know it all and so rather than kind of shaking hands and working together it was an "us and them" thing, and it manifested itself in many different ways, the majority of which, to my way of thinking, were not really productive. Since then, things that have been the fallout of the '60s, some people like to kind of point at that and say well all they gave us was drug abuse and so on and so forth.....I happen to disagree with that strongly. I feel that the '60's were a vibrant, exciting, progressive time. There were the normal bandwagon jumpers who did it because it was the thing to do at the time. But those who really were progressive thinkers and had something fresh to say and play, and so on, I think that's why so many younger people who ready about or see documentaries realize that they unfortunately missed a very vibrant, important time. So, when it's all said and done, I guess the short answer is...with hindsight and with the time-span that permits certain wounds to heal a little bit, it probably is a bit more rosy in our recollection than it was, but I'm certainly not one to trash the '60's. I think it had a tremendous amount of things to offer that have been absorbed by society since and that still are with us today in a positive way.
At the core lies the fact that I was born and raised in post Second World War Germany. As a result, I witnessed how, what was at the point a relatively new concept for the German population (The Weimar Republic notwithstanding which was in ill-fated, short-lived attempt of democracy) to see the population after World War II be politically interested and motivated and active with frank discussions and a lot of back and forth as to which road to take with the new nation, etc. That was something that, although I was a boy, I witnessed in our family, in our adult neighbors and what have you...and when I came to Canada I learned that to a certain extent that whoever wins the war gets to write the official version of the war. The history books vary somewhat from nation to nation. Perhaps because of my interest in history (be it ancient history, mythology, recent history) coupled with growing up in a country at a time where politics and the actions of human beings and the results thereof where very much stamped on all of our consciousness. The Hitler regime certainly did not leave one single life untouched in Europe during that period. All of those things combined, I think, were at the core of my on-going interest in paying attention to the world around me and when I, through rock & roll and other forms of American roots music eventually found my way to folk music, I found that there was a type of music where politics or social commentary were well known. Eventually, through the likes of not only Dylan and many others of a similar persuasion, I found that there was a type of music where making comment on the times and conditions one lived in was considered appropriate. So, that's how I kind of segued from there into what Steppenwolf eventually did with it's hard rock.
I have never sat down to try and write an anthem, so to speak. There have been times to when the musical idea to which I wrote melody and lyrics suggested that it could be a powerful song, but until you've written the lyrics you really don't know whether there is the making of an anthem. Certainly "Born To Be Wild" has become one, and to some people "Magic Carpet Ride" is one. "Born To Be Wild" (this is how ironic life is) almost never happened. "Born To Be Wild" was the third single off our first album and the record company argued about which of the tunes that remained from the album that had not been released to date should be the next single. So management and band on one side and label on the other side had this tug of war and finally the compromise was to put "Born To Be Wild" on one side, put the other song that the record company preferred on the opposite side, send it to radio, and let them fight it out. Well, within a relatively short period of time (early summer of 1968) 9 out of 10 played "Born To Be Wild." After that came Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda and did Easy Rider, and, of course, "Born To Be Wild" and "The Pusher" were in that film and helped to spread the name Steppenwolf internationally through the success of the film. And once that all took place, that song, "Born To Be Wild", had at that stage reached it's global anthem status. When we played in a soccer stadium in Buenos Aires a few short years ago with The Cult and went into "Born To Be Wild", all these Argentinean kids sang in perfect phonetic English every line. We had never been to Argentina in 29 years, so it's one of those things that just outgrew its constraints and became its own animal. As a performer the only time, I think, that you really sense the power of a song is when you observe the effect that it has on the audience. When they're really transfixed by it, when they forget where they are and they're no longer concerned around them, but strictly this response to the song or the music, then I think you have an inkling of it. I think that past a certain stage, early on when you finally realize yes I will be able to do this successfully for a while and it is something I do for a living, I think that at a certain point you loose the ability to completely put yourself back into the shoes of what it was like to be in the audience. Certainly not in the sense that you could put yourself into the shoes of the audience and see yourself the way they see you..... you can see other performers, like I often do, but I think it removed a degree of objectivity past a certain point.
I was born with a birth defect that left me lacking in the eye department...I'm totally color blind, which means that my world is black and white and gray....I am very light sensitive....hence, I've been wearing dark glasses since I was about 3 years old and I'm so-called legally blind, which means that I can't drive and a few other things. Perhaps because of the fact that I grew up in Germany after World War II (and then later during my high school years in Canada), but in Germany with people returning (those that were lucky enough to return) with limbs missing, families that lost (as did my father's family) up to 6 boys in the war and so on and so forth, it seemed relatively insignificant by comparison to real suffering. Certainly my mother understood my difficulties and tried to help me in whatever way possible. One of those attempts at helping me took the form of her managing to get me into the Rudolph Steiner School in Hannover, Germany where we lived after we escaped from East Germany in the 50's. This was tremendously helpful to me since I could not read the blackboard and schools were overcrowded in post-war Germany....this sort of private attention really helped me to learn, not only in the normal sense, but also their way of teaching was one that broadened one's horizons and taught the humanities..... and it was no wonder this particular school had been banned during the Hitler regime because they were far too humane, I think, in their view of the world and its inhabitants. In any event, there were certain benefits, I think, that I derived. I was always fairly tall and big for my age and would perhaps with normal eyesight have gravitated towards physical pursuits. It turned out that team sports were really not in the cards. However, as a young child, music...albeit in the early years it wasn't rock & roll...it was the Russian Cossack music and other things that I did not necessarily understand the lyrics of, but that as one of the Neville Brothers said, "Music from the heart goes to the heart"....somehow, this music connected with me in a way that the pain and humanity of it connected deeply with me....and it gave me my first inkling that music was more than just something that's in the background while you do your homework, or whatever. When rock & roll came....(that is after the goose bumps and the Little Richard baptism and so forth)....after that I knew what I had as a boy in the way of a daydream. You're in that adolescent period where you don't really think about reality 10 years from now, but what you'd like to be if your wish list could be granted, so to speak. It was at that time also that you realize the lack of sight was something that....sometimes you didn't need it. Stevie Wonder, I suppose, and Ray Charles and others will tell you that the ears work very well even if the eyes don't so, overall I have made peace with that situation a long time ago. And in Canada, when I went to certain special classes where some of the people were outright blind, I had the good fortune of making a friendship with a fellow that I'm still in touch with who's one of Canada's finest blind skiers.....totally blind. And when you see the capabilities of others who are worse off in that sense than you are in keeps it in perspective for you.
My first exposure to American music of any kind was through the Armed Forces Radio Network in Germany......Little Richard was the first one that connected with me in a manner that was beyond "this is a nice tune." This was one where I didn't understand a word, yet the rhythm and that guttural, primal, intense vocal performance, that pounding piano and buzzing saxophone. There was just something about that that I just literally sent chills or goose bumps up and down my spine. I became addicted to listening to rock & roll wherever I could find it, which was quite limited in the mid to late 50's in Germany. When I then came to Canada during my high school years and learned to speak English, some of which I accomplished by listening to the radio all the time. I was like a kid in a candy store. The radio dial, particularly my first summer in Canada when I knew no one, had no friends and really no place to go, I would listen to everything -- country music, R&B from Buffalo, Sunday morning black church service music also from Buffalo, 100 miles away. It was still at a distance. While obviously Canada was nothing like Germany, nevertheless Canada wasn't quite like the US either. So, after my first 5 years in Canada (which were very good years, I'm very fond of Canada and think very well of Canadians and enjoy visiting there) when I came to the States, first to Buffalo and then to California (where I was later to spend 20 years of my life) much of what I had fantasized about as a child in Germany was not necessarily to be found there in the sense that the rock & roll movies that I saw in Germany and in Canada (Don't Knock The Rock and Alan Fried stuff) they were, as so much of Hollywood stuff is, somewhat distorting what it was really about. It was only when we were in Steppenwolf and we were traveling through all the states that I started to absorb the realities or the geography and different cultural groups and regional territories that were the birth places of some of the roots music that in various combinations created rock & roll. That is one of the reasons that some years ago I moved to Nashville, TN. Because you can draw a circle around Nashville (a 500 mile radius) and you will cover a lot of territory that in one form or another (be it blue grass, Appalachian music, the Delta, Clarksdale, New Orleans, or what have you, Macon, GA and so on and so forth) there is so much in the way of blues and country and various other types of music that were the building blocks of that music that I still to this day love to perform. I feel very much at home here. There are many things that as a stranger initially threw me for a loop. The whole civil rights movement that I observed primarily from Canada was something that puzzled me to no end. I didn't have the background in American history to comprehend many of the underlying demons that were at work there. With time and my interest in history per se, I have been and still remain to this day an amateur student of American culture and history. I find it a fascinating and endless subject.
Steppenwolf initially was like so many rock bands....you had five guys who were like the three Musketeers. They were in a garage, they had their instruments, we're all in this together, etc. We were one of the lucky ones who actually saw that happen. Then comes the success and then also comes the inflated ego. Certainly the late 60's, with its lifestyle preferences such as drugs and what have you, didn't help to keep the young egos totally in check. We had, for instance, our guitarist was barely 17 years old.... there was friction beginning to develop which was not helped by the fact that our record company insisted on two albums a year to be delivered by us....the fact that we were writing our own material and also were expected to tour to promote the releases and possibly have young babies and families and what you at home, not withstanding we were to deliver two albums. Well, the workload was pretty substantial. The lack of sleep, the drugs, the egos, the "yes" people, whatever, started to cause the beautiful dream to have sort of a dark cloud behind it. And initially (I would say '71) I pulled the plug on Steppenwolf because I felt that the fun had, quite frankly, gone out of it.....it had become work......we were dancing to somebody else's schedule, etc. On top of that, there was a degree of second guessing within the band with respect to, well you know, this new tune – is that really Steppenwolf? And I would say, well, wait a second guys....when we did our first album any tune that we felt had merit, that we could do a credible job on was Steppenwolf. I mean, that's what we played. It didn't have to be "Born To Be Wild" number 14. Something of a different shade or color was perfectly acceptable. What happened here? Well there were differences of opinion, one thing lead to another. Eventually I said, "I'm pulling the plug and I'm going to sit still here for a little bit and I want to do a solo album that's based more on where some of my personal musical roots were, etc." that lasted for two solo albums worth. On the heels of that, our management company said, well you know, there's (they also handled several other acts) a big time agent over here from Europe and we're doing a big tour over in Europe with one of our other groups. He said, "There is a real interest in a Steppenwolf farewell tour. Would you consider going there?" Well, I consented to go as long as my own band, The John Kay Band, could be the opening act for this tour......the idea being that I could recruit some of the Wolf following for my own efforts. We went.....the tour was enormously successful.....but, more importantly, the fact that we had been apart from each other now for a considerable period of time caused the batteries to have been somewhat recharged. There was a degree of fun again and so forth. So it was decided upon our return from Europe that we would take our new stuff into the studio and see what we'd come up with. The results were encouraging and resulted in us signing with CBS Records (Mums distributed by Epic CBS) for three albums in the mid 70's. Unfortunately our new management company decided to become a motion picture production company.....they did Death Wish and some other things......all of a sudden things started to unravel and in relatively short order (by '76) the same sort of difficultird that we had countered in '71 and my dislike of what was beginning to develop caused me to pull the plug on the Wolf thing for a second time. Naturally, this sort of thing can cause people in the management and record company end of things to pull their hair out. What are you doing? Well listen, I have a life. I have also a wife. I have a daughter, and I never pictured myself as being in the employ of somebody else's needs.....this is supposed to be something that represents my own view of what my life should be about, which is a degree of freedom to do the things that fulfill me in some fashion.......so call that self indulgent, call it being a prima donna, but that's how it is. Well, OK. Off I went for a couple of years. We went to Hawaii a lot, the family became a family once again, since we had time together, we explored the Southwest. My daughter was about 8 or 9 years old. And, all of a sudden, those experiences, for a change, started me writing tunes of various kinds and resulted in a solo album for Mercury Records cut in Muscle Shoals, Alabama with some southern players. Oddly enough, Larry Byrom, who had been a Steppenwolf guitarist during the Monster album and the Steppenwolf Seven period (one of our better efforts, both of those), was the house guitar player at the Muscle Shoals studio I was at. So, I had a partner there in crime, so to speak. It was an enjoyable experience. However, on the heels of the release of the solo album something totally unexpected happened which was that word reached me that there was a band out there in 1979 calling itself Steppenwolf. I thought, well that's odd, I don't remember going on the road! So we looked into it and it turned out that an ex-member that we had fired in the mid '70's had not been able to make ends meet, had come across some unscrupulous so-called agent and put themselves out there with some other bar musicians as Steppenwolf and were trashing the name. It was something that didn't sit well with myself and Jerry Edmonton (the two of us being co-owners of Steppenwolf Productions, Inc. and so on and so forth). To make a long story somewhat shorter, by 1980 after numerous attempts to use the judicial system to put a stop to these bogus activities and not getting really the response that we had hoped for, I went out on the road as John Kay and Steppenwolf, and the reason for the name change, I guess, is fairly obvious because by that point there had been more than 2, and at one point there had been 3, separate, bogus Steppenwolf bands.....because it's one of those things where, listen, if I can hold up a gas station and nobody calls me to task on it, then the guy watching the first guy hold up the station goes across the street and does it too. So we had numerous bands out there and I finally had enough.....so in January 1980 out on the road we went as John Kay & Steppenwolf. There was a tremendous amount of damage to be repaired.....the group's name has been trashed and left basically in the, sort of, beer bars on the outskirts of secondary markets.....and only almost non-stop touring for the better part of four and a half to five years enabled us to gradually rebuild some credibility to the name. It was a real character building period and one that I would gladly pay handsomely for being able to avoid ever having to go through again. But having gone through it, I will say this.....I now appreciated many things in my life and certainly my profession and the success of what we do professionally much more so than when I was a young 24 year old who was handed his first gold record and who sort of "yeah we paid our dues."......"after all we did this for 2, ..or was it 3 years.....so this bowling trophy is appropriate". You have no sense of what....no grip on reality until you see someone who's been struggling for 25 years and still can't get arrested beyond just the local club level and who's vastly talented. So this experience in the 80's certainly put things somewhat more in perspective and has enabled me to enjoy the fruit of our collective labor.....probably more so than at any other period in my life.
John Kay, as perceived by a lot of people, is the guy in the black leather pants with the dark glasses who kind of growls his songs and, as a young woman in the late 60's told me, "Well, you know, I was afraid to do this interview because I saw you on stage and you looked like you were going to jump off the stage and kick the crap out of the first three rows." She was from New York and she used this term, "you look like a hitter." I said, well I'm very intense about what I do but I generally like to treat people the way I like to be treated and don't get physical or aggressive with anyone unless I feel I've been unduly provoked. There is John Kay the private citizen, very definitely. But what a lot of people, I think, are confused by is the John Kay on stage is not a different John Kay, It's just another facet of John Kay. Maybe I'm quirky in this way, buy I happen to think that most of us, if we really think about it, we tend to let different aspects of our personalities show or come to the surface depending on where we are, with whom, under what circumstances. I'm one way with my mother. I'm somewhat different with my wife, with my daughter, with my business associates, with my band mates. There are degrees of, just different aspects of, the personality. When I'm on stage, I do have this sort of attitude. This is my territory. I'm up here, this is my turf. I don't let audiences intimidate me. This is what we do. We care about our fans and our audience. It's not like we want to do that BOC thing, you know, "on your feet or on your knees" kind of thing. I don't view ourselves in that way. It's just that we play fairly intense, fairly aggressive music and when I sing and spit out my lyrics, so to speak, it tends to come out in a sort of intense, and to some people somewhat intimidating or frightening, kind of way. That's something that wasn't really done by design. I think that partially it was because of the dark glasses, which hid my eyes, the leather pants and the connection with Easy Rider and motorcycles. I mean, once that was established that was something that a lot of people focused on. It was sort of like we need something quick, something that we can have as a cubby-hole for this band. Let's see...leather pants, dark glasses, "Born To Be Wild," Easy Rider, motorcycles. Hey, biker band! And it went into that little pigeon-hold and when afterwards we would have an album like Monster, which was a social, political concept album, people were scratching their head saying, "Wait a minute. We just put you in that other biker band pigeon-hole. I'm not going to take the trouble now to reevaluate." I mean media, generally speaking, likes to tag you and then move on. They don't really come back to reassess you. Once in a while you have someone like David Bowie who managed to reinvent himself with every album and it was expected. Which Bowie do we get this time, kind of. But with us if was sort of "Born To Be Wild," OK, we know who and what they are and that tag will stick. That was one of the problems that band itself was, sort of, arguing about that led to my pulling the plug on the band the first time...because there was a one dimensional perception of the band that some of the media and others had of us which was limiting and was sometimes difficult for us to overcome as an obstacle with songs Snowblind Friend" which were acoustic and not what they expected.
The Wolfpack, our fan club, is comprised of an astonishing variety of lifestyles and people and characters. Now, one thing that they have fairly well in common is that the majority of the membership tends to be somewhat older. That's a given because the ones that are most intensely into what we do are people who kind of grew up with our music. There are younger faces that have joined their ranks in the interim and we are very pleased about that. But the older group (35 and older, so to speak) they are a fairly diverse lot. You will see someone who probably Monday through Friday wears a three-piece suit. We have doctors, lawyers, Indian Chiefs. We have one guy from Germany who comes every year for Wolf Fest, our annual fan fair in Nashville, which is just for the Wolfpack Fan Club. He is a molecular, God, atomic molecular something. He's one of the leading guys in his field. He comes to visits at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and gives lectures. The German government set him up at the University of Leipzig to put their whole research computer department together and so forth. Well, this guy looks like a hippie. He told us one time, "I love to study" (and what he studies is stuff that's way above my head) "by cranking Steppenwolf music full blast while I'm studying." Well, that flies in the face of what my mother always told me when I was doing homework. You know, no music, no this, no that. Well, there are people from Denmark, from Holland, from Norway. They all come to Wolf Fest and obviously many people in the United States and Canada. When we go and play outdoor shows what's always interesting to me is the first three to four to five rows are the teens. They are somewhere between 12 and 22 or so. And the further back you get, the somewhat older they get until you get to that crowd that is not as physical in the way they express their excitement about watching you play. But they're back there and I love this particular.....this motley combination of ages and lifestyles.....you'll see guys with motorcycles and leather jackets. You'll see people bringing their kids. The second or third generation kind of combination of fans is what enables us to go out on stage and say we're on-going. Not only in the sense that we have new records, new songs to add to what is already familiar to the fans, but as we're doing this, in addition to our stalwart, loyal fans from early on, younger faces are joining their ranks. So there's a refreshing, constant addition of something that stimulates us.
Writing Magic Carpet Ride, my autobiography and that of Steppenwolf for that matter, was something that came about through the normal, anecdotal sort of story telling. You're on the tour bus with somebody or you meet someone backstage somewhere and somebody starts to "oh year that reminds me of when we" and so forth. Well, there were a lot of these sort of "you ought to write a book" comments and, quite frankly, I was always too busy with other things and I probably would not have been able to write a book earlier, that would have contained what, for me anyway, was a very important part of the book which is that the boy that came from Germany and had a day dream that became reality in America. In spite of the fact that things weren't letter perfect as the success came and the ups and downs and the griping and the, you know, there was good and bad. But overall, I wouldn't have traded my position with others and I wouldn't have changed much if I had to do it over again. But the thing that was lacking was that during the hectic periods of activity what was lacking?....was the ability of stepping back and taking a look at who I am now, where have I been , how much have I reached in terms of my own personal goals and how do I feel about where I am today? And that was something that really snapped into focus for me when we had overcome the de facto destruction of the name Steppenwolf in the early 80's with the bogus bands and we had rebuilt and we had some new records that were coming out.....we had a combination of musicians who were not just good players and writers and knew their way around a recording studio, but who were really quite fond of each other, who enjoyed each other's company, who could go out for 20 weeks in a row (which we did in the late 80's for several years on end) and enjoy each other's company and respect each other as people. That part was something that had unfortunately been lacking during the early years of success due to our immaturity and the crazy lifestyle and the hectic pace. When I settled in Tennessee in 1989 and within 18 months thereof we put out one of our best efforts in quite some time on IRS Records called Rise and Shine, at that point when I looked around and said, "Man, you are right now in your life where you really want to be". The last few years in LA you were sort of saying, "well, someday we're gonna probably want to pick up here and go somewhere else because things are changing and I'm changing and not necessarily in the same direction." When looked around where I was in Tennessee, I liked the people I saw.....I certainly liked where I lived and I was at peace with my lot in life more so than any other time preceding, and I felt at that point, that I was ready to write the book because I didn't want it to end or just, you know, we had a lot of hit records and we were as crazy as everybody else and we were face down in the gutter.....that sort of thing didn't do much for me. There had been a lot of show and tell books and a lot of books about the excesses and the mondo successes and I wanted to tell a story that I had thought might be of interest to not just someone who is a dyed in the wool Wolf fan, but someone who might read this book because there's actually a human story there that's not half bad in terms of interest potential. And so when I had reached a point where I felt it had come full circle, I had visited the former East Germany after the wall came down and had rediscovered members of my family that I had literally not seen in over 40 years. When the little town that I spent the first five years of my life in, when they asked us to do a benefit for the local orphanage there, and we did.....there was much affection on the part of these people and there were family members of mine that came that we got to visit with......and when I returned to Tennessee from there, I felt that loop that started with the little boy in Arnstadt, East Germany that escaped with his mother in '49 to West Germany and who went off to see America and sing rock & roll for a living, he had returned to the source, so to speak. And there was a degree of completion in all of that made me feel now it's time to write this book.
As far as Steppenwolf having influenced others is concerned, there are, of course, numerous incidents where as we travel and do our concerts people who are in local or regional bands or what have you come up and tell you how they do this song of yours or that song or they grew up in a household with your music and they were influenced by it. As far as well known performers are concerned, it's difficult to say because you don't want to imply something like this.....this is almost like I don't feel right about being the one to even say it. But I know that, for an example, I know that Travis Tritt has done "The Pusher" on stage; I know that Bruce Springsteen has done "Born To Be Wild" on stage (and so have others)....I know that Slash from Guns N Roses has mentioned Steppenwolf and there may be a couple other people that I can't think of right now. It is, of course, something that I take (I don't want to say pride in) but it's something that I'm glad about, particularly when it's someone whose work and whose artistic direction or integrity you respect and admire......it's nice to know that somewhere along the line they were aware of what you did or a song that you did. I know how I feel about the likes of Little Richard and the rock & roll pioneers and my blues Icons......you know, the Muddy Waters and the Howlin Wolves and people like that....who had a tremendous influence on me. But there are so many......if I had to draw a list of whose songs did you really listen to or try to play, the list is phenomenally long because it goes through just about all of the outstanding people that were in the country music field of the late 40's into the early 60's, as well as the same counterparts in R&B and rock & roll....so there's just so many people. It's something that, I'm assuming, is similar with most other contemporary performers where they have crossed the path musically of dozens, if not hundreds, of people and it you were one of those it's not half bad.
A rock legend? Well, again it's one of those things were I think of Little Richard as a rock legend but I'm aware of the fact that someone who is younger than I often will come up to me and say, "Oh, you're a legend." Well, as long as I'm not a legend in my own mind. Mack MacAnnally one time when I was down in Muscle Shoals in '78 or thereabouts, they were all kicking around album titles for somebody and it was the old thing-- "a man and his music," no, no that's not it, "a legend in his time," no, no. Mack said finally, "so and so, a rumor in his own room." I like to think of it along those terms a little bit more because for me to view myself as a legend, I think, is kind of inappropriate. I mean, that pretends that you could crawl inside the head of someone else and see yourself through the eyes of the other person.....I certainly don't profess to be able to do that. I am aware of the fact that others view me this way, some do, and it's something I'm not uncomfortable with, but it's certainly something that I don't (I don't want to say encourage) but it's something...I'm kind of neutral on it because I don't want to step on somebody else's...You know, if I was standing in front of whoever, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ray Charles, somebody like that, and I was searching for the words to express my admiration without making a fool of myself I would appreciate it if they didn't cut me off at the legs saying, "No, legend. I don't want to hear that word." So when I hear others use it in the context of what I've done I let them choose their own words and I appreciate the favorable comments and if they choose to use legend I can live with that.
Some songs wear a little better than others. I think that I've been asked the question many times as to which is my favorite, and I'm wondering whether my attitude towards that is a little bit like the parent that might have numerous children but it tends to maybe gravitate towards the one that is a little overlooked cause that one's a little too shy or it's the one that needs a little extra push or help because....they just do. There are tunes that over the years did not get the recognition that the "Born To Be Wild's," and "Magic Carpet Rides" and others did. But by the same token, I know through the letters and comments of those who listen closely that it didn't go out there and never connect and those are songs like "Desperation" and another one that I really like a lot is "It's Never Too Late." And oddly enough, that song...in fact both of those tunes....are songs that have brought a lot of specific letters over the years, where at someone's darkest hour this was one of the songs that they played......I'm assuming along with others by other artists, that gave them a little of that......for instance, Peter Gabriel has a wonderful tune called "Don't Give Up" and there are many other songs of similar orientation by a variety of artists. So a couple of tunes that I've always been very partial to from the early Steppenwolf days are those particular ones....and in many ways that red thread of, I don't want to necessarily say that at the core of those lyrics is a spirituality, but there's a tinge of that, and that has found its way through many songs over the years with Steppenwolf. My own friend and financial advisor in L.A. called me up from his car a few weeks ago and said, "You know, I've been listening to all those Steppenwolf albums I had over the years and never really realized how there's a degree of spirituality in this that I never somehow caught." And I said, "well, it wasn't something that was intentional".....I wasn't sitting there with, you know, a clerical white collar writing these deep hidden messages as to the meaning of life. But yeah, there is..John Kay does have some inner life that does, in fact, find its way into some of the lyrics. Whether it was in more recent years "Hold On" or from our newest release which is the Feed The Fire CD the title cut "Feed The Fire," there are certain tunes I am very partial to because they come from the deepest part from which I have yet been able to find some motivation for my lyrics. So, I guess it's a little bit self-indulgent on my part but as long as some of our own tunes can still give me goose bumps on occasion then this is one of the big reasons why I'm still doing this.
"Born To Be Wild" is, at this point, an animal of its own. It has its own sort of life. It is, of course, joined at the hip to Steppenwolf but it really does have its own. A good example of that was when I, some years ago, woke up and turned on CNN and I heard "Born To Be Wild," but what I saw on the screen was the guys in the space shuttle doing stuff. It turned out, CNN said, Houston control wakes up the crew every morning with a different tune..... this morning happens to be "Born To Be Wild". Wolf In Space. Well, these sort of things happen without us ever having any sort of input control or even knowledge, at times, of it. Give you an idea: Recently some fan said he found a vinyl, a 45, of "Born To Be Wild" many years old issued in Angola, of all places. I mean, we hear about Thailand, we heard about Saudi Arabia. Angola, that one threw me for a loop. So, the tune has become this perpetual motion machine and it was created initially by Mars Bonfire, the writer, who had changed his name from Dennis Edmonton which was his name when he was a guitarist in The Sparrow, a Canadian band that I also belonged to, and that his brother, Jerry Edmonton, was drummer of.... and Jerry and I together with a couple other people started Steppenwolf. Dennis went his own way, called himself Mar Bonfire, and one day handed a demo to his brother Jerry saying, "I wrote this new tune. You guys are starting a band, would you consider it?" We listened to it and here was "Born To Be Wild" written I a somewhat subdued, semi-ballad flavored manner. That's due to the fact that Dennis, or Mars, has a very soft voice. Well, later Dennis explained, or Mars explained, that he had walked down Hollywood Boulevard and saw a poster which depicted a motorcycle (a Harley probably) breaking through the pavement. You know, the "bike from hell." There were chunks of asphalt flying every which was and it said "Born To Ride." Well, I know that a year or so prior to this we, The Sparrow, while still playing in Yorkville Village in Toronto, had all gone to see John Hammond, Jr., who we were fans of. John, who has become (as I recently once again saw in Nashville) just a real consummate blues musician and singer, was already at that early age very intense and had a lot of cool guitar riffs, one of which was in flavor reminiscent of what later became the key riff in "Born To Be Wild". Not a cop, not a rip-off, but something that in terms of the approach and the mood if it was something that inspired Mars. He wrote the riff, he saw "Born To Ride", the lyrics "Born To Be Wild" resulted and, of course, "heavy metal thunder." I like smoke and lightening, heavy metal thunder" that was something that someone later down the line arguably altered or adapted to become the tag for a whole new type of intense rock & roll called heavy metal. Now there's another camp that subscribes to the theory that heavy metal was something used in Naked Lunch by William Burrows, which is also true. Who knows?....who was the first person to go out there and say this is "heavy metal music"...but we've been accused and/or credited (depending on how one views these things) with having something to do with it as well.
"Magic Carpet Ride" was a bass riff to begin with that our original bassist, Rushton Moreve, was always noodling around with during sound checks and what have you. When we in the midst of recording our second album, and oddly enough Mars Bonfire arrived in order to help out where he could, I think more importantly at the time he has a new song called "Faster Than The Speed Of Life" which he wanted us to hear, we were during a break, and guys picked up their instruments, and sure enough Rushton started playing that bouncy bass riff of his again. Well Mars, who is an excellent guitarist and particularly a very tight rhythm guitarist, joined in, and so did the rest, and pretty soon what became the basic track for Magic Carpet Ride emerged. Well, Richard Podolor, our main engineer...(at that time Gabriel Mekler was still our producer) and everybody kind of said "....don't forget that" and they started to roll tape right away to capture what was going on. From that, we then said, "well, it's a nice groove, but it needs this, it needs that" and we spent a couple more hours doing the various things which then eventually comprised what came out as the single. It was really at that point, the first time that everyone involved with the project said "....if this ain't a hit, we need to switch professions". In fact, initially, it out sold Born To Be Wild, it's predecessor....it was due to the fact that Born To Be Wild was included in the film "Easy Rider" some months later, that gave Born To Be Wild it's second lease on life and spread it internationally which was very useful for Steppenwolf, because when we then went touring in Europe and elsewhere, they at least knew who we were because of "The Pusher" and "Born To Be Wild" having been in the movie "Easy Rider".
I remember exactly the circumstances because we had been called by our management company saying "You know Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper have made this film, and it seems they've run out of funds, it's kind of a low budget production and so they're not going with the standard Hollywood scoring approach for the music content of this thing. They have invited a number of performers to come and view a private screening they've taken the liberty of placing certain songs in the film to illustrate what their intentions are, and they are hoping that the various artists like the film well enough to permit them to use songs and then work something out". So we went to this private screening. Of course the soundtrack contained works by Dillon, The Band, and Hendrix and The Fraternity of Man (which later more or less changed into Little Feat) etc., including the two songs you mentioned by Steppenwolf. I, for whatever reason, was slightly late getting there....and so I just caught the tail end of "The Pusher" which is early on in the film with the limousine and Phil Spector scene, but by the time Born To Be Wild played in the film, I had settled in and was beginning to get into the flick, and yeah, it came on like gangbusters, and I personally felt it was the right song for the right scene. It may very well have a lot to do with the fact that to this day, obviously the song is very much tied to not just young adolescents who are into their rebellious stage, but also the entire biker community. Little did I know that sitting in the screening room that I was witnessing, really, the launching of the key song. At that point it had been our first hit, and it was a big one, and that was fine but, we already had Magic Carpet Ride under our belt, and it was even bigger....so nobody really knew that this film was going to give us international exposure to the point that these requests for us to come down later this year in Lima, Peru, or Santiago, Chile or, you know, we've played places like Saipan and obviously Japan and Australia, all of those things tend to start with that one song.
This Feed The Fire project is a very unusual one, even as crazy as some of our things in the past have been due to certain circumstances. We had several tunes written in the late 70's and we were in a demo stage and presented these tunes for the purpose of getting a recording deal. To kind of keep things reasonably short on this, what resulted was that the label that said, "Yeah, let's run with this," accepted these demos as masters and we were kind of scratching our heads going, "Well, wait a minute.....we wanted to set the deal, then we get the budget, then we go in the studio, then we record for real," because on these demos were drum machines, synthesizers. This was during that period of that sort of techno-pop. There was a lot of that stuff going on. They said, "no, no. These are fine. Give us three more and we've got the album and we want to put it out eight weeks from now and you guys got the whole summer tour. Let's go!" Well, it was at a time when our manager had not exactly had tremendous success getting the ear of the various A&R people in the corporate glass towers of LA and New York and this deal was a pretty good one under the circumstances for us. So we ran with this. Well, if was something that never came to pass. The record came out, it had an initial flurry of air play and it died in a relatively short period of time because it as a label that had been involved in other types of musical product and artists and so forth. They were not really experienced and we felt like guinea pigs. In any event, this particular project crashed and we were very disappointed because we had a lot of our..all of the years of rebuilding the Steppenwolf name, all of that gritting your teeth and rebuilding from the little clubs to the big clubs, etc, etc.....all of those human experiences of giving each other in the band moral support and not letting some of the setbacks and the grind of the road make us throw in the towel......all of those things went in the songs "Rock Steady, I'm Rough and Ready," "Hold On, Never Give Up, Never Give In" and a couple of others. And so we felt that some of our better writing had sort of come out and took a nose-dive and went nowhere. Well, not too many months ago, working with what are now my partners on the record end of things in Nashville, TN, listened to these particular recordings amongst other things that we were kicking around and they said, "These songs are really good. These are good songs. Have you ever considered to do it for real, do it the way you had intended to had you had the time and money?" I said, "No. To be honest with you, we were all rather dejected after this o ne." By the time Rise and Shine came out on IRS Records in 1990, we had a fresh batch of tunes and so we were always thinking forward instead of looking over our shoulder because, to a certain extent, we always felt that in order to avoid that nostalgia/run on auto-pilot act keep playing new songs along with the more familiar stuff on stage. Make sure everybody knows how you view yourself in terms of who and what you are and where your focus in the future is. So we didn't look over our shoulder with respect to these tunes. Well, they said you ought to consider it. So Michael, my co-producer and keyboardist and writing parter, and whose been with the Wolf and my right hand man since 1981 now, started the project and we got.... what it deserved..the drums, the organ the big rotating Leslie and all that. Around that time we had also written some additional tunes. Not enough to make an all new album, but songs that seemed to fit together with the cord tunes in terms of their general philosophical orientation. The most surprising, and perhaps the most gratifying, part of this whole particular project was, that an idea that Michael recently written on the bus, on the piano (on the tour bus) which I had been toying with and I finally started to write some lyrics to....and it was a real intense two and a half days.....you know, eat and sleep and do the normal things but other than that your mind was totally preoccupied. Not in a feverish frenzy, but in almost a semi-serene way and the lyrics for "Feed The Fire" came. And then we were all in the band very much gratified by the result of this tune. But I, for one, viewed it as the last tune of the album which hopefully created a mood that could linger with the listener when the entire CD was done playing on its system and hopefully leave a positive, hopeful note. And we didn't want to step on that mood by having a different tune come in.....it need to be the last tune. But other than that, I viewed it as a very private tune and one that was probably going to be, like the songs I mentioned a little earlier, "It's Never Too Late" and so forth, a nice tune, but it's not going to get the spotlight. Well, it turns out that even the case-hardened independent promotion people that are out there chose this song as the single and it's the one that's going to get the video. So that was a left turn of events that none of us had counted on or really dared to hope for because we felt this tune was somewhat less representative..well, I shouldn't say less representative..it was different from what the average Steppenwolf listener would probably expect from us in terms of the intensity of the song and the mood and flavor of the tune. So we, ourselves, felt that it was perhaps not one that was a contender as a single. But now that it is, we're very much gratified by it and we'll give it our best shot, see whether or not it connects. Like the man said, what comes from the heart hopefully goes to the heart.
I'm glad you feel that way because there is a lot of honesty in there. And I must tell you that some of the tunes that we've played now on the road for a while, particularly when you consider that it's not always easy sledding to get an audience to really pay attention to a new song that they're really unfamiliar with when you present it to them for the first time on stage rather than in the privacy of their home listening to a CD. When you get a response that is genuine, not polite applause but genuine response, there were a few that sustained all of us in the band many times. When we could by alternating between familiar material and unfamiliar material, we could reach an agreement, a truce with the audience which is .. I know you came to hear this song. Here it is. It made you happy. Now here's a song that's new. It makes us happy. What do you think? When there's a genuine response to that we knew that we not just kidding ourselves that we had something to offer beyond the familiar. Even though, perhaps, in recent years past there would be the well known A&R man at the multi-mega international conglomerate saying, "There's too much echo on the cowbell and I don't hear it." So we have really in recent years tried to reach our fans directly in whatever way we can. That's we have our own publishing companies, recording studio, vehicles, merchandise company, web page and data base and fan club and so forth. Because in order for us to be able to reach them by getting around the obstacles, sometimes of non-existent help or air play or whatever it might be that we had to go through in recent years, we found the more we know were they are and reach them directly, the more we can breathe easier and go out and play our hundred dates a year and make a handsome living doing what we still feel is the best job that we ever hope to have. I mean, who gets to say what's think in the music that they write, to perform in front of what have become real friends and be handsomely rewarded for it and have some sort of balance in your life with respect to professional versus private, inner and material life and other things? I am one of the most fortunate people that I know.....I'm still married to the same woman after 30 years and that is not because she just puts up with it....somebody once facetiously said, "Well, that's because you were on the road for half of that time," and to some extent they have a point. But to actually feel like there is nothing that is a major gap, a major void in your life, that's rare. A day doesn't go by where I don't silently give thanks for my good fortune to live the way I do, to have this sort of balance, to see the people who come to Wolf Fest. It's always an awkward thing....they come to tell you how much what you've done means to them. It's very difficult not to want to sort of say, "No, no, no. You've got it backwards.....you guys are the reason why after 30 years we still get to do this." When the bus leave in the spring and the guys are sitting in the front lounge going "Wow, it's like going on vacation. I've been at home doing taxes. I've got the kid to do this with." Here we're going out. It's kind of like the cliché of Willie Nelson, "on the road again, making music with my friends." Well, there's something to that. I got to tell you I get kind of antsy, restless, when spring comes. As much as I enjoy swimming in the lake here and doing things in and around the house, I also get that itch to get the guitar and get out there and we've got some new tunes and we're gonna play the new stuff for our friends. So it's something that I'm very appreciative of and not the least of which is that in spite of the rebuilding and breaking out, etc., reaching the nadir, I guess, of my own personal life at a certain point and having come all the way through that. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why I appreciate so much. It hasn't just been an easy ride. There have been times when you had to find out what you were made of and what you were capable of because you were thrust into a situation that you hated but you were unwilling to throw in the towel and let somebody take something from you that they had no right to.
The show is something that while, of course, we try to have consistency of performance quality and so on, it's something that to a certain extent has the element of surprise package about it every night. Will this amplifier blow up? Will this guy break a drumstick in the middle of his solo? Aside from the technical stuff of will it all work, how many shows have we done the last few days and have they been in the desert area and taken a toll on my vocal chords and now I'm barely sort of bluffing my way through the vocal parts, but it has to be done. That's when it's miserable. That's when you are up there going, "Man, I spent a whole day away from a very nice place where I live in Tennessee for express purpose of being on this stage for 90 minutes or whatever it is tonight and make that whole day of whatever it was (it might have been a regular day, it might have been a boring day), you know, whatever it was leading up to being on the stage. Now I can't do my best job." What's worse is that I hate to act and fake but I do feel that I owe it to the audience to not say, "Well, as you can tell the pipes are shot and it's not going to be all that great." They're there to forget whatever their trouble are. They set an evening aside, they spent good money, they probably worked hard for the money to see us do our thing. So I don't have the luxury of laying my difficulties on them. It's really my job to do the best I can under the circumstances and to look like I'm not suffering up there at a minimum. Well, that's when it's bad. When it's good, it's great. When the band is cooking and the sound is good and the audience is into it with us, yeah, those are the nights and thank God we have a fair amount of them. Maybe because of the maturity and the fact we approach it professionally. We try to have everything run like clock-work so there are as few factors at work there that could throw a monkey wrench into the show. When it's one of those things where you walk off the stage just tingling, just buzzing, that's a hard thing to walk away from.
Although German is, of course, my first language and there are some wonderful German poets like Schiller and Geothe and so forth. I was never one who enjoyed hearing, at least in the early days of rock & roll, German lyrics set to rock & roll tunes. There were feeble attempts in the late '50's when I was still living there to take Elvis songs and others and put a German singer with German lyrics to it. I felt somehow that wasn't the real McCoy. Even though I didn't understand the English lyrics, they just went hand in glove with that rhythm, that music and I didn't want to hear it in German. Now since then, In more recent years, in situations where we toured in Germany and had occasion to hear other performers and recordings over there, the sort of stilted (for lack of a better term) kind of tin-pan ally approach to the early German texts that were attempted while I was still a kid there that in the area of rock & roll, anyway, with self-contained groups who write their own material in German. A lot of that has long gone by the wayside and so there are people doing pretty good creative work where the German is in a conversational manner rather than this sort of stilted thing where they're trying to translate from English into German and it just doesn't fit somehow. There are some people I've heard where I say, "Wow, you know, they're singing it in their own language in the way that I think rock & roll in the States was," that is kind of conversational slang, street language set to music. They're doing that now in Germany and it's working in some instances fairly well. But myself, having grown up with that other earlier version of German, I never really .. and because I came to Canada at the age of, I was just about 14, while German chronologically is my first language, English is my true first language at this point in the sense that I think and dream and whatever in English. While I speak reasonably good German, which is refreshed every time I speak to my family over there by phone or we tour or we visit over there. It is still a language that is in essence frozen more or less at that moment when I left. And so a whole professional vocabulary, the expressions and terminology's that you become familiar with as you get older and you're in your 20's and your 30's, that is missing to a great extent in my German. Consequently, I'm not as comfortable. At times I do interviews in Germany in German but when I'm at a loss as to how to put something I'll just slip into English until I get past that particular hurdle. And most of them speak quite adequate English over there.
At last count, I think in the 29 years of Steppenwolf's existence we had just about 20 people. Now that seems like a lot buy when you consider that the changes were by and large very gradual .. 1 for instance, a lot of people are unaware of the fact that the original line-up of Steppenwolf did not last all that long. That is, we were formed the summer of '67 and after the second album which was delivered at the end of '68, practically a year and a half later, we already had our first change which was a new bass player. Then came a new guitarist, which was Larry Byrom from Huntsville, AL and then subsequent to that the Nashville area, who replaced Michael Monarch, our original guitarist who was 17 years old and had difficulty handling the lifestyle and the hectic pace and the success and the money and what have you. So there was a change of face on average, I would think, every 18 months or so. But since it was one face at a time, It seemed like the audience sort of just took it in stride. It wasn't as though these guys broke up and all of a sudden there's a whole new crew of brand new faces. It was a gradual thing so that by the time the mid '70's rolled around the only original member other than myself was Jerry Edmonton, the drummer. When I went on the road in 1980 at John Kay and Steppenwolf, by that time I was the only one left. Ironically, this current line-up of personnel has been together far longer than any previous one. Michael Wilk, keyboardist and co-producer, etc., has been with Steppenwolf since 1981. Ron Hurst, our drummer, has been with us since 1984. The only one who is a recent addition is Danny Johnson who hails originally from Shreveport, LA., but who has been out on the West Coast for quite awhile and has played with a variety of people that range just a tremendous gap of, tremendous range of people. I guess years ago Rick Derringer. He's been in Alcatraz which was a band produced by Eddie Van Halen. He played with Rod Stewart for a while. He's played with some Cajun musicians. Just a real roots blues rocker that fits wonderfully into this line-up. We're very pleased to have him. He instills a degree of, you know, this may not be perfect but it's real -- that sort of thing. We're enjoying that and we hope that we can really put his talents to use in some of the newer songs that will be written.
It is fairly remarkable, I think, that after 29 years we continue to sell an astonishing number of records annually world-wide. I distinctly recall a comment that a then financial advisor to Steppenwolf made in the early '70's when we changed labels from ABC Dunhill to CBS. One of the things that ABC Dunhill wanted as a prerequisite for our way out of the existing contract, which was still binding, was that we would give them back the rights to the master recordings that we had over there, the "Born To Be Wild's," etc. We were hemming and hawing and this person said, "God, it's slowly coming off the charts, 18 months, 2 years. How long do you think this stuff will sell?" We kind of looked at him and said, "Well, he's probably right, I guess." So we gave them back the masters. Well, I once told this story to somebody recently who said, "Oh, bad move, bad move. You guys lost millions." I probably would have said yes to him a few years ago but this happened, as I said, very recently and I said, "No, wrong. Good move." We were stupid. We didn't know how good a move it was and it was in spite of ourselves. But here's what happened. We gave them back the masters. We had our period with CBS in the mid '70's and here came the late '70's and I did a solo effort that didn't really go anywhere and here came the bogus Wolf bands. All of a sudden, I'm faced with what am I going to do? What do I want to do? This rubs me the wrong way. I can't stand to see the name being dragged through the mud. Do I want to take another whack at it? Meantime, the person who a few years prior to that said "yeah the stuff won't sell anymore" had, at that point, been a soothsayer. In fact, the catalog had fallen off and wasn't selling all that well, partially because ABC Dunhill and shortly thereafter (this was late 1979) the advent of the compact disk and classic rock radio came. All of a sudden, the catalog of ours that had just about gone out of print not only was revived by a very aggressively marketed MCA Records catalog push but, because of the compact disc, we were reselling two-thirds of the records we ever did sell to the previous fans in a compact disc version around the world. So when 1990 or thereabouts rolled about, looking over our shoulder with respect to the money that we had made was quite phenomenal. The point of all this is that had we owned our own masters 1977-8 or 9, which were pretty lean years of insecurity, or "where now brown cow," we probably, particularly since the catalog was non-existent in sales just about, probably would have sold it, hell, I don't know, for half a million bucks to anybody who would have offered that amount to us and really taken it in the shorts with respect to what we have in future earnings that came to pass because we didn't own the masters. Sometimes your own stupidity .. You know, you pay for your mistakes but sometimes, I guess, you're just plain lucky and we certainly were in this instance. We have tried to use our past as a means of bank rolling our future, and so far, it's worked pretty well for us.