Retrospective: John Kay and Steppenwolf

For no particular reason, I occasionally come upon a very interesting person not many know much about. Sitting at my computer working on something else and playing from my collection of 60’s songs, one popped up I had never heard before and the lyrics caught my attention.

Rock music is not usually noted for insightful lyrics. It’s unusual for rock lyrics to do much else but rhyme with the pentatonic scale. If you want discerning lyrics, you switch to Bobby Dylan. Rock is not a medium of libretto. It is a medium of rebellion and insurgence. It’s loud, raucous and in your face. The music is written to pull at the right heartstrings, the lyrics are added later. This was true for McCartney and Lennon. They hummed a tune to each other, then wrote the words to fit. Elton John played the chords and Bernie Taupin fit the lyrics. The list goes on.

john-kayThe band was named after the novel Der Steppenwolf by German author Hermann Hesse. Lead singer John Kay is an interesting outlier in some, not all of his writing. Real name Joachim Fritz Krauledat, age now 72, was born in East Prussia, Germany, in 1944 (now part of  Russia).  Another interesting facet- John was born with a rare ocular anomaly, achromatopsia – complete color blindness – a defect of the cone cells in the eyes which causes him to see only with his rod cells and thus only in black and white and grey shades.  He has no concept of color, and this disorder also causes increased sensitivity to light so he usually wears sunglasses, not as a fashion statement. Technically, he’s legally blind.

The band Steppenwolf’s glory days were 1968 – 72. They sold 25 million records and had eight gold albums. Like many bands of the time, they couldn’t get along with each other and after 1972 they never ascended to former glory. Many critics think they broke up at the top of their game.

But John Kay was a very interesting songwriter. He was unique in the field of most of them in that he was able to fit meaningful, intelligent lyrics into the more-or-less usual rock melodies. He had a penchant for describing the drug habits of his era in very vivid language. He didn’t hold back much. Some of his lyrics are brutal and uncompromising. Give a look briefly.

“Stoned on some new potion he found upon the wall

Of some unholy bathroom in some ungodly hall

He only had a dollar to live on ’til next Monday

But he spent it on some comfort for his mind

He said he wanted Heaven but prayin’ was too slow

So he bought a one-way ticket on an airline made of snow”

I think he’s most famous for the “The Pusher”, actually written by Hoyt Axton in 1968 and featured in the classic film “Easy Rider” in 1969. The lyrics of the song distinguish between a “dealer” in drugs such as marijuana—who “will sell you lots of sweet dreams”—and a “pusher” of heroin- a “monster” who doesn’t care if you live or if you die”. The song is fitted to a rather funereal chord progression of E7 – Dm7 – A7 – F#7 that drones on as Kay “sings” (closer to melodic talking) the verbiage. It’s pretty raw, quite so for 1968. It’s a very interesting song, give it a listen.

“Well, now if I were president of this land

You know, I’d declare total war on the pusher man

I’d cut if he stands,

And I’d shoot him if he’d run

Yes, I’d kill him with my Bible

And my razor and my gun.

God damn, the pusher

I said God damn, God damn the pusher man”.

Several members of the original band still play occasionally on the nostalgia circuit.



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