By STEVE SEYMOUR
Sometimes the best comes to those who wait. For me hearing a rock anthem on the radio and meeting the man who sang it took almost four decades. But, before I tell you how it happened you need to know a few details.
For rock 'n' rollers in 1968, Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild" howled out of the speakers like Peter Fonda's California-style chopper flew down the highway in the classic film "Easy Rider." The song, bringing "heavy metal thunder" to a rebellious generation, powered into the number two position on the Billboard Magazine top singles chart, and brought the band international success.
It was written by Dennis Edmonton, brother of Steppenwolf drummer Jerry Edmonton, under his stage name, Mars Bonfire.
Next came "The Pusher," an anti-drug song, followed by the number three smash, "Magic Carpet Ride."
Steppenwolf, fronted by lead vocalist John Kay (born Joachim Krauledat), was off to a flying start for a band founded in Los Angeles just a year before. "Rock Me," became the band's final Top Ten single in 1969. But, the LP's kept coming and they always included some musical gems to satisfy the band's rabid fan base. "Live," a double-disc set, appeared in 1971. The album showcased ferocious versions of "Sookie Sookie," "Hey Lawdy Mama," and eleven other hard rock movers. I loved it.
Despite their success, Steppenwolf broke up on Valentines Day 1972, reformed, but disbanded again. They even had a well-received "farewell tour" of Europe in 1974. By the early 1980s, Kay formed a new version of the band and went on tour as John Kay and Steppenwolf. FM radio continued to broadcast old Steppenwolf classics in heavy rotation, a signal for listeners to turn up the volume. "Born to be Wild," reappeared often in movie soundtracks as the years rolled along.
Steppenwolf, with Kay as the only original member, toured heavily, even playing a double bill with David Lee Roth at the Upper Peninsula State Fair in Escanaba. The band last played this area on Oct. 7 & 8, 2005 at the Island Resort & Casino.
But, as the group's 40th anniversary approached, Kay announced that a series of 2007 dates would be the band's farewell tour. At age 62, he was ready to put the Steppenwolf name to rest.Promotional spots on local radio reminded listeners that Steppenwolf's shows at Harris were the final opportunities to see the band perform live. I snapped up a pair of third row tickets for my wife Sue and myself for the Saturday, Mar.10 show.
Once again I'd waited to see a rock icon by telling myself there was always next time. To make up for my procrastination, I went all out and joined the fan club, the first time I'd become an "official" fan of anybody in my life. Within a few days I received my Wolfpack Fan Club packet. It included a T-shirt, color photo autographed by Kay, along with keyboard player and bassist Michael Wilk, lead guitarist Danny Johnson and drummer Ron Hurst, bumper stickers and some other goodies. But, best of all was the laminated fan club membership card.
That's because that card would get me backstage to meet the band, including the legendary John Kay, after the show.
But, first came the farewell concert.
Kay kicked off the show centerstage with "Move Over," including the poignant chorus, "Yesterday's glory won't help us today, you wanna retire, get out of the way." Then he addressed the fans, "It's good to see you, but I don't really see you. It's good to hear you," said Kay.
Kay's veteran band ran through the Steppenwolf catalog, including his solo hit, "I'm Movin' On," and a crowd pleasing rendition of Muddy's Waters' "Hoochie Coochie Man," which Kay recalled from his early days as a musician in Canada. They kicked it into high gear toward the end of the 90-minute set with rousing versions of "Magic Carpet Ride," "Born to be Wild," and "The Pusher."
But for me, the most exciting part of the evening was yet to come. As the crowd left the theater, I stayed behind with my guest pass, along with a few other people, including Steve Bozarth of Escanaba. We agreed to snap one another's photo with the band.
STEPPENWOLF AND ME
Kay and his bandmates soon appeared. The amiable Kay signed my copy of an old record called "Steppenwolf, Rest in Peace, 1967-72," saying "Oh, I remember this one." We chatted a little, shook hands and Bozarth took a few pictures. The band seemed quite genuine in enjoying the meet and greet with fans, even if it only lasted half an hour or so. I left with a smile on my face as Kay disappeared down the hall.
Next month, Steppenwolf will fly to New Zealand for two shows there, while the tour likely will end this fall with North American dates.
Tour manager Charlie Wolf , born in Coloma, Mich., described Steppenwolf's 40-year career as "one helluva ride." He told me Kay "works out several times and week and is in great shape both mentally and physically. We joke by saying 'he's the only remaining classic rock 'n' roller with a waistline.'"
Hopefully, the fit Kay will enjoy his retirement. In his lengthy career, he has kept true to himself and his musical vision, bringing joy to millions of fans.What a wonderful legacy.
I'm glad I was along for the ride.
JOHN KAY IN ACTION
STEPPENWOLF'S FINAL SET LIST
1. Move Over
2. Rock 'N' Roll Rebels
3. Rock Me
4. I'm Movin' On
5. I Will Not Be Denied
6. Hey Lawdy Mama
7. Hold On
8. Ride With Me
9. Screaming Night Hog
10. Hoochie Coochie Man
11. Snowblind Friend
13. Rise and Shine
14. Magic Carpet Ride
15. Born To Be Wild
16. The Pusher (encore)