The universal biker anthem “Born to Be Wild” celebrates 40 years of rabble-rousing!
Our exclusive interview with Steppenwolf keyboard wizard Michael Wilk
by Todd K Smith
In motorcycle circles a solo rider, separating himself from others and often searching for adventure on his own is called a lone wolf. How appropriate, that at age 65, John Kay, the founder and vocalist of Steppenwolf, epitomizes that declaration. Born Joachim Fritz Krauledat in Germany (1944) during the volatile close of World War II to a Prussian mother and German father, his was a life one of instant hardship. His father was killed during the Soviet invasion within a year after his birth so, with his mother, Joachim was forced to flee from city to city finally settling in Hanover. Living conditions and health standards were poor. Joachim suffered from severe eyesight trouble from an early age, but found solace in the evening music broadcasts of the BBC. At 14, Joachim and his mother immigrated to Toronto where, within five years, the teenager changed his name to John Kay and joined his first band, The Sparrows.
The Sparrows were brothers Dennis and Jerry Edmonton, singer Kay, flamboyant bassist Nick St. Nicholas and later keyboardist Goldy McJohn. They had mild success in Canada and New York City, but by 1966 they decided to relocate to Los Angeles then San Francisco. The band shared the stage with The Doors, The Steve Miller Band, The Youngbloods and Moby Grape. Half the band eventually became unsatisfied with their direction and split back to Canada. Kay remained in LA with Goldy McJohn, new guitarist Michael Monarch and drummer Jerry Edmonton. Reforming as Steppenwolf, after Hermann Hesse’s novel of the same name, they revisited old Sparrows tunes for a new recording contract and one in particular by ex-bandmate Dennis (Mars Bonfire) called “Born to Be Wild.”
“Born” was left over from The Sparrows,” says current Steppenwolf keyboardist Michael Wilk just hours before their show for Street Vibrations in Reno, NV 2009. “It was on their first record and pegged as a single but didn’t catch fire right away. It wasn’t until they added it to the Easy Rider soundtrack (starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson) that it popped. I don’t know if it was the song or the movie, maybe the two together that created the cultural phenomenon.” The counterculture film is said to have been a “touchstone for a generation” that “captured national imagination.” For its part, “Born to Be Wild” and the lyric “heavy metal thunder” launched a new genre in hard rock. Rolling Stone placed the song #129 on the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Another song became equally significant. “John was working in the kitchen at Doug Weston’s Troubadour in the late sixties,” says Wilk. “The owner would let him sit in and perform with other musicians between shifts. One day Hoyt Axton, a then unknown songwriter, came in and he and John started jamming. Hoyt had this song called ‘The Pusher’ and let John rough it up a bit on their first record.” Those two songs gave Steppenwolf their image and bought their meal ticket from then on. “Yeah, we’ve been playing for motorcycle enthusiasts for years because of ‘Born to Be Wild’ and ‘The Pusher,” continues Wilk. “It’s been quite a thrill ride. We started with Sturgis years ago when those guys were snortin’ crank off the end of a buck-knife. It was rough and tumble. But with the biker crowd, money is no object they always pay.”
More hits came including “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Rock Me” but it was the controversial, politically-charged Monster (1969) and 7 (1970) which assaulted Nixon-era policies that fully captured the attitude of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. “John broke the band up in ’74,” says Wilk. “He was changing members regularly, he’d been burned by some of the guys and I think he wanted to pursue a solo career.” The breakup lasted one year. Demand pushed the group to reform, and then they disbanded again in 1976. Old members put their own version together and booked tours. “That really pissed John off,” says Wilk. “By 1980 he had to put the band back together again just to save the name. There were lawsuits and everything, but eventually John got the name back.”
“I was part of the 1980s reformation,” continues Wilk. “It was me, guitarist Michael Palmer, bassist Gary Link and later my high school friend Ron Hurst on drums. We went through several ‘big name’ guitar players like Rocket Richotte (Cher, David Lee Roth), Les Dudek (Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs), and Steve Fister (Lita Ford) before Danny Johnson (Derringer, Alcatrazz, Alice Cooper) joined in 1996.” Wilk came to Steppenwolf through their then current keyboardist Brent Tuggle who left to play with Rick Springfield. “I auditioned like everyone else,” says Wilk. “I’d played with Roger Voudouris, Billy Burnette and the guys in Fleetwood Mac. John liked my playing and that I could handle the Hammond which is a critical part of the Steppenwolf sound.”
Through the first seven albums of Steppenwolf’s legacy, the keyboard, specifically the Hammond through the Leslie cabinet was an essential part of their sound. It was what gave the band a garage texture with melodic warmth; it also dated the music as unique to the era. “I was trained as an accordion player by the Sam Falcetti,” says Boston-native Wilk. “I studied piano and organ in college and got a degree in Music Theory from Hartt College at the University of Hartford. Then it was off to LA where I earned my chops as a session guy. I ended up playing hotels across the country. At a gig in Sacramento, CA I ran into Roger Voudouris who had a hit “Get Used To It” with Radio Dream (1978) he needed a keyboard guy that knew his way around a synthesizer.”
While based out of LA, Wilk got first-hand training from producer, engineer and mixer George Massenburg (Billy Joel, Journey, and Toto) which included the beginning of parametric equalization. “My first real album with Steppenwolf was Paradox (1984) [although he did appear on the cover of Wolf Tracks (1982) - ed], but my favorite record we did together was Rise & Shine (1990).” The group haven’t released a set of new songs since Feed The Fire (1996) and probably won’t according to Wilk. “Only live DVDs from now on,” he says. “John’s 65 this year. He only does about ten dates a year. His real interest now is the Maue Kay Foundation he started with his wife Jutta focusing on human and animal rights as well as the environment. He takes no money for the gigs; he donates it all to the foundation.”
With only a handful of dates a year, Steppenwolf still continue to draw large crowds. They can be seen playing with ZZ Top, Foghat, Blue Oyster Cult and Pat Travers. An integral part of their live show is an interactive screen presentation created by Wilk that merges video, photo stills and archive footage with the band’s live set. Two years in the making, it allows the audience to see and hear an intimate history of the band and its music. Two segments are particularly poignant. First, is film footage of Kay playing “Snowblind Friend” in the studio around 1970. The film cuts away to show Kay today with seamless transition and voice. The second is the Vietnam collage of “Monster” and the political charge behind it. The band stretches it into a 10-minute jam, a rollercoaster ride of emotion.
As for Michael Wilk, “Danny and I are playing with Rick Derringer in the off season,” he says. “We also have The Wolf Tribe with Danny (Johnson) and drummer Jeff Bradshaw.” However, for at least the next five years, Steppenwolf will be out on the road growling “Born to Be Wild” to an enthusiastic generation dedicated to their icon. “It’s John’s baby,” says Wilk. “He nursed it, brought it back to life and gave it credibility. All the credit really belongs to him.”