The year was 1968. The nation was rumbling. War. Riots. Free love. And music, always music. Folk rock. Motown. And then there was this song. It began with a churning electric guitar, a locomotive sound that dug straight into your belly. You found yourself reaching for handlebars, gunning your engine. Then a growling voice came through the speakers. “Get your motor runnin’ . . . Get out on the highway . . . Looking for adventure . . . in whatever comes our way . . . “
The name of the song was “Born To Be Wild.” It was done by the group Steppenwolf, a collection of long-haired tough guys whom your mother definitely didn’t want over to the house. The record was a big seller, and in the years that followed, it became even bigger, an anthem, the rebellious howl of the ’60s. It has been used in countless TV shows and movies, including, of course, “Easy Rider,” which forever linked it with the open highway, wind in your face, the search for yourself. Freedom. Get your motor runnin’ . . .
I had the record in 1968. It was cool to own. And Steppenwolf, which would record eight gold albums, was cool as well, beyond the Monkees, the Rascals, even, in some ways, beyond the Beatles. Their lead singer, John Kay, was born in East Germany and escaped as a child. He wore leather pants and sunglasses and sounded like the devil. Their album covers suggested drugs, dirt, rebellion. Steppenwolf was dangerous — which of course is what attracted us teenagers.
So when I heard that John Kay and Steppenwolf were playing last week at a local club called Key West — 22 years after “Born To Be Wild” was released
— I got curious. Who is their audience now? And did that song still move people? I made a few phone calls. Soon, I was knocking on a door at the Holiday Inn in Southfield. It was John Kay’s room. Writer was no rebel
“I didn’t write ‘Born To Be Wild,’ you know,” said Kay, 46, as he sat in a chair and propped his feet up on the bed. “It was written by Mars Bonfire, the
guitarist in my old band. It was the only hit he ever wrote. He actually recorded it himself once, in a slow, acoustic version. It never caught on.
“Then Steppenwolf recorded it. The record company thought it would be the
‘B’ side of another record, but radio stations started playing it and it took off. Now it’s become this huge anthem for rebellion.
“The funny thing is, Mars, who wrote it, was very straight. He never got into the ’60s. Never grew his hair long or anything.”
Kay grinned. He still has the long hair, the lean body, the devious eyes. For the past 10 years, in countless clubs and bars, he has been singing with a rejuvenated Steppenwolf, old and new songs, and those lyrics: Get your motor runnin’ . . . He says the opening chords still set off “a religious fervor.” One time in Cleveland, a Hells Angel rolled his motorcycle inside the club, and raced back and forth while Kay sang “Born To Be Wild,” gunning his engine at just the right moments.
Why has the song held up so well?
“For one thing, it’s not about incense and peppermints, or feeling groovy. It’s about the open road; it’s about rebellion. Just like rock and roll has always been. People can relate.
“Today, half our audience is older fans, the other half are their younger siblings or their children. We’ll have teenagers come up and say, ‘My daddy plays your records. They’re, like, really cool.’ “
I thought about kids today, full of skateboards and Ninja Turtles. “Is anyone born to be wild anymore?” I asked John Kay.
He laughed. “When you’re 14, you always think you’re born to be wild.” He’s in it for the music
At the club Friday night, the crowd was indeed a mix of old and young. They pushed to the stage when Kay sang. His voice is still a mean growl, like the old days, but clearly, these are not the old days. Back then, Steppenwolf played 20,000-seat arenas. They traveled by limo. Now they have a bus. They stay in Holiday Inns. Said Kay: “You ask yourself, did I get into this for the Lear jets or for the music? The answer is the music.”
And so the music lives. And people still yell for that song. Kay did tunes from Steppenwolf’s new album “Rise and Shine.” He mixed in old material, such as “Magic Carpet Ride.” And then, the finale. The churning guitars. The thumping bass. “Get your motor runnin’ . . . And indeed, the crowd leapt to its feet. People roared. They sang along with the chorus: “Born to be Wiiild
. . . “
I thought about the summer of ’68. I thought about how cool we felt back then, playing our Steppenwolf albums and dreaming of the day we’d get our wheels. Later, I asked Kay whether he still owns a motorcycle.
“I never did,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I have a problem with my eyes.”
“You never drove a motorcycle?”
“I’ve never had a driver’s license.”
We really are growing up, aren’t we?