By David DeRocco
Wild things are meant to stay wild, free to roam and wander until Father Time and Mother Earth conspire to turn them to dust. For a rock band that has made “Born to be Wild” their anthem for more than four decades, Steppenwolf is far from ready to be regulated to the dust bin of rock history. In fact, after the band’s tumultuous first decade and a revolving-door line-up that still managed to produce eight gold records, Steppenwolf in its current incarnation has been enjoying a peaceful magic carpet ride for over two decades now. It’s something long time drummer Ron Hurst equates to one simple fact.
“The quick answer is, we like each other,” laughs Hurst, who came into the fold in 1985 at the invitation of keyboardist and friend Mike Wilk. “We all get along. And that’s relevant in keeping a band together. We’re all friends offstage as well as onstage; we have a lot of respect for each other.”
The Steppenwolf line-up heading to the Fallsview Casino’s Avalon Ballroom – founding member John Kay, lead guitarist Danny Johnson, bassist Gary Link, Wilk and Hurst – has managed to do something the original line-up couldn’t – bring long-term stability to a band that achieved international superstardom almost in spite of itself. A Canadian/American hybrid formed in 1967 in Toronto by Kay and original members Goldy McJohn and drummer Jerry Edmonton, Steppenwolf went on to sell over 30 million records worldwide, landing 12 Billboard Hot 100 singles, six Top 40 hits, three Top 10 singles and recording arguably one of the greatest rock songs of all time, Born To Be Wild. That success couldn’t keep the band from imploding several times, including a stretch from ’77 through ’80 where multiple versions of Steppenwolf were on the road without having Kay in the line-up.
It’s a testament to the quality of the music, however, that Steppenwolf has remained a viable touring act nearly forty years later. The band’s particular brand of “heavy metal thunder” has produced such rock classics as “The Pusher,” “Sookie Sookie,” “The Monster” and “Rock Me,” songs that transcend generations and radio formats while keeping fans of all ages coming out to see the band perform them. That fan loyalty does not go unnoticed by Kay and his “wolf-pack” according to Hurst.
“I think the fact that we’re still out there is directly related to the fans and all the people who come to see us,” he says. “In that respect, we appreciate the fans at this age, our fans are getting older. Those (fans) that come out to see us certainly appreciate the music.”
Where Hurst feels Steppenwolf may not be getting its proper due for the influence it’s had over the years is with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whose inductees include ABBA, the Bee Gees and Madonna – but not Steppenwolf. Like Rush and Kiss before them, Steppenwolf is just another rock band at the mercy of a truly misguided selection committee.
“I still scratch my head and wonder about this whole Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing a little bit. I’ve seen many many bands, newer bands, get in. And yet John Kay and Steppenwolf, the band, is not in yet, despite recording songs like Born to Be Wild and Magic Carpet Ride? I’ve seen both those songs in radio polls of the Top 25 songs of all time. They’ve grown beyond songs; they’re institutions, a way of life. So I’m a little perplexed why the band isn’t in.”
Regardless of the slight from the Hall, at this stage of their career Hurst says all the band members have a much deeper appreciation for playing music then they had as young musicians. Part of that appreciation comes from the simple fact they’ve survived in an industry where careers – and people – can often disappear far too quickly.
“We’re all just stoked to play,” says Hurst, who spends his time away from the band teaching music in his home studio in Oregon. “We love to play. And a lot of it’s a mindset. You simply enjoy playing. Being younger, you almost felt a form of entitlement. You’d get out to play, travel, perform a hundred or more shows a year and the audiences would always be there. That’s the way it was. Now, as you get a little older, you realize how many rock groups are no longer around or have original members. I think the only one that comes to mind is Aerosmith with all five original members. A lot of our contemporaries we grew up with and toured with are no longer there. Band members have left or deceased. You see that and all of a sudden you get a sense of appreciation. It isn’t this entitlement anymore; you’re very grateful that you have the physical ability to go out and do it, and also have fans who appreciate your music and come out to see you. That’s a game changer as you get older – you have a lot more gratitude.”
With John Kay and Steppenwolf in “semi-retired” mode, playing only a dozen shows a year, Hurst says Kay has found a second calling as the head of the MaueKay Foundation (www.mauekay.org), a non-profit organization he founded in 2004 with Jutta Maue Kay. The Foundation supports individuals and organizations engaged in the protection of wildlife, the environment and human rights. “He’s very hands on, always travelling, doing excellent work globally. I think the planet could use a whole lot more of John Kay,” says Hurst.
It’s a noble cause from a rock icon known for taking up causes, one that will only add to the legacy of the band and its founder. If John were asked to comment on the legacy he’s helped create with Steppenwolf, what might he say? Hurst offers this insight into his friend and band mate.
“I think John’s very aware of his musical journey and the impact he’s left. He goes out now and he sees it in the audience. And I think he appreciates it as well and enjoys it. I think he’s consciously aware of that, as we all are. Yet again, to have the ability to take some of that legacy and share it with those who want to come and see us is a blessing.”
John Kay and Steppenwolf perform Friday June 5 and Saturday June 6 at the Avalon Ballroom.