Saturday, March 06, 2010

Magic Carpet Ride – John Kay & John Einarson

After reading a couple of very short biographies, John Kay’s book seems far more detailed, though still not daunting at all, at just over 350 pages.

Starting with his childhood in East Prussia, John has a dramatic tale to tell of escaping from the Communist controlled East to West Germany, literally under a hail of bullets. This story is also recounted in his harrowing song, “Renegade”. Eventually, his mother and step-father (his biological father died in the war before he was born and Kay seems to idolize him) emigrated to Toronto, Canada, where he grows into a r’n’r obsessed teen.

Funnily, his descriptions of his high school days in the late 50’s/early 60’s exactly mirror mine from the late 60’s/early 70’s. He rebels against the clean-cuts jocks, squares and cheerleaders who are the majority and who are trying painfully to fit in. John was a misfit in many ways – he was just learning English, he was legally blind (as I am without corrective lens) and his music was his life, instead of sports or other, more respectable, passions.

Of course, music gave him a place to fit in and find new friends. He played folk music by himself and sat in with band projects as he moved from Toronto to Buffalo to LA and back to Toronto where he joined The Sparrow(s), the nucleus for Steppenwolf. After several near-misses with record contracts, the band splintered and was re-born with a couple of new members as Steppenwolf.

Kay talks of the recordings, the highs and the lows, the personnel changes, the fights, the marriage troubles and everything else that goes into the life of a r’n’r star. It sounds like it was a terrifically exciting time, but, as always, stressful to try to keep record companies, families, audiences and band members happy all at the same time.

Of course, it eventually fell apart, people went on their own solo careers, there were reunions and unlawful uses of the Steppenwolf name and all the usual accusations and recriminations. A couple of ex-members started using the name in the 80’s, which pissed off Kay and he went out with his own completely new congregation and played club dates until he drove the usurpers out of business. Ironically, after viciously railing against his ex-members using the band name, he credits his next level of success due to a tour with a group calling itself the Guess Who, which consisted only of the bassist from the actual band!

Defying all of the odds, Kay is still a reasonably successful touring artist and continues to record, as well. He is happily married to the woman he met before his Steppenwolf success and has a good home and family. While he may no longer be a “bad boy” of rock, he has maintained a career through 6 decades (!) and remains rightfully proud of his achievements. As he said in “Tighten Up Your Wig”, “may he play forever more”.