Thursday, October 23, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 296): "DESPERATION" (1968) Steppenwolf

Reaching back to the dawn of time today. Well, not really. There have been plenty songs on here earlier than this one, but I date my awareness of rock from my awareness of the first Steppenwolf album, which my older brother—15 at the time—brought into the house because he knew of two tracks on there from the hot film of the year, Easy Rider (1969): “The Pusher” and “Born to Be Wild.” The first was written by Hoyt Axton, not a member of the band, and the second was written by “Mars Bonfire” (how’s that for a name?), the nom de plume of Dennis Edmonton, brother of the band’s drummer.

“Born to Be Wild” was a big hit and became the trademark Steppenwolf song and a must-have for my brother who was mad about motorcycles at the time. He went through a major “Easy Rider” phase there and of course the druggy lifestyle therein depicted left its mark, though of course “The Pusher” takes a very dim view of those who traffic in hard drugs. Still, it was a taboo song—we could only play it when my mom wasn’t home because she would pitch a fit at all that “God damn, God damn the Pusher.” I still remember clearly one such time—with all the lights in the house out and the volume cranked. It’s an eerie-sounding song anyway, with that slow-sliding guitar nosing its way in.

Anyway, I remember getting sorta fixated on the cover of this album, with that shiny tin-foil look and the guys in their Nehru jackets and that huge cannabis plant behind them. Liked the font of the name of the band/album and its oddity too. Steppenwolf. Later I would know the book well and know the name meant “a wolf of the Steppes.” But back then, it was just one of those things you accepted since band names could be pretty odd. John Kay, the gruff-voiced singer, was unmistakeable and I loved the playing of the Hammond organ guy Goldy McJohn (the dude with the afro). I guess that was probably my introduction to that instrument and its sound. On today’s song it does much to create that dark calliope feel that I like so much. 

The song is not one of the better-known Steppenwolf tracks, but it was written by Kay and it epitomized the album to me. “Born to Be Wild” was clearly a radio song, and “The Pusher” so clearly couldn’t be played on the radio, but “Desperation” was the kind of song that was growing on me in those days. Melancholy, longish—at +5 minutes it seemed epic in a time of radio songs under 3 minutes. This was before I got to know Dylan’s lengthy tracks. The hero of endless songs, of course, was “In-a-Gadd-da-Vida,” but let’s not go there. But me, already a fancier of the “night’s Plutonian shore” with my man Poe, couldn’t resist an opening like: “When raindrops fall and you feel low / Ah, do you ever think it’s useless / Do you feel like letting go?” Yeah, pretty much.

I like the tremor in Kay’s voice on this track, he’s got the feeling of blues mourning. And the song suits the gloomy tact the days have taken this week in CT, with October showing the dark assault of autumn. A song like this is deep in me blood.  Its shifting sounds, with guitar twang, and melodic bass and that organ, that blend into something called “hard rock,” proto-Heavy Metal (which took its name from “Born to Be Wild”’s “heavy metal thunder”). Steppenwolf were plenty heavy for 1969, when I first heard this record. They became my favorite album band for awhile there, up through Steppenwolf 7 (1971), not that I knew all that much at the time—hadn’t heard The Doors albums or Velvet Underground, for instance. I’m still partial to “Monster,” the song, though I know it’s not favored with rock critics. Steppenwolf, because they were heavy, were preferable to more highly praised acts I found more insipid, like Crosby, Stills & Nash or The Byrds, when they tried to go “acid rock.” Or even the political Jefferson Airplane.

The lyrics—“take my hand if you don’t know where you’re going / I’ll understand, I’ve lost the way myself”—had a brave desperation, indeed, even if it seems too emo-teen. “Don’t take that older road, it leads to nowhere.” I suspect Kay knew his Dylan and was trying to write a song for the despondent among the youth of the time. “It’s so easy to do nothing when you’re busy night and day.” Kay had his moments in denouncing the country and the times in general. “The Ostrich,” the closing track of the album, paints a sneering picture of how little anyone is doing to right the wrongs of the day, and “Monster” asks what became of America. A question that never ceases to be relevant.

And on today’s song those full-throated cries of “Don’t look back, or you’ll be left behind / Don’t look back, or you will never find peace of mind.” Don’t look back—the title of the film made about Dylan’s tour of 1965 in England, the exhortation that says time runs one way and the times they are a-changing so fast you don’t want to be left behind. And, of course, it’s the exhortation to Lot and his wife upon leaving Sodom and Gomorrah behind, and of course it’s the exhortation to Orpheus when leading Eurydice out of Hades. Don’t look back—bad shit will happen if you do. Everybody now: eyes front.

Tell me why no one can seem to learn from mistakes

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