Saturday, May 20, 2017

Renegade, then and now

I got a note from John Kay yesterday.

In case that name isn't familiar to you, he created and lead the group Steppenwolf, which was a dominant force in rock in the late 60's and early 70s.  I was a huge fan back then. I remember dancing to the albums with my eyes closed. Couldn't have been a pretty sight.

They were unconventional even for the time. Two of their biggest hits were anti-hard drug songs penned by Hoyt Axton: “The Pusher” and “Snow Blind Friend.”

And then, in 1970,  'Renegade.' 

It tells John Kay's story. He was born in Tilsit, along the Baltic Coast in 1944. The area had been annexed by the Nazis in 1939; when that regime was collapsing, with the Red Army rolling in, infant John and his mother were two of the thousands of refugees who fled to the west. Unfortunately for them, they landed in what later became East Germany, in Arnstadt, and had to run again, escaping to West Germany in 1948.

The first two verses (transcribed here in paragraph form) tell the story:

My birthplace would be hard to find; it changed so many times, I'm not sure where it belongs. But they tell me the Baltic coast is full of amber, and the land was green before the tanks came. One day I learned just how it used to be: the devil's curse brought the whole world to its' knees.
And it was "Hey you, keep your head down, don't you look around, please don't make a sound! If they should find you now the Man will shoot you down."

It's a mighty long way out of the darkness to where the sun is free to shine. Well, the truck came by to put us in the back, and left us where the railroad tracks cross the line. Then the border guide took us by the hand, and led us through the hole into the promised land beyond. And I can hear him now, whispering soft and low, "When you get to the other side just you run like hell!”
"Hey you, keep your head down, don't you look around, please don't make a sound! If they should find you now the Man will shoot you down."

As a boy in Hanover, West Germany, he learned about rock and roll, listening to the British Forces Broadcasting Service before moving to Canada at age 14. In 1967, at age 23, he and his band moved to California, and became Steppenwolf. They achieved commercial success; two of their songs 'Born to be Wild' and 'The Pusher' featured in the 1969 movie 'Easy Rider.' They appeared with the Doors, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Canned Heat, and many other headliners of the era. So, a happy ending, right? Well, mostly, but:

But for the young man who had literally risked his life to escape to freedom, TWICE, the violent politics of the time was sickening. Those of us who were sentient at the time remember the cities burning; the assassinations of King and Kennedy; the protesters brawling with the cops at the Democratic National Convention, while the crowds chanted “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.”

He must have thought we had lost our minds. And he wrote a third verse to his song:

I thought I had a quiet place where I could learn how to catch my childhood dreams; but on my left and to my right they keep on shouting, while I'm just stuck here in between. Lord! I'm tired of running and I don't believe I can; I can hear them calling time and time again: 
And it's "Hey you, keep your head down, don't you look around, please don't make a sound! If they should find you now the Man will shoot you down."

Now, on this lovely spring day in Georgia in 2017, I don't THINK we are in the same place that we were in 1968. But I think it's just a matter of intensity. The division between people is every bit as deep as it was when John Kay wrote this song about his experiences. So, the responsibility is mine to teach my children what is important, and what we have to lose.

So, on weekday mornings, my 12 year old Kenneth and I spend an hour before school, studying the ancient wisdom in Proverbs, and discussing how those apply to our lives today. After setting an example by the way I live, it's the most important thing I do.  And one day last week, I started by printing him a copy of the lyrics so he could read along as he listened to the song. I showed him on our world map where the Baltic is, and about where Arnstadt is, to bring him closer to the story. I told him about my own experience in the Army in Germany, crossing over through Checkpoints Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie, to go from West Germany into West Berlin and East Berlin. I told him about the Berlin Airlift. And I showed him pictures of the Berlin Wall, and how it finally came down.

John Kay's story had an impact on my boy. I could tell by the questions he asked; his nephew Trey is a bit older than Kay was the first time had to run; his nephew Heath is the age Kay was when they finally reached West Germany.

And then I applied the lesson of the third verse to his life. “Kenneth, today and for the rest of your life, you are going to have people on the left and on the right shouting at you, and you are going to be stuck in between. Don't give up! You find the truth, and you hold on to it. It won't be easy, but it's worth fighting for. And you can help to make this world a place where mothers never have to run away with their little boys, in the freezing cold, just so they can be safe.”

 He got it. (I love it when it works.)

And then, riding the crest of the wave of a successful Teachable Moment, I wrote a few lines about that morning's experience; and I submitted them to the 'CONTACT' link on the Steppenwolf website. I didn't really expect anything in particular; it's just that I owed a debt of thanks, and I wanted to do my best to pay it back. And I went about my day.

Until yesterday, when I get an email out of the blue:

Pat, I've forwarded your email to John Kay and here is his response:  "Please tell Papa Pat that I found his note and what he does, very rewarding as a song writer. But I also found it quite moving. I will keep his note as a reminder that music can make a difference in our lives".

WOW. Naturally, I responded, and they responded to that, and then, out of the blue, I'm given four tickets to a Steppenwolf concert this summer near Atlanta.

What's our takeaway?

Well, it's not 'honor rock and roll musicians.' John Kay is just this guy, right? Incredibly talented, true, but mostly he finds purpose in his family, and their foundation supporting human rights and protection of wildlife and the environment.
I THINK the takeaway, for me at least, is don't miss an opportunity to say 'thank you.'  You never know who it might bless.

And if you wind up with tickets to a rock concert, that's gravy!


  1. Congratulations on getting your twelve year son engaged! It's not an easy task. The lesson will stay with him throughout his life. You are setting a good example by expressing gratitude without expectations. John Kay's responses speak to the kind of person he is. Hope everyone enjoyed the concert!

  2. Thank you for that. I knew about Kay's past and wondered what happened to him. The first dance I went to, the band played Born to be Wild, that would have been about 1970. One of the first records I bought was Magic Carpet Ride. My son actually just did a quick tour of the Baltic. Keep strong.