Born to Be Wild

Yes indeed, born to be wild.

Of course, wild could simply mean undomesticated, as in living free, like Elsa, the Lioness.

Or it could mean
nuts, as in the Wild Man of Borneo shaking iron bars furiously, thrashing, gnashing.

Take your pick. I have never believed in the limitation of exclusive disjunctions, so chose both in 1968 and have never looked back.

I still remember hearing Born to Be Wild for the first time in those halcyon days. It was was on the AM car radio while heading to Minneapolis for a day of revelry with my brother. And then a few months later, my long-time school chum Dugg Bedd (so noted for the quality of his telephone pranks played on the high school principal) had purchased Steppenwolf's first album sporting that song. He and I sat enraptured in his tiny bedroom on Donald Street, spinning that platter over and over, introducing us to a whole new world of rock and roll. Music was no longer C-A minor-F-G progressions, but an insistent E-seventh chord with an augmented ninth, and a back beat that so mightily prostrated the prostate.

That's when I discovered the purpose of music is to make you want to take your clothes off, not buy roses and chocolates, or propose marriage. In 1964 the Beatles wanted to hold someone's hand; now, thanks to Steppenwolf, I wanted to hold something else entirely different.

Hedonism at last had an anthem, a rallying call. There is no doubt whatsoever, that Steppenwolf's rendition of Born to Be Wild is flat-out the most important song in my life. You can probably read its influence throughout everything appearing in this memoir. Every sports team has its pep song; I had Born to Be Wild.

I can never hear the tune enough. It's completely economical, precise, brilliant and always stimulates across the entire spectrum, from crotch to cerebrum. Each time I listen, I easily discern how the quirky Rushton Moreve literally transformed bass playing from merely following the chord roots in a pedestrian manner, to stroking the fretboard to eruption. And then, Goldie McJohn, well, did anyone ever massage a Leslie like he did? It just made you want to embrace Dr. Timothy Leary in a hearty how-do-you-do. Or what about Michael Monarch? Can you believe someone that young (17) found the harmony of the spheres on a fuzz box? And then there's John Kay, the singer, rough, gravelly and melodic all in one. But most important, of course, would be Jerry Edmonton, whom I have always considered the finest rock drummer of the ages. He was accurate and exceedingly strong--startling since Jerry was just a little squirt of a guy--but more importantly, he noticed all the empty places between notes and knew how to ignore them like no one else. Modern musicians seem to want to fill time completely with every frequency from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, leaving no gaps, as though troweling spackling compound smoothly over our ears. My love of syncopation, which I define as "knowing what to leave out," comes straight from Jerry Edmonton.

But...but...there's someone missing from this love letter...the unsung hero, I suppose.

And it is: Mars Bonfire.

Mars, the composer of Born to Be Wild, is the one I have always reckoned the finest weaver of rock and roll--how Bob Dylan ever got lumped in that category is beyond me. Since 1970, when I first heard his eponymous album on the underground FM station in Ames (was it WOI?) I knew I had finally found an artist who would make me concentrate. To have written Born to Be Wild would be enough in anyone's book, but virtually every other song he penned (a couple dozen, at least) is a marvel. Moreover, contributing to the world's everyday lexicon is nothing to sniff at. For in fact, Mars gave us the phrase "heavy metal." I just checked the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition (one of the two best dictionaries in the world in my estimation), and yes indeed, there it is: "heavy metal," having been approved by the editors as entering common parlance in 1974. Listen to verse two in the clip below, and you'll hear it being broadcast for the first time in 1968. I defy you to find many other songwriters who leave behind such a legacy in language...

But here's the deal. As good a writer as he was, he was a little weak in hard rock arranging skills, to my mind. So, his own recorded version of Born to Be Wild, while interesting, just doesn't have the punch of what Steppenwolf did with it. Likewise for The Nightime's for You, Faster Than the Speed of Life, Tenderness and Ride With Me Baby. In each of these, we have: Mars Bonfire was by far the better songwriter, but Steppenwolf the more potent arranger. Just my opinion, of course.

Nonetheless, to this day, I still have a vivid recollection of that interminable ride on the Greyhound bus from Minnesota to my hometown for a visit, after my first half-year in banishment, rehearsing Mars' songs over and over in my mind, anticipating my arrival, to see my disappointed mother again, yet dreaming of returning to the bronzed Christy back up on Lake Tetonka. Is it any wonder that Ride With Me Baby and In Christina's Arms occupied me so? And is it a surprise that this time, early summer of 1971, would be when various chord changes became religion to me? Virtually everything I've ever composed on guitar comes straight from the influence of Mars Bonfire.

And my life? Well, at times I feel like my entire life is nothing but a Mars Bonfire song. Especially this year.

Okay, enough of the woolgathering. You no doubt would like some visual aids, or more properly, aural aids. If you've got a modicum of patience and curiosity, then here are a few examples from YouTube to illustrate what I've written of.

First, why not listen to the original version of the song, recorded by the composer himself. I like it, but it's way too cerebral for what the song implies. However, if all I ever wanted to do was think, rather than copulate, then it would be okay.

Next, here is the version, still unequaled in the annals of rock and roll, which made me whatever I may be. I hope you'll do me a personal favor and listen to it again. Maybe even think about how a single song could have so shaped a person.

But a song like this shouldn't be confined to the studio. It needs to be unleashed before living, breathing people, rough around the edges, warts and all. In this rare live performance, Nick St. Nicholas is now on bass, but you can still hear what that young whippersnapper Michael Monarch was capable of on guitar. And this isn't your typical lip-synched crap either.

A song like this is bound to grow. By the 1970s, the group had revised a few of the parts. Many people would consider that heresy, but I was enthralled with what they had pulled off. Be sure to note the new chords immediately before the chorus, and especially the breathtaking conclusion to the song. This is a fine recording, and also shows off Jerry Edmonton; once again, you'll note how he leaves holes where they count. The new guitarist here, nephew of Eddie Cochran (Summertime Blues), could perhaps take a lesson there.

As you may or may not know, Mars Bonfire essentially lived his entire life comfortably off of the proceeds of this single song. By some counts, it has appeared in over 200 movies, television shows, commercials, etc., and of course generated royalties every time it was played in concerts by perhaps thousands of bands over the years. The following ensemble should have been charged double:

Whew! But back to the real deal. As I mentioned, Jerry Edmonton was the drummer's drummer, unequaled. It still pains me that he shuffled off this mortal coil way too early, by a car accident. I found this clip which really demonstrates just how strong and accurate he was. Listen and watch how easily he finds the holes in the beats and dances around them. And those flailing arms! It's amazing. Moreover, that's Rushton Moreve on bass, making this a very rare video indeed. He, too, died young. Had he lived on, I believe he would have become the bass player to fear. And, of course, we have him to thank for Magic Carpet Ride, another of those "let's get on all fours and behave like animals" type songs. By the way, the audio here is a trifle distorted, but is worth putting up with. I'm always willing to tolerate pre-digital coarseness myself if it means avoiding the dubbed rubbish of Hullabaloo.

I really hoped you watched Jerry and Rushton in that. Just keep in mind what they were doing back when rock had barely left the Louie, Louie days.

And this'll amaze you! Here, in the next clip which I found just tonight, is the original grouping that would eventually become Steppenwolf. Calling themselves Jack London and the Sparrows out of Toronto, you won't believe how they changed so much in just three or four short years. Note that this assemblage had Mars Bonfire on guitar, Jerry Edmonton on drums and Nick St. Nicholas on bass. (Mars and Jerry were brothers, by the way.)  If you listen carefully, you can hear some of Mars' trademarked guitar chord technique. Thank Gauss they booted London out and revised their material. Sounds kind of like how the East Side Pharaohs got started, doesn't it?

But wait, we just have to let Mars talk a little himself in a short interview.

In 2015, Mars was recognized by the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) with its Cultural Impact Award. Here he is at the awards ceremony. Mars Bonfire, besides his amazing talent for crafting stories in song, also just seems like the nicest guy around.

 You'll just never know what he and his song have meant to me. Try to visualize a scrawny punk, with mutton chops and lengthy hair, in a filthy Army jacket, riding a dreary bus southward, considering chord changes mentally, over and over...a couple years later it all became, Born to be Wilde.

Next installment: God and the Marital Arts

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