Steppenwolf more than a band to these veterans
By Michael Miller | Daily Pilot, Costa Mesa, Calif. | Published: July 23, 2014
COSTA MESA, Calif. — In 1969, John Kay was on a ride with Steppenwolf. And so was Don Clark.
Kay's ride was one that much of America shared vicariously. When Dennis Hopper's seminal biker movie "Easy Rider" hit theaters, it sported Steppenwolf's hit "Born to Be Wild" on the soundtrack, and the song, sung by Kay, fused with the image of actors Hopper and Peter Fonda to create a counterculture landmark.
Meanwhile, half a world away, Clark took a much different journey related to the band. The Costa Mesa resident and his comrades spent a year in Vietnam riding a gunner truck, protecting fellow soldiers in convoys and sometimes exchanging fire with the Viet Cong. Their vehicle's name? Steppenwolf, bestowed by the soldiers who were previously assigned to it.
"We took care of their name for them," Clark says in the living room of his home near the 55 Freeway, where engine roars waft through the open screen door. "Like I said, Steppenwolf never let us down — the truck. It did well."
The band Steppenwolf hasn't let Clark down, either. Over the years, he's collected its CDs and encouraged cover bands that play at local American Legion events to learn "Born to Be Wild" and "Magic Carpet Ride." Still, for all the impact Steppenwolf has had on his life, Clark has yet to check one milestone off his list.
That would be seeing the group in concert. He'll soon take care of that.
When John Kay & Steppenwolf, as the group is now billed, plays the Pacific Amphitheatre at the OC Fair on Sunday, Clark plans to be in the audience. The 65-year-old retired landscaper doesn't know if the band will acknowledge him, but in any case, he won't be an anonymous member of the crowd: Steppenwolf's website recently posted on its home page a newspaper story about Clark reuniting with his former truck mates.
Kay, the band's lead singer and only remaining original member, also doesn't know yet if any interaction will take place at the show. He often gets requests for onstage tributes, song dedications and the like. But the recent missive about Clark isn't the first time he's heard about his music helping people in trying circumstances.
For now, Kay will guarantee just one thing.
"I would imagine we have a very good chance of all of us having a great Sunday evening together," he says.
Clark answers his door before a knock is necessary. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and navy blue shorts, his gray hair cropped in a near-crew cut, he holds open the screen and leads the way in, where a pair of decades-old photo albums and a green Steppenwolf cap wait on the dining table.
The photos provide the cue for his first few stories. As he turns the plastic-covered pages, Clark points to his younger self sitting at one of Steppenwolf's machine guns and gives a whirlwind account of his year in combat: who got wounded, who went home first, which trucks got "knocked out" — in other words, destroyed by enemy fire — and which didn't.
When Clark was drafted in 1969, he was recently married and living in Costa Mesa. During basic training at Fort Ord, near Monterey, he met three other men who would later stand beside him in an Idaho newspaper photo: Mike Paton, John Sanders and Eddie Engstrom. They became friends and, as fate had it, wound up serving alongside each other.
Those duties revolved around the Steppenwolf truck, on which Clark, Paton and Sanders took turns driving and manning the guns. Engstrom served as company clerk. The soldiers took it upon themselves to name their vehicles, and pop music themes abounded: Steppenwolf, Iron Butterfly. Not all the names reflected hard-edged tastes. One truck went by Puff the Magic Dragon in tribute to Peter, Paul and Mary's sing-along folk hit.
Was Clark a fan of Steppenwolf by the time he boarded his transport for the first time?
"We all were," he says. "It was our time of music. Between Steppenwolf and Neil Diamond and Creedence Clearwater Revival, those were all our time."
Clark is keen to note that the Steppenwolf truck never got knocked out, even though it sustained enemy bullets. After he returned home, two of his mates got caught in an ambush and suffered major wounds. But they all survived the war, and a different opposition started when they touched down on U.S. soil.
The antiwar movement had crested around the time Clark arrived home in fall 1970. Paton, he says, once had a protester spit in his face and call him a baby-killer. Clark, and others he knew, heard that slur as well.
"They just didn't like us when we came back," Clark says.
As the upheaval of the '60s raged back home, not everyone liked Kay and Steppenwolf either. Still, young record buyers caught on to their aggressive sound, and the top 10 smashes came one after another: "Born to Be Wild," "Magic Carpet Ride," "Rock Me."
While Clark's company made perilous treks into the jungle, Kay lived the life of a rising pop star. But he often encountered reminders that his fans put up with hairier problems than unruly festival crowds.
One such time came in Hawaii in 1968, when Steppenwolf played to an audience that Kay describes as "a couple of thousand long-haired Hawaiian kids." Within that crowd was a cluster of about a dozen nearly hairless young men, and when Kay met a pair of them after the show, they explained that they had returned from Vietnam and were headed back.
The troops mentioned something else: They had bought a Steppenwolf cassette at the Army post exchange and often played it when they ventured into the bush.
"It became obvious to me: This is the first rock 'n' roll war," Kay says, speaking by phone from his home in Santa Barbara.
Kay, who founded Steppenwolf in 1967, was well aware of his status as a cultural icon, and he and his band addressed social concerns in their music: the perils of drugs in "The Pusher," marijuana laws in "Don't Step on the Grass, Sam." The 1969 concept album "Monster" decried U.S. injustice from colonial days to Vietnam.
In the decades since, Kay has spoken with Greeks and Brazilians who told him they listened to Steppenwolf for inspiration — in secret — while living under military dictatorships. A journalist recently told him that he listened to the "Monster" album in an open-air vehicle en route from Baghdad to Fallujah.
"To a great extent, the royalty of the support base that we enjoy to this day was forged by the fact that we didn't just have yet another hummable ditty that you could dance to, that you'll remember because that was the song you danced to with Peggy Sue at the prom — which is perfectly fine and legitimate, you know?" Kay says. "It's nostalgia.
"But the songs that we're talking about that had the really lasting connection were things that the guys who were in Vietnam took with them into the bush."
Kay saw another proof of that connection when Clark's wife, who urged her husband to attend Steppenwolf's OC Fair concert, emailed a newspaper story to the band's website. The Times-News in Idaho had run a front-page package in June about Clark reuniting with his three Vietnam comrades, and the story mentioned the Steppenwolf truck more than once.
The band's webmaster posted the article as the top item on the home page. Under the headline "Vietnam Veterans Reunite after 44 Years" is a photo of Clark, Paton, Sanders and Engstrom standing side by side before a rocky landscape.
With the other two living far outside Southern California, Clark and Sanders will be the only members of the group to attend Sunday's show. And even that wasn't a given for Clark — at least not if the past was any indication. When Steppenwolf played the OC Fair before, he stayed home.
Why? Clark chooses his words carefully.
"You've got to get your mind-set to," he starts and then pauses. "I don't know what it is. Certain things could bother you. It brings back things that you don't want to remember. Now we're all sort of better."
Clark had more than a few adjustments to make when he returned home from combat. His first marriage disintegrated, and civilian life sometimes felt jarring. After a few years as a truck driver, he started a landscaping company and worked outdoors, which he preferred, until he retired.
Now, with his appearances at veterans' parades garnering applause rather than spit, Clark speaks of his Vietnam days in fond terms — often, at least. More than once, he refers to his year in combat as a good time, his friends as a good team. And he proudly outlines their creed: namely, that if one member of the company went down, the others would go back to save him.
Whether he'll get to meet his truck's namesake up close, Clark doesn't much care. He just looks forward to an entertaining show, a night out with friends. As to what he would tell Kay if he encountered him, Clark can't think of much beyond thanking him for the music.
Still, a picture might say it best. When the conversation turns to Steppenwolf's legacy — and the fact that the phrase "heavy metal thunder" in "Born to Be Wild" is sometimes credited with giving a musical genre its name — Clark grins, remembering the song's original effect.
"It was something we liked," he says. "And heavy metal — well, we're heavy metal." He gestures to the photos of the old armored truck. "This is heavy metal."