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Steppenwolf Steps Away from the “Wild” Side in 1968’s Powerful “The Pusher”

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Read the name “Steppenwolf,” and one image immediately comes to mind: Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda on motorcycles, cruising to the tune “Born to Be Wild.” The emerging rock group gained nationwide fame through the 1969 counterculture classic, Easy Rider, where their hard-driving music perfectly accompanied the film’s story of rebellion.  In addition, Steppenwolf is commonly credited with inventing the term “heavy metal” through the “Born to Be Wild” lyrics “I like smoke and lightning/Heavy metal thunder.”  Their other major hit, “Magic Carpet Ride,” seamlessly blended harder rock and psychedelia, with lead singer John Kay’s gravelly voice adding a dangerous edge to the tune.  But another song of their successful 1968 debut album particularly encapsulates their edginess and willingness to take risks: “The Pusher.”

Like “Born to be Wild,” “The Pusher” also made an appearance in Easy Rider.  Written by songwriter/actor Hoyt Axton (best known for penning the Three Dog Night hit, “Joy to the World”), Kay first performed the track with his previous Steppenwolfband, The Sparrow, in 1967; their live version is available through the album, Early Steppenwolf, recorded at the Matrix in San Francisco.  After the band dissolved, Kay relocated to Los Angeles and formed Steppenwolf; subsequently they recorded their first self-titled album, which was completed in four days. Kay explains the process through the band’s website: “We recorded seven songs the first day and four more the next. The majority of the vocals were recorded on the third day and the album was mixed on day four. The entire album cost around $9,000.00 to make. We thought it sounded pretty damn good and in my opinion it still holds up to this day.”

Indeed, “The Pusher” has retained its power and shock value.  Beginning with a killer, memorable guitar riff, Kay’s world-weary voice drifts in, confessing his addictions:

You know I’ve smoked a lot of grass
O’ Lord, I’ve popped a lot of pills
But I never touched nothin’
That my spirit could kill

Axton’s vivid imagery adds a sense of doom, describing such drug users as “walkin’ around with tombstones in their eyes.”  But the pusher man remains unmoved; instead, the narrator deems him a “monster” and “not a natural man,” not caring who lives or dies.  The song does not flinch from disturbing words, saying that the dealer may “sell sweet dreams” but is ultimately destroying people’s lives (communicated effectively through the line, “he’ll leave your mind to scream”).  The chorus repeatedly condemns the drug dealer with the blunt line, “God damn the pusher man.”

The final verse injects intense anger into the song, with Kay’s voice becoming grittier and louder while declaring “total war” on the pusher man.  Clearly he believes the only way to combat the problem is through violence.  The narrator promises to “cut him if he stands,” ultimately slaying him “with my Bible and my razor and my gun.”  Interestingly Axton incorporates religion in this lyric, particularly curious due to the violence present in the final verse.  Musically, the band starts out with just the guitar riff, but ends with a pounding beat, turning the song into an intense six-minute jam that drives home the painful, wrenching subject.

When released as a single, “The Pusher” drew controversy not from its harrowing subject matter, but for its inclusion of the words “God damn.”  According to Kay, when Steppenwolf played a concert in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, authorities made the band promise not to sing the profane line.  Kay managed to circumvent the rule by having audience members sing the chorus “God damn the pusher man” at the appropriate times.  Regardless of the controversy, the song draws from Steppenwolf’s obvious affection for the blues–Kay’s vocal performance recalls B.B. King in that it evokes emotion and despair.  Need more evidence of Steppenwolf’s blues roots?  Another track off their album Steppenwolf: their cover of Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man.”

“The Pusher” has lived on in covers by such diverse artists as Blind Melon, Nina Simone, and Axton himself.  In fact, the song found new life in 1992, when Neneh Cherry sampled its famous guitar riff for her Michael Stipe duet, “Trout.”  To this day, “The Pusher” stands as one of the best anti-drug songs ever written.  Other artists would write their own anti-drug anthems, such as Curtis Mayfield (the equally powerful “Pusher Man” from 1972’s Superfly), Neil Young (1972’s incredibly harrowing “The Needle and the Damage Done”), and Grandmaster Melle Mel (1983’s “White Lines [Don’t Don’t Do It]”).  But Steppenwolf certainly went against the grain in 1968, when other artists glorified drugs as paths to enlightenment, per the psychedelic movement. Instead, Steppenwolf laid bare the stark realities of drug use, stripping it of its glamour.  Through blunt language and the band’s furious performance, “The Pusher Man” deserves to be ranked among the best 1960s-era rock.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • Realist

    I lived through the furor over this song, which every garage band in America played until their parents forbade it. The upset over the use of “God” in a song title had just died down over Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows” when “The Pusher” came along and blew the lid off that coffin. I suspect, however, that by the time “The Pusher” came along, sensitivities were rubbed raw with the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the growing death toll of Vietnam, and made it easier for people to condemn the song without hearing the words.

    A fine review!

  • Kit O’Toole

    Thank you very much! You make an interesting point about the use of “God” in the song as well. I guess it never occurred to me that “God Only Knows” would have courted controversy. In any case, as you point out, emotions were running high by the time “The Pusher” was released, and the lyrics certainly push the envelope, even today.

  • Newark

    john? and the wolf had many songs that should have been hits i guess john didnt kiss enough ass or was happy enough in his own skin he didnt need the big hits the wolf and john are the best and this song is fantastic

  • Universal

    Showing my age by remembering Steppenwolf!

    I hadn’t realised this was quite possibly who ‘Heavy Metal’ originated from. Never too old to learn :-)

    Funny isn’t it, how words like “God damn” could be considered too much … ohhh, for those halcyon days of yore.

    Thanks for taking me back in time.