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The Last Wolf Standing: Steppenwolf's Goldy McJohn back on the road
Original Steppenwolf keyboardist keeps the old (and new) songs alive with his group Goldy McJohn and Friendz in Port Orchard Friday.
Steppenwolf has sold more than 25 million albums worldwide.
The group’s credited as the hippy pioneers of the “heavy metal” genre. Songs like “Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride,” written, produced and released in the late 60s, have weaved themselves into the greater American consciousness. As a result, those songs have also been licensed a number of times over the years, for movies, TV shows, radio and more, earning royalties for each usage.
According to general business sense, that would suggest proper, perhaps copious, payment for a band like Steppenwolf.
But Goldy McJohn — the man on the keys, an original member of Steppenwolf — is getting by on social security these days, living in Burien, feeling dejected at 64 years old, unable to take his grandchildren away on vacations. “Financially bust,” he says. He’s struggling to make ends meet.
He was let go from his last job — 13 years as greenskeeper at a West Seattle golf course — awhile back. He’d given the job everything he had, he said, showed up before 5 a.m. every day only to be let go in the end as the result of an unfair upper-level management ploy, to hear him tell it.
His voice was wrapped with tension and a crestfallen rancor when we reach him by phone from his Burien home last week. He seems bitter not only about his most recent job but also still from his first job — at the organ in Steppenwolf.
“That was no hiatus,” he immediately objects to the perception that he’d been on a musical hiatus for quite some time prior to forming Goldy McJohn and Friendz in 2008.
“I got ripped off of all my royalties by the Steppenwolf Corporation and John Kay and ... ” he goes on, into the big rock and roll courtroom controversy that came after Steppenwolf’s demise in the late 70s and is now entangled in more than 30 years of litigation and accusation. McJohn said “they” used “something” against him — “something” which he’s not legally able to discuss — to steal his rights to the Steppenwolf songs and the ensuing royalties.
“We’re talking 10 to 12, maybe $15 million they’ve stolen from me,” McJohn says.
While that’s all in contracts and paperwork in the past and most of it has been argued over and settled in court, it’s been an ever-present thorn in McJohn’s side for the past 30 years.
“I sat in that little shack that he wrote ‘Born to Be Wild’ in, and helped him along with it,” McJohn said of Steppenwolf’s longest enduring hit, written by a guy named Mars Bonfire. “On Thelma Ave in that studio apartment, I was the one saying, ‘why don’t we try a G chord to an A chord there,’ ... but I don’t get credit for it.”
Even as he started doing gigs again in 2008 with Goldy and Friendz, McJohn said he received a cease and desist letter concerning how the title “formerly of Steppenwolf” was used in promotion of his new band. He’s been waiting to find the right lawyer or maybe a civil rights activist to pick up the case, he said, but to no avail.
In the meantime, he’s touring with a rotating cast of characters in Goldy McJohn and Friendz — billed as the last original member of Steppenwolf still touring, noting John Kay’s retirement in early 2008.
They play a mix of the Steppenwolf hits and new original material, though it’s not a Steppenwolf Tribute, McJohn notes.
They did a small tour last year in their first year, including a few dates with Leon Hendrix (Jimi Hendrix’ little brother), one in Port Orchard.
They’ll be coming through Slip 45 Friday night with Roger Fisher of Heart opening along with local stringer William Thomas Anderson. It’s the first show of 2009 for Goldy and Friendz, looking hopefully forward to a summer featuring a headlining gig at the Washington State Fair and others across the Northwest.
“Now it’s a matter of necessity,” McJohn said. “Trying to get some gigs going and pay enough to cover our mortgage payment, food and all the necessities of life.”
GOLDY McJOHN AND FRIENDZ play Port Orchard tonight, 9 p.m. at Slip 45, 715 Bay St. in Port Orchard. Roger Fisher, formerly of Heart, and local stringer William Thomas Anderson open. 21+, $10 cover. Info: gmandfriendz.com,myspace.com/slip45music or call the club at (360) 895-7932.