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(A few days ago I participated in a thing called WRITE CLUB here in Toronto — explanation here. I was assigned the topic of “Wild,” in opposition to “Tame.” I won my round; proceeds of my victory went to the OSPCA/Ontario Humane Society. Here’s what I read (hastily slapped together that day on an extended lunch break.))
It is widely assumed that the well-known 1967 anthem “Born to Be Wild” by the rock band Steppenwolf was conceived by John Kay, born Joachim Fritz Krauledat, road-dragged lead vocalist and he of a quintessentially leathery vibe.
However, the song was in fact composed by Oshawa native Dennis Eugene McCrohan, aka “Denny,” aka Dennis Edmonton, aka Mars Bonfire, while in the proto-Steppenwolf rock and roll group The Sparrows. Originally conceived as a ballad, a deeply personal attestation to the raptures of the open road and a celebration of the individual spirit, it was refashioned through Steppenwolf’s organ-driven thump for their debut LP into a rowdy populist hit, and a #1 single.
Mars Bonfire, while never a full member of Steppenwolf (though his brother, Gerald McCrohan, aka Jerry Edmonton, remained as the group’s drummer until 1972) enjoyed a limited degree of success in his own solo career, with a handful of solo albums evidently inspired by various strains of Aquarian mysticism; his only major success was 1971’s “Crystal Lady Dreamer (From Dimension Six),” which reached a respectable #19 on Billboard and led to Bonfire’s now-infamous awkward guest appearance on The Flip Wilson Show. Of particular influence on Bonfire’s conceptual lyricism was the text titled The Aquarian Age Gospel of Jesus, the Christ of the Piscean Age, published in 1908 by one Levi H. Dowling, a preacher from Bellville, Ohio. This account, concerning an eighteen-year span of Jesus’s early adult life largely undocumented in scripture, finds him on a spiritual quest to centers of wisdom throughout India, Tibet, Persia, Assyria, Greece, and Egypt. This vision of the true holy man as the traveller and pilgrim was one taken closely to heart by McCrohan, aka Bonfire, who migrated from Toronto in Los Angeles in the mid-sixties just in time to participate in the burgeoning of various New Age movements, finding at its epicenter of a young Hollywood artistic elite in Dennis Hopper, acclaimed actor and director, an inspiring mystic and also a lapsed Catholic.
Bonfire sought out and befriended Hopper during post-production of the film Easy Rider as a result of its prominent use of “Born to Be Wild” in the iconic title sequence, and it was their discussions, fueled largely by LSD procured from Ted Markland of the TV show Bonanza, then an associate of Timothy Leary’s, that led to the abundant Christian imagery in the film, particularly the Mardi Gras “bad trip” scene, inspired by an actual religious vision Bonfire experienced while under the influence of psychedelics then described to Hopper, in which Bonfire believed himself physically transported back to the year 45 AD to witness the famine of Judea, as described in the Book of Acts. In an interview with the UK audio production magazine Sound on Sound, the film’s sound editor LeRoy Robbins described how Bonfire, Hopper and musical supervisor Roger McGuinn of The Byrds hoped to develop a thematic thrust out of the early Christian hymns and chants that had apparently provided the initial inspiration for “Born to Be Wild.” Robbins, unfamiliar with the sources, describes the versions produced by Bonfire and McGuinn as tapes and tapes of mostly useless jams, but recordings that were nonetheless “goddamn ghostly” in their own right.
These chants, it is now assumed, were updates of classical works, specifically those hymnals of Callimachus of Cyrene. Callimachus was well known to have advised poets to not follow in the path of Homeric tradition—that of adhering to established conventions on the path to a poetic ideal—but rather to “drive their wagons on untrodden fields.” Callimachus’s “Hymn I to Zeus,” includes the lines (translated roughly here):
Hail! greatly hail! most high Son of Cronus, giver of good things, giver of safety. There hath not been, there shall not be, who shall sing the works of Zeus. Hail!” And, in the line that follows: No mos celebrare / natum et ad Silvestre: roughly, “we must celebrate those born of being wild.”
Many of these Callimachean hymns would emerge adapted centuries later in Gregorian chants, a strain of which is known as “organum,” or “the singing in Symphoniae,” a musical model which typically centres around simple melodies of three or four repeated tones with simple harmonic accompaniment of a perfect fourth or fifth (what we today would call a “power chord”), ultimately finding unison upon the satisfaction of the lyrical passage—it goes without saying this aptly describes the prechorus of “Born to Be Wild.”
From this tradition we find the various works associated with the Abbey of Saint Martial out of Limoges, France, burial site for various Christian martyrs and a destination for pilgrims, which in 848 AD was re-established as a Benedictine abbey under Charles the Bald—whose nickname was in fact meant ironically, as he was in fact rather hirsute.
During his dominion, pilgrims to the abbey founded an underground monastic society of refined smithery, crafting implements of travel, such as rotors and rudimentary wheel bearings, out of raw materials to help shepherd pilgrims to and from the site: from these tendencies emerged the obscure monks of the Carlist tradition, who grew their hair and beards long in honour of their papal hero and viewed the pilgrimage, and the road travelled, as the holiest of sacraments.
This reification of the will as the concrete, or in some senses the spiritual journey transposed in geographic achievement, would later be regarded as sacrilegious, an affront to the inner voyage of piety pursued by those of more transcendentalist interpretations. So the Carlist monks, wandering individualists of their day, went mostly forgotten in the records of the region.
Yet this tradition would be carried down in adapted form by Thomas Aquinas, who, writing in the year 1268, speaks of the Christian musical tradition thusly: “Hymnus est laus Dei cum cantico; canticum autem exultatio mentis de aeternis habita, prorumpens in fumus, et fulgur, currentium in ventum.”
The last couplets translate as: “A hymn is the praise of God with song; a song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the smoke and lightning, racing in the wind.”
Aquinas’s work of this period also refers directly to the Carlist monastic tradition, praising the then-obscure works and the pilgrimage as the holy road trip, and their smithing traditions—there are distinct traces of Callimachus in his praise of the “thunder” given to the work of “heavy metals” by these monks in notes accompanying an early manuscript of Chapter 15 of his “Quid requiratur ad statum perfectonis,” or “What is Required to Constitute the State of Perfection.”
While razed following the French Revolution, the Abbey of Saint Martial was excavated in 1960. Among revelations therein were a large crypt containing the casket of Saint Martial himself, who was buried with the manuscripts of many plainsong hymns of the monastic tradition—these are now displayed at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. And it is in Paris during the mid-sixties, touring behind a now-forgotten single on an obscure German label, where the members of Canadian rock group The Sparrows, then including young Denny McCrohan, would face their most profound crisis of identity and the artistic metamorphosis that would lead them to shake their primitivist rock ‘n roll origins and aspire toward something more ambitiously celestial—exemplified by their adoption of the name “Steppenwolf,” of course lifted from the Herman Hesse novel. “In Paris we were total nobodies,” John Kay would write in 1987’s Memoirs of a Magic Carpet Rider, “but on the road, away from home, everything was a source of inspiration: the amphetamines, the pussy, the museums, the fucking baguettes. It was wild, man, wild.”
So, again: it is the road, the journey, and the transformative essence of song, that fuels this drive for spiritual affirmation.
Do we take “Born to Be Wild” as a testament to an adversarial, or complementary, bond between God and nature? Kay sings of longing to “take the world in a love embrace,” asserting the Aquarian utopia and a rejection of the material. This could, perhaps, echo Aquinas, who saw unity with God as the true crowning, eternal purpose of human life.
We examine these connections not to dismantle our held conceptions of the divine, but rather to illuminate a lineage of wildness in its appraisal, imagining linkages between the untamable sprawl of nature and the resolute law of the civilized.
To run wild is thus to shirk the temporary trappings of one’s civilization, those oppressive forces that seek to rein us, and this is unquestionably a journey of the self, of inspiration, not of the collective whim: it is “looking for adventure IN whatever comes our way,” not “AND whatever comes our way.”
To transcend earthly confines is to shirk mortality, or is it? The song does not make any claim that “I’m never gonna die,” but rather: “I never wanna die.” Or rather still, “we can climb so high,” –pause—“I never wanna die.” It is in this climbing, in the smoke and lightning, in the revving of engines, in which we become our purest, most immortal selves: unchained, heavy, and wild.