Lone Wolf by Ed Vulliamy
John Kay, the singer who gave us ‘born to be wild’, left east Germany and the Berlin wall behind in 1944. He has not forgotten his roots or the flight that brought him to the west.
Anyone who has not heard – and felt the impact of – the primal anthem of rock music, ‘Born To Be Wild’, suffers, arguably, from an unenviable deï¬cit of experience. Most people do know the song, however, for it is one of the most-played and popular rock songs of all time, in part because of its being chosen as the soundtrack for the cult movie, Easy Rider.
But less so for its connection to the Berlin Wall which fell 20 years ago, initiating the transformation and uniï¬cation of Europe. And not because ‘Born To Be Wild’ was written and played by a band called Steppenwolf, title of a novel by one of the greatest German writers of his country’s turbulent 20th century, Hermann Hesse. The connection is this: that John Kay – the man who sings ‘Born To Be Wild’ with his immediately recognisable, deep splenetic scowl, and whom most people believe to be American or at least Canadian – is actually German, ‘East German’; smuggled through the Iron Curtain by his mother, at risk of death at any moment on their journey, when he was ï¬ve years old.
Kay’s childhood odyssey, and the road along which it took him, is one of the most compelling narratives in popular music, both because of the extraordinary adventure itself, and because it led Kay – as an exile from communist tyranny whose dreams of America were then tested by reality – to become the singer he is, and Steppenwolf the band they were and still are. As Kay puts it: “We were never afraid to speak our minds, let the chips fall as they may”. But with a difference from the rest: Kay’s origins in Germany, and his childhood American dream as a refugee from communism, led him to become a very singular ï¬gure in the rebellions of the 1960s in America, and an even more compelling rock and roll critic of our times, 20 years on from the fall of the wall. Kay’s crossing the Iron Curtain also led him to compose the most complex yet passionate and cogent of all political protest songs, ‘Monster’ of 1970, written during the war in Vietnam, but suddenly, of late, ï¬nding itself arousing and inspiring crowds of fans from a new generation: ‘Now we are ï¬ghting that war over there / No matter who’s the winner, we can’t pay the cost’, it goes.
Yet ‘Monster’ – by the German Kay – is, more than any protest song written by an American, a deeply patriotic American eulogy, about America at its outset, the betrayed dream of its founding fathers. Not unlike the American dream betrayed of a boy determined to make it to America, then regained in part, having left East Germany and the Berlin Wall behind. ‘I am an American by choice,’ says Kay
Here is the opening from another song by John Kay and Steppenwolf, called The Wall:
“Crossing the line in the dead of night
Five years old and on the run,
This ain’t no game, boy, don’t make a sound,
And watch that man with the gun,
Say a prayer for the ones we leave behind,
say a prayer for us all,
Come take my hand now and hold on tight,
Take one last look at that Wall.”
This was no dream, this was autobiography. John Kay was born on April 12 1944, as Joachim Fritz Krauledat in Tilsit, East Prussia, while his father was away, ï¬ghting on the slaughterhouse of the Third Reich’s retreating Russian front, on which 20 million citizens of the USSR were killed, and some six million Germans, including Kay’s father, Fritz Krauledat. He was accordingly raised by his mother, Elsbeth. As Kay writes:
I remember, I was barely four
Mama told me Daddy’s gone
Died in the war
He won’t be home again
I never knew him
Pictures all I had
Mama raised me through good and bad.
Kay the Wolfman howls ‘Born to be Wild’ for what it is: anthem of America’s freeway outlaws, but turns out to speak with a ï¬rm courtesy and marked command of the English language, offering such counsel as: ‘I think you may be well pleased by spending a couple of evenings with this book …’ He has kept his lean, rock’n’roll-seasoned good looks, behind sunglasses (in a Jagger-esque way, though Kay could hardly be more different to the strutting pantomine Jagger has become).
And Kay recalls: “When the war drew to a close, and the [Soviet] Red Army was beginning to advance on East Prussia … that was when my mother took me as an infant and headed West. By train. We came to a halt in a region known as Tueringen. She found herself in the middle of the night in a strange place and got off the train.
“There was a woman there from a Red Cross type service and she said ‘Do you need some place to stay?’ We wound up staying for the next four and a half years – in this family’s home, who had lost three sons in the war, and had an extra room”.
This was a time, easily within living memory, when a shifting Europe was ravaged by armies, but not only armies. It was a continent across which wave upon wave of people wandered – lost, itinerant; in ï¬‚ight from what was behind them, in fear of what lay ahead, as every refugee knows. Fleeing a burning home or seeking those last heard of in concentration camps or embarking for the front lines. And it became a continent abruptly divided by the new front line established by Joseph Stalin’s Red Army. The embryonic Iron Curtain followed the borders of Czechoslovakia and Poland, but it carved battered, defeated Germany down the middle.
“Shortly after the end of the war, the Americans moved in to Tueringen”, recalls Kay, “but as it turned out, the Americans pulled out and the Russians, came. The result was that all of a sudden, we were behind the Iron Curtain”.
Kay’s mother had other problems, closer to home, which though domestic, necessitated a dangerous and major course of action. “My mother had discovered that I would squint, and my eyes were quite bad,” says Kay. “The doctor said that if I had any chance of getting my vision improved, I would need a more balanced diet. And he hinted to the fact that in the West, in West Germany, the opportunity for a better diet was there. My mother had decided to get us out of East Germany”.
To a child, it was a terrifying ï¬‚ight: “There were dog patrols and searchlights and that sort of thing”, recalls Kay, “and I had a nasty cough. I was told to be very quiet. I had a little knapsack and – well, then it was like – I was told: ‘RUN’”.
“Oh the truck came by to put us in the back,” runs ‘Renegade’:
“And left us where the railroad tracks cross the line,
Then the border guide took us by the hand,
And led us thru the hole into the promise
And I can hear him now,
Whispering soft and low,
“When you get to the other side,
Just you run like hell”,
Get to the other side,
Keep your head low,
Hey you, keep your head down,
Don’t you look around,
Please don’t make a sound,
If they should ï¬nd you now,
The man will shoot you down”
“Once we were in West Germany”, says Kay, “we made it to the town of Hannover” – a manufacturing city which had been carpet-bombed by the British – “and being refugees from the East, we lived in the attic of a building that had been bombed and been repaired”. In the new life, romance also blossomed for the widowed Frau Krauledat: &ld
quo;Shortly after, my mother met a fellow, Gerhardt Kyczinski, who had just been released after three or four years in a prisoner of war camp in Russia and just made it home”. As often happened between camp survivors and other people left bereaved and traumatised by genocide and battlegrounds in shifting, uncertain Europe, “those two hit it off,” recalls Kay, with a chirp, “and got married”….
To read the rest of the article please subscribe to the Frontline Broadsheet. Its only £15 a year for for issues.