When I was in the sixth grade, I read my first full book of poetry (I don’t count A Child’s Garden of Verses by R.L. Stevenson because my grandmother read pretty much all of that to me a number of times before I read it for myself). It was a book by Stephen Vincent Benet and his wife Rosemary Carr called, aptly enough, A Book of Americans. There are poems about many famous Americans, most of of them legendary figures like Johnny Appleseed and Daniel Boone. But Benet also includes unusual choices – interesting historical figures like Nancy Hanks and James Buchanan. The book affected me profoundly because I read it for comfort in the days after President Kennedy’s assassination. Lines from the poems still haunt me and pop into my mind at odd moments:
“‘Elbow room!’ cried Daniel Boone.”
“If Nancy Hanks came back as a ghost…”
My favorite poem in the book was – and is – about, of all people for a boy growing up in the South I grew up in, a Union Navy hero from the Civil War – David Farragut. It begins thusly:
“‘Damn the torpedoes!’ Bold Farragut said;
‘Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead…!'”
The poem goes on to recount Farragut’s bravery and heroism commanding the Union fleet in the battle of Mobile Bay. It’s a rousing piece, as a poem about a man of action should be, but that’s not why I found myself attracted to it initially….
What charmed me was that Benet got away with saying “damn.”
I was amazed and not a little titillated that a book I’d gotten from the Burton Grove Elementary School library used the expletive “damn” so freely. I memorized the poem and recited it to friends whenever I got the chance – on the play ground, walking home from school, any of those places where kids can get away with trying out adult-isms. It was five years before I really got the sense of the poem, expressed in the last lines of the work:
“Though ‘damn’ is a word that we ought to eschew,
“He knew when to use it – so few people do.”
In the fall of 1968 Steppenwolf released their first album which contained the Boomer anthem “Born to be Wild” – the song that gave us the term “heavy metal.” I was a junior in high school with a new driver’s license – and the freedom attendant to possession of that document. My friends and I went wild for the first single from the Steppenwolf album, the aforementioned “Born to be Wild,” and several of us bought the album – some guys bought the album on 8-track tape. That made the record mobile, so we could play it in our cars as we engaged in one of small town America’s lost but once ubiquitous social exercises – cruising. Riding up and down Bridge Street in Eden, NC, with the new Steppenwolf album blaring out a car’s windows became part of every spring weekend that year….
It’s the meeting of those two social forces – a rock album’s release and kids showing off for each other that they’re hip and have the coolest music playing as they cruise. In the spring of 1969 that meant you and your friends were playing one of two albums if you had an 8-track or (rare in those days) a cassette player: Steppenwolf or The White Album by The Beatles.
The White Album showed you were cool – Steppenwolf showed you were daring. Especially if you played “The Pusher.”
“The Pusher” is an anti-drug song written by Hoyt Axton, a country-folk singer/songwriter who penned a number of hit songs during the late 1960’s -early 1970’s, among them, Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” and “Never Been to Spain” and Ringo Starr’s “The No No Song.” As those other songs attest, his work was often whimsical and amusing.
Not “The Pusher.” The song, especially in Steppenwolf’s version, is haunting – even creepy, in the way that the drug culture often was – to me, anyway….
But the song is also an angry remonstration against that drug culture – as evidenced by its chorus:
“‘God damn – uh huh, the pusher’;
“I said ‘God damn – God damn the pusher man…'”
Male teenage hormones being what they are and male teenage bravado being what it is, “The Pusher” often blared out of car windows on Bridge Street that spring of 1969. In fact, the song blared out so often – particularly that provocative chorus, that the local cops arrested a couple of kids and tried to charge them with public obscenity. A magistrate wisely ruled that if anyone was guilty of obscenity it would be either Hoyt Axton or Steppenwolf and threw the case out, giving the cops a good dressing down in the process.
So cruising continued unabated in those halcyon days of 20 cents a gallon gas and “The Pusher” blared still, though perhaps a little less often….
I heard “The Pusher” today on XM’s “Deep Tracks” channel while I was out running errands. I had to take a short drive (about fifteen minutes) to complete one task, so I was able to hear the entire six minute Steppenwolf opus without interruption. As always, it gave me that same creepy feeling – that same sense of what Fitzgerald describes so well as what destroyed Gatsby:
“…what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams…”
And I thought about the drug culture as I knew it as a musician – a culture of creeps, hangers on, and people ruined or ruining themselves for the profits of a bunch of criminal bastards ….
And I realized that Hoyt Axton got it right – that he, like Farragut, and like Stephen Vincent Benet, knew that at some times only certain words, even if they offend some sensibilities, will do….