A Steppenwolf Riot

Image found on Internet

Steppenwolf circa 1969. Image found on Internet.

With a string of hit singles and an album in 1968, two of which, The Pusher, and Born To Be Wild, were to soon be featured in the soon to be released movie Easy Rider starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, the band Steppenwolf scheduled a concert in Spokane’s Memorial Coliseum for February 5, 1969 advertising the concert in the Spokane Natural’s late January edition. Tickets were available at P.M. Jacoy’s, Speedy’s Record Rack, and the Bon Marche. Seating was available in three areas of the Coliseum with ticket prices at $3, $4, and the top price of $5 if you wanted to sit in one of the front rows. The show started at 7 p.m.The two warm-up bands were Spokane’s Liverpool Five and an unheard of band from California, Three Dog Night, who had a recently released album and a new single Try A Little Tenderness  that soon reached #29 on the Billboard Hot 100. The producer for their album, Gabriel Meckler, had also worked with Steppenwolf on their album. Lights were provided by Retinal Circus.

The Natural sent staff writer Val Hughes, an inhabitant of the new bohemian Peaceful Valley, to review the concert. Hughes noted that the Liverpool Five were once a headliner in Spokane. The band had reduced their number of musicians to four and they had replaced members with a local musician, Fred Dennis, on bass and another musician she did not recognize.KJRB radio station personality Gary Taylor, the events promoter, served as MC for the concert. Hughes thought that Three Dog Night was the best band of the evening while Steppenwolf’s performance proved to be languid. Steppenwolf’s bass player was the exception, Hughes said, in that he was animated throughout the set. He was also wearing what appeared to be a dress. It was a dress. Nick St. Nicholas was Steppenwolf’s bass player. He had a reputation for being eccentric and for upstaging Steppenwolf’s vocalist John Kay. He was fired a year later from the band mostly for not bothering to tune his guitar and for that upstaging Kay thing. Hughes, impressed by St. Nicholas’ style and manner separate from the rest of the band said, “the bassist seemed to be in his own world.”

At the end of the show, Kay, wearing his signature dark sunglasses on stage, made an attempt at provoking the crowd into acting out some rock ’n’ roll rage at the authorities. He encouraged the opposite of crowd control. Kay invited anyone in the audience to come up and join him and the band onstage, which they did crowding together on the Coliseum’s voluminous stage. This did get a reaction from the police in that they pulled the plug on the bands amplifiers and the PA. They were shutting it down. Kay was the only one of the band left on stage. In some cities this may have accomplished what Kay wanted, a chair throwing, brawling, riot of epic proportions. But Kay overestimated what a Spokane crowd is capable of doing. There was no encore.Eyewitness Hughes described it as very underwhelming. “Now this being Spokane, nothing serious happened. The audience just went home, thinking bad things about cops, adults, and the establishment in general.”

That is, the sound went off, the lights came up and everyone politely filed out of the Coliseum. Many of the $3 ticket holders quietly came down from the second level seating on those circular ramps up in the front of the venue, passing through the front doors to catch rides with friends, or went home with a parent driving the station wagon back to Country Homes, or Hillyard, or to the Valley, or they caught the Manito Park bus for the South Hill.

Hughes talked to a musician’s agent after the show and he said that Steppenwolf was through in this town. Interviewing someone from Three Dog Night Hughes said they were “happy to be liked and ready to like back.” Hughes concluded that the show proved “we’re starting to evaluate not on a name, but on a performance . . . and maybe then the name bands will realize that you’ve got to do a bit more than just be there to turn on Spokane.”

Steppenwolf was, of course, not finished in Spokane. They would be back. Maybe it was the band reacting to the crowd that resulted in a shallow performance that night. Spokane’s audiences had a reputation among performers who appeared here as being a bit languid themselves. A year earlier Joe Felice opened up the Eagles Ballroom for rock ’n’ roll music and it folded after only a few weeks from lack of support by the public. At the August 1968 Summer Funfest held at the Spokane Fairgrounds, Grassroots guitarist Warren Entner was disappointed with the Spokane teens at their concert. He told the Natural that the whole atmosphere was bad. He said it wasn’t like a dance or concert he was accustomed to performing. He described the audience as “A lot of kids (who) didn’t come to groove on the music—they came to fuck around. Maybe it’s the lack of dilated pupils . . . there’s no communication, no love.”

However, to the Spokane audience’s credit maybe it was the music itself that needed adjustment. Also at the Funfest and appearing the next day was Canned Heat, a popular blues boogie band. This band, it was noted, did get the crowd up and on their feet. So in the end, maybe it’s not the audience that was the problem, it was what style of music Spokane wanted to hear, what got them jumping and singing and dancing. In the end, what Spokane wanted was to boogie down. That’s all.

“Steppenwolf.” Advertisement. Spokane Natural. Vol. 3, No. 3. January 31 – February 13, 1969: 16.
“Nick’s ouster and the bunny ears.” GoldyMcJohn.com.
Hughes, Val. “One Dog Night.” Spokane Natural. Vol. 3, No. 4. February 27, 1969: 9.
“Eagles Turns On” Spokane Natural Vol. 2, No. 20 Sept. 27 – Oct. 10 1968: 4.
“All Kinds of Heat.” article. Spokane Natural, Vol. 2, No. 16, Aug. 2-15, 1968: 7.

According to Steppenwolf keyboardist Goldy McJohn, St. Nicholas was dismissed for a number of reasons: “The führer (Kay) fired him [for] wearing dresses in Steppenwolf with that bleached blonde hair, being out of tune at gigs … lots of reasons. I liked the bunny ears, but John made such a stink about it at the Fillmore East, you’d think he was in charge. Everyone else was on acid in the audience and this great big guy got up and told Kay to let Nick tune up and everybody cheered. Stealing John Kay’s limelight has and always will be his modus operandi, in other words.”

© Copyright Robert Schoenberg 2014


About Robert Schoenberg

Writer - Blog is about the history of rock 'n' roll in Spokane Washington, from 1955 to 1980 View all posts by Robert Schoenberg

One response to “A Steppenwolf Riot

  • Rick

    I was at that concert..Was one of the first concert I went to..I remember, three dog night came out on stage and said,sorry they were late..They had to find a flesh colored band ade for their drummer…Floyd Sneed is Afro American…It was kind of funny….

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