Looking for Adventure
In Whatever Comes Our Way
by Mitch Lopate
Before becoming one of Nashville's finest session guitarists, Larry Byrom rocked it hard as the axe man for one of rock and roll's hardest working bands, Steppenwolf. Gritz writer Mitch Lopate gets the low down on the band, John Kay and much more.
Steppenwolf 1970. Larry is second from left.
From the beginning: how did you come to be a guitar player for a super group like Steppenwolf?
It came when I was a boy - there was a Dick Clark ("American Bandstand") Caravan of Stars tour that came through Huntsville, AL, and I was on a local warm-up band called 'The Precious Few.' I was kinda aced out by this guy, Rudy Romero, who was in a group called 'The Hard Times.' They were doing the "Where The Action Is" tour and television show. So, I went out to California and played bass with them on their first record (Blue Mind"). That lasted for a while until it broke up, and Billy Richardson, who was a member of the band, Nick St. Nicholas, Steve Rumph and I formed a group called 'T.I.M.E (Trust In Men Everywhere),' which was on Liberty Records. Nick St. Nicholas was the bass player for Sparrow, which later became Steppenwolf. At a certain point, Nick left the group to join Steppenwolf - I think it was around their third album, At Your Birthday Party (ABC Dunhill). Shortly after that, Michael Monarch decided to leave the group - he was having some personal relationship problems with John (Kay) and they called me. I auditioned for the group and they made me a member on the spot! That was around November 1968.
Let's look at your body of work - I'll start with Monster.
Monster was my first record with them. Michael Monarch had done some cuts and then he left, then I came in and wrote "Monster" (the title song) with John and (drummer) Jerry Edmonton. I wrote an instrumental on that record called "Fag," and co-wrote a couple of other things.
Why was that song written?
(Laughs) That was obvious (for the timeframe and location): it was Santa Monica Blvd. It was written in mind with the gay crowd and was sort of something that described the way they walked. It was a piano-bass thing.
Sort of like Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." But•weren't the nights in LA more interesting than that?
Sure, part of our scene was cruising the streets to look for chicks and going down to the Troubador and hearing the new acts that were coming in - however, in time, Santa Monica Boulevard became a gay center. After getting hit on a couple of times because I was a good-looking young man, I just said, "This is bullshit!" and so I wrote a song about it (chuckles).
The current edition of the Rolling Stone Record Review guide's comments about Monster says, "Intended as a blow against the empire, Monster tried for a revisionist look at the entire history of America, from the slaughter of Indians to the Vietnam war" (page 670-71).
It was basically a political look at the way we felt our generation viewed the hows and whys as to where we had gone as a country. We were totally rebels - we didn't believe in "The System," as they called it back then - the "Nixon World" - all that Vietnam bullshit - we didn't feel like we needed to be over there. We always thought marijuana should have been legalized, too - the album was basically an out-and-out protest album.
How about Steppenwolf 7?
Yeah, on that one, I had a lot to do with it - I wrote just about every song on that record (proudly): "Ball Crusher," "Fat Jack," "Renegade," "Foggy Mental Breakdown," "Who Needs Ya," a song called "Earschplittenloudenboomer," and "Hippo Stomp." "Who Needs Ya" did pretty well; however, just before 7, there was Steppenwolf Live. That was recorded at shows like the Santa Monica Civic. On that record, we played a song that I wrote called "Hey Lawdy Mama."
Yes, it's one of the band's classic cuts.
Yes, that song did very well - it made it to the top 20 on the charts, and I was real proud of that one. At the time of Steppenwolf 7, I was writing a lot of grooves - what would happen is, I would write an instrumental groove, lay it down with Jerry, Goldy (Goldy McJohn, organ/piano), and George Biondo, who took Nick's place - and we would send them over to John's house - he was living over in Nichols Canyon - and he would come up with a melody and a lyric for these tracks.
What about "Snow Blind Friend"?
That's a good look at someone who was literally, totally snowed under by cocaine. We were pro-pot/anti-coke. The consequences speak for itself. It's a Hoyt Axton song.
You mentioned Goldy McJohn on the organ - what did he do to it to get that intense, behemoth sound?
A lot of people think it was a B-3, but it was a Lowery with a B-3 Leslie with a cracked speaker horn. It made for a crackling, break-up sound, and of course, we had it as loud as it could go. That was his signature sound.
You left the band in 1971, right?
I didn't leave until the latter part of '71, and formed a group called 'Ratchell' (pronounced "Rachel"), and had two albums released on MCA.
Take me on the road with Steppenwolf - what was it like?
(Enthusiastic) It was incredible. We approached it as a business - we never did long tours - we actually did it weekly. From Thursday through Sunday, we'd be hitting the cities, then from Monday to Wednesday, we were home - actually getting home Sunday night. We'd do three shows per weekend, along with 3 Dog Night and some other people that Bert Jacobs and Red Foster Associates were booking on the road - we had a little package deal at a certain point. The limo would come by on Thursday morning, pick us up, we'd fly to our date, do the show that night, fly to the Friday night gig, then do the Saturday night show, and be back traveling home by Sunday. It was great! I never got too tired of it - I did that for three years. I guess with John Kay's German background being considered, you did some European tours.
Absolutely - we did a couple of European tours - a lot of things in Germany,, and very well-received over there. We did the Lyceum and Albert Hall in London, we played near the Louvre Museum in France - we played in Amsterdam, Sweden, and Denmark. We were very successful - they loved us. They were really proud of John's heritage - he was one of the "Motherland" sons who had escaped communism. Actually, he and his family had left under the cover of the Second World War - he was a boy back then, and remembers going through places and barely being missed by bombs and things like that.
Ray Brand told me you knew some interesting folks back in the LA days: The Doors, Janis Joplin - can you tell me about working with them?
We all sort of lived together in a place called Laurel Canyon - now, it's been turned into a pretty trashy den - but back then, it was nice, clean, and there were a lot of us who were close friends. Mama Cass was there - Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees lived right down the street - Janis Joplin was someone we associated with on the road quite often. Jimi Hendrix was a good friend - we jammed together. The guys from The Doors - I knew (Jim) Morrison a little bit, but I knew (guitarist) Robbie Krieger even better. I just hung out with those guys - I met Neil Young, too. I went on the road with him in 1983 - we did the "Shocking Pink" tour. I'm real proud of the association I had with them. I was out on the road with Peter Frampton last year. I had a good time with him - it was a great tour, and it was a wonderful time. I was out with a few people in 1991, like Steve Winwood on a world tour. In 1992, I went out on a Canadian tour with Rodney Crowell. And of course, the opportunities come up to go out with people like Neil or Peter - I really relish that - I like getting back out in front of people again. Most of my years - the last 25 or so years - I've spent in the studio. I've been a backup musician on these country records that have been coming out of Nashville, along with a few pop things.
What's your main instrument - that is, what model?
I have a Strat that I like a lot; I have a 335 that I love; I have a white custom Les Paul that I really love. Acoustically, I play a Gibson J-200 and a large Taylor.
As a guitarist, who were your early influences?
Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Chet Atkins - most notably, Chet, when I was younger. Also, Reggie Young, who is a great studio musician, whom I see all the time in Nashville - he has a track record that goes back to the '50s - he toured with the Beatles as a warm-up. He's one of my favorite guitar players and somebody that I modeled after - Reggie Young, he's great. If I could do something with anybody today, it would be Paul McCartney. I would love that (sincerely). Right now, I'm working in Nashville with some other musicians on a project that is based around Beatles music - we're writing new songs in that style. Paul has done country material before; it would be wonderful to do something like that with him.
I was fascinated by Chet Atkins as a young boy because I heard him play "Yankee Doodle" and "Dixie" at the same time. I was originally a trumpet player and into Dixieland jazz - Pete Fountain, Al Hirt - that was my first love as a musician - Louis Armstrong, too. I started playing trumpet when I was about seven years old. Then I picked up guitar through records and friends, just after the Beatles came out, and I was digging into what they had appreciated - of course, I loved Elvis, too. However, Chet Atkins seemed to be the catalyst for a lot of these parts of me - Merle Travis and Chet. So I sat down when I was 14 and learned to play "Yankee Doodle" and "Dixie" at the same time! It was great - you can accompany yourself on an instrument. I thought this was great - you could have the bass part going at the same time - it was fascinating to me. And - you know - girls! There were always girls (laughter).
They (The Beatles) did some Carl Perkins material in the early days.
I worked with Carl, too, and Bob Dylan - oh, gosh, Glen Frey, Jimmy Buffett. I'm really proud of what I've done - I'm about three years from retirement - I can collect my pension in three years - but I'm still not slowing down - I can collect a pension and still work!
Tell me about John Kay.
John Kay is a wonderfully sophisticated, intelligent human being with a good sense of politics (he ran for a city council post). I think John is one of the most underrated poets of our time; he's a master of the English language. If you listen to the lyrics on Monster, there's a song called "Power Play": just incredible lyrics about the government and how out-of-hand they had become.
I guess at the time, we didn't understand what the hands of power were really trying to do and they were misleading us (as a country) in a lot of ways - they were doing the things that they felt they had to do. Even John looks back at those lyrics today and says the same thing: I don't feel the same any more as I felt back then. But, I feel for the time in mind, he was a helluva spokesman.
I see Jim Morrison as doing something similar, but I think that he was more charismatic than John as far as getting across a social message.
I disagree with you - I think that John was and is every bit as charismatic. I think John has stage moves that Morrison didn't - John has a presence that could be termed as "a menacing authority." He was really great - I learned a lot from John. There are some good videos available of the band!
Okay, last questions: Larry has gone fishing - what has he set out to catch?
I go for big bass - I'm down here on the Tennessee River in Scottsboro, AL. I love it down here! When I'm not fishing, I'm golfing, and when I'm not catching bass, I'm looking for a good school of crappie to eat. My golf game is pretty decent - I'm shooting around 90, and every so often, I break the high 80s.
How is it that the game of golf is so popular with rough-and-tumble rock 'n roll musicians?
Well, as a rock 'n roller, you dive into dark hotel rooms with drugs and women and all that, and after a few years, you come out into the light and realize that there's a beautiful world out here. Golf is a great way to see it: some of the most beautiful places in the world are golf courses. That way, you can be outdoors doing something and casually enjoying yourself. We all grow up - I'm 51 years old now, I've been doing this business for about 35 years, and it was time to do something different. It's also about health.
Final question. In the liner photo from Live, what's the story with that headset? Did you go to a Native American gathering?
The hat was an accident that was on time. I was a little overweight at the time, so I thought, what the hell - I need a prop! I've had so many comments over the years - it's funny what a small move can do.
It sure competes with that scary-looking wolf on the cover! Larry, thanks again for everything - including your well-merited stand on John's showmanship. This should be a good reason for readers to explore the other material of the band that has been passed over by "Classic Rock" stations.
Check out Jupiter's Child. I didn't play on that one, but I particularly like it. Jerry Edmonton was the pulse of Steppenwolf; John Kay was the lyrics and the front man, but Jerry was the driving force of the band. We lost him about two years ago in a car accident. He was the guy.