Saturday Single No. 4

Originally posted March 3, 2007

In the absence of some deeper theme today, I thought I’d put forward a Saturday Single that relates somehow to our recent happenings: snow.

Turns out that songs about snow aren’t all that common, if one accepts that the 17,000 mp3s in my collection are a good cross-section of the musical universe. Rain, now, that’s a different story. A search through the collection brings up at least 200 songs with the word “rain” in their title, and perhaps another fifty or so more with the word “rain” in the album title I can’t be more specific because RealPlayer’s search engine brought up anything with the cluster of letters “rain,” including every song with “train” in its title and everything from George Harrison’s Brainwashed album. So I scrolled through the 442 results from “rain” and guessed.

Let’s say my guess is off by a hundred and that there are only 100 songs about rain in the collection. Well, that’s still a far cry from the fourteen songs I found with “snow” in their title or album title. (I had to eliminate, of course, the songs the search engine found performed by Phoebe Snow.) And that ratio of at least 100 songs to fourteen seems about right, I think. Rain is a far more evocative subject for a song, and far more universal. Snow isn’t nearly as romantic or as widely experienced.

And it turns out that one of the better songs about snow wasn’t about snow at all, or at least not the type of snow that falls from the sky. It’s Steppenwolf’s 1970 release, “Snowblind Friend,” a message song about the perils of cocaine. It was written by Hoyt Axton, an incredibly prolific composer – the earlier Steppenwolf anthem “The Pusher” and Three Dog Night’s hits “Joy to the World” and “Never Been To Spain” are just three of the hits credited to his pen – and occasional performer.

As preachy as he might have been, Axton was right. And although lead singer John Kay’s delivery remains a bit overblown – as it was to good effect on many of Steppenwolf’s recordings – the song remains a nice period piece. Released as a single on ABC-Dunhill, the song failed to make the Top 40, which might mean that Steppenwolf’s preaching was something its audience didn’t want to hear, or it might simply have meant that Steppenwolf’s time was ending.

I tend to think it was a combination of the two: The group had reached the Top 40 six times previously, starting with 1968’s “Born To Be Wild.” There would be one more Top 40 single, “Straight Shootin’ Woman,” a 1974 single I don’t think I’ve ever heard. Seven hit singles and seven albums is a pretty good run for a group in those days. And as All-Music Guide notes, an anthem about the toll of cocaine was not likely to boost the sales of Steppenwolf 7 in 1970, which was certainly a time when the costs of personal behaviors weren’t always taken seriously.

I would guess that the subject matter of “Snowblind Friend” simply made it easier for listeners to begin to ignore Steppenwolf. There would be one more album for ABC-Dunhill (1971’s For Ladies Only), but Steppenwolf’s moment was ending at about the time “Snowblind Friend” was released.

Of course, as I said earlier, Steppenwolf and writer Axton were right about the toll of cocaine (and, by extension, other recreational pharmaceuticals). And, of course, the snow flurries of 1970 turned into a blizzard of recreational use by the late 1970s, with the advent of disco and clubbing and the “lines on the mirror,” as Don Henley sang. Perhaps Steppenwolf’s problem wasn’t that the song was too preachy. Maybe it was just too early.

“Snowblind Friend”  by Steppenwolf [From Seven; single was Dunhill/ABC 4269, 1970]

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