Some Thoughts on Fame: Fleeting and Otherwise



Rushton Moreve and John Russell Morgan were the same person.

Who is Moreve/Morgan, you ask, and why should you care?

Unless you’re a fan of classic rock, the names mean nothing to you and there’s no particular reason why they should. Moreve had his brief moment of fame 46 years ago and then faded into obscurity. Today his legacy, such as it is, remains two-fold: creating the bass line which led to the writing of a psychedelic rock classic and the strange notion, perpetuated by rock encyclopedias, that he was two people.

For the record, Moreve was the original bassist of Steppenwolf—the leather-and-rock band best known for “Born to Be Wild.” He is also listed as co-writer of their other enduring hit, “Magic Carpet Ride,” for which he created that seminal bass line. He appears on the first two albums, Steppenwolf and The Second, both released in 1968, and then was fired from the band. 

According to VH1’s Behind the Music TV special, Moreve became convinced that the state of California, where the group was based, would suffer a massive earthquake and fall into the Pacific Ocean. He refused to return to California for a television appearance with the group and was sacked.

History, of course, has proved his dire prediction wrong: California survived, but Moreve’s promising career did not. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1981, at age 32.

As far as the name confusion goes, Wikipedia (which, we all know, can’t always be trusted except that sometimes it can) says John Russell Morgan was his real name. Why he changed it, I’m not sure. It could be that Steppenwolf’s other famous John—lead singer John Kay—did not want to confuse fans by having more than one John in the band. (Kay had earlier persuaded keyboard player John Goadsby to change his name to the more memorable Goldy McJohn).  

The real question is why do rock encyclopedias such as The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock (first edition, 1977) and VH1’s Music First Rock Stars Encyclopedia (1999) perpetuate the myth that Moreve and Morgan were two different people? Both claim that Morgan replaced Moreve.

(His actual replacement was Nick St. Nicholas, but that’s another strange story.)

So, why does any of this matter?

I think of Moreve and other obscure rock 'n' rollers from time to time when I think of what it means to be a writer and how becoming famous is all tied up into this idea that you can create something (a book, a screenplay, a poem, or a hit song) and part of you becomes immortal. Every time “Magic Carpet Ride” is played in a movie such as Apollo 13 or on commercials such as Miller Genuine Draft, a bit of Moreve lives on.

And one imagines that some compensation makes its way to Moreve’s survivors every time the song appears. Commercial creativity: the gift that keeps on giving.

But Moreve’s story also reminds me that fame is double-edged. It tosses its celebrities of the moment into the air and then slices them in two like a colorful scarf discarded by a carnival swordsman. To be sure, famous people sometimes make stupid mistakes—such as missing a gig because of an unfounded belief in earthquakes. But, more often than not, fame runs its course. The heroes of today must struggle harder and harder to compete for relevancy with the heroes of tomorrow.

(And, in some ways, Steppenwolf’s post-Moreve career typifies this struggle. Although the group recorded several albums in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, its popularity waned following the heady success of “Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride.” Today, Kay leads his own version of Steppenwolf without any other original members.)

Another point of view is that it’s better to have some fame—if fame is what you want—than none at all. To accomplish what you set out to do—publish a book or place a song on the charts—is a phenomenal achievement that comparatively few can match. It may not be true immortality, but it is something you can look back on with pride and say, “I did that.” 

And, decades later, you may find yourself mentioned in someone else's book, TV special, or blog.

Just make sure they know you're the same person.


Comments

Dennis Young said…
Nice article Greg, but what song do you refer to regarding the comment "creating the bass line which led to the writing of a psychedelic rock classic"?

Curious. ???
"Magic Carpet Ride," which is identified in the next couple of paragraphs.
I've edited the post so it's a bit clearer.
Dennis Young said…
Magic Carpet Ride is a great song, but I'd hardly consider it psychedelic. More straight rock, IMO. Jimi Hendrix "Are You Experienced" and other songs from that album are what I'd consider psychedelic, and headlined the "psychedelic" period of music, mid-60's through the late 70's.
Dennis Young said…
Magic Carpet Ride is a great song, but I'd hardly consider it psychedelic. More straight rock, IMO. Jimi Hendrix "Are You Experienced" and other songs from that album are what I'd consider psychedelic, and headlined the "psychedelic" period of music, mid-60's through the late 70's.
The thing about labels in music, Denny, is that they're always open to interpretation. "Magic Carpet Ride," with its somewhat ambiguous lyrics ("Fantasy will set you free") sort of captures the spirit of the psychedelic era, don't you think?

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