The Pusher

Album: Steppenwolf (1968)
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Songfacts®:

  • This song is about a drug dealer. It is one of the first songs to deal with harsh realities of drug use, and condemns "the pusher" as a heartless criminal who is only after your money.
  • Hoyt Axton wrote this song after one of his friends died of a drug overdose. Axton struggled with addiction for much of his life and was keen on exposing the dangers, which he did on "The Pusher" and on another song recorded by Steppenwolf: "Snowblind Friend."

    Axton had a viable solo career at the time, but when his album My Griffin Is Gone flamed out in 1969, he focused on writing for other artists and landed a #1 when Three Dog Night did "Joy To The World," which Steppenwolf rejected.
  • In the mid-'60s, "The Pusher" was popularized by a Canadian group called The Sparrows, who played it as a long jam during their concerts. Three members of that group - lead singer John Kay, organist Goldy McJohn, and drummer Jerry Edmonton - formed Steppenwolf in 1967 and recorded a much shorter, more radio-friendly version for their first album, released in 1968.

    In a Songfacts interview with John Kay, he explained how he came across the song. "In the summer of 1964, after having been an East Coast guy in Toronto, and later in Buffalo, New York, I was in Los Angeles," he said. "This was the folk music revival, and I played in little coffeehouses. But the places where the pros played were The Ash Grove - which was where traditional people like Son House performed - and The Troubadour in West Hollywood. I hung out there in order to learn from the pros that played there. I hung out there so much that Doug Weston, the owner of The Troubadour, said, 'I can use you at the box office. I'll pay you a buck an hour.'

    But the main reason for me to be there was to learn, and one of the guys that played there regularly was Hoyt Axton. I immediately liked what he played - a bluesy-styled acoustic guitar. And he had a voice that I really liked. He wrote songs that connected, and one of them, of course, was 'The Pusher,' which brought down the house every time he played it.

    It's a simple three-chord song, and I learned it. I did not really meet Hoyt at that time, even though I was hanging around, so when I hitchhiked back to the East Coast with my guitar on my shoulder and wound up in Toronto in a coffeehouse, 'The Pusher' had become part of my solo acoustic repertoire and found its way into The Sparrows, which was the Canadian band I joined. So, when The Sparrows eventually migrated from Toronto through New York and to LA and busted up there, from the ashes of that band was formed Steppenwolf."
  • Along with Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild," this was featured in the 1969 movie Easy Rider, starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. The film is considered a landmark of '60s counterculture, and using this song in the movie was important because it portrayed the downside of doing drugs.
  • The lyrics certainly "pushed" the limits as to what was acceptable for broadcast in 1968. It was far from the first song to make abundant and obvious drug references, but it was the first major release to include the phrase "God damn," which appears in the line, "God damn the pusher man." The following year, the Grateful Dead included the epithet in their song "Uncle John's Band."

Comments: 15

  • AnonymousDoes anybody know what song was on the flip side of Stephen Wolf 45 The Pusher
  • Bobby Bird from Cedar Hills, UtI remember listening to the B side of a Steppemwolf 45 that begins with a great drum lick. Can't find it. Can you help me find it?
  • Billy D from Tennessee Hoyt hit the lyrics, but Steppenwolf made the song sing. God bless Hoyt and the Vietnam Veterans who, like me, had these lyrics go though your head. Thanks, Steppenwolf
  • P.sinclair from Spring Hill, Fl@Johnny: If he never touched nothin' that his spirit could kill, doesn't that mean he's never touched less-addictive drugs? Not trying to be a wise-ass, I've just always wondered what this lyric means. Following the direction of his lyrics, it seems like it would make more sense to say "I never touched nothin' that my spirit COULDN'T kill.
  • Randy from Fayettevile, Ar"The Pusher" is a powerful & controversial song from Steppenwolf's first album. I bought it in '68 when I heard "Born To Be Wild" on radio and it became the talk of the rock world. I remember all the "fuss" about Steppenwolf back then in '68 and a lot of rock music magazines wrote much about the band and John Kay. Then when both songs were in the soundtrack of "Easy Rider"it just boosted the songs & the band's popularity. Now s ome of you may remember 1968 & some probably weren't born for a long time yet, but 1968 was a year of change & turmoil in the USA. Leaders were assassinated. The Vietnam War nearly tore this country apart politically. And the rock music world was expanding with so much creativity from The Beatles, The Doors, Steppenwolf, and more. Acid rock, psychedelic rock, folk rock, country rock, & more were popular & growing. FM underground radio was growing in the late 60s and early 70s. I remember many such stations were all across the USA. I loved the FM underground radio in Kansas City for playing allnight music that was wild, rocking, bizarre, raunchy, strange, dirty, and sonic. They often played lots of Steppenwolf, including "The Pusher" in the wee hours. A lot of listeners were probably well stoned. Loved by the hippy communes around KC back then. They played one album by The Sparrow which had terrible sound of a live performance. I had bought the same album a few months earlier in '70 and the cover said it was "early Steppenwolf." Actually, it wasn't. It was the early Sparrow, way before they morphed into Steppenwolf, but "The Pusher" was on the album.....barely audible! Disappointment. But when Steppenwolf put it on their debut album & it was in "Easy Rider" too, it became a rock & a youth anthem. It brought a lot of attention to Steppenwolf. It's one powerful and raw song that's for sure, but it ain't a satire! No one back in the late Sixties ever regarded it less than a classic.
  • Ern from Fresno, CaThis song ain't no SATIRE!???? It's down on Smack(Heroin) and up on M.J.) Don't step on the grass Sam). Simple, You probably read tons of Crap into Floyd songs,Huh?
  • Ern from Fresno, CaAnd then Sparrow morphed into Steppenwolf.
  • Charles from Glenside, PaThe 'pusher' in this case could be any sort of predator, exploiting people's weaknesses (and intensifying them as well) to assure his own greater gain, no matter what harm might befall his prey.
  • Linda from Omaha, Nedon't forget Jack Nickleson. He also starred in Easy Rider
  • Warrinder from A Town, CanadaThe actual name of the band was Jack London and the Sparrows. John Kay replaced Jack London and they became known as Sparrow.
  • Johnny from Los Angeles, CaThe Pusher sells hardcore drugs like Cocaine and Heroin. The Dealer sells less-addictive drugs, like pot and LSD: "You know I smoked a lot of grass. Oh Lord! I popped a lot of pills.But I've never touched nothin'That my spirit could kill."
  • Snake from Catasauqua, PaIMHO, the song contrasts the Pusher, who will sell you drugs that leave your mind to scream and who doesn't care if you live or if you die; with the dealer, the man with the love grass in his hand who for a nickel will sell you lots of sweet dreams.

    Rather than being a one dimensional screed against all drugs, i think the song points out that there are drugs that consume one's soul and drugs that lend themselves to enhancing life. Steppenwolf was pro marijuana legalization as in their song "don't step on the grass, Sam".
  • Joe from Bethlahem, PaSteppenwolf is really underrate, the Pusher is their best song.
  • Mike from Hamilton, CanadaI'm pretty sure the song is a satire. "I'd kill him with my bible, and my razor and my gun...." From the beards and their other lyrics (The Monster), I doubt that the guys owned any. Also, they contrast the "Dealer" and the "Pusher". The Dealer sells "sweet dreams" and "love grass" (not a "lump of grass" as in the lyrics here). The Pusher "is a Monster", is "not a natural man", and he "don't care if you live -- or if you die". Might the Pusher be a preacher?
  • Tony from Westbury, NyActually, The Sparrow was the original name of the band that would morph into Steppenwolf after a few personnel changes. John Kay was the lead vocalists of both incarnations. The Dunhill album "Early Steppenwolf" includes a side-long 17+ minute version of The Sparrow take on "The Pusher"
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