Vietnam War veteran Don Clark of Costa Mesa was one of three army soldiers who rode in a gunner truck named Steppenwolf. On Sunday, Clark plans to see the band Steppenwolf for the first time at the OC Fair. (KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot / July 21, 2014)

"They just didn't like us when we came back," Clark says.

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The 'Monster' endures

As the upheaval of the '60s raged back home, not everyone liked Kay and Steppenwolf either. Still, young record buyers caught on to their aggressive sound, and the top 10 smashes came one after another: "Born to Be Wild," "Magic Carpet Ride," "Rock Me."

While Clark's company made perilous treks into the jungle, Kay lived the life of a rising pop star. But he often encountered reminders that his fans put up with hairier problems than unruly festival crowds.

One such time came in Hawaii in 1968, when Steppenwolf played to an audience that Kay describes as "a couple of thousand long-haired Hawaiian kids." Within that crowd was a cluster of about a dozen nearly hairless young men, and when Kay met a pair of them after the show, they explained that they had returned from Vietnam and were headed back.

The troops mentioned something else: They had bought a Steppenwolf cassette at the Army post exchange and often played it when they ventured into the bush.

"It became obvious to me: This is the first rock 'n' roll war," Kay says, speaking by phone from his home in Santa Barbara.

Kay, who founded Steppenwolf in 1967, was well aware of his status as a cultural icon, and he and his band addressed social concerns in their music: the perils of drugs in "The Pusher," marijuana laws in "Don't Step on the Grass, Sam." The 1969 concept album "Monster" decried U.S. injustice from colonial days to Vietnam.

In the decades since, Kay has spoken with Greeks and Brazilians who told him they listened to Steppenwolf for inspiration — in secret — while living under military dictatorships. A journalist recently told him that he listened to the "Monster" album in an open-air vehicle en route from Baghdad to Fallujah.

"To a great extent, the royalty of the support base that we enjoy to this day was forged by the fact that we didn't just have yet another hummable ditty that you could dance to, that you'll remember because that was the song you danced to with Peggy Sue at the prom — which is perfectly fine and legitimate, you know?" Kay says. "It's nostalgia.

"But the songs that we're talking about that had the really lasting connection were things that the guys who were in Vietnam took with them into the bush."

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Coming to terms

Kay saw another proof of that connection when Clark's wife, who urged her husband to attend Steppenwolf's OC Fair concert, emailed a newspaper story to the band's website. The Times-News in Idaho had run a front-page package in June about Clark reuniting with his three Vietnam comrades, and the story mentioned the Steppenwolf truck more than once.

The band's webmaster posted the article as the top item on the home page. Under the headline "Vietnam Veterans Reunite after 44 Years" is a photo of Clark, Paton, Sanders and Engstrom standing side by side before a rocky landscape.

With the other two living far outside Southern California, Clark and Sanders will be the only members of the group to attend Sunday's show. And even that wasn't a given for Clark — at least not if the past was any indication. When Steppenwolf played the OC Fair before, he stayed home.

Why? Clark chooses his words carefully.

"You've got to get your mind-set to," he starts and then pauses. "I don't know what it is. Certain things could bother you. It brings back things that you don't want to remember. Now we're all sort of better."

Clark had more than a few adjustments to make when he returned home from combat. His first marriage disintegrated, and civilian life sometimes felt jarring. After a few years as a truck driver, he started a landscaping company and worked outdoors, which he prefered, until he retired.