Rosilee was expecting Fat Old Man. "You know," she says. "Balding, beer belly, beard, maybe with a Windbreaker, a big old Harley biker kind of guy."
Nick, he was expecting a stylish black woman large enough to fill an auditorium with song. "I mean, somebody who would match that huge, soulful voice I'd heard on the tape."
Nick waited for Rosilee at the garage off the highway in Ventura. Got the amps hooked up. Told the guys in the band: Turn down the volume, don't blow her out, we need to hear her sing, we need to let her voice come through. The guys, all thunderous rock players and veterans of the annual Buffalo Chip Bike Rally in Sturgis, S. D., nodded: Sure, Nick. Whatever you want.
Nick didn't actually know what he wanted, but that doesn't matter. He just knew it would be "unlike anything I'd experienced."
Rosilee pulled up, fresh from Rapid City, S. D., and presented her delicate, 100-pound white self, girlfriend in tow. "For protection," said Rosilee.
Right off, things went clank: confused arrangements, awful dynamics, strained nerves. Rosilee asked the band to turn up the amps and crank things out hard. She wanted to rock. The guys looked at Nick, smiling. Then, they hit it.
"In two bars, I could hear it, it was clear to me," says Nick. "One of the most amazing voices I've ever heard. I was in awe of her."
Rosilee Stahl Kahler, in her early 20s, had lived the life of a church mouse. Her musical environment was defined by Rapid City's Faith Temple Pentecostal Church, where she would play organ and sing before the all-black choir. Before that, she had sung in her father's Pentecostal church in Deadwood. Growing up, she had heard of Elvis but really didn't know popular music, because in her house TV and radio were forbidden. She arrived at the Ventura garage having never heard of the Rolling Stones.
Nick St. Nicholas, 51 years old, is another story. Been around the block. A once-famous guy too. Nick was the bassist for the band Steppenwolf, touring the world from 1968 to 1971 on "Born to Be Wild" and "Magic Carpet Ride" and flying through pharmacologic space with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin before vanishing altogether, only to re-emerge in the mid-1980s as a biker hero with a no-record band called the Wolf.
"Bikers don't forget," says Nick. "They are my friends."
The Wolf was always a hit at the Sturgis rally, held annually. But in 1990, the promoter wanted to introduce Rosilee, then an emerging talent on Rapid City gospel radio.
Rosilee had no band. Nick, kicking around Ventura doing lighting for such events as the Ojai Beauty Pageant and the Oxnard High School Football Celebration, got the call.
Of course, Rosilee had never heard of Steppenwolf, much less Nick St. Nicholas, whose real name is Nicklaus Kassbaum. But that wouldn't matter. Because there, in the rent-it-yourself warehouse off the Ventura Freeway, in a garage leased to a bar band called Splintrz, two individuals from the very poles of existence and experience would meet to rehearse, forge a musical union and spark a love that would pry them from bad marriages and glue them together. They'd wind up, improbably, in Oxnard, where they now live in a house with a croquet court, a dog named Heidi, a pinball machine and, in the garage, a pink Cadillac.
At night, Nick and Rosilee play the local bar scene--at the Deer Lodge in Ojai, for instance, or the Palms in Carpinteria. Always they get the place jumping, the Wolf-based band doing, among other things, Bonnie Raitt cover tunes and obligatory renditions of "Born to Be Wild."
But by day, at their home in Oxnard, they practice not rock 'n' roll but country music. Hank Williams, Travis Tritt, Merle Haggard, and a growing store of original material. It's the country music that will, they are convinced, deliver unto them their next life: for the once-cloistered Rosilee, a recording contract and a tour and, maybe, fame; for the once-famous Nick, a state of grace, a surprise return to commercial vitality.
Says Nick: "We recently visited Nashville and left a buzz with producers there. I feel it. It's going to happen. I just am very dedicated to Rosilee. I would do anything for her. I want to get her signed to a record label, and then I want to sit back and light a cigar."
Says Rosilee: "I only want to do what I am here to do: sing and make people feel good. It's been hard to get to the place where I could say that. There's been a lot of pain along the way. But out of the pain has come this, and I am so grateful for it."
Rosilee's first out-of-church performance was at Sturgis before a mere 30,000 bikers. Rosilee grew up knowing Sturgis only as "the forbidden zone--a place you just never go to." She and Nick opened for Tanya Tucker.
Rosilee was so petrified that she feared she would forget lyrics. So she brought cue cards and spread them out on the stage in front of her. Nick made note of it but said nothing. He was still getting over the fact that Rosilee had arrived at the rally in a white Mercedes with an entourage of girlfriends carrying dresses and a full-length mirror for Rosilee to primp by. Rosilee wanted to look right. No matter that much of the audience was hairy and sleeveless--or, in the case of many of the "biker women," shirtless and braless, a sight that would prompt Rosilee to divert her eyes.
Still, Rosilee steeled herself.
" 'This is your chance,' I said to myself. 'You can't embarrass these people. You must do this right. You can't let them down,' " she recalls.
After an opening rendition of "Let the Good Times Roll," Rosilee and Nick set into "Hey, Bartender," and the place exploded.
Rosilee felt palpable relief. "Oh, I like this," she told herself.
There would be other challenges, though. Comedian Sam Kinison, who trafficked in obscenity, was performing. Rosilee squirreled away backstage and stuffed cotton in her ears. After all, until her teen-age years she would cry upon hearing the F-word.
She and Nick were such a hit, however, that the promoter invited them to open on each of the eight nights, for the Marshall Tucker Band, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Joan Jett, Eric Burdon, and others. The Wolf, while they had opened for plenty of big-name bands at previous festivals, never played the entire rally. Rosilee and Nick knew they were onto something.
But so did Rosilee's husband, a preacher and businessman. He'd picked up the newspaper the morning after Rosilee's debut only to read a glowing review that cited her rendition of "Hey, Bartender." Things got very ugly. But Rosilee was resolute. She reported to work on time each night, and brought the place down.
Things got more complicated still. Nick, whose angular looks at times recall Jim Morrison, was hardly Fat Old Man. He's a fit, rugged fellow whose aquamarine eyes are as hauntingly luminous as they are gentle and warm. Moreover, he'd been Rosilee's touchstone.
"I was in a world I did not know," says Rosilee. "He was there for me in every way. And he had this presence. Always, a presence. On the fourth day, I just started feeling: I have to see Nick. I had these feelings. And I thought: 'Oh, no. I'll mess up my life even more than it is.' "
She told him she loved him. He said nothing. She thought: "Great, now I'll get fired."
He would allow, two days later, that he "had feelings as well," but nothing happened. Nick, too, was married--to his fourth wife.
Rosilee, miserable and at home after the Sturgis concert, thought her life was ending. Her secret TV was in a black plastic bag in the bedroom closet. She'd pull it out and watch it until she heard her husband's diesel Mercedes approach the house. From watching "Oprah" to performing at Sturgis, her life approached unreality. Her depression became so great that she lay in bed for two weeks, at one point crawling to the phone in a failed attempt "to report a nervous breakdown."
Nick, for his part, was having trouble with his wife, at home in Ventura. She, perhaps prophetically, was jealous of Rosilee.
Love wormed its way in. It was only months before Nick would return to South Dakota, this time with a U-Haul truck.
Rosilee had strengthened. She had decided: "I am going to escape. It's either now or never. I am going to California, where all the people who don't fit in--artistic, smart individuals--fit in. And I will be with Nick."
Nick had no problems with this. And things couldn't have been more in the open on the day that Nick, once one of America's great rebel icons, showed up to take a church-bred, gospel-singing girl half his age on the journey westward.
"We all stood there in the kitchen--me, my husband, and Nick," says Rosilee. "And I said we were going. And my husband, who'd had little to say, just turned to Nick and said, 'Nick, take good care of my wife.' And Nick said, 'I will.' "
Nick St. Nicholas, when Steppenwolf was touring, was awash in money. In fact, his life was ridiculous.
An off day in London meant hopping in the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud assigned to him and being driven to a lake to go sailing. That's when he was behaving. An odd day in New York meant performing on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and pressing the edges of network prudishness by telling Sullivan, on the show, that his favorite rock group was a Manhattan band called the Fugs. To which Sullivan, in a panic, replied: "Oh, the Frogs." Only to be corrected twice by the boyishly innocent bassist of Steppenwolf. Against all odds, the complete exchange aired. Today, Nick watches a video of the segment in wry disbelief.
All of it went away, however: the money, the fame, the music. Nick was the first of Steppenwolf's sidemen to be fired, in 1971, by lead singer John Kay, who continues to tour and record with a reconstituted Steppenwolf. Kay is, after all, the unmistakable dark-edged voice on "Pusher Man" and "Born to Be Wild."
But Nick, who had originally drawn Kay into the Toronto band the Sparrow, Steppenwolf's precursor, decided to regroup with fellow firees and tour anew as Steppenwolf. Bitterness and lawsuits would follow, halting Nick's use of the Steppenwolf name, and there continue to be wranglings over royalties from the original band's salad days. By 1979 Nick St. Nicholas hit bottom. His money ran out. He hit the skids with his second wife and left his home in the Hollywood Hills for Minnesota.
"I went there for 10 years to hide," he says.
Nick was always an outsider of sorts. When he was born Nicklaus Kassbaum in Ploen, Germany, his family was at risk before the Nazis and thus needed to flee. Jewish friends helped them. Ultimately, they would get to Toronto. Nick was 9. It all looked so strange.
"For one thing, I didn't know that military tanks weren't everywhere, tearing everything apart, because back home they were rolling up and down the streets all the time. Their absence actually confused me."
And then there were the lederhosen--the leather shorts and suspenders now considered Alpine kitsch. It's what Nick wore to school, what got him laughed at by schoolmates. The family had little to no money, having left everything in Germany, and Nick's father lived by the buck-up ethic; Nick would get no new clothes. Nick would continue to get laughed at. He also remembers feeling a distinct anti-Jewish sentiment from some of the teachers at his elementary school.
School was a disaster. Nick couldn't wait to get out, find an escape. He excelled at sports, though, and played on Toronto's championship hockey team. He worked at a local movie theater at night, taking tickets, and there had his first encounter with bikers, Toronto's Black Diamond Riders. Nick would let them in the theater for free.
"I just liked them, and they sure liked me," he says, "though my parents freaked when they knew I'd made friends with them."
His father, who opened a skating rink, and his mother, who became director of correspondence courses at the University of Toronto, decided that Germany might, after all, help Nick. At 17 he was sent to a professor uncle's house in Hamburg. Nick went to school, all right, but also tried out and won a position on the city's professional hockey team. "This was great," he says, "because I could play and drink beer too."
Within a year, his uncle remanded him to Toronto, and he would spend a year at the prestigious Ontario College of Art, studying painting and sculpture. In the summer, the soon-to-be-wild Nick St. Nicholas was a counselor at a YMCA camp.
But music was taking its hold. Duane Eddie. Johnny and the Hurricanes. Johnny Cash. Elvis. Little Richard. Chuck Berry. Nick, who had picked up the bass, found himself glued to the TV, watching America's Dick Clark.
Nick finally moved out, on his own, to Yorkville, Toronto's Greenwich Village, befriending Joni Mitchell, Rick James and The Band's Rick Danko. He played in a number of bands, crucially the Mynah Birds, in which James and Neil Young sang, and the Sparrow, whose lead singing position would be filled by John Kay.
The Sparrow played New York for a while but things ultimately fizzled. Then, the key play: Nick convinced everyone that before returning to a dismal rock scene in Toronto they should make one last effort, Out West, in California, penniless or not. He was the only one with a valid driver's license, and, with $600 in outstanding New York parking tickets, he drove continuously until he reached the Tropicana motel, on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. They got a gig at Whiskey-A-Go-Go.
Things went fairly well. They migrated to the San Francisco Bay area. Nick would leave the band to form the group TIME, and the band he left behind would become Steppenwolf. But Steppenwolf's bassist on the original album featuring "Born to Be Wild" quickly defected, and as the band was about to commence its first tour, Nick was sought to rejoin the group. He did. And within weeks he found himself being flown from crushing weekend concert crowds back to Beverly Hills so he could attend Monday morning meetings to discuss the next great wave of recording sessions, concerts, promotions and fame.
It all seemed so limitless.
It was, sort of. Nick calls 1971 through 1977 "the money years," largely from royalties, in which "I felt I could do whatever I wanted." Among his desires was marriage.
"Instead of having girlfriends, I just had wives," he says. "I was addicted to getting married. I always wanted so badly to have a family and make things work that way." Nick, however, is quick to make plain that he failed, at least once, to perhaps allow enough time to choose well.
"My second marriage? That was incredible, even to me now. She was a model. The first night we were together, I just said: 'Will you marry me?' Well, that lasted two months."
Nick did get a family. He has two sons, Jesse and Devin, by his third wife, who lives with the boys in Minneapolis.
Minneapolis, where Nick went in 1979 "to hide," would be important in many ways. America's Harley-Davidson crowd, not unlike the Canadian Black Diamond Riders whom Nick had sneaked in to the movies years before, found Nick down and out, ever the outsider. Nick's total assets upon arrival in Minneapolis were $500 cash and a new van.
To get by, he quickly started his new band, the Wolf.
"The bikers picked me up when I was down," Nick says, measuring words against rising tears. "They supported me musically, helped keep it together. I will never forget that. They are a trustworthy people, and someday I will make it up to them."
It is 9:30 p.m. on Friday at The Palms in Carpinteria, and Rosilee and Nick, with their current band Greenwheels, are churning out a set of country tunes. They will, in successive sets, turn to more danceable and familiar rock tunes, but already they are devoting performance time to honing their supple, 4/4 play-on-the-beat Hank Williams rhythms and crisp country harmonies. They're trying out more of the stuff they brought, on tape, to Nashville to entice producers.
Their delight is bannered in huge stretch smiles. Nick drives the rhythm with his thick bass while Rosilee plays keyboard and fills the front room, the noisy bar, the cavernous dining room, and a chunk of Linden Avenue's north sidewalk with her voice.
Consider, for a moment, the voice: one moment high and bright and filled with light, darting sparrow-like between entire keys; another moment deep and burnished and dark and resonant, with such velocity and weight that it could not possibly emanate from a place so small as Rosilee Stahl Kahler.
But it does.
She knows it. Nick does too.
They're as confident in that voice as they are in their love for each other.
"Nick turned my life around," Rosilee will say, straight-faced.
"She's like an answer to a prayer," Nick will say, straight-faced.
Which brings up, if only by hint, the matter of church.
Rosilee still goes. And Nick, never conspicuous in his devotions, has been taken a few times.
Soon after moving into their Oxnard home, Rosilee went to the store and bought Nick a gift: the first suit ever to be in his wardrobe. Rosilee told him to put it on, that they were walking to Oxnard Boulevard to go to church.
They entered Morning Star (Pentacostal) Church of God in Christ. During the service, Nick watched Rosilee whisper to the choir director, and then, to the apparent chagrin of singing choir members, sit down at the organ mid-song--a brazen, unknown, off-the-street white woman in a mostly black church. Rosilee hit the keys, sang into the mike. It was That Voice.
Cocked eyebrows gave way to smiles. Soon the entire congregation was on its feet. Rosilee, it seemed, had descended from the skies.
The organist was out sick that day, they would learn, and churchgoers had prayed for his health and support in the making of God's music. Rosilee, clearly, was their answer.
Nick, in the same awe that struck him at the Ventura garage, stood upright in his new suit. He was asked repeatedly to testify. At first confused and unsure of what was expected, he then began to speak, randomly but simply and softly, as he always does.
"Thank you," he recalls saying. "I am very happy to be here."