Steppenwolf singer John Kay rarely gives interviews. He has pretty much left the music scene behind, choosing instead to focus on conservation efforts through his Maue Kay Foundation, in Nashville, Tennessee. So it was a surprise when he granted this reporter one, and not just for five minutes, but for 40.
I could’ve gone on a lot longer with Kay, his career being so rich, but he had an appointment afterwards, and, if nothing else, Kay is meticulous, far from the wild-child image of classic Steppenwolf sixties hits like, “Born To Be Wild,” and, “The Pusher,” both of which are on the soundtrack of the award-winning, counterculture 1969 flick, Easy Rider.
In fact, Kay, 79, called precisely on time for our chat, in my experience rare for rock stars. I found the man to be thoughtful and smart, with a good business sense. He was also unassuming, consistent with his persona in his autobiography, John Kay: Magic Carpet Ride.
This interview has been published in various parts before, but here, for the first time, and with minor edits, is the chat in its entirety.
Jim Clash: I grew up listening to Steppenwolf. The band was a staple with my generation. I remember you as looking cool with those sunglasses in most every photo. But there is more to that story than cool, correct?
John Kay: I have what is known as achromatopsia, a birth defect. There are about 40,000 of us in North America. It comes in two flavors: one, extreme light sensitivity, hence the dark glasses; and two, total color blindness. My whole world is essentially black-and-white photography. I also have a genital astigmatism in my left eye. Banded altogether, these issues make me legally blind. I don’t drive on public streets. I’m very familiar with Uber [laughs]. In fact, I just came from a doctor’s appointment using it.
Clash: Interesting. Other than looking cool most of the time, was there anything else positive that your condition gave you?
Kay: Well, at night when other people can’t see, I’m like a bush baby [Galago]. I don’t have to squint, wear the sunglasses. I can see better than normally-sighted people in near total darkness. The eyes also kept me out of [the] Vietnam [War]. The first letter I got when I arrived in Buffalo, New York, was from the draft board. As George Carlin so eloquently stated: “Military intelligence is an oxymoron.”
I went in, as ordered, for a physical, and attempted to instruct the officer that I was legally blind. I didn’t get to finish my sentence before he said, “Son, we’ll get to that later.”
So, after an hour of top-to-bottom inspections, he told me to read the eye chart on the wall. I said, “I’m sorry, sir, from where I am I don’t see a chart. I’m legally blind.” He was going to say, “Well, you could’ve told me that…” but stopped himself when he remembered that I had attempted to tell him, but he cut me off [laughs].
In any case, he told me my draft card would say 4F. I asked what that meant. He said, “Between you and me, son, it means women and children will go before you. Nobody’s going to give you a weapon.” Back then, in the mid-sixties, my peer group was very concerned about going oversees. Some wound up in Canada, some elsewhere, but I was relatively exempt from Vietnam.
Clash: Much of your Steppenwolf material was seen as anti-establishment, avant garde at the time, especially the song, “The Pusher,” with lyrics like, “Goddamn the pusher man.” Talk about that one, how it came to be and the reactions.
Kay: I saw Hoyt Axton perform at Troubadour in West Hollywood. He had written that song. At the time, there was a folk music revival. I was playing acoustic guitar in minor-league coffeehouses, but also hanging out at Troubadour to hear the professionals, see what I could learn.
“The Pusher” really brought down the house, and connected with me, very simple to learn. After hitchhiking back from California to Toronto, where I had gone to high school, I joined a Canadian band, The Sparrows. We played an electric version of, “The Pusher.”
At first, there were no issues. The song was five minutes, too long for the singles played on AM radio. However, the then-new underground FM stations, before Chevrolet and Coca-Cola were advertising and which mostly long-haired kids listened to, started playing it. The only advertising on those stations was the guy who ran a bell-bottom jeans store down the road. “The Pusher” was on Steppenwolf’s first album, before, “Born To Be Wild.”
What we had to say there resonated with our age group. Later, when underground stations became more mainstream, you heard little bits and pieces coming from certain markets, saying, “They won’t let us play that song anymore because now we have IBM, whomever, advertising. We can’t afford to lose listeners. Somebody’s going to get their bowels in an uproar [laughs].”
On YouTube, you can find video of my appearance on Speaking Freely, a show operated by the First Amendment Center. It has on different people talking about censorship, long and involved stories. In Winston-Salem [North Carolina], for example, they were going to cancel our show because of, “The Pusher.” Watch that video, and you’ll hear the entire story. It was a song that, in the early days, flew under the radar, but later became a bone of contention.
Clash: “The Pusher,” and other hits like, “Born To Be Wild,” and, “Magic Carpet Ride,” you’ve probably performed thousands of times live. Did the repetition ever get boring?
Kay: Others may have different ways of avoiding that, or just grit their teeth. I never dared. Our reason for having been on that stage – I retired Steppenwolf in 2018 – was that the people in front of you all saw something in what you had to offer that caused them to buy your albums, come to see your shows. So when we performed, “Magic Carpet Ride, ” and the other hits, there’s an incredibly enthusiastic response.
That’s the energy we thrive on. When they hear the first two or three beats, they’re on their feet. By giving everything you have, you pay them back, maybe change a tiny piece of their lives that night. Some come in from God knows where, maybe 500 miles away.
We’ve gone through different band member changes over the decades, and I always tell them, particularly the new ones, “Our job is to send everyone home smiling.” When we’re done with the “Born To Be Wild” version as it is on the single, though, we stretch it out, jam on it. That’s where we get to play around.
But you don’t ever touch what’s been so deeply burned into the memory banks of listeners. They may have played that record until they wore it out. They know exactly how it should sound, and you play it exactly that way. It’s your obligation.
Clash: Let’s discuss the film, Easy Rider, and the soundtrack to it.
Kay: “Born To Be Wild,” as well as, “The Pusher,” are two of several songs by other artists on that soundtrack. But, “Born To Be Wild,” was at the beginning of the film, when Dennis [Hopper] and Peter [Fonda] rev up their motorcycles, so it’s more top-of-mind.
The film caused us to be adopted by the biker community, and internationally paved the way for Steppenwolf to play Europe, Brazil and other parts of the world prior to our records even being on those countries’ radio charts. When we came to Brazil for the first time, for example, they went nuts.
Clash: When you saw the movie cut for the first time, what did you think?
Kay: Dennis and Peter were like, “We’re making this movie, we’d love to use your music. But we’ll tell you right away, we don’t have any money.” So, at their request, we went to a private screening on the Paramount lot. Several other musicians were there, too. We, the Steppenwolf members, were just blown away, particularly by the film’s ending. We told our management to cut a deal because we wanted to be part of the film. Compensation was secondary.
Years later, after Easy Rider was behind us and part of history, we played at some of Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid concerts. The third one was in Lincoln, Nebraska, at a huge university football stadium, 60,000 – 80,000 people. Dennis happened to be there. We hadn’t seen each other for a long time.
Somehow, the conversation came around to whether it was his or Peter’s idea to include Steppenwolf on the soundtrack. Dennis said: “Here’s what happened, John. We were making the film and had about spent all of the money we had, and still needed a soundtrack. We didn’t really care for the idea of hiring a Hollywood writer to compose a track with an orchestra, anyway.
“I just went through my record collection, sitting on the floor pulling out this and that album, including Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Byrds and whatever else I could find. Then I plopped the songs into the movie, and called up everybody involved, including you guys.” So, in Dennis’ funding desperation, he did something totally unorthodox, and it worked!
Clash: Your Sparrows ex-bandmate, Mars Bonfire, wrote, “Born To Be Wild,” of course. Have you had contact with him lately?
Kay: The last time was when he won the Cultural Impact Award from the Society Of Composers, Authors And Music Publishers Of Canada. The people who had put that together asked me to record a little video clip congratulating him, which I did. Mars, in turn, contacted me to express his appreciation. But this goes back quite a few years.
I think he’s living in Nevada now. “Born To Be Wild,” has seen to it that Mars has never made less than $150,000 – $250,000 a year since 1968. The song has woken up the Space Shuttle crew twice. It’s been in countless movies. When NASA landed a spacecraft on Mars, and the ramp lowered, these two little six-wheeled robots started rolling down. “Get your motor runnin’ ” was playing. Steppenwolf in space [laughs]! That song is like a kid who left home, and you have no idea what he’s doing out there.
Clash: You went from playing minor-league coffeehouses and hitchhiking cross-country, as you had said earlier, to stardom with Steppenwolf in a short time. What was the sudden fame like?
Kay: Yeah, there were Lear Jets and limousines, and presidential suites at hotels, and you’re young and there’s drugs and alcohol, and your ego is out of proportion, and the testosterone level is pretty high. You’re really just trying to get your bearings. Our guitar player was only 17.
But, at some juncture, life and reality come along and slap you upside the head to remind you that you are not at the top of Mt. Olympus. Strife in the band, members needing to be replaced because they’re indulging in certain substances too much, etc., do their damage.
During the mid-seventies, after the band had broken up, Steppenwolf imposters destroyed our reputation. We had to rebuild from 1980 on, playing the toilet circuit, the clubs in secondary markets. I was gone 20 weeks at a time, doing five to six shows a week.
Times like that cause you to step back, realize you’re lucky to still be able to make a living after all of the damage done. It took several years to work ourselves out of that basement, as it were, but by us giving audiences everything we had every night, we were able to do it.
Clash: When it was firing on all cylinders, though, what was that like?
Kay: From 1968 to 1971, it was thrilling. On stage, I’m thinking, ‘Right now what you’re doing, how you’re sounding with the vocal pipes and the guitars in tune, where you are – I wouldn’t want to be anywhere or anyone else.’ The rewards were far beyond the monetary.