Steppenwolf's John Kay on life, love and music

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Steppenwolf's John Kay

He’s one of the most influential musicians from the sixties- the founder and lead singer of the Canadian American rock band Steppenwolf. I’m certain you’re going to find my chat with John Kay, both inspiring and entertaining. It took me literally months of repeatedly hounding John. To get him to finally agree to do an interview with me. He’s got so many things going on in his life right now and has done so many interviews over the years that his constant refusal was quite understandable. But given that Steppenwolf was probably one of the first bands I remember ever grooving to. I was determined not to take no for an answer. So I persevered until one day to my greatest surprise. He finally said yes, Steppenwolf for those who may not know were huge between 1968 and 1972, they sold more than 25 million records released seven gold albums and one platinum one and had three top 10 hits.

1968’s Born To Be Wild was deemed to be one of the five songs that shaped rock and roll. It’s such a pleasure to welcome you to A Breath of Fresh Air, John Kay. Thank you. While I was reading so much about you, I was even more drawn to you because we come from the same background with holocaust survivor parents. So, I can really appreciate what you went through at an early age. Yes, I would imagine you can, because I’m sure your family’s history is very much part of your upbringing and existence, and it’s a horrible thing how that particular war; the one supposedly teaching humanity, not ever to do something as insane as that. Again, here we are, unfortunately, in parts of the world where much of that has been forgotten because of the way certain head honchos are behaving themselves. Humanity is odd that way the pendulum swings back and.

You know, two steps forward, one step back, but yeah, it, it interesting how you wound up in, or your parents did, I guess, in Australia. And I eventually wound up in Canada and then the US that’s right. Well, they tried to escape to get as far away as they could from war on Europe, didn’t they? Yeah well, exactly.

I mean, I grew up, first in East then, you know, age of five in west Germany and they were rebuilding rapidly, but you know, as a young kid growing up, uh, hearing Elvis Presley seeing the movies from Hollywood and boy, there’s a bigger world out there and I want to see.

I was lucky that my stepdad and because my father had been killed in the war months before I was born and my mother and stepdad, they decided, well let’s move to Canada and start a new life. And so I was a whole lot closer to the source of all this incredible rock and roll stuff that, uh, I was crazy about once we got to Canada, got my first guitar and did the usual stuff of mimicking those that you admire and go from there. And you did it so well, but you were already playing in rock bands while you were at school, weren’t you?

Yeah, it was, you know, one of those things where I, I consider lady luck has been my co-pilot all my life, because I don’t think of myself as being particularly good at anything, but I’m somewhat adequate in certain areas. And, uh, together with that, and a lot of good luck. I am where I am today, but yeah, after Canadian high school, after a road trip to California, I fell in love with California and wound up, uh, going out there for roughly a year.

And I was at the Troubadour and the folk music revival was in full swing, and I was learning from the professionals that played there. But for various reasons, I hitch hiked back to the, uh, east coast and during my absence in Toronto, uh, an area known as Yorkville village in this little area, Bohemian region, 14 different little venues had popped up.

There were all sorts of music and people like Neil young and myself and Joni Mitchell and numerous others blew through there. And I played in a little coffee house myself, and then met this band next door, a Canadian band called The Sparrows. And we sounded so good together and we joined forces and, you know, after some time, started making some noise regionally.

John Kay & The Sparrow

A lot of Canadian artists moved to the United States, a much bigger market. And so did the Sparrows and eventually, you know, I sort of lured them to the west coast. I said during the year I was in Los Angeles, I saw the formation of the band, The Byrds, which did very well. We did in fact migrate to the west coast for a while, we were even a Bay area band up in San Francisco. And, uh, but for various reasons, the band busted up. And so the big question was, well, now what? Well, a couple of extra Sparrow members, you know, there’s the old cliche joke. What you call a musician without a girlfriend, what? Homeless. So they had, uh, their girlfriends to, you know, at least they had a roof over their head and then my girlfriend that I had met in Toronto finally got her immigration visa and joined me in Los Angeles and next door to this little place, her girlfriend from Toronto arrived with her new husband who happened to be a record producer. And one thing led to another. All of a sudden, he heard some, some live recordings of the Sparrows and said, what are these other guys doing? I said, well, they’re all living with their girlfriends down the road here. Well, he said, why don’t you put a new band together?

So I called the two ex-Sparrow members and they said, yeah, we’re not doing anything. So I  got a couple of local guys and we formed the band and rehearsed in this little garage underneath where Jutta and I were living. And then the thing was, well, what are you gonna call this band? And it was Gabriel our producer, who was born and raised in Israel who had read the book, which was very popular at the time, uh, on the college campuses and the US and I, the guy who was born in Germany. I had not read the book written by the most read German author, you know, so it was one of those strange things. Uh, no, no, I, I have no idea what the guy’s talking about. It sounds good to me. It looks good in print- Steppenwolf. It is. And from there we caught a lot of waves. Wow. I had no idea that that’s how you got the name. What a great story. 

The Name

Yeah, it was, you know, I mean, it was the logical assumptions of, well, wait a minute. John Kay was raised in Germany and this is a German author who wrote this book Steppenwolf. And so that that’s the connection. I had no idea. I read the book years later, ironically, many years later, we were contacted by the good people of a wonderful little town in the black forest of Germany. The birth base of Herman Hesse. And they said we’re about to celebrate the 75th, uh, I don’t know, anniversary, birthday, whatever it was of Herman Hesse. And would you come and play in the market square? An outdoor show to commemorate? Uh, all of Germany was celebrating the anniversary. And so we said, yeah, we would love that. And so after all those years there finally was a real connection between Steppenwolf and Herman Hesse. Didn’t the war colour your opinion of Germany? Yeah. Well, of course it did. After the war, I felt very much, uh, betrayed by the allies and in terms of various draconian things that Germany had to adhere to. That was what Hitler tapped into. And of course he said all the things that certain people wanted to hear. We all know the outcome of that. I mean, uh, the Soviet union alone lost 27 million people. My father lost his life in that crazy war. My wife, uh, her father was killed a couple of months after she was born in that war. So yeah, when I grew up I had no love lost for the previous history of Germany. And the one thing in more recent times that made me feel like Germany had not only acknowledged its role in all of that period.

The former Prime Minister, Merkel really taught the Germans how to behave and conduct themselves as a nation. You know, you don’t sweep any of that under the rug, you acknowledge and you do your best to do what can be done to, uh, mitigate the damage done. Absolutely. And they have done that, haven’t they? Yeah. And there are other countries. I won’t name them, but I can think of a couple right now who deliberately purged their history books, uh, that there’s students, uh, read in school. So they have no knowledge of what happened? Yeah. Horrific things that that nation was responsible for. Absolutely. Yeah. And I know exactly which countries you refer to. I’ve experienced traveling through them. 

Born to be Wild

Anyway, let’s move on. It’s now the spring of 1968 and Steppenwolf releases its first album and the third single from that is Born to be Wild, which I was always under the assumption that you actually wrote, but you didn’t? No, you know, it was one of those things where with hindsight, everybody knew what was gonna happen, you know? Well, sure. That’s gonna be a hit. Well, no, not so quick. The first single that was released was called a Girl I Knew – that didn’t go anywhere. Then the next thing, because, uh, some of the radio stations started to play that cut was an R and B song called Sookie Sookie, which was written by Steve, uh, Cropper of Booker T and the MG’s. On the east coast and the west coast, we got lots of airplay. In fact, I remember sitting with our drummer in his car, I’m legally blind so I don’t drive and we’re going down Sunset Boulevard and all of a sudden on the number one AM station in Los Angeles here comes Steppenwolf Sookie Sookie. He almost ran off the road. We got so excited. It was on fire, wasn’t it? Yeah. They played it on both coasts but it wouldn’t played in the centre of the country. First of all the black stations found out we weren’t black, they didn’t play it anymore. And then in the deep south they’re saying, well, what’s all this Sookie stuff and let it hang out? So what’s that about? We’re not touching it with a 10-foot pole, so it died. And so now the thing was, well what’s next? And we had the good fortune that one of our managers was a very successful DJ and he checked with some of his other friends in the radio world and said, what, what would you suggest? And said, well, that Born to Be, wow, doesn’t sound too bad. And so we had a tug of war between the label. and the band and its management as to what song should be next. As a single, finally a compromise was reached. Okay. We’ll put Born to be Wild on one side. And then instead of designating the other song from the album as the so-called B side, we will just put it on the other side and we’ll release it to radio without saying what we think is the A or B side. Well, within days nine out of 10 stations that played the record went straight to Born to be Wild. And that’s when it really started taking off. Like you wouldn’t believe.
Like the child that has left home long ago, every so often you get a postcard. I’ll give you examples. Jutta and I were in the bush in Tanzania, you know, off the grid. And I come home and I see amongst my emails, congratulations on the Mars landing. What? So I called management and said, oh yeah, that’s right. You were gone well, while you were gone, NASA launched this space thing that landed on Mars and a little ramp was lower. And these two little, six-wheel robot vehicles started coming down the ramp and they’re playing Get your Motor Running. And you know, they’re playing it, it was Steppenwolf in space. Amazing. We had woken up this space shuttle crew twice with Born to be Wild. I’ve been to places like Botswana and even Burma. And they may not know Steppenwolf, but they know Born to be Wild.

Success

How does that feel for you? Well, Sandy, um, when, when you don’t get too preoccupied with your self -importance and you step back a little bit and look at it a little more dispassionately, you realize that some of us and I’m one of ’em have more luck than sense or talent. And you just get once in a while. Very lucky.
It’s so nice to hear how humble you are. Were you set to do anything else if musicianship didn’t work out? No, I would’ve been living under a bridge somewhere. My mother said, uh, to me, your father was sort of a little bit of an amateur musician. He played a accordion. Maybe you got this, this music thing from, from him. Well, I had, uh, you know, come across Llittle Richard and you know, all the rock and roll pioneers while still in Germany. And became absolutely obsessed. That was my only focus. And I was daydreaming sort of, you know, uh, someday I will be on the other side of the ocean. I will learn English. I will play this music, you know? Sure kid. Pay attention in school, you know, and you can’t see worth a dam. And, uh, uh, so then the next thing I thought, well, maybe electronics and said, well, you’re totally colourblind. You gotta be able to see all these different coloured wires.

So, okay. So that’s off the list. So I kept focusing on this music thing. And my mother, instead of trying to talk me out of it just saw that there was a, a real determination on my part and didn’t stand in the way of brow beating me about, uh, going to university and everything else. So I, um, of course did get very lucky because during the music revival of the early sixties, when I came outta high school, it wasn’t that difficult to, uh, get an acoustic guitar, learn a few chords and see whether you could do anything. You know, whether you could sing a little bit or maybe even write your own tune or two, there were these little coffee houses and folk music clubs all across north America where you didn’t have to be a professional. So, in order to have a chance during these so-called Hooten Nannies, you know, open mic nights, we would call it now, to see what you could do. And so during that, uh, one year in, in Los Angeles, when I was testing the water and I was at a little folk club and other people like David Crosby were playing the night and, uh, Roger McGuinn, who was then still Jim McGuinn and others, you know, and I saw them form the Byrds.
And, uh, I went to the Newport folk festival twice in 1964 in Rhode Island. And then in 65, when Bob Dylan went to electric. And so I was immersed in this whole culture of rediscovering America’s folk music, particularly the young writers who were following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie there.

Steppenwolf and Easy Rider

You have to keep in mind that at that time, the draft, you know, uh, into the armed forces of the us was very much in play. Young people were being shipped off to Vietnam. Many of them didn’t want to be there didn’t feel that that war was something that we should even be involved in and the civil rights movement. You know, I just remember distinctly during my visit to Newport a few weeks earlier, three young volunteers had been murdered. We never called them protest songs. They were topical songs. And I remember him playing this brand-new song about what happened in Mississippi, that, that just knocked us over and the chorus went something like; You have torn the heart out of Mississippi, found yourself another country to be part of, there was a lot of anger amongst, uh, young people, but, uh, there was also a great feeling. We’re young. We are idealistic. We have ideas, we have energy and we’re gonna move forward. Humanity will, you know, learn its lessons from the past and do better in the future. That was at least what, you know, what kept us going and what fuelled a lot of the music that was created from then on. What about magic Carpet Ride? Well, that was one of those tunes that happened, like, so many other things that wasn’t planned. And it happened through various coincidental occurrences, our bass player. Every time we did a rehearsal or sound check, whatever he was noodling around with this riff on his bass bump. And so we’re in the recording studio doing our second album. And Mars Bonfire, our drummer’s brother who had previously been known as Daniel Edmonton, who had written Born to be Wild is in the studio to show us a new song. He is, he has, uh, written well, that song turned out to be something I wasn’t all that crazy about, but Jerry, his brother, our drummer did on that album actually sing it, but more to the point, Morris.

Dennis heard Russian playing this bass riff and joined him on the guitar. Well, uh, Goldie, our organist fell into the same thing and pretty soon, uh, the whole band was doing this, this riff well on the other side of the glass and in, in the control room, the, uh, engineers and the producer saying, Hey, this is cool, you know, keep that up. This is going somewhere. And as it turned out, after a while we kind of ran,you know, out of ideas and this and that. We came in and listened to it and said, well, it needs a little something. So Michael, the guitarist and I went out there and, uh, did some over dubbing doing a jam section of the song of, uh, kind of, um, making, you know, our guitar amplifiers, how with feedback and all sorts of, you know, strange other worldly noises. And at least they gave it some character as kind of a mood. And then finally, uh, said, well, okay, well we need a, a, a beginning of some something that’s a real ear catcher. And that’s when bill one of the engineers came up with an excellent idea. He said, well, there’s this one little section of what you guys did.  It sounds like, you know, some kind of a Wilderbeast, uh, in pain, you know, this is really strange. Uh, I can splice a little bit of that onto the beginning of this, this groove track we have. And that’s why. That song starts with that, you know, and then, all of a sudden you’re in the groove. That went straight up to charge, you know, uh, uh, I think we were kept out of number one by the Beatles. Let it be or something like that. Uh, other than. It was a huge hit for us. Those songs that you did are, are just iconic and they’re still so appropriate today and much-loved right around the world. It’s amazing.

I just cannot imagine how it would be more than 50 years later talking about your history and the things that you created then that are such a legacy and will continue to attract new audiences as time goes by. You were known as the thinking man’s rock band and you had a huge following among bikers? Was that deliberate or that was just something that happened over time too?

Yeah. It’s one of those strange, uh, uh, mix of different, uh, stuff when Dennis Hopper and, and Peter Fonda were making Easy Rider. They called our office and said, listen, we’re making this film. And, uh, uh, we’d love to use your music. Uh, will you come down to a private screening? So we went out down there, you know, and, and, uh, somebody was there for Dylan. I don’t think it was Bob himself and, uh, uh, Robbie Robertson in the band and, you know, and others whose, whose songs eventually wound up in the soundtrack. And we all saw this screening and we were so blown away by this film, particularly the ending that, uh, we set to our manager. Because Dennis and Peter said, well, now here’s the thing. Uh, uh, we don’t have any money. I mean, it was a low budget, uh, production. So I said, we said to management, work something out with them, you know, because I think, uh, we wanna be part of that. And that film of course became hugely successful internationally, literally around the world. And what it, however, also did was the bikers took to this film, uh, like crazy. And we were sort of, uh, one of the bands that the biker community claimed as its own, particularly because of born to be wild, but as time went on, not only because some of our album tracks. And that was one of our great benefits that we had, uh, in the early days of, of stepping old’s career was we were active on both the am radio dial with our single releases and FM radio. The so-called at the time underground radio stations, you know, they played our entire album, both sides and when we did the Ed Sullivan show, you got the white little 16-year -old girls that are yelling and screaming cause they liked Magic Carpet Ride. But, uh, on the FM radio stations, you know, there are people who are listening to Don’t Step on the Grass.

Girls, Girls, Girls

And it couldn’t have gotten any better for you? No. You were on the private jets and you were in six star hotel rooms and you were just living it up. Well, listen, we were most of us were in a, I mean, at the very beginning of Steppenwolf, our guitar player was 17 years old and you know, the rest of us were 20, 21, 22 years old. So you. Young male egos. You had test Testone you had drugs were not unheard of during this period, as you might know. Well, of course, yeah. And later came Peru marching powder and all sorts of things. We enjoyed the rock and roll life. We definitely did. There were things like Hugh Hefner said, well, when you’re in Chicago, come by, you know, the Playboy mansion. And so we did. At two in the afternoon, he’s not to be seen anywhere. He said, well, he is gonna be, uh, getting up soon. And he comes in his robe and says, oh great guys, let me show you something that just came. And he shows us this DC nine airplane model. That’s all in black with a Playboy bunny head on, on, you know, at the, at the back. And he says here is my room with my rotating round bed and the bunnies are all, you know, it was a pretty interesting life.

What’s astounding to me is that during this whole time you are with Jutta, aren’t you? Well, Jutta and I have been together since October, 1965. And she knew just instinctively that, uh, I might not have been the model husband while I was out there with the rest of the guys, but there was never any question. There was only one love in my life and who that was and who I would return, uh, home to. I wanna just jump forward. You went through those years, enduring lots of different band lineups, a whole lot of bad record deals and good ones, even hostile takeovers, but you’ve come out of that stronger. You’ve been, I think you stopped touring finally in about 2018 as John Kay and Steppenwolf. That is correct, because I had, uh, a lot of ups and downs along the way. I won’t go into all the details because, you know, with hindsight, it’s not all that important, but yeah, we had to rebuild, uh, the Steppenwolf reputation because of stuff that happened in the late, seventies, where ex members were out there, uh, using the name and without permission, and I was doing solo stuff and things did not go well. And the Steppenwolf brand was definitely damaged. It took time to rebuild the reputation of the band, Steppenwolf. And so that took several years. And in the mid-eighties, we were back, you know, playing in theatres and everything else, we learned that we were kind of not really welcome amongst the major labels and we had our own recording studio. And so we created what we called Wolf world. We had our own merchandise corporation, you know, our tour bus, a big truck with a triple sleeper and all the stuff. And we would write and record new projects and then license those master recordings to different companies around the world, you know? So we not just survived. We actually learned how to thrive by minding the Steppenwolf store ourselves. We did have management at a certain point, which of course was helpful, but the reason we were doing better than just sort of hanging in there is because of the significant support that was undying amongst what we call the Wolf pack. Uh, because there were a lot of them, to this day, uh, there are so many. For people who, you know, grew up with our music. Uh, in fact, many of them raised their kids with our music and, uh, they’re the ones who would show up in significant numbers at our performances in the nineties and beyond, and also buy the new records today.

Maue Kay Foundation

You’re really involved with this foundation and wildlife conservation project aren’t you, could you tell us a little bit about that?

Sure. I’d be glad to. We went mountain gorilla hiking, and decided that we wanted to support the animals. We had been in Cambodia too and helped to build a school there. And that was inspirational. That was humbling. And so we felt well, we can lend a hand to some extent. So we kind of focused on that and we met more and more people who were still, you know, preserving what remains of wildlife. And after the 40th anniversary tour of Steppenwolf, we travelled even more and found even more people who wanted to support our foundation. So from 2009 until 2018, for 10 more years, that’s what we did.  I’m involved in a podcast now from rockstar to wildlife advocate. And it’s basically my story from my beginning, the story of Steppenwolf, the history of the band and its ups and downs and rebuilding and so on. And the gradual transition to wildlife advocacy and conservation stuff.  What a magnificent pursuit. There couldn’t be too much left on your bucket list and you must be incredibly proud of what you’ve achieved? Everyone does what they can. Yeah. You know, as Edmond Burke said centuries ago, no one ever made a greater mistake than he who did nothing, because he could only do a little spend five bucks and might buy a mosquito net for a child that will never have malaria do what you can. 

You can support John’s foundation here https://mauekay.org/

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