(0:20) Hi, and thanks so much for your company. (0:38) Are you still relaxing on a beach, walking in nature, curling up by a roaring fire, (0:44) or playing board games with the family? Whatever you’re up to, even if you’re back at work already, (0:49) I hope you’re having fun. It’s holiday show number two this week, and I’m super keen to (0:55) introduce you to one of my favourite artists who has a fascinating backstory.
Steppenwolf’s John Kay (1:02) was born in East Prussia in Germany. He escaped the Second World War as a child and fled with (1:09) his mother to Canada, where he suffered major eye problems and battled with being unable to speak or (1:15) understand English. The story of how this young, incapacitated boy grew up to form one of the most (1:22) influential bands of the 60s is nothing short of amazing.
What was also incredible was the fact (1:29) that John actually granted me this interview. He’s notorious for refusing them, but I’m also (1:34) notorious for not taking no for an answer. It might have taken me months, but we got there.
(1:41) I know you’re going to love getting to know John K and Steppenwolf. Here’s a reminder of one of (1:47) their biggest successes. (3:33) Hello John K, it’s Sandy Kaye.
How are you? (3:37) I’m doing good. All things considered, no complaints. Good to hear your voice.
(3:42) You’re a persistent person. I’ve been turning down lots of interviews because of stuff I’m doing (3:47) that’s more interesting to me. And I saw what you do and I said, why not? I appreciate it very much, (3:53) and it’s testament to the fact that you don’t succeed unless you keep trying and trying, (3:58) and it’s a good lesson in life for anybody.
It’s such a pleasure to welcome you to A Breath (4:02) of Fresh Air, John K. Thank you. While I was reading so much about you, I was even more (4:07) drawn to you because we come from the same background with Holocaust survivor parents, (4:12) so I can really appreciate what you went through at an early age. Yes, I would imagine you can, (4:19) because I’m sure your family’s history is very much part of your upbringing and existence, (4:26) and it’s a horrible thing how that particular war, the one that was supposedly teaching (4:31) humanity not ever to do something as insane as that again.
Here we are, unfortunately, (4:39) in parts of the world where much of that has been forgotten because of the way certain head honchos (4:45) are behaving themselves. Humanity is odd that way. The pendulum swings back and forth, you know, (4:51) two steps forward, one step back.
But yeah, it’s interesting how you wound up in, or your parents, (4:58) I guess, did in Australia, and I eventually wound up in Canada and then the U.S. That’s right. Well, (5:04) they tried to escape to get as far away as they could from war-torn Europe, didn’t they? Yeah, (5:08) well, exactly. I mean, I grew up first in the East and then, you know, age of five in West Germany, (5:16) and they were rebuilding rapidly.
But, you know, as a young kid growing up, hearing Elvis Presley, (5:23) seeing the movies from Hollywood, and, boy, there’s a bigger world out there, and I want to see it. (5:29) You can shake an apple off an apple tree, shake a shake of sugar, but you never shake me, uh-uh-uh. (5:38) No sirree, oh.
I’m gonna stick like glue, stick because I’m stuck on you. (5:50) It’s lucky that my stepdad, and because my father had been killed in the war months before I was (5:55) born, and my mother and stepdad, they decided, well, let’s go to Canada and start a new life. (6:00) And so I was a whole lot closer to the source of all this incredible rock and roll stuff that (6:06) I was crazy about.
Once we got to Canada, got my first guitar and did the usual stuff of (6:12) mimicking those that you admire and go from there. And you did it so well. You were already playing (6:17) in rock bands while you were at school.
That was 65 when you joined the Sparrow. Yeah, it was, (6:22) one of those things where I consider lady luck has been my co-pilot all my life, (6:28) because I don’t think of myself as being particularly good at anything, but I’m (6:34) somewhat adequate in certain areas, and together with that and a lot of good luck, I am where I am (6:40) today. But yeah, after Canadian high school, after a road trip to California, fell in love with (6:45) California, and wound up going out there for roughly a year, and that was at the Troubadour (6:52) and folk music revival was in full swing, and I was learning from the professionals that played (6:57) there.
But for various reasons, I hitchhiked back to the East Coast and during my absence in Toronto, (7:04) an area known as Yorkville Village, in this little area, bohemian region, 14 different little venues (7:12) had popped up with all sorts of music and people like Neil Young and myself and Joni Mitchell and (7:17) numerous others blew through there, and I played in a little coffee house myself and then met this (7:23) band next door, a Canadian band called The Sparrows. And so we sounded good together, (7:28) and we joined forces, and you know, after some time making some noise regionally, so a lot of (7:35) Canadian artists moved to the United States, much bigger market, and so did The Sparrows, (7:41) and eventually, you know, I sort of lured them to the West Coast. I said during the year I was in (7:48) Los Angeles, I saw the formation of the band The Birds, which did very well.
We did, in fact, (7:53) migrate to the West Coast. For a while, we were even a Bay Area band up in San Francisco, (8:01) and but for various reasons, the band busted up, and so the big question was, well, now what? (8:11) This morning, you know, the man knocked on my door. I screamed, do you see, looky, (8:17) I’m not the guy you’re searching for, but I gotta take off.
I gotta tell you just the same, yeah. (8:29) Yeah, when it comes to getting sleepy-legged, I just can’t seem to win. (8:38) Well, a couple of ex-Sparrow members, you know, there’s the old cliche joke, (8:43) what do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless.
So they had their girlfriends to, you (8:50) know, at least they had a roof over their head, and then my girlfriend that I had met in Toronto (8:55) finally got her immigration visa, joined me in Los Angeles, and next door to this little place we (9:01) moved into, her girlfriend from Toronto arrived with her new husband, who happened to be a record (9:07) producer, and one thing led to another, and all of a sudden, he heard some live recordings of the (9:13) Sparrows and said, what are these other guys doing? I said, well, they’re all living with (9:16) their girlfriends down the road here. I said, why don’t you put a new band together? So I called the (9:22) two ex-Sparrow members, they said, yeah, we’re not doing anything. So got a couple of local guys, (9:27) we formed the band and rehearsed in this little garage underneath where Jutta and I were living, (9:33) and then the thing was, well, what are you going to call this band? And it was Gabrielle, (9:39) our producer, who was born and raised in Israel, who had read the book, which was very popular at (9:46) the time on the college campuses in the US, and I, the guy was born in Germany, had not read (9:52) the book written by the most read German author, you know, Hermann Hesse.
So it was one of those (9:58) strange things. No, no, I have no idea what the guy’s talking about, but sounds good to me, (10:03) it looks good in print, Steppenwolf it is. And from there, we caught a lot of waves.
(10:09) Wow, I had no idea that that’s how you got the name. What a great story. (10:13) Yeah, it was, you know, I mean, it was the logical assumptions of, oh, wait a minute, (10:17) John Kay was raised in Germany, and this is a German author who wrote this book, Steppenwolf, (10:23) and so that’s the connection.
I had no idea. I read the book years later. Ironically, (10:29) many years later, we were contacted by the good people of Cuth, which is a wonderful little town (10:36) in the Black Forest of Germany, the birthplace of Hermann Hesse.
And they said, we’re about to (10:41) celebrate the 75th, I don’t know, anniversary, birthday, whatever it was of Hermann Hesse. (10:47) And would you come and play in the market square, an outdoor show to commemorate, (10:52) all of Germany was celebrating Hermann Hesse’s anniversary. And so we said, yeah, we would love (10:57) that.
So we went and it was marvelous. And then they said, well, come with us. And we went into (11:03) an ancient building.
I’m talking, you know, the building was four or 500 years old, (11:08) half-timbered home. And he said, well, this is the house in which Hermann Hesse was born. And (11:14) let me take you into the room that he was born in.
And they went into the room, and there was (11:19) nothing in the room except a little memorial flower thing in the middle of the room. And then (11:23) the new owners of that house, who had renovated it some, handed us a little sketch of the house (11:30) from the outside. And it’s framed.
And on top of the sketch is a nail. Because back in the days (11:37) when that building was made, there was no mass production. So the blacksmith had to make one (11:42) nail at a time.
When they renovated the house and updated it, you know, with modern plumbing and (11:47) electrical stuff, they had hundreds of these custom-made nails. And they made these wonderful (11:53) little sketches with frames and an original nail in it. And so after all those years, (12:00) there finally was a real connection between Steffen Wolf, the band.
(12:03) And Hermann Hesse. (12:34) Didn’t the war colour your opinion of Germany? (12:37) Yeah, well, of course it did. After World War I, Germany felt very much betrayed by the Allies, (12:45) and in terms of various draconian things that Germany had to adhere to.
And that was the hot (12:51) bed of dissent that Hitler tapped into. And of course, he said all the things that certain (12:58) people wanted to hear. And we all know the outcome of that.
I mean, the Soviet Union alone lost 27 (13:06) million people. My father lost his life in that crazy war. Jutta, my wife, her father was killed (13:13) a couple of months after she was born in that war.
So yeah, when I grew up, I had no love lost for (13:20) the previous history of Germany. And the one thing in more recent times that made me feel like (13:27) Germany had not only acknowledged its role in all of that period, but I just finished reading (13:36) Merkel’s book, which was not written by her, but about her, and how she, born and raised in East (13:43) Germany, nevertheless, learned finally, because the communists weren’t all that big on letting (13:50) the German people really know what happened during the Nazi period. But she learned after reunification (13:57) of East and West Germany.
And she was one who went to Israel numerous times and plainly (14:03) acknowledged that Germany bears a responsibility to show not only their acknowledgement of what (14:10) had occurred, but to really be kind of an example to the rest of the world of how you behave and (14:18) conduct yourself as a nation. You know, you don’t sweep any of that under the rug. You acknowledge (14:23) and you do your best to do what can be done to mitigate the damage done.
(14:29) Absolutely. And they have done that, haven’t they? (14:32) Yeah. And there are other countries, and I won’t name them, but I can think of a couple right now (14:37) who deliberately purged their history books that their students read in school.
(14:43) So they have no idea. (14:45) Yeah, horrific things that that nation was responsible for. (14:48) Absolutely.
Yeah. And I know exactly which countries you refer to. I’ve experienced (14:52) traveling through them.
Anyway, let’s move on. It’s now the spring of 1968 and Steppenwolf (14:58) releases its first album. And the third single from that is Born to be Wild, which I was always (15:04) under the assumption that you actually wrote, but you didn’t.
(15:07) No. You know, it was one of those things where with hindsight, everybody knew what was going (15:13) to happen. You know, oh yeah, Born to be Wild, sure, that’s going to be a hit.
Well, no, not so (15:18) quick. The first thing was released called A Girl I Knew. That didn’t go anywhere.
Then the next (15:23) thing, because some of the radio stations started to play that cut, was an R&B song called Sookie (15:30) Sookie, which was written by Don Covey and Steve Cropper of Booker T and the Mg’s. So (16:48) all this Sookie, Sookie, 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, oh, 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 would you suggest? And he said, well, that Born to Be Wild doesn’t sound too bad, you know? And so we had a tug of war between the label and the band and its (17:17) management as to what song should be next as a single.
Finally, a compromise was reached. OK, 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 will release it to radio without saying what we think is the A or B side. (17:40) 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.
(17:50) Stay tuned to hear all about the classic Steppenwolf song, Magic Carpet Ride, and how the band became known as the Thinking Man’s Rock Band. (18:01) This is a breath of fresh air with Sandy Kaye. (18:04) It’s a beautiful day.
I hope you’re enjoying John Kay’s story. We’ve heard so far about John’s arrival in Canada from war-torn Europe, how he and the band The Sparrows moved to LA, and how they morphed into Steppenwolf in honour of German writer Hermann Hesse’s book of the same name. Now hear how the band’s signature tune, Born to be Wild, which spent three weeks in the number two spot on the charts, lived on to become an indelible anthem worldwide.
Hello, this is John Kay of Steppenwolf, and you’re listening to a breath of fresh air. It’s a beautiful day. It’s 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 out in the bush in Tanzania, you know, off the grid, and I come home and I see amongst my email, congratulations on the Mars landing. What? So I called the 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 lowered, and these two little six-wheel robot vehicles started coming down the ramp, and they’re playing, get your motor running, you know, they’re playing. It was Steppenwolf in space. Amazing.
We had woken up the 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. Get your motor running Head out on the highway Looking for adventure In whatever comes our way Yeah, darling, go and make it happen Take the world in a loving blaze Fire all of your guns at once and Explode into space I like smoking lightning Heavy metal thunder Racing with the wind And the feeling that I’m under Yeah, darling, go and make it happen Take the world in a loving blaze Fire all of your guns at once and Explode into space Like a true nature’s child We were born, Born to be Wild We can fly so high I never want to die Born to be Wild Born to be Wild How does that feel for you? Well, Sandy, 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 them, 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 have been living under a bridge somewhere. My mother said to me, your father was sort of a little bit of an amateur musician.
He played a little violin, he played a little accordion. Maybe you got this music thing from him. Well, I had come across Little Richard and all the rock and roll pioneers while still in Germany and I became absolutely obsessed.
That was my only focus and I was daydreaming, sort of. Someday I will be on the other side of the ocean, I will learn English, I will play this music. Sure, kid, now pay attention in school.
You can’t see worth a damn. So then the next thing I thought, well, maybe electronics. He said, well, you’re totally colorblind.
You got to be able to see all these different colored wires. So, okay, so that’s off the list. So I just kept focusing on this music thing.
And my mother, instead of trying to talk me out of it, just saw that there was a real determination on my part and didn’t stand in the way of browbeating me about going to university and everything else. So I, of course, did get very lucky because during the folk music revival of the early 60s, when I came out of high school, it wasn’t that difficult to get an acoustic guitar, learn a few chords and see whether you could do anything, 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 per se in order to have a chance during these so-called hootenannies, you know, open mic night we would call it now, to see what you could do.
And so during that one year in Los Angeles, when I was testing the water, I was at a little folk club and other people like David Crosby were playing the hootenight and Roger McGuinn, who was then still Jim McGuinn and others. You know, and I saw them form the birds. And I went to the Newport Folk Festival twice in 1964 in Rhode Island and then in 65 when Bob Dylan went 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 is a house in New Orleans You call the rising sun It’s been the ruin of many a poor soul and me Oh God, I’ve won If I had listened to what Mama said Be at home today Being so young and foolish Poor girl, let a gambler lead me astray You have to keep in mind that at that time the draft, you know, into the armed forces of the U.S. 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. And I remember distinctly during my visit to Newport a few weeks earlier, three young volunteers had been murdered in Mississippi.
And Phil Oakes, who wrote a lot of topical songs, 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 just knocked us over. And the chorus went something like, and here’s to the land you have torn the heart out of.
Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of. There was a lot of anger amongst the young people. But there was also a great feeling of we’re young, we’re idealistic, we have ideas, we have energy and we’re going to move forward.
Humanity will learn its lessons from the past and do better in the future. That was at least what kept us going and what fueled a lot of the music that was created from then on. A time to mourn, a time to die, a time to plan, a time to read, a time to kill, a time to heal, a time to laugh, a time to read.
What about Magic Carpet Rock? Well, that was one of those poems that happened like so many things that wasn’t planned. And it happened through various coincidental occurrences. Our bass player, the original bass player, Rushton, every time we did a rehearsal, a soundcheck, whatever, he was noodling around with this riff on his bass.
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 Denny’s Edmonton, who had written Born to be Wild, is in the studio to show us a new song he has 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, Mars, also known as Dennis, heard Rushton playing this bass riff and joined him on the guitar.
Well, Goldie, our organist, that fell into the same thing. And pretty soon the whole band was doing this riff. Well, on the other side of the glass in the control room, the engineers and the producers saying, this is cool.
You know, keep that up. This is going somewhere. And as it turned out, after a while, we kind of ran 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 did some overdubbing, doing a jam section of the song, of kind of making our guitar amplifiers howl with feedback and all sorts of strange, otherworldly noises. And at least they gave it some character, kind of a mood.
And then finally said, well, OK, well, we need a beginning of something that’s a real ear catcher. And that’s when Bill, one of the engineers, came up with an excellent idea. Said, well, this is one little section of what you guys did.
It sounds like, you know, some kind of a wildebeest in pain. You know, this is really strange. I can splice a little bit of that onto the beginning of 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. Ghost ball flies near, it’s all so way from here.
Well, you don’t know what we can find. Why don’t you come with me, little girl, on a magic carpet ride? You don’t know what we can see. Why don’t you tell your dreams to me, that we’ll see, we’ll set you free.
Close your eyes, girl. Look inside, girl. Let the sound take you away.
Last night I held a little slave, so I wished that I could stay. Before the thing could answer me, well, someone put the lamp away. I looked around, lots of candles all I found.
Well, you don’t know what we can find. Why don’t you come with me, little girl, on a magic carpet ride? Well, you don’t know what we can see. Why don’t you tell your dreams to me, that we’ll see, we’ll set you free.
Close your eyes, girl. Look inside, girl. Let the sound take you away.
That thing went straight up the charts, you know. I think we were kept out of number one by the Beatles, Let It Be, or something like that. Other than that, it was a huge hit for us.
Those songs that you did are just iconic. And they’re still so appropriate today and much loved right around the world. It’s amazing.
I mean, 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 mix of different stuff.
When Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda were making Easy Rider, they called our office and said, Listen, we’re making this film and we’d love to use your music. Will you come down to a private screening? So we went down there and somebody was there for Dylan. I don’t think it was Bob himself and Robbie Robertson and the band and others 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 we said to our management, because Dennis and Peter said, Well, here’s the thing. We don’t have any money.
I mean, it was a low budget production. So we said to management, work something out with them, you know, because I think we want to 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 like crazy. And we were sort of 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 in the early days of Steppenwolf’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 so when we did the Ed Sullivan show, you got the white little 16-year-old girls that are yelling and screaming because they like magic carburite. But on the FM radio stations, you know, there are people who are listening to Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam.
Staring at the booktube, turning on the big knob, trying to find some life in the wasteland. Finally found a program, going to deal with Mary Jane, ready for a trip into headland. A nice joke comes on her screen, along with this less self-righteous sound.
And one more guy who doesn’t count, his head in the clothesline, too far out. While pushing back his glasses, Sam is in casualty. I wasn’t lucky by the masses.
And with that in mind, he starts to unwind. A message I’m going to find surprising. Well, it’s evil, wicked, mean and nasty Don’t step on the grass, Sam And it will ruin our fair country Don’t be such an ass, Sam Well, it will hook your soul and jolly You’re so horrible, Sam I’ll obey the disagree with me Please give up, I’ll never classify again Particularly when the Monster album, which was a social political concept album that we released, and that was very, very successful on the college campuses and universities, particularly when you keep in mind, this was a time when you had the Kent State shootings because of protests and everything else.
That’s where the Thinking Man’s Band thing came from. The Thinking Man’s Band. Steppenwolf remains one of rock’s most enduring and respected bands, delivering hard-hitting, personally charged music for more than five decades.
From the late 1960s, Steppenwolf embodied that era’s social, political and philosophical restlessness, building an impressive body of edgy, uncompromising rock and roll that retains its emotional residence more than 50 years after the band’s formation. Up next, founder and lead singer John Kaye tells us about the excesses that went with that rock and roll lifestyle and about the development of Wolf World.
This is a breath of fresh air with Sandy Kay. It’s a beautiful day. You still with me? Wonderful.
Somehow, despite the excesses of his rock and roll lifestyle, John Kay managed to stay married. Next, it was Africa that dramatically changed the course of his life. And what a transformation from rock star to wildlife advocate.
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.
Listen, we were… Most of us were… 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 had young male eagles, you had testosterone, you had drugs.
We’re not unheard of during this period, as you might know. Well, of course. Yeah.
And later came Peruvian 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. So we did. At two in the afternoon, he’s not to be seen anywhere.
They said, well, he’s going to be 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-9 airplane model that’s all in black with a Playboy bunny head, you know, at the back. And he says, and see? And he takes the top of it off and says, back there is my room with my rotating round bed and the bunnies are all, you know. It was a pretty interesting life.
Wow, totally surreal, I’d imagine. What’s astounding to me is that during this whole time you’re with Jutta, aren’t you? Well, Jutta and I have been together since October 1965. And she knew just instinctively that 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 home to. And so in some ways I was, there’s a very corny country song called Oh, You Can’t Have Your Kate and Edith Too. We went out on a double date Me and Edith, you and Kate Before we got past their front gate There you were making eyes at Edith while you were making time with Kate But you can’t have your Kate and Edith too In a way, you know, we were just young guys full of themselves.
And I’m sure the following will come as a complete surprise to you. They were, you know, very attractive young women that found rock and roll musicians more interesting than the guy across the street who were fixing their car. And so we were usually not at a loss for female companionship.
She was a very clever girl, wasn’t she, Jutta? Very clever. Yes, she was and is. And in many ways we truly are the yin and the yang of it where her strengths and my shortcomings and vice versa is what made the two of us such successful partners in life.
I want to just jump forward. You went through those years enduring lots of different band line-ups, a whole lot of bad record deals and good ones, even hostile takeovers. But you’ve come out of that stronger.
I think you stopped touring finally in about 2018 as John Kay in Steppenwolf. That is correct because I had 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 the Steppenwolf reputation because of stuff that happened in the late 70s where ex-members were out there using the name 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-80s we were back, you know, playing in theaters and amphitheaters and everything else. We learned that we were kind of not really welcome amongst the major labels. We had our own recording studio and so we created what we called Wolf World.
We had our own merchandise corporation. You know, the two of us, a big truck with a triple sleeper, you know, all the stuff. And we would record, 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. Because there were a lot of, to this day, there are a lot of people who, you know, grew up with our music. In fact, many of them raised their kids with our music.
And they’re the ones who would show up in significant numbers at our performances in the 90s and beyond. And also by the new records that we had put out. Every so often you have something that comes out of left field that’s just unimaginable.
When my father was killed on the Russian front and my mother took me in her arms and I was just a baby and fled the oncoming Russian army that was about to overrun East Prussia where I was born, we wound up in a little town called Anstett. She had gotten on a train, the train tracks had been bombed, got out of the train, met a kind woman. Their family had a tannery, they had an extra room.
One of their sons was killed in the war. And we lived there for almost five years. Little did we realize that after the war, all of a sudden the Russian army moved in and we wound up in what became part of communist East Germany.
But in 1949, I was barely five or close to five. My mother and I escaped, it was a dangerous undertaking. We made it into West Germany.
So in 1990, we’re in Germany promoting through touring a new album called Rise and Shine. And I get a call, we’re in Berlin from somebody in this little town, Anstett, where we had been given shelter for five years. And they said, would you come and play a benefit concert for I think it was their orphanage.
And I said, how can I not go and repay the town that gave us shelter? So we went, played, and the mayor is taking me for a walk around this quaint town, which is over a thousand years old, cobblestone streets and all of this stuff. And he says, and by the way, only two people have ever come through this town who made a name for themselves in the world of music, and you’re one of them. And I said, really? Well, who might the other one be? And he points to a church over his shoulder and he says, well, a very, very long time ago, we had an organist in that church called Johann Sebastian Bach.
And I said, well, you know, I don’t think I’m quite in the same league as Johann, so we kind of chuckled about that. But a few months ago, we are contacted again by people in Anstett, and they said, would John Kay come and play an acoustic show in the church that once had Johann Sebastian Bach as its organist? And so I was supposed to do that for Christmas time. So life just has these odd and strange twists, and that was one of them.
Incredible. I’ve got goosebumps thinking about that. That’s wonderful.
This time out from 1990’s Rise and Shine album, I’m chatting with Steppenwolf’s John Kay. John, that brings me up to present time, and 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. John Kay and Steppenwolf had done very well for quite a long time, and when our 40th anniversary came, I said to the guy, you know, to the fellas, 40 years is long enough, let’s make this the sort of a farewell tour.
And so the following year, which was 2008, Jutta and I had the entire year to do whatever pleased us. And so we went even further far afield around the world. We went mountain gorilla tracking, and we decided that we wanted to support we being the Mauer Kay Foundation.
Jutta’s last name, her maiden name is Mauer. Mine, of course, was Kay, or was changed to Kay. So the Mauer Kay Foundation.
We had formed it in 2004. We had been in Cambodia because we had helped build a school there, and that was sort of the launching of the Foundation. The Khmer Rouge had almost killed two million people there.
They needed schools, and, you know, got involved in that. But we also went to Africa that year for the first time, and we just fell in love with places we had seen in Kenya and Tanzania, and all these people who had never been interested in the spotlight, but had dedicated their lives to preserve what remains of our living treasures. And that was inspirational.
That was humbling. And so we felt, well, we can lend a hand to some extent. We came across a marker in the middle of a dusty intersection of two dirt roads in Tanzania with a little marker that said Michael Grismick.
He gave all he possessed, including his life, for the wild animals of Africa. And he was 22 years old when he died. And I thought, wow, we can chip in here.
So we kind of focused on that, and we met more and more people who were, you know, preserving what remains of wildlife. And after the 40th anniversary tour of Steppenwolf, we traveled even more and found even more people who wanted to support. I said, you know, we’re going to run out of money unless Steppenwolf, which is sort of like a cash cow, let me see if the guys want to do this.
And so I called up our bandmates and our crew, same crew for 30 years, and how about this, guys, we play 15, maybe 17 high-paying dates a year, and Jutta and I get to keep funding the foundation. I said, yep, we’re aboard. So from 2009 until 2018, for 10 more years, that’s what we did.
And that is what enabled us to keep doling out the ducats to the various people that are the boots on the ground who risk literally their lives. Close to 2,000 rangers have been killed by poachers in the last 15 years. It’s a war out there.
And right now they need every dollar because the pandemic has, of course, halted the tourism based on which many of the African and other countries make their funds with which they can support their parks and preserves and, you know, all of that stuff. It’s been a change of direction in Jutta and my life ever since, you know, we started the foundation. And so what I’m now doing on our mawak.org site, there is like for 15 bucks you get to see this film that I made, you know, the 15 bucks go to the foundation.
It’s like a little fundraiser. But now I’m involved in the podcast that says, From Rock Star to Wildlife Advocate, hosted by John K. of Steppenwolf. 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 into wildlife advocacy and conservation stuff. So that puts me here into Santa Barbara, you know, California. We sympathize with Australia every time we see your fires.
I remember still holding a little koala and, you know, being out there with the roos. And so when I see some of the stuff that you guys had to endure, you know, I feel for Australia and the wildlife. But there are those who are the wildlife warriors.
And they’re the ones we want to support in whatever way we can, because they are out there trying to have our fellow creatures retain some of their living space and hopefully have a future. Yeah, 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. Well, you know, if we were in the same price range as, say, Bill Gates, we would be spreading millions around. But to each their own.
As I’ve said many times at university campuses and all those things, when, you know, a young student says, well, I would like to help, but I don’t have any money. I say, look. Everyone does what they can.
Yeah. You know, as Edmund 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. John Kay, thank you so much for spending the time with us and telling us your stories. It’s just been an absolute pleasure to chat with you, and I’m deeply grateful.
I know you must be incredibly proud of all of your efforts. Are you? Well, I’m not so much proud as I am comfortable in the idea that when I am no longer on this little blue marble, I will not have been here just to take up space and raw materials. Congratulations on all of it.
And please send my best to Jutta. I think she’s amazing too. Yes, she is.
And thank you for giving me a chance here to do my little bit. And it’s been a pleasure. I enjoyed speaking to you, Sandy.
Isn’t he amazing? Really makes me want to strive to become a more worthwhile human. And that’s all I’ve got for you today. I trust you’ve enjoyed John Kaye’s story.
Don’t forget, if you’ve got someone you’d like me to find for you, just send me a message through the website at breathoffreshair.com.au. I hope I can count on your company again same time next week when our countdown concludes with my all-time favourite guest from the past year. I wonder if you could take a guess at who that might be. I’m not telling.
I’ll keep you in suspense and see you then. Bye now. Cause it’s a beautiful day.
You’ve been listening to A Breath of Fresh Air with Sandy Kaye. Beautiful day. Oh, baby, any day that you’re gone away.
It’s a beautiful day.