By Lee Zimmerman
John Kay has always been a man on a mission. From the time he and his mother made their daring escape from East Germany, the country where he was born, to his determination to play a part in the burgeoning folk/rock revolution of the early ’60s, and then on to his original role in the Canadian band Sparrow and later, the ever-influential band Steppenwolf, Kay has shown a determination and purpose that’s enabled him to evolve as a true rock survivor. No small feat in this era of wavering loyalties and fleeting fame.
While Steppenwolf has always been a steady fixture in Kay’s career—ever since the band’s founding in 1967—he also found musical renewal in a continuing series of solo projects that had him rebranding himself as an erstwhile singer-songwriter of a more rootsy persuasion. Granted, the ‘Wolf’s early hits—“Born To Be Wild,” “Magic Carpet Ride,” “The Pusher” et. al.— still loom large, but Kay’s determination to move forward and pursue his own muse has taken center stage. He gave up the Steppenwolf guise after the band’s final farewell performance last October, and recently made the decision to go strictly solo while pursuing his passion for causes that remain near and dear.
“Quite honestly, I didn’t want to see pictures of myself up on stage looking like I should have called it quits a long time before,” Kay says with a self-effacing chuckle.
Among his main interests is his commitment to work for a greater good. He founded and helms a charitable organization, the Maue Kay Foundation, a nonprofit group devoted to the protection of wildlife, the environment and human rights. They are, he says, issues of critical concern. He will express that view in a newly planned series of discussions—so-called “Ted Talks”—interspersed with solo songs centering on his life, his career and the Foundation’s charitable initiatives.
Speaking on the phone with Goldmine from his home in Santa Barbara, California, Kay comes across as eloquent, amiable, effusive and firmly focused, a far cry from the defiant, sunglasses-wearing insurgent who railed against the government in what was arguably Steppenwolf’s most monumental work, the darkly descriptive Monster. Kay claims it remained among the band’s most requested material; no surprise, considering the fact that its list of grievances still prove troublesome today. And although Steppenwolf has been laid to rest, Kay denies that he’s retired, insisting instead that he’s going back to the early folk roots that spawned his interest early on.
“I was a young guy with an acoustic guitar at that time,” he recalls. “I was following in the footsteps of the masters of the blues and singer-songwriters who had something to say. To a certain extent. those two influences stayed with me throughout my seminal period, and certainly when I did an occasional solo album, these influences would come to the fore.”
Kay has given his upcoming biographical presentation the overly descriptive title, “Born to Be Wild: From Rock Star to Wildlife Advocate—Featuring John Kay’s Steppenwolf and his Journey of Transformation.” It’s the story of a personal and poignant trajectory that started with his initial encounter with music as a child in Canada, and later continued during his formative years with Steppenwolf and the career he carved out along the way.
Married 52 years to his German-born wife Jutta (her last name Maue forms part of the title of the pair’s foundation), Kay describes her as his partner, rather than his spouse, a term he seems to believe isn’t really in vogue. Their environmental interests were spawned by their frequent trips to Asia and Africa where they witnessed the challenges of the indigenous populations, the slaughter of African elephants and the killing of other wildlife for poaching and profit, as well as the mass murder of those dedicated to preserve and protect those animals. In the years since, the pair have made it their mission to spread the word about the horrors taking place on a daily basis.
“That’s where our little foundation comes in,” Kay says. “We are the bridge from the boots on the grounds who we support to those who want to help and were unaware of a crisis.”
He says that it was that commitment to creating awareness that spurred his interest in keeping Steppenwolf actively on tour for the past 10 years. Kay took his share of the revenues and invested them in his Foundation.
Although he was no stranger to performing in solo situations prior to joining Sparrow and later Steppenwolf, Kay says that he’s now in the process of reacquainting himself with going out on his own. He says he’s played a limited number of shows in and around Santa Barbara, and participated in a few select benefits over the past two and a half years. In addition to replaying a few Steppenwolf classics, he mostly dips into material taken from his solo albums, beginning with 1972’s Forgotten Songs and Unsung Heroes while working his way forward over the course of the five individual efforts and 50 years that followed.
“For the time being, I want to see how it feels,” he insists. “I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to do anything. But I can’t see myself just reading books. There’s something tremendously gratifying when I’m busy playing guitar or diddling around and turning a riff into something. It comes back to you, like ‘Yeah, this is what turned the crank when you were a teenager playing a few riffs on a guitar.’ It hasn’t evaporated. It’s not gone when you hear certain songs, certain lyrics that mean something to you. It’s like rekindling an old flame, and that’s why I want to go a little further down that path.”
Kay freely speaks of his fondness for his former bandmates in the last incarnation of Steppenwolf, some of whom were in the fold for as long as 35 years while none were there less than 28. “The more recent incarnation was together longest than any of the others,” Kay claims. “We hadn’t had a member change since the middle ’80s.”
Nonetheless, prior to the band’s reformation in the early ’80s, things weren’t quite so cozy. “We were full of ourselves,” he recalls. “We were not avoiding drugs and maybe over-drinking, So egos and emotions caused various changes. Usually they were one member at a time. For the fans, as long as John Kay was upfront, there was some semblance of stability. They would ask about the bass player or so and so, but there was always a ready explanation.”
He was, he says, the decision maker who dictated who would remain in the ranks and who had to leave. A reunion tour in the mid ’70s proved successful, but ineffectual management and indifference from their new record label—as well as Kay’s interest in spending more time with his family—led to the band’s demise. Meanwhile, various members of the original ensemble laid claim to the band’s name, resulting in Kay’s need to tackle legal challenges, overcome the ill will they left in their wake, and then start from scratch to rebuild the band brand with the handle ‘John Kay and Steppenwolf.’
“We had to work our way from the toilet circuit, some of these places you wouldn’t want to go into without a whip and a chair,” Kay remembers. “I recall when we were in a club in Minneapolis, and a guy comes over to me and says, ‘You’re not John Kay!’ ‘I’m not?’ I replied. ‘No, John Kay wouldn’t play a sh*t hole like this.’”
Nevertheless, Kay was determined to persevere. “I told the guys that our job is to send that audience home smiling, so they tell all their friends they missed a really good show,” he says. “‘Word will spread,’ and it did. But that took 20 week-long tours, five to six shows a week, 500 mile overnight drives to get to the next gig, from 1980 to 1985. It was a slow, tedious, grinding process to get back into quality venues and from clubs to small theaters, to medium-size theaters, to the sheds and back to eventually headlining. No one would touch us because we were damaged goods.”
Nevertheless, the ordeal eventually enabled the band to turn their efforts into what Kay calls their own cottage industry.
“Sometimes decisions have to be made, not based on one’s ability to say goodbye to something that’s dear to you, but more about looking in the mirror and facing reality,” he allows while discussing one reason for finally disbanding the group last year. “The wear and tear of just living started to show physically on some of the guys, so perhaps it’s the better choice when you know it’s not going to get any better from here on out.”
Kay says he got a call from Peter Fonda (before his unfortunate passing) inviting him to participate in a screening of Easy Rider at Radio City Music Hall. Kay and other musicians who appeared on the iconic soundtrack will perform the score live along with a live band helmed by T Bone Burnett while the film is shown behind them. If all goes well, the event will be repeated at other high profile venues nationwide.
Inevitably, one thing is certain: As the voice behind “Born to Be Wild,” one of the most iconic songs of all time, his legacy is bound to live on.
“Of course I very much appreciate it,” he reflects. “That song has woken up the Space Shuttle crew twice. It was Steppenwolf in space. We knew we would never be as big as the Stones. But those people for whom every album was treasured, those who wrote the cards and lately the emails that say, ‘That’s my tonic in the morning, that song gets me through another day, thank you for writing those lyrics’… that’s the payback. You begin to realize it was more than sonic wallpaper, and if you live long enough, you reap the dividends.”