Steppenwolf’s John Kay In A Rare Interview On ‘Born To Be Wild,’ ‘The Pusher,’ ‘Easy Rider,’ More

Steppenwolf singer John Kay rarely gives interviews these days. 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 five minutes, but 40. I could’ve gone on a lot longer with Kay, his career being so rich, but he had an appointment later, 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 in the soundtrack to the award-winning, counterculture 1969 flick, “Easy Rider.”

In fact, Kay, 78, called precisely on time for our chat, in my experience rare for rock stars. I found the man to be thoughtful, funny and smart, with a good business sense. He was also gracious, and unassuming. Following are edited excerpts from our phone conversation yesterday. Because I had such long access to Kay, this is just Part 1 of a multi-part series.

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. So that’s the story on my eyes.

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 exam, 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 I, son, it means women and children will go before you. Nobody’s going to give you a weapon.” Back then, in the mid-1960s, 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, “God damn the pusher man.” Talk about that one, how it came to be and the reactions.

Kay: I saw Hoyt Axton perform at Troubador 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 hitch-hiking back from California to Toronto, where I had gone to high school, I joined the Canadian band, The Sparrows. We played an electric version of “The Pusher.”

At first, there were no issues. The thing was five minutes long, 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 the long-haired kids listened to, started playing it. The only advertising there 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. Does 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, what’s caused them to buy your albums, to come see your shows. So when we perform “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 them everything you have, you pay them back, and 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.

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