“Speaking Freely” show recorded June 26, 2001, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression and America. I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is a man whose music moves down two roads. He’s both the lead singer of the legendary rock band Steppenwolf, and a thoughtful and sometimes provocative solo artist. We’re delighted to welcome John Kay.
Paulson: It’s terrific to have you here, John. I have to tell you, though, I cannot attend a sporting event or go to a movie without hearing your voice. What’s going on out there? Steppenwolf is everywhere.
John Kay: Every time you hear one of those ‘Wolf tunes … I hear ka-ching in the piggy bank.
Kay: It’s … you know, some of the stuff we did, now almost 34 years ago, has become kind of part of Americana. I mean, “Born to be Wild” has been in the space shuttle a couple of times and … it just has become part of the musical fabric, I guess, of … of America. Because I myself run into it quite frequently, you know. I was just in Atlantic City a couple days ago and turned on the TV and boom, there it was again. So I don’t mind.
Paulson: At the time, when you recorded “Born to be Wild,” clearly a big hit for you, sold a lot of albums, did you have any sense that it would … literally become sort of an anthem for a generation?
Kay: No. No idea whatsoever. In fact, it was our third single. Had everyone known what they often now claim to have known, you know … then obviously they should have stepped forward and said, “No, no, no. The … the first single ought to be ‘Born to be Wild.’” It was one of eleven tunes that were recorded. It got no more, no less reaction from our audiences when we were a baby band playing our stuff around LA. It kind of grew, I think, not only based on its initial success in ’68 when it was released, but also then subsequently when it was part of the Easy Rider soundtrack album. That happened about a year later. And that kind of gave the band and the song, certainly, international exposure. And it kind of grew from there.
Paulson: You … you hear that ka-ching more loudly when you hear “Magic Carpet Ride,” a song that you wrote.
Kay: Yes. I co-wrote that with our ex-bass player, and that is a tune that is almost as familiar and is doing very nicely out there.
Paulson: Was there a temptation to … over the years to say, “We need to rewrite one of these two songs sideways,” and then are you kind of tempted to … to repeat the success?
Kay: It wasn’t … it wasn’t something that I considered, but the fellow who wrote “Born to be Wild,” Morris Bonfire, he did in fact introduce another tune to us that wound up on the second album which was called, “Faster than the Speed of Life.” And I thought it was kind of an obvious attempt to clone “Born to be Wild” into some other sort of version. And as a result, I said, “This one’s not for me.” But his brother Jerry, who was our drummer, he then sang it. And … and that was okay with me. But I’ve always resisted writing anything that I would have to be sorry for. And sitting here 34 years later, it’s a decision I’m very glad, you know, that I made. So it … it’s something that … that always was a little bit repugnant to me, because we were a band that was kind of, “This is what we are, this is what we do, take this or leave this.” And we were lucky in the sense that we became successful early on. And so we never really had to retreat from that sort of attitude. It had worked just fine.
Paulson: As you know, John, this show is largely about free expression and the First Amendment. And yet you were born in a country that had no First Amendment.
Kay: Yeah, I was born in 1944, obviously before World War II was finished, in what was then known as East Prussia. It was part of Germany. Russia invaded that area at the end of the war, and my mother took me as an infant, then headed west. And we got stuck one night in a small town where we were to spend the next five years of our lives and which wound up behind the iron curtain. So in 1949, when I was almost five years old, my mother and I escaped across the border with the help of some people that were paid off into West Germany. And there I discovered, roughly ’56 or ’57, I discovered rock and roll, primarily courtesy of the Armed Forces Radio Network because rock and roll was difficult to find on the German government controlled radio stations. So between Armed Forces and a little bit of Radio Luxembourg, I had my ear glued to the radio to hear the likes of Little Richard and Elvis and others. And then by ’53, my mother had remarried in the early Fifties, the three of us, stepdad, my mom and I immigrated to Toronto, Canada. And there, of course, I found that music of the kind that I loved was all over the radio band. So radio became my teacher that first summer ’cause I had no friends and I didn’t speak English. And between the deejays speed-rapping and all of the music that I heard, you know, I kind of absorbed all that and … and learned the language as I went along.
Paulson: When you finally did make it in a very big way in the industry, did you ever have a chance to meet any of those early heroes you had while listening to the radio?
Kay: Yes, I did. Little Richard was, to me, the guy who had all of that really intense, which I discovered later when I became aware of … living in Toronto, I could get Buffalo, New York, radio stations a hundred miles away. And on Sunday mornings I heard black church services and the gospel music that was part of that. And I realized that what I loved about Ray Charles and … and, you know, various people, Little Richard included, was really rooted in gospel, that whole intensity thing. So Little Richard was the guy who gave … was the first guy who gave me chicken skin, you know, top to bottom goose bumps when I heard that music. I had a chance to meet him at a time when his career was just about at its lowest ebb and he was playing some out of the way place outside of Chicago. And I went backstage. All of us in Steppenwolf went to see him. Went backstage and introduced ourselves, and … and I told him, you know, very quickly how he had been really the key to my decision to do this for a living. And he was very gracious in spite of the fact that he was in less than, you know, desirable circumstances. Years, many years later, in fact less than ten years ago, my wife and I are going down the elevator at the Hyatt House on Sunset Strip, and door opens, Little Richard with an entourage of people decked to the nines comes in. And I go, you know, I said … you kinda state the obvious. “Little Richard!”
Kay: And he goes, “John Kay!” And as we’re walking out … out of there, we talked about, you know, when we had met and everything. But as we were walking out the lobby, he yells across the parking lot, he said, “John, you got a good voice and Springsteen ain’t got nothin’ to you!” And he went into a limousine and left. It was always kind of a … you know, it made my day because he … he’s still my hero. He’s a … a very unique individual with a lot of idiosyncrasies, but nobody can take away from him the fact that he had some of the best rock and roll records.
Paulson: And Steppenwolf was literally a big success early on. The first album did well, hits started coming. And we talked about the hits at the beginning of the show. I know also there were some songs that rubbed people the wrong way. Probably your best-known censored song was the target of Spiro Agnew in a speech in 1970, in which he warned American adults, parents, that their children were being exposed to songs that … that would encourage them to use illicit drugs. And the baffling thing about it, to me, is it’s a song by Hoyt Axton called “The Pusher,” which doesn’t offhand sound like an endorsement of drug use. It sounds like just the opposite.
Kay: Well, “The Pusher” was a song that Hoyt Axton did all the time at the Troubadour when I was a kid hanging out there, learning from people like him. And when I went back east before I met the Sparrow, I started to perform that song. And then it became part of a repertoire of the Sparrow and eventually wound up on the first Steppenwolf album. Well, when FM radio, which was at that time sort of uncharted territory, these so-called underground stations, were playing anything because there were very few people really listening to them compared to the hit-oriented AM stations. So you could … flying under the media’s radar, to some extent. But then when our album became very popular and … and the song “The Pusher” was included in Easy Rider, all of a sudden it had a much higher profile. So when somebody would play it, they would then get some flak from a few listeners. There was some question as to whether the … not the FAA, God forbid … the FCC, you know, was happy with the idea of them playing it. And all of a sudden, we got more and more reports that radio stations was doing sort of a hands-off thing. Now, one of the more striking examples of the … the resistance that we met with this song was when we arrived one day to play in Winston-Salem at some arena that held, you know, whatever it was, six or eight or nine thousand people. And as far as we knew, everything was fine. They said, you know, we had a sellout there and … and we came to the airport and there was the mayor and the police chief and, that I could still to this day not figure out, the fire chief.
Kay: And they said, “Well, we’re here because we have a local candidate for office who is a Baptist preacher and he’s got this laundry list of songs that you’re not supposed to play tonight because you’re performing at a facility that was paid for with war bonds or something,” it’s a war memorial, whatever. And so he somehow feels that they this jurisdiction and the … the right to censor you in some way. And we looked at this stuff, and there was “The Pusher” and “Don’t Step on the Grass, Sam” and “Monster” and a few other tunes. And we just said, “Well, that’s not gonna happen.” So we got into a tug of war back and forth, and cut to the chase finally. They said, “Okay, well, all these other …” ’cause we said, you know, the freedom of speech issue, if you want, you know, a lawsuit, we’d be glad … you know, our publicity agent is already drooling at the prospect. So they kind of backed off of everything except “The Pusher.” And they said, “You cannot sing those words, ‘God damn.’” And we said, “Well, look, there’s a … there’s an official publication issued by the Baptists where one of their writers said this song is not to be misunderstood. The term ‘God damn’ is used in the Biblical sense. May God damn this person for doing what he does to other human beings.” And … but they wouldn’t hear any of that. So finally, they said, “Okay, if you go up there and sing those words, we’ll have police right behind you and they’re going to arrest you on the spot.” So we said, “Okay, those two words are … we’re down to this, that the issue of those two words.” Yes, that was the understanding. So we went up there, we played a complete show, they were a great audience. And our encore often, and … and still is often to this day, “The Pusher.” So when we went back out there, it occurred to me that I would just tell them the truth. I said, “We had an option this evening of canceling this entire show and sending people home disappointed, or to make a promise that we’re going to keep, which is that we said there are two words in the song, ‘The Pusher,’ which we will not sing. But we didn’t make any such promise on your behalf.” So we played the entire … (Plays Guitar) And every time “God damn” came up, there were these eight thousand people at the top of their lungs yelling this thing. There were a lot of faces, you know, red faces backstage. But none of us spent the night in jail. So that was one of those times when we just had to find a work-around solution.
Paulson: Now you are a father. So to what extent would the leaders of this country concern … legitimate concern? I mean, would you endorse a song today that said, “Crack can make you happy?”
Kay: No. I do, however, endorse the … the right of that performer to express his or her opinion. I must also add that I’m one of those who … who feels that … for instance, in … in Germany after the war, they outlawed the Communist Party, they outlawed the Nazi Party, they outlawed the Nazi salute, the Nazi flag, and so on and so forth. In light of what had happened under the Nazi regime, one could hardly blame them for wanting to take a, you know, a firm response. On the other hand, in our country we have freedoms that go beyond those limitations in Germany. And so everyone is … is able to say what they think, although, you know, people generally agree that you don’t scream, you know, “Fire!” in a crowded theater unless there really is a fire. My feeling is this, that with the … the freedom that you are given here, there also comes a degree of responsibility in terms of exercising that freedom in a manner that is not destructive just for the sake of profit. And while I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that we start censorship, because who gets to censor whom and where does it stop? On the other hand, I feel that the same freedom of expression and freedom of speech is there for all of us and it’s really our job, I think, to speak up when we hear or see something that we find to be negative and destructive in terms of our collective humanity. When I travel in places like Belize or Malaysia or … or Indonesia, and I see what our so-called cultural exports at times, you know, result in, in terms of repercussion … I mean, when I was in Belize, the local kids in Belize City had drive-by shootings from bicycles because they couldn’t afford cars. But they saw that gang shootings were the thing to do based on what they saw coming over satellite from the U.S. You know, so there are … there are consequences which you create. And every time you make a video or book, a song, a film, whatever that may be, you have an option of sitting there and saying, “Whatever I make now can be an agent for … that doesn’t mean you should sugarcoat reality and not rub people’s noses in things that are unpleasant and that are, you know, so on. But by the same token, I personally have great difficulty in justifying some … somebody’s work which is directly geared to the lowest, basest instincts that all of us have to a certain extent, strictly for profit. I think we’re entitled to say we disagree with this.
Paulson: You have maintained Steppenwolf for many years and probably … I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen references to John Kay, former lead singer of Steppenwolf.
Kay: Ah, yes.
Paulson: When in fact Steppenwolf is still going strong and people can see you …
Paulson: … all over the country. How many dates a year do you play as Steppenwolf?
Kay: We’ve cut back substantially. But we still do … this year, 55 dates. And we play primarily North America, but fairly regularly in … in Europe. We were just in Europe about ten days ago in Hungary. And last year we were in Brazil. So we have fans in many parts of the world. But the majority of our concerts take place in North America.
Paulson: Now you’ve been on the road recently promoting your new album …
Paulson: … on Cannonball Records. It is a departure of sorts. It almost hearkens back to some of the early material you embraced as a performer.
Kay: It does. It … it is, in fact, very much a return to those days that I talked about earlier when I was a guy at the Newport Folk Festival being exposed to topical songs and the blues. I had … accumulated a handful of tunes that I’d written in recent years, and I realized fairly early on that these were tunes that were going to wind up on a solo project because they were highly personal in nature, point-of-view songs. And … and the majority of them were steeped in the Delta or Chicago blues influences. And … it’s an album called “Heretics and Privateers,” and it’s sort of about those of us who … who have found that the sort of standard issue pursuits in life that often we’re told is the direction we ought to pursue, you know … there’s school and then there’s the degree and then there’s the career and then there’s the mortgage and the marriage and … you know, it doesn’t work for everybody. And I think there are particularly a lot of young people out there that I come across who … who kind of say, you know, less in terms of materialism is okay with me but … but leave me my life. I really don’t want to wind up in sort of a “Dilbert” cubicle corporate existence. And I … and I support them because, you know, I think our consumerism society and … and various related issues that are connected to that, such as big business, you know, pulling the strings in Washington and what have you, is … is not good for us as a species. I think there needs to be a sense of balance. I think that politicians and business people need to be held accountable for their actions or inactions on a global basis. And I … I was tremendously heartened to see young people in the streets of Washington months ago during one of the World Trade Organization meetings or whatever going, chanting, “The world is not for sale.” Because here were these 19 or 21-year-olds and they cared about something beyond just, you know, making a buck and … and it was really kind of inspirational to see that in spite of a generation many of whom were raised on … on being constantly entertained, constantly stimulated, never have a quiet moment in their life, that they can get past that, you know. So there’s, I think, hope for us all.
Paulson: And if people have an interest in buying this CD, they go to steppenwolf.com, is that … ?
Kay: Steppenwolf.com is as good a place as any. Amazon.com. If you’re on the Web, it’s … it’s an easier way to find this record than … than going to your Sam Goody or some equivalent in the mall where, unless it’s Britney Spears, you know, you’re not likely to find everything these days.
Paulson: Well, the … the album’s got … had some wonderful reviews and … and it’s always a good sign when they don’t mention Britney Spears but instead mention Woody Guthrie in the reviews.
Paulson: I can think of no better way to close today’s show out with a … a song from the new album.
Kay: I’d be glad to. This is a tune that … that is decidedly marked by my tendency at times to have, well, sort of sardonic lyrics. A warped sense of humor, I guess, is a good way to describe it. Because I … we’ve gotten to a point where I think the next stage in terms of consumer advertising will be the prenatal programming, you know, where they attach electrodes to a pregnant mother so that when the baby’s born it already says, “I want my Gap jeans.”
Kay: Because it just seems endless. Well, I … I’m sure we’re all aware of the various examples one could cite. So I … I have this sort of … I don’t know if you want to call it vision or a nightmare, but somewhere in the future that … you know, you’re going to have to really explain yourself for not getting with the program of living happily in the endless commercial. There will probably be some sort of consumer-related organization that will send … send the great inquisitor, you know, checking on your … (Plays guitar) Visa statements. (Sings) My name is not important, I’ve been sent to put an end/To the wanking in the ranks of the disloyal opposition/Oh yeah/Now you’ve been heard to complain you don’t like the status quo/And you haven’t met your quota of spending, don’t you know/The mission is to conform and to consume/You’re way behind now, so get your ass started/Where would we be if we all did what we wanted/The wheels of industry would grind up to a halt/Our factories in Mexico would surely feel the jolt/Run through the maze and get your piece of cheese/Don’t come to us if you wind up on your knees/I know inside, yes, you may be seething/But we want you good and tired, just barely breathing/Modern life has got you down, we got pills for all your ills/All you got to do is buy a lifetime supply of magic potions/Don’t you know/And you won’t know what you feel, what is fake and what is the real/As they slowly take control of your mind/And your emotions until you finally toe the line/You’re not exempt, no, you won’t be forgotten/Take it from me, we know how to push your buttons/What you believe is subject to debate/We’ll let you know what to love and what to hate/You’ll be confused morning, noon, and night/We’ll keep your senses occupied till you’re lobotomized/We’ll entertain you till we drive you to drinking/Did you believe we want you to start thinking?/Yeah, we are the global merchants, we got beads for all your needs/To sell our way of life to the entire universe is our agenda/Mm-hm/And those who try to resist will be targets on our list/We’ll bombard ‘em with consumer goods until they finally surrender/And learn to mend their frugal ways/And I know right now it may seem controversial/But you learn to love and live in the endless commercial/Just leave it all to us, trust me, we know best/Just park the kids by the TV, we’ll do all the rest/We’ll pull the strings behind the scene/And let you all believe that you’re living in a dream/Should you wake up screaming, “How’d this come about?” /Just keep your mouth shut if you find a way out.
Paulson: Our guest has been John Kay. I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about free expression, the arts, and America. I hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”
Kay: (Sings) You say it was this morning when you last saw your good friend/Lying on the pavement with the misery on his brain/Stoned on some new potion he found up on the wall/Of some unholy bathroom in some ungodly hall/He only had a dollar to live on until next Monday/But he spent it all on comfort for his mind/Did you say you think he’s blind?/Someone should call his parents, his sister or a brother/And they’ll come to take him back home on a bus/But he’ll always be a problem to his poor puzzled mother/He’ll always be another one of us/He said he wanted heaven but praying was too slow/So he bought a one-way ticket on an airline made of snow/Did you say you saw your good friend flying low?/Dying slow?/Flying low?/Lying to die slow?
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