Steppenwolf frontman relates struggles, passion for free expression

Thursday, June 28, 2001
Ken Paulson with Steppenwolf’s John Kay.

NEW YORK — Back in 1968, you didn’t need outrageous lyrics to provoke would-be censors, says Steppenwolf’s legendary frontman John Kay.

The possibility alone was enough, Kay recalled this week at a taping of “Speaking Freely,” the First Amendment Center’s weekly television show on free expression and the arts.

When the rock band’s dance hit “Sookie Sookie” first appeared, it played on radio stations along both coasts, but those in the Bible Belt refused to air it. When the band asked their distributor why, Kay recalled, MCA Records replied, “Well, they’re not sure, but they suspect that it’s not totally clean.”

Steppenwolf’s recording of “The Pusher,” a Hoyt Axton anti-drug song, fared even worse on radio because of its allusions to drugs and lyrics that some people found objectionable.

Kay recalled a concert where the town’s officials forbade the band to sing the words “God damn” from the song, even though the lyrics are asking God to condemn drug dealers.

Kay told the concert-goers about the town officials’ proscription and even though the band didn’t sing the forbidden words, “every time ‘God damn’ came up, there were 8,000 people at the top of their lungs, yelling this thing,” he recalled. “None of us spent the night in jail.”

“Speaking Freely” host Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, asked Kay, “Would you endorse a song today that said, ‘Crack can make you happy’?”

“No,” Kay replied. “But I do, however, endorse the right of that performer to express his or her opinion.”

He added, however, that people should use that right responsibly, and that people also have the right to criticize how someone else chooses to use his or her First Amendment rights.

“With 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,” he said.

“I wouldn’t for a moment suggest we start censorship. … I feel that the same freedom of expression and freedom of speech is there for all of us,” the singer told Paulson. “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.”

Kay has spent his life making music and supporting free expression. He serves on the national advisory board of the First Amendment Center.

He first found a way to express himself in music when he discovered rock ‘n’ roll as a child. He listened to it through the Armed Forces radio network in West Germany, where he and his mother had fled a few years after his birth in East Germany.

Then when he moved to Canada with his mother and stepfather several years later, rock ‘n’ roll was everywhere.

“Radio became my teacher that first summer (in Canada) ’cause I had no friends and I didn’t speak English,” Kay said. “And between the DJs speed-rapping and all of the music that I heard, I kind of absorbed all that and learned the language as I went along.

“I had my ear glued to the radio to hear the likes of Little Richard and Elvis and others,” Kay told Paulson.

With his tan-and-black acoustic guitar on his lap, Kay smiled as he talked about the first time he met his idol, Little Richard.

“Little Richard was the first guy who gave me chicken skin – you know, top to bottom goose bumps when I heard that music,” he said. “I had a chance to meet him at a time when his career was just about at its lowest ebb. … I went backstage … and I told him very quickly how he had been really the key to my decision to do this for a living.”

“Years, many years later, in fact less than 10 years go, my wife and I are going down the elevator at the Hyatt House on Sunset Strip, and a door opens – Little Richard with an entourage of people decked to the nines comes in,” Kay said. “And I kind of state the obvious: ‘Little Richard!’ And he goes, ‘John Kay!’”

The two caught up, and Kay said that as they walked out the lobby, Little Richard yelled, “John, you got a good voice and (Bruce) Springsteen ain’t got nothing on you!”

Kay produced such hits as “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Don’t Step On the Grass, Sam,” along with the smash-hit “Born to Be Wild.”

Today some of these same controversial songs are played at sporting events and for car commercials.

“Some of the stuff we did now almost 34 years ago has become kind of part of Americana,” Kay said. “It has just become part of the musical fabric of America.”

Kay told Paulson that he has avoided writing anything that would later haunt him.

“I’ve always resisted writing anything that I would have to be sorry for,” he said. “And sitting here 34 years later, it’s a decision that I’m very glad that I made.”

He added that the band has never wavered from its beliefs in free speech and expression.

“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,” he said.

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