Steppenwolf’s Kay content with pushing messages

Monday, January 11, 1999

John Kay and Ke...
John Kay and Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When John Kay and his bandmates stepped off a plane in Winston-Salem, N.C., for a concert nearly 30 years ago, they stood face-to-face with the city’s mayor, police chief and several fire department officials.

Concerned about the lyrics of several Steppenwolf songs, the city leaders demanded that the rock group either not sing an offensive line from “The Pusher” at that night’s concert or risk arrest.

That night as Steppenwolf prepared to play the song, Kay related the airport incident to the concert-goers, and how the band promised not to sing a certain line. He remembers saying: “But it occurs to me, none of you made such a promise.”

And so, while the band kept silent during the chorus, thousands of their fans yelled: “God damn the pusher!”

“Needless to say, there were a lot of red faces behind us,” Kay said. “But we had a pleasant dinner after the show, and we never saw the inside of a jail.”

More than 125 people packed into the First Amendment Center on Jan. 8 to listen to Kay, who as the lead singer of Steppenwolf had hits with such songs as “Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride.” Kay’s appearance and subsequent performance marked the third in a continuing series of programs, “The First Amendment in Concert.”

Earlier performances featured Jill Sobule and Kinky Friedman.

Unlike Sobule and Friedman, Kay steered away from his biggest hits, instead playing acoustic versions of “The Pusher” and more recent compositions such as “The Back Page.”

“I know we have a lot of Wolf Packers here, but this is not a rock concert,” Kay told the audience, noting that he couldn’t play complete versions of the group’s hits without a full band. “Keep your Bic lighters in your pockets.”

Instead, Kay welcomed an hourlong conversation with First Amendment Center founder John Seigenthaler and the center’s Executive Director Ken Paulson. Paulson noted that Steppenwolf was a success on many levels other than the pop charts.

“There is no better Top 40 song than ‘Born to Be Wild,’” Paulson said. “But Steppenwolf is not about hit singles, it’s about music that actually had a message at a time when it wasn’t economically beneficial to have a message.”

Kay noted that some listeners misunderstood the message behind some of the band’s songs — including the anti-drug theme in “The Pusher,” a song written by Hoyt Axton — and sought to ban them. He recalled, too, how the band’s first single “Sookie Sookie” failed to get airplay in many states simply because some listeners didn’t know what the song was about.

Paulson added: “There is something about bands and the amplification of guitars that drives lawmakers insane.”

For a young East German refugee who had admired the freedoms he saw portrayed in films and music imported from America, Kay admitted he was disappointed to find that the United States sometimes censored its artists and persecuted its citizens. But he was pleased to find the opportunity to fully explore his passion for music.

Kay recalled how as a boy in West Germany he used a cardboard guitar to imitate Elvis Presley and how fiddling with a homemade radio enabled him to come across the sound of Little Richard.

“What is this?” Kay remembered thinking at the time. “No one played the piano like that where I came from. I was hooked. Where can I get this stuff?”

For years, he listened to American music wherever he could find it: An occasional broadcast on his radio or at the carnival rides at traveling fairs.

“I had this daydream that even though I was 12 or whatever, someday I would cross the Atlantic Ocean, I would learn how to speak English, I would learn how to play the guitar,” said Kay, whose family moved to Toronto in 1958.

“There, I was like a kid in the candy store,” he said. “Because all of a sudden, instead of getting one measly hour of rock ‘n’ roll on the German radio station, I got the dial. Then I stumbled across country music, R&B, gospel… .”

But he also learned that the America he dreamed about wasn’t exactly the one he had heard on the radio and seen in the movies in West Germany. Rock ‘n’ roll didn’t fill the streets of Canada or the United States, and few people looked like Marlon Brando, James Dean or Elvis Presley. On television broadcasts from nearby Buffalo, N.Y., he saw the United States overcome by the Red Scare, Vietnam and the civil rights movement.

All of these events bore a great influence on Kay who later would pen such songs as “Monster” to decry the draft and the Vietnam War and “Ostrich” to raise environmental issues.

Although Steppenwolf enjoyed considerable commercial success with songs like “Born to Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride,” Kay said he was glad the group chose to stick with writing songs with messages rather than those that would guarantee continued success.

“I’ve dealt with the duality of being a rock star/commercial success vs. songs of substance,” Kay said. “Thirty years later, I’m glad I don’t have to sing ‘Incense and Peppermints’ every night.”