Steppenwolf’s John Kay in rare interview on ‘The Pusher’, ‘Easy Rider’, more

Steppenwolf singer John Kay rarely gives interviews these days. He 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 gave this reporter one, and not just for five minutes, but for 40. you after, and, if nothing else, Kay is meticulous, a far cry from the wild child image of Steppenwolf’s classic ’60s hits like “Born To Be Wild” and “The Pusher,” both of which are in the award-winning counterculture soundtrack. 1969 movie, “Easy Rider”.

In fact, 78-year-old Kay called precisely on time for our conversation, in my rare experience for rock stars. I found the man thoughtful, funny and intelligent, with good business sense. He was also graceful and modest, in keeping with his character in his autobiography, ”John Kay: Magic Carpet Ride.” Here are edited excerpts from our phone conversation. Because I’ve had such long access to Kay, this is only part 1 of a multi-part series.

Jim Clash: I grew up listening to Steppenwolf. The group was a staple of my generation. I remember you looked cool in those sunglasses in almost every photo. But there’s more to this story than cool, isn’t there?

John Kay: I have what is called achromatopsia, a birth defect. We are about 40,000 in North America. It comes in two flavors: one, extreme sensitivity to light, hence the dark lenses; and two, total color blindness. My whole universe is essentially black and white photography. I also have genital astigmatism in my left eye. Together, these issues make me legally blind. I don’t drive on public roads. I know Uber very well [laughs]. In fact, I just got back from a doctor’s appointment using it. So that’s the story about my eyes.

Shock: Interesting. Other than looking cool most of the time, is there anything else positive your condition has given you?

Kay: Well at night when others can’t see I’m like a bush baby [Galago]. I don’t have to squint, I wear sunglasses. I see better than people with normal sight in near total darkness. The eyes also kept me away [the] Vietnam [War]. The first letter I received when I arrived in Buffalo, New York, was from the Editorial Board. As George Carlin so eloquently put it, “Military intelligence is an oxymoron. I went in, as ordered, for a physical examination and attempted to inform the officer that I was legally blind. I couldn’t finish my sentence before he said, “Son, we’ll come 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, where I’m from, I don’t see a map. I am legally blind. He was going to say “Well, you could have told me that…” but he stopped when he remembered that I had tried to tell him, but he cut me off [laughs].

Anyway, he told me my draft card would say 4F. I asked what that meant. He said, “Between you and me, my son, that means women and children will go before you. No one will give you a gun. At the time, in the mid-1960s, my peer group was very worried about going overseas. Some ended up in Canada, others elsewhere, but I was relatively exempt from Vietnam.

Shock: Much of your Steppenwolf material was considered anti-establishment, avant-garde at the time, especially the song “The Pusher”, with lyrics like “Goddamn the pusher man”. Talk about this one, how it happened and the reactions.

Kay: I saw Hoyt Axton play at The Troubadour in West Hollywood. He had written this song. At the time, there was a folk music revival. I played acoustic guitar in minor league cafes, but I also hung out at Troubadour to hear the pros, see what I could learn. “The Pusher” really knocked the house down and connected with me, very simple to learn. After hitchhiking from California to Toronto, where I had gone to high school, I joined a Canadian band, The Sparrows. We played an electric version of “The Pusher”.

At first there were no problems. The song was five minutes long, too long for singles played on AM radio. However, the newer “underground” FM stations of the time, before Chevrolet and Coca-Cola advertised and most long-haired kids listened, started playing it. The only ad on these stations was of the guy who ran a bell bottom jeans store down the street. “The Pusher” was on Steppenwolf’s debut album, before “Born To Be Wild”. What we had to say there resonated with our age group. Later, when subway stations became more common, you heard little bits from certain markets saying, “They won’t let us play that song anymore because now we have IBM, whoever it is, doing advertising. We cannot afford to lose listeners. Somebody’s gonna have their insides in an uproar [laughs].”

On YouTube you can find a video of my appearance on “Speaking Freely”, a show run by the First Amendment Center. He has long and convoluted stories about different people talking about censorship. To Winston Salem [North Carolina], for example, they were going to cancel our show because of “The Pusher”. Watch this video and you will hear the whole story. It was a song that in the early days flew under the radar but later became a bone of contention.

Shock: “The Pusher” and other hits like “Born To Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride” you’ve probably played thousands of times live. Does repetition ever get boring?

Kay: Others may have different ways to avoid this, or just grit their teeth. I never dared. Our reason for being on this stage – I retired from Steppenwolf in 2018 – was that the people in front of you all saw something in what you had to offer that made them buy your albums, come see your gigs. So when we perform “Magic Carpet Ride” and the other hits, there’s an incredibly enthusiastic response. It is the energy on which we thrive. When they hear the first two or three beats, they are on their feet. By giving it all you have, you pay them back, maybe change a tiny bit of their life that night. Some come from God knows where, maybe 800 kilometers away.

We’ve been through different band member changes over the decades, and I always tell them, especially the new ones, “Our job is to send everyone home with a smile.” When we’re done with the “Born To Be Wild” version as it is on the single, however, we stretch it, jam it to it. This is where we play. But you never touch what has been etched so deeply into listeners’ memory banks. They may have played that record until they used it up. They know exactly how it should sound, and you play it exactly that way. It is your obligation.

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Earnest L. Veasey