For more than four decades, one of the best ways to “get your motor running” when you’re “looking for adventure” is to crank up “Born to Be Wild” on the stereo, the timeless first hit single from the band Steppenwolf. The voice that calls you to action in that song is that of singer John Kay, who for the last few years has lived in the Santa Barbara area.
Kay will be performing Friday night at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club as part of its 20th Anniversary Show Series. Also on the program is The Dirty Knobs, a band that features Tom Petty’s longtime guitarist, Mike Campbell.
John Kay and Steppenwolf went on to have other hits in the late 1960’s and early ’70s, including “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Rock Me,” and their music has been used in seemingly countless movies and TV shows, starting with Easy Rider, which featured “Born to Be Wild” and “The Pusher.” The band broke up in 1972, but has been active off and on since then in various incarnations.
In addition to musical pursuits, Kay and his wife, Jutta, devote much of their energy these days to the Maue Kay Foundation, which works to protect wildlife, the environment and human rights.
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The Words of John Kay …
On the upcoming show:
This is a show for SOhO. I’m told that the club needs to raise some dollars — they’ve got some projects in mind. So it came to pass that I spoke to Mike Campbell from The Dirty Knobs, and we’re going to do a hybrid thing. I’m going to do a half-hour acoustic solo set, and then I’ll be joined by them to do a handful of Wolf songs, and then after a short break they will take over and do what they do. And, hopefully, they’ll raise some duckets for the cause.
I do on occasion do some solo stuff for fundraisers for causes I believe in. And this is one of them, because I think it’s important to have local venues that give a showcase opportunity to regional and local acts.
I mean, we have wonderful theaters like the Lobero and all of that, which is great, but not everybody can take on a venue that size. So I think it’s important to have other options, and from what Gail (Hansen) tells me at SOhO, this has been a labor of love for them for quite some time, and I’m very happy to lend a hand and do my little bit to preserve it.
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On “Born to Be Wild”:
It’s a song that (laughs) has its own stand-along separate-from-Steppenwolf career, you might say. In the last 15 years, I’ve been in places like Botswana and Burma, and if at some point it comes up as to what do I do and the name Steppenwolf comes up, quite often they’re not familiar with the name of the band.
But if they ask about a song that they might know that we do, if I mention “Born to Be Wild” they know it. It’s a song that, in fact, our guide in Burma said, “Oh, every bar band in Yangon must know this song or they will not be hired.” (laughs)
I remember coming years ago back from Africa. My wife and I had been in a mobile tented camp that was in Tanzania, totally off the grid, and checking my email I had little blurbs from different people saying, “Congratulations on the Mars landing!” (laughs)
I said, “What the hell is that about?” So I called our office, and they said, “That’s right, you don’t know, do you? When the little robots,” those little landing craft things, “when the Mars landing took place in your absence, and the spacecraft had the little ramp lowered and these two little solar-powered robots came down the ramp, they played ‘Born to Be Wild.’”
And so it was the Wolf in space. (laughs) We’ve woken up the space shuttle crew twice with the song. It’s just a song that has a life of its own.
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On charging Disney triple rate for licensing “Born to Be Wild” for its TV special, Down and Out with Donald Duck:
Well, first off, when it comes to cartoons, I’m a Warner Brothers guy.
But No. 2, and more important this is something I want them to pay because when the Wolf was a baby band, and we had just been formed, we had no hits yet, my wife and I and our drummer and his wife wanted to go to Disneyland. And they refused us entry because of our long hair.
When they said, “Are you by any chance members of the Screen Actors Guild?” I said, “No, just musicians,” and they said, “No.”
And I said, “Well, why is that?” And they said, “Well, if you were an actor, we could just say, well, you know, you needed to grow this long hair for a role,” and so on.
Well, of course, within 18 months all of this changed, because every kid in the neighborhood in Anaheim and beyond also had long hair, so they changed their policy.
I said (to my manager), “I want to charge them a nuisance fee for what they put me through that day.”
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On the meaning of the song “Magic Carpet Ride”:
There are numerous theories and mythologies around this thing. I will simply say that I wrote the lyrics and the melody to the thing, and you can take the lyrics at face value.
But I have run into numerous people who had a particularly potent serving of mushrooms or whatever, and they would come up and go, “I know what that’s like really about, man. It’s about the nebula out past the …”
“OK, you know, if that’s what it means to you.”
In this case, the meaning is in the ear of the beholder. When people come up with their theories about “Magic Carpet Ride,” I usually just smile and tell them, “Your opinion is as good as the next guy. Go with it.”
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Click here for the full interview with John Kay.
John Kay and The Dirty Knobs perform at 8 p.m. Friday at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, 1221 State St., Suite 205. Click here to purchase tickets online.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.