Life's been a wild ride
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By TIM GHIANNI
John Kay is much like the elephants he relishes.
At home in Tennessee
Wolf World headquarters can only be found with the most detailed of directions. The familiar voice of Magic Carpet Ride and Monster fame answers the security intercom, though there is no growl like in those old rock songs. His real voice is flavored by a tad of the German accent of his youth.
(Photo by LARRY MCCORMACK
/ TENNESSEAN STAFF)
doing a bit o acoustic blues in his
rural Williamson County studio.
Kay had some knowledge of this part of the world, because of concerts and because of visits to nearby Muscle Shoals, Ala., an R&B mecca that has served as a recording site for artists ranging from Arthur Alexander to Percy Sledge to Bob Seger to The Rolling Stones . . . to Steppenwolf. Nashville is a relatively big city that fit "the pragmatic part of the equation" Kay was figuring into his search for a new home: the ability to reach his public easily.
(PHOTO BY LARRY MCCORMACK /
John Kay met wife Jutta in 1965 when he was
performing in Toronto They've not been apart since.
Almost 16 years ago, the couple relocated their
lives and the Steppenwolf operation to their
secluded acreage in Williamson County.
After finding personal peace and growth here,
they are going to move, splitting time between a
house in Canada, a residence in Nashville and their
"Seventy percent of the population of the United States could be covered within a 600-mile radius," he says. "That means we could cover all the way from Milwaukee to New Orleans to Dallas to Pittsburgh."
"I guess it was in 1968 or '69, we played a small arena here. I don't know if it was War Memorial or the other old one (Municipal), but we had a day off here. And somebody from Sound Seventy (the old concert promotion company), some relatively young fella, said, 'Would you like to go back stage at the Grand Ole Opry?' "
It was an exciting opportunity for a young man who "was influenced by country music. When I was growing up in Toronto, I used to listen to the radio from Wheeling, W.Va., and from Nashville. I'd hear Hank Williams, Hank Snow . . . all of those Hanks."
Kay's response to the promoter: "You think that it would be all right for a bunch of long-haired rockers with snakeskin books and crushed-velvet shirts?"
They were welcomed. Not only by Skeeter Davis — the rebellious Opry star who had pushed the causes of the Byrds and other "hippie" country outfits — but by the rhinestone heroes.
"We met Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Little Jimmy Dickens. I got to see a lot of the people who I'd actually heard perform when I was a teenager.
"That experience was a very warm one, even more reinforced the following day, when we were invited to go visit Johnny and June Carter Cash at their home in Hendersonville.
"We went out there, and all the kids were there. Little Johnny Carter Cash, all of them. When we got there, Johnny Cash was still sleeping, but these kids were asking for our autographs, because we were rock 'n' roll stars.
"Then Johnny Cash got up, and we wanted his autograph."
The Steppenwolf leader's voice softens. "They were the most congenial hosts. You know, Johnny Cash had had Dylan on his show, the Byrds and others. We chatted about the possibility of us playing on his show as well."
These memories played a role in the Kays' search for a home, with the stipulation that it come "with beautiful countryside, privacy, near water." That's when they found out about this 145 acres of rough country, with a comfortable home on a golden pond.
Kay pauses to look out the window of the apartment above his recording studio. Across the cove, a canoe is tied to the deck attached to the house's lower level, location of his business offices as well as video production studio space.
"This worked out pretty well," he says, noting that a tour bus named Magic Carpet Ride also made its way to his hidden valley. But mostly, life here is undisturbed.
"We came here, and we leave all the critters who were here before us in peace."
Peace after a wild ride
The rest of the Wolf organization — by then the band was going by the moniker John Kay and Steppenwolf to fend off imposters — followed the leader of the pack. "It was at the right time in all of our lives," Kay says. The boys who once sang they "smoked a lot of grass; O' Lord . . . popped a lotta pills" while at the same time condemning the pusher to eternal damnation, had found lives outside rock 'n' roll.
"When you have children, you want a safe, settled area. I don't think any of the guys regretted coming out here.
"The timing was right for a variety of reasons. It was the right place for me personally to be able be home with my family."
Kay acknowledges L.A. had given him "urban calluses."
"The city, Hollywood and the entertainment industry, it was sort of dehumanizing.
"I became kind of a recluse. I was not overly cynical, but I was kind of protective of my privacy.
"Living here has affected me in the opposite way. I mean, there's a lot of cool stuff here. And yes, it does take us 45 minutes to get to downtown Nashville, but in L.A. it took us 45 minutes to get anywhere and we'd be sucking somebody else's exhaust pipe the whole way."
Coming here didn't immediately mean settling down. Driven by Kay's voice, the Wolf, with its ever-evolving lineup, was rolling. "Fifteen years ago, I was out on the road for weeks on end. It was intensive.
"But, when those gates closed behind me, this became kind of like a retreat. The very antidote to road work.
"As of last year, I cut back," says the soon-to-be 61-year-old. "It's now our 38th year. It was time to cut back. Now we are doing 25 dates a year. I hated to see the old Magic Carpet Ride go down the road, but we didn't need it any more."
The tour bus was sold. And now the Wolf takes it a bit easier, with annual "hibernations."
"We do spring-through-fall concerts," he says. "Now, we meet up at the airport and the guys say we're going on 'a weekend vacation.' "
He laughs. "So we get on the plane and go off for a weekend and are handsomely compensated in an industry that regularly eats its young.
"Around here we call Steppenwolf 'the SWAT team of rock 'n' roll.' If we were called today, we could be anyplace in the world in 48 hours . . . .
"We are very mobilized, well organized."
Beyond the music
Mobility, rock riches — and Nashville — have allowed Kay, the human being, to fully emerge.
"I was a late-bloomer. For so long I was too focused on running Wolf World to sign up to play a few songs, raise a few dollars."
In Nashville, at places like the Bluebird, his fellow artists were doing just that. And he decided to join in.
"It brought me back to the community experience I felt in the early 1960s, during the folk music revival . . . the coffee houses in Greenwich Village, Yorkville Village in Toronto, even at the Troubadour in Los Angeles . . . .
"Back in the 1960s, it was not about just the music per se, but about what can we do about the world today."
Kay and Jutta's travels apart from the Wolf often have humanitarian components.
Despite legal blindness — "I'm 20/200 and totally color-blind," he says — Kay is an avid videographer. "Jutta is my color guide."
That means footage of animals in Africa and orphans in Cambodia. And Jutta, a still photographer, focuses on the same subjects.
They've visited refugee camps and seen the Killing Fields skeletons. They've built a school in Cambodia and are assisting in the expansion of another in Tanzania.
"My wife and I feel ourselves to be more and more involved with orphans, with orphaned elephants in Kenya. . . . We have been extraordinarily successful in our profession to find and fund people and organizations that make a difference."
(PHOTO BY LARRY MCCORMACK / TENNESSEAN STAFF)
Steppenwolf leader John Kay is an avid videographer. Legally blind and color blind, he still knows how to put together compelling tales. One of his passions is producing videos in his home studio. His wife, Jutta, an accomplished still photographer, not only shoots her own stuff but also informs her husband of the color combinations he's shooting.
Refrain still ripples
Note to Nashville
Don't forget to be nice.
That's the message from John Kay, who was among the first wave of rock 'n' roll refugees to find peace in and around Nashville.
"Stevie Winwood and John Hiatt came before us," says the leader of Steppenwolf.
He lists a few more names of the rock exodus to the Nashville area: Michael McDonald, Leon Russell, Bonnie Bramlett, John Prine, Kim Carnes.
Suddenly, Kay almost explodes. "Sometimes I am bemused by what I witness that the community is trying to change its image, that it is trying to 'catch up' with the big-time, trendy cities. The complaint that we aren't a big league city."
He pauses, then continues his rant: "They say 'people are nice here, but …'
"Well, I got news for you, that, being nice, is something to be really proud of. Don't worry that we need to have the best ballet or whatever.
"Tell people that they can bring their Thai food with them, their intellect, but don't let that change what makes this the greatest place to be, a genuinely friendly place."
Keeping up with Kay
(Senior Writer Tim Ghianni compiled this timeline from information at http://www.steppenwolf.com/, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll and from interviews.)
April 12, 1944: Joachim Fritz Krauledat (John Kay) is born in East Prussia. His father dies in fighting on the Russian front a month before Joachim's birth.
1948: Kay, age 4, and his mother flee from East Germany to West Germany. Kay's youth is spent in Hannover, listening to U.S. Armed Forces Radio.
1958: He, his mother and stepfather move to Toronto, where Kay begins listening to American radio, including country music. He learns English from his radio fascination.
1963: Kay and his parents move to Buffalo, N.Y., and to Santa Monica, Calif. Kay begins trekking around the country as a folk singer.
1965: Kay becomes a member of Canadian group The Sparrow.
1967: Kay enlists two old Sparrow bandmates, drummer Jerry Edmonton and keyboardist Goldy McJohn in a new venture. With guitar prodigy Michael Monarch (just 17) and bassist Ruston Moreve, Steppenwolf is formed.
1968: Steppenwolf's first album is recorded in four days. "For the times, Steppenwolf was an uncharacteristically tight band," Kay says. "Our philosophy was 'hit 'em hard, make your point and move on.' " Also this year, Born To Be Wild was written by Jerry Edmonton's brother, Dennis, aka "Mars Bonfire."
1968: Band lineup changes begin, with the departure of Moreve, first replaced by Nick St. Nicholas, who was supplanted by Geoge Biondo in 1970. Monarch left the band in 1969, replaced by Larry Byrom and later by Kent Henry. "Steppenwolf was always kind of a work in progress," says Kay.
1972: On Valentine's Day, which L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty proclaimed Steppenwolf Day, the band breaks up for the first time.
1974: After a successful farewell tour of Europe, Steppenwolf is reborn, this time with Kay, Edmonton, McJohn, Biondo and new guitarist Bobby Cochran. In the ensuing period, McJohn departs, replaced by Andy Chapin (who later died in the Rick Nelson plane crash). Chapin is replaced by Wayne Cook.
1976: Band breaks up again.
1980: Eager to reclaim the name Steppenwolf from former bandmates using it in "low-rent club gigs — and tarnishing the legacy," Kay launches John Kay and Steppenwolf. Lineup includes Kay, Brett Tuggle (keyboards), Michael Palmer (guitar), Steve Palmer (drums), Chad Peery (bass).
Lineup has continued to evolve. Michael Wilk and Welton Gite replaced Tuggle and Peery, respectively. Then Gary Link replaced Gite. Later, Rocket Ritchotte took over on guitar and Ron Hurst on drums. Wilk assumed both keyboards and bass duties. The lineup now includes Wilk (keyboards/bass), Hurst (drums) and Danny Johnson (guitar).
John Kay on …
Britney Spears and other pop stars:
"You may have problems with the way they dress or with other things they do, but I'll tell you, they work hard to learn those dumb choreography steps. That's hard work."
After seeing Green Day, Los Lobos, Alicia Keys and others on the recent Grammy Awards, this old-time rocker was heartened. "When we are really good at this, we can create music that's good for the rest of the world to hear," says this huge fan of being an American. "It was almost to the point of pride."
The naming of his band:
Kay writes on his Web site, "Steppenwolf was originally a book written by Herman Hesse (a German author), and it was a book I was totally unfamiliar with when the band that became Steppenwolf was in its infancy. The young man who lived next door to where Steppenwolf started to rehearse (by the name of Gabriel Mekler, born and raised in Israel), he had read the book. When it came time to put a name on the demo box that was going to go to the first label, he said 'Well, what is the band called?' and aside from the obvious joke names and other obscene suggestions which were not marketable, he finally said, 'Well look, how about Steppenwolf? I think it's a word that looks good in print, and it denotes a certain degree of mystery and power and you guys are kind of rough and ready types."'