Montecito singer John Kay recalls performing ‘Born to Be Wild’ at New York City event
Jack Nicholson refused to get a haircut.
After all, this was the 1960s, the time of long hair on men and an era of determination to change the world.
But the truth was long hair didn’t fit the role of George Hanson, a Southern man with the American Civil Liberties Union. And that was the part that stars Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper wanted Mr. Nicholson to play in their 1969 movie “Easy Rider,” which Mr. Fonda produced and Mr. Hopper directed.
“Peter said, ‘Jack Nicholson almost didn’t do the part in the film because Jack had long hair like the rest of us,’ ” Steppenwolf front man John Kay told the News-Press.
“It took a quite a bit of doing between Peter and Dennis to convince Jack to do that (cut his hair),” Mr. Kay, a Montecito resident, said.
Mr. Kay talked about “Easy Rider” during a recent News-Press interview concerning his virtual Lobero Theatre concert streaming at 8 p.m. Friday (lobero.org).
Mr. Kay performed “Born to Be Wild” with a band led by T Bone Burnett during a 50th anniversary screening of “Easy Rider” on Sept. 20, 2019 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The music was performed live as the film appeared on a giant screen, and Mr. Kay played Steppenwolf’s “Easy Rider” and “The Pusher” live at the moments when that music appeared in the film’s soundtrack.
“I’m performing ‘The Pusher’ live with this ace group of New York musicians,” Mr. Kay said. “Almost within a couple minutes of the end of ‘The Pusher,’ in the movie, ‘Born to Be Wild,’ is played.
“Sony Pictures had re-processed ‘Easy Rider’ digitally. The images were incredibly vibrant, and the resolution was so sharp,” Mr. Kay said. “Peter (Fonda) told me that the Radio City Music Hall has the largest indoor Jumbotron digital screen display in the world.”
Mr. Kay said the 50th anniversary screening proved to be “unqualified success” with the exception that Mr. Fonda did not live to be there. The star and producer died Aug. 16, 2019, after a battle with lung cancer.
The Sept. 20, 2019 screening started with Mr. Fonda’s widow, Margret Fonda, introducing the musicians. Besides Mr. Kay, Roger McGuinn of The Byrds also performed live with the film and sang “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” the Byrds song that was in the movie.
“There were a lot of people who had seen the film a long time ago,” Mr. Kay said about the audience at the 2019 event. “Others had heard about it, but had never seen it. They weren’t born yet.”
Mr. Kay said he knew the film’s ending would leave an impact on the audience.
If you haven’t seen “Easy Rider,” there’s a big plot spoiler in the next paragraph.
“Easy Rider” ends with Mr. Fonda’s and Mr. Hopper’s characters, Wyatt and Billy respectively, being killed, then Mr. McGuinn’s rendition of “The Ballad of Easy Rider.”
Mr. Kay didn’t think the audience should leave the 50th anniversary screening on that sad note, so the band perform Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” after the film ended.
“It’s something up tempo, uplifting, and we sent them home with that,” Mr. Kay said. “They enjoyed it a lot.”