John Kay performs to help Lobero Theatre
John Kay was born to be wild and born to be a hero for wildlife.
Now fans are learning that the Steppenwolf front man was born to be something else.
A Lobero supporter.
The Santa Barbara theater has lost $1 million since closing its doors to audiences to limit the spread of COVID-19, and Mr. Kay, who lives in Montecito and performed last year at a Lobero concert, is hoping to raise a lot of money to help the theater through a virtual concert.
Known for hits such as “Born to Be Wild,” Mr. Kay was recently filmed singing and playing his acoustic guitar during a solo concert on the Lobero stage without an audience.
Fans can watch it beginning at 8 p.m. Nov. 13, and proceeds will go to the Lobero.
Mr. Kay said the concert will remain up at lobero.org for 72 hours after that. Viewers can watch it for $15 and donate additional money to help the Lobero. (A portion also will go to the National Independent Venue Association.)
“In my opinion, the Lobero is a little community treasure. I’m very fond of the place and the people who run it,” Mr. Kay told the News-Press. “I hope Santa Barbara will man the decks and keep this very important venue alive for us. Who knows how long this (the pandemic) is going to last?”
Mr. Kay said the concert was recorded, rather than scheduled for a live performance, to avoid technical glitches. He stressed that he was thrilled with how the Lobero crew filmed him and edited the footage, which begins with a drone shot of the theater.
“They did a marvelous job,” Mr. Kay said. “Three different cameras were set up from different angles, so it’s not just looking at me standing in one spot for 70 minutes without any changes.
“I was happy to do this,” he said.
He said plenty of social distancing was maintained during the filming and that everyone wore masks, except for himself when he was singing.
Mr. Kay stressed it was important to him to help the Lobero and musicians who need venues like it for their concerts.
“I had a number of acoustic solo performances scheduled this year that had to be canceled because of the virus, but I’m not out there trying to build a career, nor do I have to go out there to make a living,” Mr. Kay said. “For way too many performers, singers/songwriters, performing is their bread and butter.”
Mr. Kay said he plans to perform his original songs as well as blue standards. He’s a fan of Muddy Waters and other greats.
But don’t expect him to play “Born to Be Wild.”
He explained it just wouldn’t work for him to perform it as a solo piece on an acoustic guitar without a band and compared that to messing with a Beethoven classic. “I would not want to hear ‘Ode to Joy’ on a kazoo.’”
But Mr. Kay said that his new Lobero concert features personal songs that mean a lot to him, such as “Enough For Today.”
“It’s a song that I wrote about the power of music, which I experienced as a young boy when my mother took me to hear an all-male Russian choir called Don Cossacks,” said Mr. Kay, who was born in Tilsit, East Prussia, Germany.
“Their voices and those ancient melodies moved me to tears,” he said. “It was the beginning of me comprehending the power of music.”
Mr. Kay’s love for music grew after he came to the U.S.
“It was the early ’60s during the folk music revival, and I was, like so many others with an acoustic guitar, a young guy, and I was really influenced by and followed in the footsteps of the masters of the blues, singers/songwriters who had something to say,” Mr. Kay said.
“You’ve got to remember that this was a time when the draft was in full effect,” he said, referring to the Vietnam War. “The civil rights situation was grim.”
Mr. Kay was performing in coffee houses and folk music clubs when he joined a Canadian band, the Sparrows.
Members of the Sparrows and others started Steppenwolf in the summer of 1967.
And the 1969 movie “Easy Rider” helped to propel Steppenwolf to success. The band’s famous song, “Born to Be Wild,” was in the movie starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, and Mr. Kay noted the song has been the “gift that keeps giving.”
“It’s a song that has a life of its own, way beyond Steppenwolf,” Mr. Kay said, noting that people are aware of the song even if they don’t recall the band’s name.
He noted NASA has played “Born to Be Wild” to wake up space shuttle crews and that the space agency has broadcast it from rovers on Mars.
Mr. Kay performed “Born to Be Wild” last year with a band led by T Bone Burnett during the 50th anniversary screening of “Easy Rider” at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. After the movie, he and the band played an upbeat Steppenwolf hit, “Magic Carpet Ride.”
“It was a song that came together in unplanned and unforeseen ways,” Mr. Kay said. “Our bass player had this little riff. He would play it at every sound check and when we were messing around. It wasn’t a song.”
One time in the recording studio, the rest of Steppenwolf spontaneously jammed with the bass player when he was playing the riff, Mr. Kay said. The producer liked the sound and wanted to record it.
Mr. Kay took home a recording of the track. “I wrote the lyrics and melody in 20 minutes and recorded the vocals the next day,” he said.
“There was a long jam on the track that was just lying there, this pulsating rhythm track,” Mr. Kay said. “Michael, the guitarist, and I, overdubbed it with what I can only describe as instrument torture.
“It was just like Jimi Hendix. We had a bunch of sounds that we coaxed out of our instruments, our electric guitars, mixed together, and it gave the whole track a sonic identity,” he said.
Steppenwolf worked with Bill Cooper, the recording engineer, and completed “Magic Carpet Ride.” Mr. Kay said everyone liked the results.
“We said, ‘That’s it. If that’s not a hit, I’m going to become a plumber.’”
There was no need to change careers.
“When ‘Born to Be Wild’ went off the charts, ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ came up to take its place in the top three,” Mr. Kay said.
Like “Born to Be Wild,” “Magic Carpet Ride” has a space connection. Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell), the inventor of warp drive, played the song when he flew a spaceship, the Phoenix, in “Star Trek: First Contact” (1996).
Back on Earth, Mr. Kay and his wife, Jutta Maue-Kay, have helped the environment through their Maue Kay Foundation. Today their nonprofit supports 17 nonprofits ranging from Greenpeace to Orangutan Foundation International and The Nature Conservancy.
Mr. Kay and his wife have gone around the world to see the nonprofits’ good works. His encounters with animals have varied from feeding a bottle of milk to an orphaned baby elephant to holding a baby orangutan on his arms.
His love for wildlife will be evident during the Nov. 13 Lobero concert. He will sing his original song, “Kindred Spirits.”
“It’s dedicated to those who have dedicated their lives to preserving our remaining wildlife in the world,” Mr. Kay said. “It’s particularly dedicated to the memory of the almost 2,000 rangers who have been killed by poachers trying to get rhino horns and elephant ivories.”
Mr. Kay said meaningful music is important to him and mattered a lot to Steppenwolf, which wrapped up its long career in 2018. He said music such as their 1969 album “Monster” continues to resonate with fans today.
“It was more than sonic wallpaper. It was more than I danced with Peggy Sue at the high school prom.
“It was that kind of connection with the listener that went fairly deep.”