John Kay may have been born to be wild, but he was also born to endure.
"It's been a roller-coaster ride since the beginning," says Kay, the front man of Steppenwolf, which has gone through 15 member changes and two disbandings since it began in 1968. "But on the whole I'd still prefer this to taking up the advanced school of mail-order plumbing."
Had it not been for the emergence in the late '70s of a number of bogus Steppenwolf bands that were capitalizing on the name of the defunct group, Kay says he never would have ended his solo career and stepped back behind the Steppenwolf banner, this time as John Kay and Steppenwolf to distinguish the real thing from the impostors.
"When we struck out in 1980 we had to play a lot of toilets," says Kay, noting that the bogus Wolfs had destroyed the credibility and reputation of the Steppenwolf name. "For the better part of 18 months it was: Grit your teeth and do your best every night and the word of mouth will spread. I'm happy to say that the word of mouth was such that we're back headlining what I would term legitimate venues." (The band performs Friday at the Merriweather Post Pavilion.)
Although Kay has at times vanished from the rock 'n' roll horizon, "Born to Be Wild" -- Steppenwolf's pie ce de re'sistance -- never has.
"Born to Be Wild" was one of 11 songs that Steppenwolf recorded on its first album, which was cut in four days for the paltry sum of $9,000. Asked if he knew then that it was destined to be a hit, Kay adamantly replies "no way." The record company, he says, almost didn't release the song as a single. "Now when people say things like, 'Yeah, well that must have been a hit out of the box,' or 'It had classic written all over it,' well, I wish we would have had them around in '68; we sure could've used their clairvoyance."
The song sold well, but what catapulted it to the status of rock anthem was its inclusion one year later in the film "Easy Rider." Continued radio play and the featuring of the song in motion pictures and TV shows such as "Coming Home," "Miami Vice" and the soon to be released "Legal Eagles" has created a second generation of Steppenwolf fans. (The current Ford commercial featuring "Born to Be Wild" is sung by a sound-alike, not Steppenwolf. "We turned that turkey down," says Kay. "We told them we don't sell part of our past for some piece of rolling sheet metal out of Detroit.")
By Kay's own estimation, 70 percent of the audience at a Steppenwolf concert is between 14 and 23 years old. He has a theory why "Born to Be Wild," a song that influenced the youth of the '60s, is not considered anachronistic by the youth of the '80s.
"It's a synopsis of every urge I think that every teen-ager, adolescent, high school and college kid has ever felt. To cut loose . . . on the nation's highways, particularly during the summer, in whatever motorized contraption can be secured. Be it Daddy's car, or your own jalopy. Two-wheeled, four-wheeled, whatever.
"The song makes absolutely no reference to anything to do with any particular time period," he adds. "There's no reference to hippies or beads or having flowers in your hair and going to San Francisco or being a yuppie of the '80s or a disco freak of the '70s. There's none of that. It just has your basic 'get your motor running, head out on the highway.' That's America," says Kay, who was born in East Germany.
Though the band continues to play "Born to Be Wild" as well as its other signature songs such as "Magic Carpet Ride" and "The Pusher," half of every Steppenwolf concert consists of more recent material. Kay says he and his band (keyboard-programmer Michael Wilk, guitarist Rocket Ritchotte and drummer Ron Hurst) plan to return to Los Angeles after the end of this tour to record their first major record company album since the mid-'70s.
"Right now I don't even want to think about quitting because we just now gathered steam and things are looking better than they have for a long, long time," says Kay, who is 42.
The message in the band's newest songs, says Kay, is: "Unless you lay down and give up, you really only have one choice, which is to believe in your ability to make something of your life." He says he thinks of his concerts as "positive reinforcements . . . that will go hopefully some length toward getting you through the next week, giving you a feeling of 'Tomorrow's another day, I'm going to get up and start over again.' "
Sound advice from a guy who knows how to get up and start over again himself