Who knew that when John Kay and his band, Steppenwolf, penned the song “Born to Be Wild,” the song would find new resonance in Kay’s more recent ambitions as a conservationist of wild elephants on the African plains? On Sunday, October 23, Kay will play a special performance at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, with all proceeds going toward the preservation of African elephants through the Elephant Crisis Fund.
Kay, it’s clear, was born to help the wild as much as he is a man of wild rock anthems. Even in the band’s arena-rock heyday, he felt there was more to the music than providing upbeat times. “I felt that there was absolutely no reason why our music at times could not be more than just entertaining or something to dance to; it could be about stuff that was important to us at the time,” he said. As he grew older, he and his wife ventured around the world to seek new experiences and new perspectives; they were deeply touched by the plight of many of our planet’s most iconic species and saw much to admire in the efforts of conservationists. Rock, he said, “can blind you to what goes on around you, and there are people who have never been about seeking the spotlight, who have dedicated their whole life to something really quite bigger than themselves, so the more we started to meet some of them and learn from them,” the more they wanted to help.
The two raised their daughter to connect with nature, and Kay’s wife joined the advisory board of an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee.
Then they traveled to Africa, where in places like Nairobi, Kenya, they were awestruck by the sheer majesty of the elephants. In their presence, he said they became aware “that this is a society of nurturing matriarchs, and you become more and more aware of how similar they are to us in so many ways — they mourn their dead and examine the bones of other elephants that were part of their extended group and have a great ability for empathy,” he said.
Besides their stunning presence, elephants serve a crucial role in their ecosystems, being what Kay called “the gardeners of Eden.” With numbers continuously thinned out from poaching, their loss could result in a widespread destruction of various African ecosystems. Furthermore, he said, they are worth far more living than dead. While their tusks may be gold to the poachers, he said, the elephant serves the local economy many more times over through tourism dollars. The funds from the Elephant Crisis Fund help ensure there are rangers to protect them, as rangers themselves are a target for poachers, too.
The journey from rocker to conservationist has also allowed Kay to return to his musical roots, when he was a student of the Delta blues acts such as Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and of course the great Woody Guthrie, who inspired generations by “saying things are not what they ought to be; the status quo is unacceptable.” Attendees to the SOhO show can expect to hear Kay as musical journeyman, a revisitation of the young man who set out on the road with an acoustic guitar years before Steppenwolf stepped into the scene. In that atmosphere, from the Newport Folk Festival to Vietnam protests, he recalled “the power of music as a tribal experience” and “the way it can penetrate into your inner core.” Now he and his wife are dedicating their lives to serving the survival of elephants. “We wanted to make a change in our lives and to use the remaining time and energy for something that is to us in this stage in our life more rewarding,” he said.
John Kay plays Sunday, October 23, at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.). For more information, call (805) 962-7776 or see sohosb.com.