Once, when John Kay was driving through the Serengeti, his entire life changed. Kay came across a marker memorializing the life of ecologist Michael Grzimek, whose epitaph reads, “He gave all he possessed, including his life, for the wild animals of Africa.”
“That plaque launched a train of thought that I am still on today,” Kay said in his lecture at Moody Music Building on Wednesday.
Kay, the former lead singer of Steppenwolf, has taken on the full-time retirement job of getting people to care about the world around them. His partner in the endeavor is Jutta Maue-Kay, his spouse and the co-founder of the Maue-Kay Foundation, which supports charitable projects concerning wildlife, the environment and human rights.
Kay’s crusade to help others started in 2003, when he and Maue-Kay visited Cambodia for the first time. That trip placed Kay face to face with the remnants of the killing fields, where the Khmer Rouge regime killed countless Cambodians during a period of state-sponsored genocide in the late 1970s. The site was a shock to both Kay and Maue-Kay, but it was also a catalyst.
“We got involved in building a school [in Cambodia], which in turn led to doing more things,” Kay said. “After trips to Africa, there were more wildlife conservation focuses, and over time, more trips, more [nongovernmental organizations] that we came in contact with, more people we wanted to support.”
All at once, Kay’s life began to change. He’d spent more than 50 years as a musician and vocalist, writing songs like “Born To Be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride” with Steppenwolf. Suddenly, that history seemed dwarfed by the possibility of a future without majestic African animals, clean air or water. In 2010, Kay and Maue-Kay decided the foundation was the focus of their lives, and they trimmed away all of the music business that they had left.
“We sold all of our music-related business assets: royalty rights, master recordings, merchandise corporation, everything,” Kay said. “Because our focus in life was trying to assist as many as we could, out there, boots on the ground, who have never been about seeking the spotlight, but have dedicated their lives to something greater than themselves.”
As the foundation flourished and Kay toured less and less, he began to think about what his next step would be. He knew that he had a story he wanted to tell, but how to tell it was a mystery.
Kay’s life has had three segments, he said. His childhood, spent in East Prussia, which was then a part of Nazi Germany, was intense. His father died when Kay was young, and his mother later fled with Kay by train. They settled in Arnstadt, where their train was stopped. The town would soon become part of East Germany, controlled by the Soviets. Then they moved again, to Hanover, in West Germany, then to Canada, then to New York and finally to California. Then there was music, which occupied Kay’s life for decades, and now, there is wildlife advocacy.
Kay wanted to do a TED Talk, but, he said, his 74 years could hardly be compressed into a mere 17 minutes. He was going to need at least an hour. That’s where Michael Wilk comes in.
Wilk, currently an instructor of music administration at The University of Alabama, met Kay in 1980, when Steppenwolf was looking to hire a new keyboardist. The band distributed tapes of their hits and most difficult songs with an invitation to audition, with varied results.
“One guy came in with tons of equipment,” Kay said. “I mean, racks on wheels and everything like that, and it was pitiful.”
Another potential bandmate was unable to make out the keyboard parts on his mono cassette player, and he also fumbled through the audition. Then came Wilk.
“Third guy walks in,” Kay said. “Michael sits down, nails it. I said, ‘You’re it, we’re leaving tomorrow.’”
Kay and Wilk have been writing partners and friends ever since. So when Kay told Wilk that he was considering a multimedia lecture in order to tell his story, Wilk knew he wanted Kay to test it out in Tuscaloosa.
“It was a history lesson,” Wilk said. “Too many students are staring at their phones and don’t know or care about anything before they were born. Pictures of the Nazi camps and the skulls in Cambodia should be knowledge that everyone has.”
Kay feels the same way about the activists he has met while traveling through Africa and Asia. Their work, Kay said, deserves to be known and funded.
“When we talk to people who are inside their bubble, and they’re well-informed and educated, engaged with whatever their life is about, they often don’t know that if they ever thought their grandchildren might see elephants, that might not happen,” Kay said. “But once they do know, they all of the sudden want to become a part of those who are helping, who has dedicated their lives to do that.”
Kay recognizes that lecturing to college students isn’t going to bring in a wave of millions of dollars in donations for the foundation, citing on multiple occasions the grassroots presidential campaign of Barack Obama and the words of Edmund Burke. But Kay hopes that everyone who hears his stories of young orphaned elephants and Cambodian schoolchildren feels the same drive to help that he feels everyday.
Some UA students already have that drive. Tide for Tusks, an on-campus mascot preservation society, often raises funds for African elephant conservation, and other students try to help through their everyday actions by recycling and avoiding plastics.
“When you really think about all the plastic produced today and all the waste we produce as humans, we have to think about the end result of all that waste and plastic,” Delaney Murphy, a freshman majoring in social work, said. “There’s so many instances where you see coral reefs being bleached and destroyed and you see animals suffer the consequences of our waste.”
As for Kay, he will head back to Africa in just a couple of months, ready to check in on the nonprofits supported by the Maue-Kay Foundation.
“So, I guess the guy who sang ‘Born To Be Wild’ really does care about those truly born to be wild,” Kay said.