Why you should like Steve Miller even more
by Jeff Vincent
So you know all about that midnight toker, The Joker. And you say you even know about the Gangster Of Love and the Space Cowboy? Well hot damn! But if you’re also gonna tell me who in the blazes Maurice is, that’s when we can have a real fun chat about how wonderful Steve Miller is and why so many other people out there should like his band even more!
Steve Miller in 1967, on the eve of the Steve Miller Band's debut LP Children Of The Future surfacing in '68. Photo courtesy of the artist
Don’t Just Take The Money And Run
Whether you were there and of age in 1973 when Steve Miller Band’s 8th LP dropped, or, like me, were turned on to a retrospective onslaught of hits rasping out from between the mind-bogglingly mysterious grooves of a twirling vinyl frisbee that your parents threw on the turntable; or maybe it was the much tighter and ever more portable revolutions of two small sprocket wheels cranking tunes out of the Toyota’s hissing tape deck; or possibly that blinding moment when a refracting light beam bounced from the so very futuristic, laser friendly, totally Terminator 2-ish, sleek, silver CD being loaded into the disc changer; “The Joker” has always had the ability to melt away the woes of life, to lighten the load, and to force one’s arm out the car window with an undulating hand surfing air molecules as if the whole world just got high. Wait, did I just say 8th LP?
That’s right, I would wager that adoration for the Steve Miller Band from the everyday music lover begins with their 8th album. 8th album! Can you imagine? That would be like never even knowing any songs from any Doors record with Jim Morrison, since they only made six while he was still alive. And from there the greater-known Steve Miller lexicon soars into the late ‘70s with his 9th and 10th releases and a plethora of timeless numbers like “Fly Like An Eagle,” “Take The Money And Run,” “Rock ’N Me,” “Jungle Love,” (a cover of Paul Pena’s) “Jet Airliner,” etc. And that’s all great; in fact, in such a notoriously cutthroat industry where very few acts actually “make it,” let alone get to make more than one recorded attempt at making a musical mark, it’s so satisfying and downright impressive to see such a perseverant and prolific artist achieve a commercial zenith 8-10 albums in. But remember “Light My Fire,” there is no lighting of the fire when you begin with album number 8! Yet, “The Joker” still happens to be a perfect cornerstone in Steve Miller’s career for recalling the beginning.
Steve Miller in 1976, possibly working on the Fly Like An Eagle LP, which would drop in May of that year. Photo courtesy of the artist
Let’s Recall The Beginning…
As it happened, Steve Miller’s childhood was graced by the presence of family friends Les Paul and T-Bone Walker… Indeed, Steve Miller made waves as a young musician in Texas and the Chicago blues scene—where he jammed and worked with Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, and Barry Goldberg before scoping out and falling in love with the vibrant music culture of San Francisco, where he became a fixture alongside the rest of 1960s Bay Area royalty… Yes, Boz Scaggs was an original member of the Steve Miller Band in the late ‘60s… And yeah, Chuck Berry’s 1967 album “Live At The Fillmore Auditorium - San Francisco” was backed by (a pre-debut-LP version of just) The Miller Band… And sure, sure, sure, Paul McCartney does in fact appear pseudonymously on drums and bass as Paul Ramon on “My Dark Hour” from 1969’s Brave New World, which, if you’ll notice in the introductory guitar riffs, provides an early incarnation of what would eventually evolve into the unmistakable opening lick for “Fly Like An Eagle” some seven years later… And if you must know, there’s the super deep cut of the Revolution film soundtrack from 1967-68 which featured original/non-LP numbers from Mother Earth, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and (you guessed it) the Steve Miller Band…
But, it’s the 1973 title track to their 8th LP The Joker that effectively nods to the earlier chapters of Steve Miller’s career with three so-called alter egos represented therein.
Firstly, from the 2nd record titled Sailor in 1968 there’s the tune “Gangster Of Love” (a cover of Johnny “Guitar” Watson, 1957). The subsequent Brave New World LP in 1969 brought us “Space Cowboy.” And the 7th album in 1972, Recall The Beginning… A Journey From Eden, introduces that guy I brought up at the beginning of all this, with a number titled “Enter Maurice,” who whispers sweet words of "epismetology" and speaks of the "pompatus" of love (and please, be my guest to go look up those two words, and maybe the stories behind Steve Miller's invention of them while you're at it).
It’s quite possible that I’m sharing nothing new with you – but if I am, let me assure you that many of Steve Miller’s absolute best, most radiant, delicate, creative, and rocking songs reside on some of these very records spanning 1968-1972, from which greatest hits compilations and mainstream FM radio stations rarely if ever pull. So rejoice! There’s still gold in the mountain baby, and now it’s your turn to take the money and run! To the past.
Steve Miller at the height of success on tour in 1977, the year of his 10th LP Book Of Dreams. Photo courtesy of the artist
Time Keeps On Slippin’, Slippin’, Slippin’
Slipping into the future, the enduring legend wasn’t without new album releases throughout the ‘80s, ’90s, and 2000s (even pulling another No. 1 hit worldwide in ’82), but I’ve also admittedly attended at least two Steve Miller Band Farewell Tours, probably somewhere in the late 90s to early 2000s, so I reckon we’re on borrowed time here and will just have to count ourselves lucky that the 78-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee even feels like coming out to play for us.
And we’ll of course remain forever grateful for the lingering medicine of his musical genius behind the interminable staying power of the hopelessly catchy and crafty songs found on Fly Like An Eagle (1976) and Book Of Dreams (1977), two of the strongest records to have come out of the late ’70s (save for a couple by the Eagles), an era when, let’s face it, music as a whole had become a lot dorkier and less inspired.
In a 2019 interview published in The Washington Post, Miller revealed the deliberation beneath the brilliance when it came to meticulously musing over every fine detail of every tune.
“You have to be really disciplined, but at the same time you want to get this great, spontaneous feeling on the record and you know you’ve got three seconds to capture people’s attention at the very entrance of a song,” Miller said.
Sagacious revelations from a master who figured out how to weave together a creamy blend of seamless pop sensibilities, angelic vocal harmonies, and creative artistic flare without sacrificing that down home, badass, true to the grit feeling of a man playing the music he loves and singing the songs feels.
But for my taste, the sweetest wild mountain honey’s still hiding within the larger shadow cast by the higher peaks of the late 70s Everests, in those fun, wild, passionate, sometimes silly late 60s and early 70s gems. If you’re not quite convinced, or a little scared, let’s do this: Pick a country road and jump in my 1965 Ford Mercury. I’m thinking something like a serpentine stroll along the Central Coast, or maybe the oak and walnut-laden trek out to Jalama Beach. Or how about heading up the mountain to Cold Spring Tavern, the ol’ 19th century stagecoach stop above Santa Barbara? Heck, even the classic sunny day groove along the backside of Palos Verdes toward Walker’s Cafe at Point Fermin in San Pedro will do nicely. Anyway, find your open road, turn off the radio, forget the hits, and crank up Steve Miller Band Number 5 from 1970. I promise it works. And if for any reason it doesn’t, hey, you’ve still got 6 other albums to explore before you’re even caught back up to that picking, grinning, loving, sinning, joking, smoking, midnight toking space cowboy gangster of love called Maurice! Enjoy.
The Steve Miller Band play BeachLife May 15.