Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In praise of Steve Miller

Who's the most unjustly maligned artist in the history of Capitol Records? If you said Bob Seger, you'd be close. Folks that don't know better think that Bob started with "Night Moves" and a mullet, but those in the know are aware of the red hot streak that preceded his mid-'70s mega-success, from "East Side Story" in '66 through Seven in '73. It's incomprehensible how an artist as popular as Seger is can have so much of his catalog unavailable. Last time I looked, a vinyl copy of his ace Back In '72 album (on which "Turn the Page," a signature song of his money-making years, sounds like a Paul Rodgers homage) was going for about 50 bucks, and it's never been on CD. His manager, Punch Andrews, is leaving money on the table, and he's running out of time before his artist's core audience starts shuffling off for nursing homes and fixed incomes. C'mon, Punch -- ABKCO even got off the dime on the Cameo Parkway sides for the Rationals thing on Ace/Big Beat. What are you waiting for? But I digress...

To most folks, the Steve Miller Band means mid-'70s hits like "The Joker," "Fly Like An Eagle," "Take the Money and Run," and "Jungle Love": songs that sound as if somebody analyzed early '70s Top 40 radio, then set out to create the most archetypal examples of pop-rock ear candy imaginable. And succeeded. But prior to that, for a couple of years (approximately '68 to '70), Miller had a run of some of the most fully realized American rock records of their time. It's particularly worth remembering now that even Miller himself, like Phil Collins, recognizes that he's been consigned to the dustbin of history. When I started working in a record store in '73 and graduated from cutout bins to used records, I discovered the early Miller Band along with stuff like Procol Harum and Savoy Brown -- lower division acts that weren't earth-shattering, but still great.

Born in Milwaukee, 1943, and raised in Dallas, the son of a pathologist who was a familiar of Les Paul and T-Bone Walker, Miller was a smart boy with an instinctive feel for music. At St. Marks Prep in Dallas, he had a band with Boz Scaggs, who later joined him at the University of Wisconsin, where Miller led roof-raising frat party bands. Next Miller moved on to Chicago, where he played the blues with pianist Barry Goldberg, and finally landed in San Francisco along with fellow Texans Chet Helms, Powell St. John, and Janis Joplin. Signed by Capitol for an unprecedented advance and with a degree of artistic control unusual for the time, Miller cut his first album, Children of the Future, in London with producer Glyn Johns.

Children of the Future is a schizoid record. The first side's a psychedelic suite that might just be the only American psych record that stands up to its Brit counterparts like The Piper At the Gates of Dawn or the first Traffic album. I'd even posit that it could have been an influence on Abbey Road, in the way it seamlessly integrates song fragments -- all those upful anthems, propelled by falsetto harmonies -- into a cohesive whole. Paul McCartney was definitely aware of Miller; on the third Miller Band LP, Brave New World, where "Space Cowboy" borrows the bass line from "Lady Madonna," Macca himself sings backup and plays bass and drums on "My Dark Hour."

Miller's songs -- packed with catchy riffs, hooks, and choruses -- also brimmed with the optimism of the time, which hadn't yet been dashed on the rocks of the political cataclysm that was 1968. (Even after Nixon was in the White House, Miller responded by recording a blazing, guitar-driven version of the Civil Rights-era anthem "Don't You Let Nobody Turn You Around" for Your Saving Grace.) He sang in a jubilant yelp and blew decent blues harp, closer to Paul Butterfield than Jimmy Reed. As a guitarist, he was more of a solid technician than a flashy innovator, but he got his licks in. His rhythm section (Lonnie Turner on bass, Tim Davis on drums) swung supplely, and he used keyboards to good effect (Jim Peterman on the first two albums, replaced by Miller's college bandmate Ben Sidran on the third, with estimable Brit session dude Nicky Hopkins added for the fourth).

Children's slow, stately "In My First Mind" inhabits the same territory as Procol Harum and In the Court of the Crimson King; there's even a mellotron! Turning the record over, after Scaggs' jazz-inflected "Baby's Calling Me Home," one finds masterful pop R&B that blends instrumental grit with ethereal vocal harmonies, alongside Chicago blues that I'd compare favorably with the debut albums by Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite for its rhythmic ease and lack of exhibitionism.

Sophomore album Sailor was more of a group effort, and also more visibly derivative. Organist Peterman wrote and sang "Lucky Man," while Davis and Scaggs collaborated on the Moby Grape-like folk-rock of "My Friend" (with harmonized guitar lines that blare like Mexicali brass), and Scaggs penned two on his own: the Dylanesque "Overdrive" and the "Jumping Jack Flash" cop, "Dime-a-Dance Romance." Both of Miller's slow songs doffed their lids to the Beatles -- the dreamlike "Dear Mary" with its "For No One" trumpets, "Quicksilver Girl" with its "Taxman"-derived bridge. The opening "Song For Our Ancestors" was a moody, slow-building instrumental worthy of post-Syd, pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd, while "Living In the U.S.A." managed to succinctly elucidate everything the MC5 were trying to say on Back In the U.S.A.

Miller's third LP, Brave New World, shuffles in with the same surge of positivity that powered Children's psych suite, follows up the one-two punch of the title cut and "Celebration" with an explosion of pure R&B kineticism ("Can't You Hear Your Daddy's Heartbeat" into "Got Love 'Cause You Need It"), then closes the side with a song ("Kow Kow") built on a basic Hendrixian arpeggio that Sidran embroiders with Nicky Hopkins flourishes on pianner (the man himself would show up on the next Miller LP). Second side contains the aforementioned underground FM radio staples "Space Cowboy" and "My Dark Hour," but its most incandescent moment is the sublimely sung "Seasons," and its funkiest the country blues pastiche of "LT's Midnight Dream."

The sleeper in Miller's run of classic albums is the fourth, Your Saving Grace. Over "Little Girl"'s leisurely lope, Steve lays down some of his best Albert-and-Freddie-via-Eric licks. The slightly sinister-sounding Miller-Sidran collaboration "Just A Passing Fancy In A Midnite Dream" follows, then the aforementioned "Don't You Let Nobody." The high point of the side and album is "Baby's House," a place of unspeakable beauty and mystery conjured by Miller and Hopkins. On the flipside, "Motherless Children" filters Blind Willie Johnson through Brian Wilson, while "The Lost Wombat In Mecca" marks the slight return of Lonnie Turner's country blues. "Feel So Glad" is a gospel blues tour de force for Miller and Hopkins, then the Tim Davis-penned title track provides a valedictory and benediction for my favorite Miller LP after Children.

Four great albums in two years is a lot of productivity for anyone (it took the Stones four years to get from Beggar's Banquet to Exile On Main St.), and Miller broke his streak with 1970's Number Five, which he cut in Nashville with help from Music City cats like Charlie McCoy and Buddy Spicher. By this time, the Miller Band's gestalt was shattered. Turner, Sidran, and Hopkins only appeared on isolated tracks, while Davis contributed a couple of silly songs, one of which ("Tokin's") sounds like a TV commercial jingle, and would soon depart for solo obscurity. The spacey/bluesy/Beatlesque opener "Good Morning" encapsulates a lot of what was good about the preceding four albums, and the rustic romps "I Love You" and "Going To the Country" are both above par, but things really break down on the second side with lackluster material (although "Jackson-Kent Blues" gets points for remembering the "other" campus massacre from the spring of Nixon's Cambodian incursion) and indifferent performances.

My buddy Mike Woodhull recently reminded me of a couple of Miller albums I'd blocked out of my memory (Rock Love and Recall the Beginning: A Journey From Eden), the commercial failure of which probably made The Joker a necessity if Miller was going to continue recording for Capitol. That album reminds me of the first time I ever saw a mountain of empty beer bottles (in the basement of a kid whose parents had gone away for the summer) and a season of parties where I must have heard it, They Only Come Out At Night, and The Dark Side of the Moon a thousand times apiece. That and watching my first roommate trying to hustle the freshman girls at college bars while "Your Cash Ain't Nothing But Trash" blared from the jukebox. Good times, but somebody else's.

Nothing, however, can ever diminish my enjoyment of the first four Steve Miller albums. If you don't dig 'em, that's cool. More for me.


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