Six Questions (And Really, Really Long Answers) With ... Steve Miller
Ben Franklin said, "In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes." If Big Ben was still alive today he'd surely add "hearing Steve Miller on classic rock radio" to his shortlist. Songs like "The Joker," "Take the Money and Run," "Rock 'N Me," "Jet Airliner" and "Fly Like an Eagle" will probably still be in heavy rotation during the third zombie uprising. (Admittedly, not that far off.) All that radio play means Miller has a new stream of fans every generation and is a summer touring regular. I talked with him before he left on his tour, which hits Merriweather Post Pavilion tonight. Actually, he talked at me would be more accurate. It was almost like a mini-history lesson over the phone as he talked (and talked) about his arrival in San Francisco during the height of the psychedelic '60s through his ascent to stardom in the '70s. The staggering detail with which he remembers certain events suggests that maybe he wasn't such a midnight toker after all.
So you moved to San Francisco right when it was becoming the center of the cultural universe. Do you look back on those years and say, "Man, that was a blast" or "I can't believe some of the stuff that happened," or combination of both?
It is kind of a combination of both. It was an amazing, amazing time. It was just a very special period where a lot of things happened that normally wouldn't be able to happen. I went there because I heard that there was the Fillmore Auditorium, a place where you could play for 1,200 people instead of a 200 person nightclub where we were working from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. and usually there was at least one good beating an evening. So I was mainly looking for a new place to work.
I got out there and there was this huge social phenomenon going on and music was the key to it all, to bringing people together. But a lot of the people that decided to become musicians or decided to play electric guitar really weren't people who grew up playing electric guitar or playing blues or any of that stuff. They were mainly people who were very creative in a lot of different ways. Like in the Dead's case, Jerry Garcia was a five-string banjo player. They decided, "Well I'm going to get an electric guitar, some beatle boots and let my hair grow long and we're going to put this band together."
And at the same time you had the whole psychedelic revolution going on. All of these things were coming together at the same time - Martin Luther King's assassination, the war in Vietnam and civil rights - there had been this whole decade of strife and this was this huge creative burst of energy that just happened out there and it took where the Beatles had been, where they just sort of showed up and captured the attention of the whole world, now it was all spilling over from that into San Francisco. It was just a magical moment, it must have been like when Picasso was living in Paris or something. The whole world was focused and the attention was pinpointed to one area and then it just went out from San Francisco around the world. It was something I had never experienced.
You mention the Fillmore, and I was digging through my dad's old LPs the other day and found a curious one: "Chuck Berry Live at Fillmore Auditorium with the Miller Band." Remember that gig?
You know, when we first got out there most of the bands really couldn't play very well. They were a social phenomenon. The Grateful Dead would get on the stage and take 15 minutes between songs to tune and Jerry would talk to everybody. I liked listening to him talk better than I liked listening to him play, he was a very interesting man. And when we showed up we were like this crack band from Chicago. It was pretty easy for us to get into the scene because we were a really good band and we were immediately accepted and started playing everywhere. And then anytime the blues bands would come in - the first time B.B. King played at the Fillmore we were on that bill with him, the first time James Cotton came, he came out and stayed at our house. I picked up Howlin' Wolf when he arrived in San Francisco. So when Chuck Berry was coming he didn't have a band. So people said, "Well, Steve Miller, he'll do it." So (Bill) Graham called me and said Chuck Berry's coming to town. And I said, "We'll do it, but only if he'll rehearse. I'm not just going to jump on the stage and do that kind of a show."
So we brought Chuck out two days early, we rehearsed for a couple days and as soon as they heard the rehearsals the record company said, "We want to make a record." And then it just happened that weekend. Ding, dong, boom, next. (Laughs.) They didn't really consider us to be much of the deal. We were just the band. But it was the beginning of many shows where I backed up Chuck and a lot of shows where we just kept the Fillmore open because we were a good band. I think we played there 109 times. They gave me the number the last time I played there. "You know, you've been here 109 times, Steve." Yeah, I know!
So it was a very, very exciting time. It was really, really fun because we were really young and we really felt like we were changing the world. And we were. Because up until "The Joker" got on AM radio they wouldn't touch us with a 10-foot pole. We were just some underground, progressive rock band. It was typical corporate America. They didn't want to change anything. They didn't want to make stereo records. Why? You've got mono. There was a lot of energy focused against us, especially by the people who controlled the top 10, the corporations who controlled the Frankie Avalons of the world. The kind of acts we seem to have a lot of now where Disney's created a new band and is going to put it on ABC and it's the only thing you're going to see. They're thinking that two years from now we'll be selling lunch buckets and get some more 50-year-old guys in here to write some music for these kids. Who picked that outfit? It's not sexy enough. It's that kind of corporate business, those walls got all broken down.
The advent of FM radio made it possible. You could buy an FM radio station for $50,000. We'd go do our concerts where we'd go from San Francisco to Phoenix to Detroit to Cleveland to Boston to New York. And that was it. And then, finally, the shows started getting bigger and every time we'd go out and play it'd be like we were bringing this culture to your town. It wasn't like a rock band is coming to town, it was like a cultural event was coming. We toured like that for years, for seven years we were just carrying that around. Then finally we got a hit single that made itself a hit, "The Joker." It wasn't that AM radio wanted it, they had to play it. Then all of a sudden we were the Kings of AM radio.
More than you can imagine, after the jump...
So when you wrote that song did you know that it would change your career and that 35 years later it would still be the song that defines you?
Absolutely not. It was kind of like my last record. I was pretty much at the end of my line with Capitol Records at the time. They weren't promoting us or giving us any help. We were still selling 300,000 albums which was paying for all the executives and keeping the company open but we couldn't get hit singles on the radio. So I'd go out and do 60 cities and there might not be records in that town. They just weren't paying attention and I was at war with them all the time. I remember handing them "The Joker" record (the full album). I made it in 19 days, I produced it by myself and I was pretty much at the end of the line. It just seemed like, "Wow, it's not going to happen, I'm going to be stuck on the road doing 180 cities a year making $15,000 at the end of the year." It was really tough. "The Joker" took off and at the same time FM radio was getting bigger and stronger. I took a year and a half off and worked on "Fly Like an Eagle" and "Book of Dreams" and then those came out and FM radio was even stronger and in 1978 FM radio and AM radio were tied in a death struggle and FM radio won. So it took a complete change in the powers that be. It'd be like finding out that ABC, NBC and CBS don't matter anymore. It was like that. So everything opened up for a while.
And it didn't take long for the corporations to take over FM radio and turn it into what it is now. But back in those days we'd go to Detroit and do our show and then we'd go over to the radio station and play Lord Buckley records until four in the morning. T-Bone Walker, anything we wanted to, they'd just turn the radio station over to us. So we used all of that. Every town we went to we always went to the local FM radio station and they'd just go, "Yeah, come on down! Bring the whole band! How long do you want to be on?" So those were all things that opened up and business as usual changed for a while and that's what gave us a chance to get in there. We were different than all the normal performing acts. If you look at what's considered an entertainer now, it's somebody who has to be able to dance and look really good and sing with virtuosity and somebody else writes the music and it's a $2 million video and it's a corporate undertaking. Whereas back then the record business was still funky enough that you could break a record out in Seattle and somebody would say, "Hey, there's this tune up in Seattle maybe we ought to play it here in Washington, D.C." The FM guys were the guys that made all that happen.
After "The Joker" you had a big string of hits. I know you said that the change in the radio format had something to do with it, but as a songwriter did you just happen to hit on a formula?
I always understood that you had to promote records and this was a hard business. That there was a lot of business involved besides music. After "The Joker" I realized, OK, I've opened the door. I had been working on a lot of music and had been writing my own music all along and was getting better at it and "The Joker" was the first album that I produced. My record company didn't insist that I have a producer that would come in and argue with me on every song, about every vocal, every sound, the mix. I just had to fight and stay there for every detail. Which is different from the way records are made now. Usually a singer comes in and sings three or four versions and leaves and then the engineers sit there for eight hours and cut it word by word and put it together. But back then it was a lot different. We were more interested in really being more creative with the recording process than coming in and saying, "We're going to cut a 30-minute album, it's going to have 12 tunes on it, how can that take more than six hours? OK, start the orchestra, bring in Johnny Mathis, Johnny sings the song, thanks, great, we'll mix it and it's put out next week."
We wanted to stay in the studio for six months, see if we can't make this sound better, figure out a better way to do this. That's where all my money went. Any money I made always went into studio time. It was very difficult to go into a studio and be creative really quickly in the traditional sense. When I was working on "Fly Like an Eagle" and "Book of Dreams" I wasn't like this genius going, "And this is going to be another hit song here!" But every song I ever made, I was trying to make a hit single. And it took me seven years to learn how to make good records. I like my first records, I worked very hard on them, but I do think that by the time I hit "Fly Like an Eagle" I was making really great records and knew what I was doing. I didn't know if they were hits or not but I knew that my audience was really going to like them and if I went out and played them on a stage people were really going to enjoy them. I remember I wrote "Rock 'N Me" because I was doing a gig with Pink Floyd in England at Knebworth and there was going to be 120,000 people there and I had this song that was kind of in my mind and I thought, "Man, I need to get this thing written so I can play it in front of that big audience because it's going to rock the joint." So it was the combination of writing for my audience, writing for myself, writing for live performance.
What do you still get out of touring?
The reason I tour is because I love to play. That's what this is all about. I've wanted to be a musician all my life. I have a great time every time I hit the stage. I've got a wonderful band. We do all the greatest hits, plus a blues section. We're always adding. There's a lot of spontaneity in our show, there are areas where we have long jams, things can be played differently. We've always arranged the show for ourselves first, assuming that our audience would prefer that, instead of just doing the 14 greatest hits. You know, I saw Garth Brooks on one of those awards shows recently and that was the first time I've ever seen Garth Brooks look tired and old and fat. I just sort of went, "Damn, man. The medley." The minute I do a medley, man, put me away.
The beauty of it is, I'm getting away with it. I'm able to do what I want to do and play the music I want to play and still have a big following. The greatest hits - some psychologist or scientist figured that one out. I had nothing to do with it. And they said, "If you want to run a classic rock station, here's the music you have to play to sell beer and cigarettes to 18 to 25 year old white males." And I've always ended up on that list. So I've had this huge fight with Clear Channel and yet they play my music more now than it's ever been played. It's crazy. My ASCAP check last year was just staggering. The fact that these radio guys decided that Steve Miller's music was going to be in this classic rock radio format forever turned out to be my saving grace because I never talked to them about it. It's amazing, "The Joker" came out in 1973, 35 years ago. And it's still "The Joker."
Is there anything cooler than seeing Homer Simpson sing along to one of your songs?
(Laughs.) It's pretty cool. I kind of like seeing Mike Myers doing "The Joker" right now, he cut it in his new movie. But that is fun, I gotta say. Me and Homer! (Laughs.)
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