The Retrofit Guide: Steve Miller Band

Some people call me the space cowboy/some call me the gangster of love…

Too many years have gone by, too many enforced re-re-re-listenings of “Jet Airplane” and “Rock ‘n’ Me,” what we have come to learn about the Steve Miller Band has long since subsumed how we felt at first listen. But shake off the tarnish, drop .99 (or possible $1.29, it seems to go back and forth) download “The Joker” and marvel again over that impossibly simple chord progression, the down-to-the-bone instrumentation (drums/bass/acoustic guitar/slide guitar lead) and the bizarro world described by our greasy swain of a narrator. Who reveals himself as such in the next breath, in which he observes that….

Some people call me Maurrrrrrice/’Cause I speak of the pompudice of love.

Pompudice? That’s not even a word. I just checked.

What in the what? Who is this dude strutting through the speakers? What does he want? Is he even remotely serious about any of this? Or…wait, here it is in the chorus….

I’m a picker, I’m a grinner/I’m a lover, and I’m a sinner, playing my music in the sun/I’m a joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker/Sure don’t want to hurt no one…

So much funky attitude. So much left to the imagination. So few chords and adornment, so much wit and charm.

I just downloaded “The Joker,” along with a score of other SMB favorites, and I’ve been spinning on it ever since. Wondering how this guy got to be so successful while simultaneously being so odd and offbeat; wondering how such unlikely success either signalled, or perhaps caused, him to sprint rapidly to the mainstream, slamming out pop hit after pop hit through the mid and late ’70s, abandoning all his groovy street cred and becoming (I’m not even guessing here, given his notorious mastery of the entertainment biz) massively and quietly wealthy.

The cruel fact is that most of what makes Miller famous is actually the least of his work – the lazy days of riding the swift current of mainstream arena rock. But check back to his early years, right up through the smash “Fly Like an Eagle” album in ’76, and the news is much, much better. You could download a score of these suckers and be extremely happy about it. Especially if you’ve never heard early SMB, or paused to think that this guy might have actually had something serious going on there. He did.

Read more to find out what I got, and why:

First, go to the “Anthology,” a two-album collection of the SMB’s best pre-“Joker” works. No real chart hits here, though you’ll still here “Living in the USA” and “Space Cowboy” on klassic hitz radio. Download them both, hear them again in the company of Miller’s other great songs, and realize that what they imply about Miller’s charming weirdness – a certain late-hippie funkiness; an imagination teeming with odd characters and down-at-heels scenarios — come through full color on the likes of Kow Kow Calculator,” while “Goin’ to Mexico,” “Seasons” and “Going to the Country” are catchy fragments from the age of aquarius-and-them. End the tour with “My Dark Hour,” realizing that this is the tune Steve recorded with Paul McCartney just after a Beatles session exploded sometime in mid-“Abbey Road.” Paul was too freaked to go anywhere, or think, so he stuck around in the studio to shread Steve’s drum and shriek backing vocals so full of grit and outrage you nearly have to back away from the speakers. Whoa.

Next: The whole “Joker” album, from 1973. Really, the one must-have, not just for the brilliant title track, but also for the ultimate down-at-heels comic strip “Your Cash Ain’t Nothing But Trash,” (a Clovers re-make expanded with absurd off-mic sound effects, utterings and such) the white boy funk of “Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma” and a pair of remnants from the old Steve Miller Blues Band days, “Evil” and “Come On in my Kitchen.”

Move briskly to the “Fly Like An Eagle” album and click on the title track. Another great tune, though the lyrics edge toward wack (love the time slipping into the future; less crazy about the one-size-fits-all revolution and the dimwitted suggestions that hungry babies/homeless/shoeless who must be fed/housed/shoed), fortunately it’s the sound that matters: the creaminess of Miller’s voice; the wooshing organ contrasting to the wonderfully simple guitar lick. Talk about the whole equalling way more than the parts…

Most of this album lives up to the standard. “WIld Mountain Honey” is the single-that-shoulda-been; “The Window” expands on the overall mood of spaceliness, while a wonderfully sleazy cover of “Mercury Blues” proves the last of SMB’s great contributions to the wack-job-bluesman ouevre. I downoload “Dance, Dance, Dance,” though my affection is largely nostalgic; same deal with the doofy but catchy mega-hits, “Take the Money and Run” and “Rock ‘n’ Me,” both of which are most notable for the sheer tonnage of borrowed riffs, chord progressions, song titles, lyrical ideas, grade school rhymes, and on and on. But the boy can write hooks, and so you find yourself humming them all day long, like it or not. Sometimes I kind of like it, even when Billy Mack knows what the facts is, mostly because they rhyme so neatly with taxes, and then you’ve got Billy Joe in El Paso, getting into a hassle in some rich dude’s castle…and no one anywhere even thinks to call him Maurice.

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