This July, Cleveland Scene
will turn 50 years old, and in advance of the occasion, we've decided to dig into the archives on a weekly basis to republish something that appeared in the paper on that date (or thereabouts) during Scene
's first decade.
This interview with singer-guitarist Steve Miller by Derek Van Pelt appeared in the issue that came out on April 26, 1973. It featured the headline, “'I’m no superstar,' the Space Cowboy says."
* * *
Steve Miller gave a great rock and roll concert at the Allen last Thursday. Unfortunately, only a little over half a house saw him — and many of those had come for the opening act, Rick Roberts. Roberts was pleasant (with all the sinister connotations of that word), coming out of his post-Burrito country thing, and was no kind of warmup for the Miller Band’s high pitch excitement.
The music Miller plays is simple, but it’s fully animated by the spirit of rock and roll — it’s bursting with energy and it’s accessible. And the band (Miller, guitar and vocals; Dick Thompson, organ; John King, drums; and Gerald Johnson, bass) has a good time playing it. Miller’s guitar work, more elaborate than on record, is outstanding for its precision, dynamic sense, and varying tone colors. He sings well, too.
Miller plays many kinds of music equally well. There was blues (“Blues with a Feeling” and “Rollin’ and Timeline,’" a guitar tour de force), funky-butt rhythm and blues, several folksy or country encores by Miller alone on acoustic guitar, and the unifying element, rock and roll (including the standards, “Space Cowboy” and “Livin in the USA,” as well as some righteous new tunes). It took him a while to rouse the sleepy audience as a whole, but after half an hour they were captured.
We talked to Steve Miller earlier that afternoon.
Scene: Has the success you’ve enjoyed brought about a separation between you and the people in your home town, in San Francisco?
No. I’m no superstar. It’s no big flash scene. I’m like anybody else walking down the street in San Francisco. My audience has never been that huge. When I make a record, there are about 15Q or 200 thousand people who buy it.
Scene: Do you consider yourself primarily an entertainer, or do you feel a strong cultural identification with your audience?
There are elements of both. You can’t forget that you’re a performer and that you’re there to entertain an audience. At the same time, I’m part of a musical and social community. I think our viewpoint is unusual for a mass audience — I don’t think we’ve ever catered to their basest desires. We don’t really consider ourselves “entertainers.” My audience is more special than larger ones. There’s about 200,000 people out there who are into more than Ripple and reds, who are better educated, more into music. I don’t feel I have to wear tight pants and shake my ass to get them off. They get off mainly on the music. And then there are political comments and a consciousness of the society w e live in! We make about six different kinds of music, so our audience must be pretty sophisticated.
Scene: What kind of audiences have you had lately?
I haven’t liked San Francisco audiences much since the Fillmore became big business. I’ve played for some terrible audiences there — just five or six thousand people who want to get stoned and meet each other and have some music in the background. We had a great open-air concert in Raleigh. We had good audiences in Austin, Dallas, Colorado, Seattle; sometimes Boston gets it together, and New York is usually good. We had great audiences in England and in Amsterdam — very respectful, very patient. We’re like movie stars in Europe because we’re different, they don’t get to see us as often. We always get fantastic press coverage, we do national TV and radio. We rarely have a bad audience because we can control it, we can direct it into what we’re doing. 1 did give a fifteen-minute lecture to an audience on Long Island, at Stony Brook, that was all just zonked out on the floor, on sopors or whatever. I told them I consider myself a professional and that I wouldn’t even perform under those conditions, and they rallied and got it together.
Scene: Who are some of the musicians who influenced you when you were coming up?
I went through the blues school — I lived in Chicago for two years and played the same clubs as all those guys. They were grown men playing electric instruments, as opposed to someone like Fabian or Frankie Avalon, which was what a lot of pop music was like then. Also, I came out of rhythm and blues, since 1 grew up in Texas, where it was top-40 music, what high school kids listened to. They ate up every record Little Walter released. It was the most mature electric music of the time. The Beatles influenced me a lot, and Simon and Garfunkel got to me pretty heavy when they first came out. Also, I was a Comparative Literature major at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Copenhagen, and I was into poetry. I listened to a lot of good jazz in my home through my father, and my mother’s side of the family were all musicians.
Scene: How did you get into electronics?
I met Les Paul when I was five years old — he was a good friend of my father’s. That was when he was first working out his multi-track recording process, which was just a bunch of tape recorders hooked together somehow. There were tape recorders all over the house. Actually, all the electronics are sound effects. I was into sound effects, doing weird stuff with tapes, in 1960 — running it backwards, speeding it up, slowing it down, experimenting with textures. I got into Stockhausen, who legitimized all that stuff. And I always dug the old radio murder mysteries. You can do anything you want with sound effects — have somebody walking down a gravel path, opening a door, whatever. And that’s what those cats were into. Plus if you have a symphony orchestra you can do all kinds of things.
Scene: How do you put tunes together?
I have a studio at home with a couple of keyboard instruments, some Indian instruments, and my guitars. 1 might have a lyric or some poetry I want to set to music, or a melody - I always have a hundred melodies running through my head. I might start with acoustic guitar. I always hear everything in four parts. Then I’ll play it on the organ or electric guitar and teach it to the other guys in the band. That’s one way. Then there are tunes that evolve when the band’s playing together, when we’re jamming. And I have a friend who’s a great lyricist, and I use his things.
Scene: Are you working on a record now?
I’m working on three records. The first one will be a suite, with my lyricist friend Jason Cooper, about the American Indian. I’ve been working on that since November. Basically, this Caucasian goes camping in the desert. First, he’s impressed with the natural beauty of it. Then he finds he’s set up on an old Indian burial ground. He dreams he’s an Indian and has about four different visions. The second one is a Halloween record, which will just be a lot of fun, good grins, alot of sound effects. The third is an album of traditional Christmas carols, on acoustic guitar. Then we have all these great rock and roll tunes the band comes up with, and they’ll probably show up somewhere.
Scene: What other projects do you have in mind?
I’m thinking of just taking a year off from touring to work on records. It gets pretty boring on the road — the only thing that makes it worthwhile is the two hours I’m playing. We toured fifty cities in two and a half months last fall, and twenty-five on this tour. But eventually I’d like to get Boz (Scraggs), the best people from both our bands, and put together a really great show and tour the States and Europe. When I was in London, I saw three friends who are really into writing, and that got me thinking again about a book I may do someday about this business of being on the road. I’m also writing a book on how to deal with record companies, how to go about the business of being a rock and roll band, since so many bands have come to me asking about whether they should take this or that deal. Finally, I may do a soundtrack for a big Hollywood movie, but that’s not confirmed yet.
Scene: Is there still any feeling of community among the bands in San Francisco?
No, that all got destroyed by the national media — they just wiped it out. About all that whole thing did was to enable a few bands to get big record contracts so they could go on the road, play in places like Cleveland, and worry about being businesses. I saw Quicksilver in Indianapolis — I see them maybe twice a year. I saw Jorma (Kaukonen, of the Airplane) on the street in San Francisco and he didn’t know who I was. I used to play with him all the time: I haven’t seen the Dead in two and a half years. I’m home maybe three months out of the year and half of that I’m on vacation.
Scene: You’ve made some powerful social statements in your songs. Do you consider yourself radical?
I’m still working on that. I haven’t made up my mind yet. Most of the real radicals I know have gone past the point of being intelligent about it. I don’t consider myself radical. I think there are plenty of things in my own area which be straightened. I don’t let my record company bullshit me. I dig the capitalist system — I don’t think I would have the opportunities I have now if I lived anywhere but the United States, to break out of that class society. I like making bucks for what I do. But at some point, you have to become socially conscious. I’m like the cats on the Whole Earth Catalog — I think all that information about running a band and dealing with record companies should be free. A lot of people try to tell me how to run my band; a lot of people make a living bullshitting you about what you’re supposed to do. I think all that information should be free. I’ve watched capitalism destroy itself through greed — all you have to do is look around to see that. What I’d like to see is some common sense use of resources: I’d like to see us spend that $200 billion from Viet Nam over here.
Scene: Where does the outlaw theme in your songs come from?
I don’t know. I seem to have this thing with cops. I spent a night in jail two nights ago in Norwalk, Ohio — I was maced twice, hit over the head, and thrown in jail for telling a cop to cool out. I told him to stop shining his flashlight light in my face, to talk to me and stop threatening me. Actually, I think it started with “Gangster of Love” and went from there. I knew some burglars in Chicago who helped set me up in business. These were burglars who were also artists, real stone professionals. I was living on the street in Chicago for two and a half years, working seven hours a night. Those were the days. I was sitting around the apartment one day with them, smoking some joints and talking about how if I had some tape recorders and speakers I could so some multi-track recording. The next day there’s all this stuff sitting in my apartment, looking like it’s been ripped out of walls over the city. These guys came and visited me in my house in San Francisco later, and I had to ask them to leave because everybody was wondering where they were getting all this jewelry and stuff they were giving away to my friends. We’d get caught in the rain and they’d zip into a store and come out with a bunch of new raincoats. Everything was free to them.
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