High Times Greats: Steve Miller

Some people call him the space cowboy. Some call him the gangster of love.
High Times Greats: Steve Miller
Steve Miller by David Alexander

Writer John Swenson profiled Steve Miller for the March, 1982 issue of High Times. In honor of Miller’s birthday October 5, we’re republishing it below.

Steadily, inexorably and almost completely without fanfare, Steve Miller has become one of America’s most durable rockers. In a career that now has spanned parts of four decades, Miller has helped develop the music from the blues and R&B roots of the ’50s to the technologically proficient AOR rock of the current day.

The Texas-born Miller grew up in the middle of the richest musical tradition of the country listening to great guitarists like T Bone Walker and Johnny “Guitar” Watson (from whom he borrowed the nickname “Gangster of Love”) before moving to Madison, Wisconsin, where he led the most in-demand fraternity band on the local college circuit. Miller continued to work out his blues technique on the Chicago club scene during the ’60s before moving to San Francisco, where he was in on the ground floor of the late-’60s music boom generated by that city.

While in San Francisco, Miller backed Chuck Berry on a blues album before recording his own LPs with a group featuring Boz Scaggs as co-writer, singer and guitarist. One of the hottest outfits of its time, this group released the classic Children of the Future and Sailor LPs before Scaggs left and Miller teamed up with keyboardist Ben Sidran for the excellent Brave New World LP, which included a duet with an uncredited Paul McCartney on “My Dark Hour.”

Miller continued to release beautiful records in a softer mode through the early ’70s until he clicked almost offhandedly in 1973 with a huge single, “The Joker,” which was to make him one of the ’70s’ biggest rock artists. He became more and more popular as subsequent LPs produced more blockbuster singles like the title track of Fly Like an Eagle and “Jet Airliner” from Book of Dreams. After that hit Miller took a three-year hiatus which has just now been broken with Circle of Love (Capitol ST-12121), a dramatic return to his most experimental form that is highlighted by the sidelong space-music track “Macho City,” which combines the themes of his blues background with the free-form trance-music orientation of his classic late-’60s work. Miller recently sat down with us to outline his plans for the future and reminisce about the San Francisco scene.

He began by explaining his return to the long-track concept with “Macho City.” “I didn’t feel like making little three-minute tunes,” he said. “I’ve recorded about fifty pieces of music, and I got so messed up by working on so many songs, too many incomplete ideas. I’d go back and I’d listen to things, and ‘Macho City’ just kept popping up and it sounded damn good to me.”

“I’ve been working for three years on this music,” Miller went on. “I’ve got a great plan for myself. Let me run this by you. I’m putting three albums together and I’m going to have them all done before I start my tour. So when I go out on tour the pressure is off. I’m going to go out and enjoy where I am. I’m going to play every place, and I’m going to have my recording done. Now, this doesn’t mean I can’t add something new if I come up with some new things once I start playing with the band or something, but then at least I’ve got this basic structure all happening. You do one album, you go tour your butt off for a year, and then they say, ‘Hey, that’s great. You just did a hundred and twelve cities. Now go right into the studio and do something else.’ I can’t do that. I work real well when things calm down, clear out. I can think for a while. My vision gets a lot wider. When I’m on the road it takes so much energy to do those shows and you live such an artificial existence that, you know, after a while all I’m doing is writing tunes about Hertz cars.”

Miller explained that he had gotten into that situation once already and was determined to prevent it from happening again. “The material gets thin,” he pointed out, “and that’s what’s always happened to me. After The Joker I couldn’t put another album out for two and a half years. Then I put out Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams, which were two albums that I worked on at the same time. Now this time it’s been a little longer and I’m working on three albums, which allows everything to be more sustained. It allows for a better advertising campaign. They know they’ve got two more records instead of like when The Joker was there and we had just been number one all over the place. They wanted one more and I was saying ‘I don’t have one more. I’ve just done two hundred cities. I don’t have any more.’ I felt like I was a prisoner of my own success at the end in those football stadiums. It was thirty-six guys running lasers, just setting off smoke bombs in football stadiums. I enjoyed doing those from the sort of Steve-does-Walt-Disney-one-better kind of thing. But musically it became a very programmed sort of performance. Everything had to be the same. If I didn’t perform the same way bar by bar, I had thirty-six people going, ‘What’s he doing? What’s going on? We’re on page seventeen and that’s where the lights are supposed to be blue.'”

Miller remembered his duet with McCartney fondly. “I did all my recording and mixing in England,” Miller explained. “I went to see the Beatles do a session because my producer, Glyn Johns, was recording the Beatles. He introduced me to George Harrison, and I went over to George’s house, and George was really a neat guy, he was really nice. He invited me to come down to some sessions, so I went down to watch the Beatles record. I watched them overdub and do some stuff, and then they were going to do an actual session so I asked if I could go to that. We went down there, and Ringo didn’t show up. They waited around a couple, two or three hours and Ringo just never made it. He was doing something else I guess. So John left and that left George and Paul. George and I went out and jammed around a little bit, and Paul came out and played drums. Then George left and I said to Paul, ‘I got a little tune that we could do real quick.’ Glyn was on the controls so he rolled the tape, and I played this rhythm pattern that I had, and Paul came out and played bass on it, then he played a little pedal steel and some background. Just multitracked it up. We worked on the tune for six or seven hours. It was a real thrill for me.”

Miller was a significant contributor to the San Francisco music scene during its heyday. As an outsider who came into that scene as it was starting, he has an interesting perspective on it now. “My impressions are getting pretty clear about what I think happened there,” he said. “Basically, San Francisco was a social phenomenon. Jerry Garcia was much better at talking to people than he was at playing guitar when I got there. The Jefferson Airplane was much better at throwing a party for fifteen hundred people and making sure that there were baskets of apples at the door and lots of pretty posters and light shows. Mixed-media events.”

“I was probably the first band into the San Francisco scene that was a professional musical unit that had come from a highly competitive music scene, which had been Chicago. Butterfield was out there before me and played for a while and then left. I went out there and stayed. And it was a gathering of poster makers, of business people. Guys like Bill Graham and Chet Helms showed up, and they figured out how to run places like the Family Dog six days a week. They figured out how to do it through the use of posters. Then the light people all showed up. Film people were there. P.R. people showed up. The Charlatans were basically a band of P.R. guys. And photographers. It was like art students decided to learn to play the electric guitar and communicate, very much like what’s going on in England all the time. If you want to become an instant celebrity, the easiest way to do it is to grab a guitar and do something outrageous in London right now. Or to call yourself a band but actually be a bunch of art students, architectural students, P.R. people, politicians, whatever you want to be, but you use the rock ‘n’ roll format.”

So from Miller’s perspective, when he got to San Francisco there wasn’t a fully developed musical concept yet. “It was basically style and noise and rap, and lights and LSD. They were trying to get this thing off the ground but nobody really played very well. The bands didn’t have any concept as to how to structure a set. They were trying to play ‘In the Midnight Hour’ and keep their instruments in tune but they really didn’t know how to. At first, with the Jefferson Airplane, out of the whole band there was only one musician—Jack Cassidy, who was a good bass player from a rhythm-and-blues scene in Washington, D.C. At that point Jorma Kaukonen was called lead guitar player, but he really wasn’t. They were into scene. They spent as much time on how they looked as how they played.”

“Me, as a musician, I couldn’t put all that together. I couldn’t have done what I did if they hadn’t done what they did. Because I was playing good music all my life, and the only place it got me was I was in a competitive nightclub scene in Chicago trying to get Muddy Waters’s gig. I was competing with him for whatever club it was, and it was just how many people came in and how many drinks they bought and how many people you could draw in a very commercial, hard-nosed nightclub business kind of thing as to whether you played or not. You had to be good or you would lose your gig just like that in Chicago. There were only so many. And out there it was a whole different thing, of course. It was much more attractive because it was a new lifestyle, and these people really developed it. I was just developing along their same lines. I went out there and within four days I was one of the San Francisco bands. Played one gig and said, ‘Hi, we’re moving here, we’re gonna stay here and be part of the scene.’ And then we played and knocked everybody’s socks off because they hadn’t really heard any good rock ‘n’ roll.”

Miller looks back on the drug scene that was such an integral part of the San Francisco experience with mixed feelings. “Sure, all those guys were ripped to the tits, as we say. There were a few times when I was ripped to the tits, too, wondering how I was ever going to get off stage. But I had been playing for so long that it was something that I really didn’t get into that much. I was into playing.”

“I was astounded by what I saw going on around me,” he added. “When I saw Albert Grossman letting Janis Joplin play concerts because she was off of heroin and only drinking a fifth of booze a day, I thought he should have been arrested. I thought that son of a bitch should have been wrapped up and put in jail for ten years. I couldn’t believe it. People really just don’t understand what happens, but people just don’t have common sense. My father’s a doctor. I grew up in an upper-middle-class environment where I understood what health was. I knew better than to get involved in uppers and downers. I knew better than to get into any kind of situation where I had to depend on drugs. It would be very easy to take a diet pill before you do a concert because it gives you all this confidence and it makes you feel good. There was a period where every time I had to go play I would just get so sleepy about ten minutes before I had to go out there I just wanted to go to sleep. You go out and start, and then it goes away.”

“It’s a psychological weirdo game you play with yourself but I watched people who really believed it. They bought the whole stardom thing. I mean, they were wearing their capes at ten o’clock in the morning. They lived it all the way through. I was living it all the way through too, but I knew I had to get some sleep, get some vegetables in me. But it was rough. I went through some bad periods. I got into a thing where I worked way too long and overextended myself, went too far, but I always stopped short of getting myself strung out on something. I saw a lot of people kill themselves.”

“There were a lot of people, and they know who they are in this business, who really made money off of kids who were ripped on drugs and they just sold them for ten percent and these kids didn’t know any better. You look at Jimi Hendrix’s life—what a waste. To be managed the way he was. To do those kind of gigs the way they were done. I saw Jimi about three months before he died. I did a gig with him in Philadelphia. Everybody involved in that should have been locked up. It was crazy. They shot him up before he went onstage. He didn’t even know where he was. The band fell apart, just totally crumbled. The audience didn’t even know the difference, then they sort of snapped out of this overcharge of drugs and played for a few hours and just shot them up with some more junk and put them away.”

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