Steve Miller's appeal is inscrutable. He doesn't reel off guitar solos, he doesn't rock that hard, he can't sing too well, and his lyrics aren't exactly Dylan-esque. But if you throw Greatest Hits 1974-'78 on the turntable, I'll know each and every note by heart.
Much of this has to do with the fact that my debate coach during my first year of college always put this album on our van's stereo on all of our long-distance road trips. Steve Miller was our accompaniment to the endless Nebraska plains rolling by on I-80, a reliable musical companion. We always teased one member of our team because she never failed to mis-time the handclaps on "Take the Money and Run." (Here's the secret: the claps come after each mention of Texas, and are thus meant to be a kind of parody/homage/reference to "Deep in the Heart of Texas.") One time my coach went into a kind of reverie about Miller's stoner vibe while "Rockin' Me Baby" played in the background. He imagined Miller in the studio taking bong hits while strumming his guitar, so stoned that the line "be with my sweeten baby yeah" resulted from THC induced amnesia.
His records certainly have more than a faint whiff of ganja about them; they sound as if they should come with rolling papers. Appropriately, Miller penned "The Joker," one of the great stoner anthems of all time, with its lazy vibe, silly jokes (the guitar cat-calling when he sings "some people call me Maurice"), half-baked lyrics (what the fuck is "the pompitous of love"?), and the declaration that "I'm a joker, I'm a smoker, I'm a midnight toker." The echoing effects on "Fly Like an Eagle" seem tailor made to accompany a really good high.
High or not, though, the man could write a catchy song, songs so hummable that you forget their inherent ridiculousness. Don't believe me? Just listen to "Abracadabra," when Steve sings that he'll "reach out and grab ya" to the tune of overdone guitar and synthesizer sound effects.
But what keeps me coming back to Steve Miller, despite my best judgment, are those memories of going down the highway with my debate teammates, many of whom I sadly haven't seen in years. I remember those days best when I listen to "Jet Airliner," one of the better songs in the "life on the road in a rock band" genre. (Certainly better than Grand Funk's "American Band," but not as gritty as Bob Seger's "Turn the Page," as funny as Tenacious D's "The Road," or as gloriously overdone as Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive." That song will likely be the subject of another blog in this series on sheepish pleasures.) Sometimes a car stereo is the best time machine of all.