“Some people call me the space cowboy
Some call me the gangster of love.”
Those opening lyrics sure sound like an introduction, but Steve Miller wasn’t really introducing himself. He had already been around, as the frontman of the Steve Miller Band, for nearly a decade. The 1973 track from the album The Joker has a story to tell. Sure, most (if not all) songs do, but when it comes to this particular song, it’s kind of a funny story.
Those two first lines, for example, were references to a couple of his earlier songs. But if you didn’t recognize those allusions, you aren’t alone. The truth is that Steve Miller never had a big hit before The Joker, and it was this song that ended up saving his career.
Those first couple of lines just sound mostly like slick nonsense – like a bunch of pompous up-talk, but it also makes you instantly like the guy. Who doesn’t want to hang out with someone who calls himself a space cowboy and gangster of love?
Steve Miller grew up in two places: Milwaukee and Dallas. He started playing guitar and hanging out with some real guitar legends when he was a little kid. Both Les Paul – his godfather – and T-Bone Walker were close family friends. Miller ended up dropping out of the University of Wisconsin, after which he and some of his buddies moved to Chicago. They were on a mission to play the blues.
One of those buddies was Boz Scaggs, who joined and then left the Steve Miller Blues Band in 1968 to go solo. Miller and his band were playing pure Chicago blues for a while, until 1966 when they moved to San Francisco. The timing proved to be just right. In San Francisco, the Steve Miller Blues Band became wilder – a more psychedelic version of themselves.
They immersed themselves in the developing psychedelic scene and, soon enough, their own sound morphed into this mind-bending music that fit right into the city. Between 1968 and 1972, the band released seven psychedelic blues-rock albums with avant garde tunes. And those years weren’t their successful ones.
Their psychedelic tracks never reached above no. 69 on the charts. Perhaps creating music alongside heavy hitters like Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane meant they were living in their shadow. Still, the Steve Miller Band was one of the bigger bands on the Haight-Ashbury scene, and they even backed up Chuck Berry on his 1967 blues-rock show Live at Fillmore Auditorium.
The band then signed to Capitol for a sweet sum of money and recorded with none other than Paul McCartney. But they weren’t close to making hits just yet. That took some time. In fact, their albums tended to sell better than the singles themselves.
Their song Living in the U.S.A. actually peaked at 94 on the top 100 Billboard chart. Things weren’t looking good for the band. When it came time to make their eighth album, The Joker, the discussion with the record label was pretty grim.
Capitol Records told the band that if their next album didn’t culminate in a hit, the Steve Miller Band would essentially come to an end. In other words, The Joker was a “do or die” album. Stressful? Sure. But Miller was up for the challenge. So, Miller got to it.
When it came time to create the album The Joker, Miller switched it up, changing his style completely. The inspiration came to him while he was playing around with an idea for a song at a party in Novato, California.
He started noodling around on his guitar and mashing up some old song lyrics. What he came up with was, of course, the song The Joker – a song that became a rock classic and one that basically saved his career. Ironically, though, Miller didn’t think it was a hit at the time.
Miller said that he never thought The Joker would become a hit. He was simply up for the challenge of creating a Top 40 radio hit that would also have to follow a soul disco symphony. He thought of it like a game – “like a crossword puzzle” – that needed to have some soul and substance to it.
Even though Miller wasn’t convinced it was “the one,” Capitol Records did. They chose to make the track the lead single of the album of the same name. Miller recalls playing the song for the label execs and them literally standing up and saying, “That’s a hit!”
The song ended up hitting no.1 in January of 1974. For their existing fans, the song and the album as a whole were a complete 180 from their earlier sound. By the early ‘70s, the Steve Miller Band basically rebranded themselves.
The Joker replaced their experimental psychedelic sound with new, fresh, laid-back, even melancholy music. This smoother style proved to be much more pleasing to listeners’ ears. Along with the go-with-the-flow vibe of the song The Joker relies on Miller’s lyrics and portrays the fun he had writing it. He pretty much became a character…
“Some people call me the space cowboy
Some call me the gangster of love
Some people call me Maurice.”
The song is unique while taking an unoriginal approach of joining previous lyrics together from his own songs (and the songs of other bands). The phrases “space cowboy”, “gangster of love” and “Maurice” are all references to Miller’s previous songs.
Space Cowboy was a tune from his 1969 album Brave New World. Gangster of Love is a track from his 1968 album Sailor, and Maurice is from the song Enter Maurice from his 1972 album Journey from Eden.
The name Maurice, by the way, has its “r” trilled (as in the Spanish word “burro”), which is followed immediately by the infamous wolf whistle played on a slide guitar. There’s a theory with fans that Miller was actually paying tribute – or bidding farewell – to his older persona as he abandoned trippy sounds for a new melodic style.
The song itself gives off the vibe that not much effort was put into it. Miller is aware of just how goofy it sounds. After all, you don’t add wolf-whistle guitar slurs after singing the word “Maurice” if you want to come off seriously.
“’Cause I speak of the pompatus of love”
Miller didn’t just reference his own songs; he also alluded to other famous tunes, which even got him into some trouble (we’ll get to that soon). Let’s start with the lyric “pompatus of love,” which is a quote from the song Enter Maurice.
Enter Maurice contains the lines: “I can whisper sweet words of epistemology/ in your ear and speak to you of the pompatus of love.” The word “pompatus” could have been Miller’s own invention, but the “epistemology” leads music historians to believe that it came from the 1954 doo-wop song The Letter by The Medallions.
The Letter contains the lines: “Let me whisper/ sweet words of pizmotality/ and discuss the puppetutes of love.” Miller’s “epistemology … pompatus” sounds like a pretty clear echo of “pismotality … puppetutes.” Miller said that he thought of “pompatus” as sort of a professor or master of love, sex, and relationships.
Then again, he also said, “it doesn’t mean anything; it’s just jive talk.” Vernon Green (of the Medallions), who wrote The Letter, heard The Joker for the first time when Jon Cryer (of Two and a Half Men) played it for him…
As the story goes, Green was dozing off in front of the TV when he suddenly heard his name mentioned, which caught his attention. He immediately called up Cryer. Up until that point, Green hadn’t heard The Joker, and when Cryer played it for him, “he laughed his ass off.”
Cryer explained that Green’s song The Letter him conjured up his dream woman. “Pizmotality described words of such secrecy that they could only be spoken to the one you loved,” Green told Cryer. He also said that he made up the word “puppetutes” to describe “a secret paper doll fantasy figure.” This woman would be his “everything and bear my children.” It was 1954…
Miller worked with Green’s made-up word, but he didn’t exactly quote it, nor did he even know its meaning. “Pompatus” later took a life of its own, becoming a slang term which was even used in the 1996 film The Pompatus of Love.
“People talk about me, baby
Say I’m doing you wrong, doing you wrong
Well, don’t you worry, baby, don’t worry
‘Cause I’m right here, right here, right here, right here at home.”
Miller’s character, the Joker, says that people might be talking about him, but he reassures his girl that she need not worry because he’s there with her. Some say that the Joker’s character has a Wooderson vibe (from the movie Dazed and Confused).
“’Cause I’m a picker, I’m a grinner
I’m a lover and I’m a sinner
I play my music in the sun.”
The beginning of the chorus may seem pretty self-explanatory, but since we’re already on a roll, then why not lay this out too.
As for the “grinner” part, any fan can attest to the fact that Miller typically plays music with a broad smile on his face. He’s also a “lover” of many things (in this case, women) and a “sinner,” in terms of struggling with his lust for them.
“I’m a joker, I’m a smoker
I’m a midnight toker
I get my loving on the run.”
He’s a “toker,” and let’s face it, who wasn’t in the ‘60s and ‘70s? Miller probably just liked to save it for the nights.
“Loving on the run” could mean that he’s something of a player (he’s a lover and a sinner, after all) and tells women what they want to hear. But in the end, he never intends to hurt them. He’s on the run – moving on quickly without creating any strong ties. (Right, fellas?)
“You’re the cutest thing that I ever did see
I really love your peaches, want to shake your tree
Lovey-dovey, lovey-dovey, lovey-dovey all the time
Oh, baby, I’ll sure show you a good time.”
Okay, so this is the lyric that got Miller into some trouble. The lyrics were taken word-for-word from a 1954 song by The Clovers called Lovey Dovey. The song’s lyrics go: “You’re the cutest thing that I ever did see/ Really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree/ Lovey dovey, lovey dovey, lovey dovey, all the time.” Yeah… the exact same lines.
Apparently, there’s also a lyric in David and Roselyn’s song Slavin’ Train which contains the line: “If you don’t like the peaches, don’t shake my tree.” But David and Roselyn didn’t go after Miller for it. The Clovers, on the other hand, did.
Well, it was technically Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary Atlantic Records label exec who co-wrote the track Lovey Dovey, who sued Miller for plagiarism. Ertegun co-wrote the tune two decades earlier and got himself a songwriting credit on The Joker.
There is also speculation that the song was heavily influenced, in terms of sound, by Allen Toussaint’s 1972 song Soul Sisters. Toussaint’s track has the same bass lines and guitar effects in the introduction, but it does feature an entirely different melody and chorus.
Still, despite all the silliness and unoriginality, Miller’s lyrics (and sound) work. Miller shared his memories about writing the song. He said that when it was in the initial phase, he had three pieces of music. At the time, he was working on about 21 songs, including the lyrics to Take the Money and Run, and Rock ‘n Me.
“I would try it one way, I would try it another way, and then I would combine the two of them,” he explained about writing The Joker. He had lots of different versions, one of which is on his Ultimate Hits album that’s “like a mashup between Take the Money and Run and The Joker.”
When they cut The Joker, he was “very surprised when it became a hit.” He had left town to begin a 60-city tour, and he admitted that he thought his career was over. He was convinced that The Joker would be his last single.
But when he got back, about 90 days later, he discovered that it was the Number One song in the country, and he was baffled. By the time he got back to San Francisco, he learned that the single was playing on four radio stations at the same time!
There are so many elements that come into play to create a hit record, especially back then. The song ended up going viral and took on a life of its own. Whenever DJs played it, they got a huge response and it just spread around the country like wildfire.
Today, The Joker is one of the most popular classic rock staples. It was the band’s breakout hit, after which more followed, including Take the Money and Run (no. 11), Rock ‘n’ Me (no. 1), Fly like an Eagle (no. 2), and Jet Airliner (no. 8).
What The Joker did was open a new door for Steve Miller. With it, he mastered the pop formula and continued to take the pop route in the course of his music career. The Joker was featured in a Levi’s television commercial, which happened to break the record for the longest gap between transatlantic chart-toppers.
As for his other songs, you can hear it from the horse’s mouth…
77-year-old Steve Miller gave explanations for his other big hits, too. So, let’s begin with Living in the U.S.A.
“I had come out of a radical environment at the University of Wisconsin in the early ‘60s,” Miller explained. He was a Freedom Rider in the Civil Rights campaign and eventually got involved in the Vietnam War demonstrations.
Once he was in California during the psychedelic revolution, he couldn’t help but combine those things. “It was very powerful [creatively].” Living in the U.S.A. was made for Chicago’s Democratic National Convention in 1968. It was definitely a political tune.
Miller called his song Space Cowboy a “funny song” because, as he explained, he was staying at the Chateau Marmont when he was working on it. He found himself with writer’s block and stuck for lyrics. He recalled Ben Sidran being in the studio, and they put the words together in about 15 minutes.
“I didn’t think very much of it!” he admitted. But when he heard the final mix, he wanted to take it off the album. He didn’t think he could release that particular version. “And here I am 50 years later playing Space Cowboy!”
Miller revealed that he typically will play his guitar or piano and then he’ll get an idea that he likes or find something that’s interesting. Once he gets the idea, he’ll find a melody for it. “I’ll hum or sing along to it, and then the last thing I do is write the words.”
The track Take the Money and Run actually came from a recording session with high energy. He recalled having cut a lot of great tracks that day. “We cut three different rhythm tracks,” he said, and he kept changing the choruses and working on it.
Miller was doing a gig with Pink Floyd in England at the time, and he felt the need to come up with a really great song, “because I would be playing in front of Pink Floyd, you know!” He remembers thinking there were going to be 60,000 people in the audience.
But when he got there, he learned that there was actually double that number. That night was the first time he played Rock ‘N’ Me, and “it rocked everybody out.” After that, they went from playing at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium to selling out football stadiums.
“We had to figure out how to design a PA,” Miller explained when they performed in their first stadium. It was all about getting the stage to sound good so they could perform well in the environment they were in. He remembers it not being a good stage, either – just scaffolding and a plywood floor at the end zone of a football stadium.
Once it all came together, Miller felt that the bigger the crowd was, the more he liked it and “the more fun it was.” They would play for 90,000 people in a football stadium and see the audience singing every song they played.
Miller had an idea for a riff when he was in London in 1969 while he was recording at the same studio the Beatles were in. Lucky for him, he got invited to a few of their sessions. “The next thing I knew, Paul and I were jamming in the studio recording My Dark Hour.”
Miller had a lick that he was working on. Fast forward four years, and it became Fly Like an Eagle, a tune that developed over three years at all of the Steve Miller Band’s gigs. For the “Space Intro,” he basically put sound effects with music, “creating a horizon in a record,” as he put it.
Fly Like an Eagle was set when he got everyone to work smoothly together at the recording studio. Miller recalled that when they were starting out in the studio, there was a union law that stated musicians couldn’t touch the recording console, microphones, or equipment.
So, they couldn’t touch anything. He remembers a union guy sitting in a chair until about two in the morning – to make sure they were following the rules. Miller found himself arguing with everybody, “trying to fight with my ideas. But I learned a lot.” Eventually, they got to a point where they could touch the console, and the rest is history.
The band’s bass player at the time had a friend named Greg Douglass, and he was a great guitar player. They brought this tune to Miller on the last day of the mixing session for Book of Dreams. Then, at the last minute, when Miller was about to walk, Lonnie Turner showed up.
He brought with him a three-inch plastic reel, with the Jungle Love tune on it. “I didn’t know Greg,” Miller recalled, “so I said, ‘Can you call him and invite him over?’” Douglass came over, and 45 minutes later they had cut Jungle Love. And that’s when Greg joined the band.
“We’ve been workin’ so hard
We’ve been workin’ so hard
Come on baby, come on baby, let’s dance
C’mon, c’mon, c’mon”
Swingtown was a tune Miller wrote with a guy called Chris McCarty. Miller loves the song’s “southwestern harmony.” They worked on the song for a long time to make it sound the way it did in the studio. They had something called a Condor Innovator, which Miller explained made a guitar sound different. He said it was one of the first guitar computers. So, Swingtown was actually a studio production number.
Abracadabra, as Miller recalls, was a song that came very slowly. He recorded it a bunch of times, and it originally had completely different lyrics. It was on an album and at the very last minute he thought to himself, ‘You know, I love this music, but I hate these lyrics. I’m taking it off.’
But he liked the music too much to just throw it away. He pulled it off the record but kept it. Three years later, he wrote the lyrics in 15 minutes. “I was out skiing, and I saw Diana Ross and the Supremes. And after I came in from skiing, I thought, ‘Man, how would the Supremes do this song?’” That’s when he wrote it.
Miller saw Kenny G play in Seattle when they were both living there. Kenny opened for the Pointer Sisters and “was amazing.” Miller was in the studio at the time and called him up to ask Kenny if he wanted to do a part of his song.
He came over, warmed up, and “was so pro,” Miller described. Kenny played the solo “with a lot of heart.” About nine months later, “this guy with really long curly hair had a whole fancy band.” Miller said he didn’t recognize him at first, but it was Kenny.
Miller’s latest album is 2019’s Welcome to the Vault, which dips into 52 tracks that stretch over 65 years, from a 1951 performance by T-Bone Walker in his family living room to a 2016 jazz band version of his own Take the Money and Run.
When Miller was asked why this album took so long, he brought up Gary Gersh, the Capitol Records honcho who ran the label back in the ‘90s. “Just a little gangster,” Miller said, “a complete, incompetent, lying piece of s***. And you know, that’s candy-coating it.”
Miller blames Gersh for what went down the last time he put out a box set in 1994. From the release date (too late in the summer) to a production error, Miller only remembers the problems. He also remembers Gersh ignoring his calls. He has admitted to daydreaming about what might happen if he ever bumps into Gersh on the street.
The truth is Miller was never one to shy away from conflict. In the ’60s, when anyone would have killed for a record deal, Miller was studying the fine print and putting up resistance until the terms were changed. By the ’70s, when he was an arena star, he disappeared, refusing to put out any new music until he felt it was ready.
As for Gersh, who’s now an executive at AEG Live, he was shocked to hear of Miller’s anger. “25 years ago, I had one interaction with him and he’s now saying he would beat me to a pulp because of a production error that I didn’t cause,” Gersh stated. “Are you kidding me? That’s insanity.”
Miller has always been one to speak out, and it hasn’t ruined his career. In his 70s, he can still play as many gigs as he wants, and he still sells out. According to trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Jazz wouldn’t exist if people weren’t like that. “If you didn’t have Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Miles Davis. They rubbed people the wrong way all the time.”
Miller’s radio hits helped him sell over 60 million albums throughout his career. He essentially cracked the code of pop-rock. “I had choices to make,” he said. It’s about being really disciplined, but also spontaneous. “You’ve got three seconds to capture people’s attention at the very entrance of a song.”
When Jimmy Page was donning his dragon suit and Elton John was dressed as Minnie Mouse, Miller’s greatest display was turning up his shirt-collar. He hardly ever put his picture on album covers, and when he did, he wore a mask (like on The Joker).
Miller was in favor of anonymity. He didn’t hang out at the Playboy Mansion or party with Mick and Bianca at Studio 54. He tried cocaine once and hated it: It “felt like I had rock salt in my sinuses.” By the time he reached his 30s, he quit drinking because it became a time-killing crutch during late nights on the road.
In 1976, Miller left the hub of the record industry and moved from California to Oregon, where he set up his own farm. When he was asked why he left California, he said, “In California, those people invent ways to steal my money.”
Miller’s most powerful weapon was walking away from an offer. The typical method of flattery never worked on him. Miler’s distaste for the music business isn’t unfounded. Record execs really did take advantage of their artists.
Something else Miller realized is that he’s not the best person to analyze his unreleased recordings. He’s too much of a perfectionist. That’s why his wife eventually got involved. He married Janice Ginsberg Miller in 2014 who suggested to him that he release rarities while he could curate them.
Miller stopped recording new pop songs by the early ’90s and no longer had a working relationship with Capitol.
Gersh was long gone, as was everyone else he had tangled himself within the industry. Universal President Bruce Resnikoff knew that Miller has “one of the greatest archives an artist has ever kept.” He told Miller that when they started talking.
Universal wrote a check for the $600,000 Miller claimed he was owed in royalties. “Is he difficult?” Resnikoff asked. “I would say that he has a vision, and he has talent and people with talent and vision are difficult if you don’t pay attention.” As for Miller, Universal is finally a label he loves.