Somewhere along the line it has become abundantly clear to me that I am not cool. I can’t explain exactly why, but I’m not one of those music listeners that tries desperately to distance themselves from music they once loved. I try really hard to understand what was making me tick at the time I was engaged with a particular band. I LOVE the fact that music marks time for me in a way nothing else ever could. I have a lot of memories tucked away that sometimes surface at the mere sight of an old ticket stub. One of the things about me that I haven’t really made obvious enough to Giant Panther readers to date is that I am a mad Blues fan. I was watching a David Palmer (one time Rolling Stone writer and music scholar) and Dave Stewart (of Eurythmics fame) Rockumentary last night called Deep Blues: A Musical Pilgrimage To The Crossroads. I don’t remember where I read about it first, but as soon as I discovered it I put it in my Amazon basket and bought it when I had accumulated enough to make a purchase worthwhile. It sat on my coffee table for something like six weeks (ha! I just looked it up…I bought it on August 18th!…told you I loved that feature on Amazon). I bought the companion book that was sold with it at the time (1990), but I struggled to get through the origins of the actual Blues sound without the accompanying video. It was a bit tedious. It never hit me how old this documentary was until just before Junior Kimbrough’s song began. David Palmer, the narrator as well, states in so many words; “Junior has never been recorded, if you want to hear his music you have to go juking.” Junior passed away in 1998, but luckily for me, a writer (the name totally escapes me) from the Boston Phoenix did a piece about his death several years ago. I jumped on that and have never looked back. His music was hypnotic. Fortunately it was eventually recorded in the early 90′s before he passed away. That would have been very costly as good as he was.
That same article brought me to R.L. Burnside as well, whose popularity (and Kimbrough’s for that matter) has made a comeback of sorts thanks to bands like The North Mississippi All-Stars and The Black Keys, for which I am also eternally grateful. R.L. left us in 2005. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that it’s been twenty years since Palmer ventured into the Memphis-Mississippi Delta cradle and watching this documentary it sure feels like he got there just in the nick of time to capture these real, authentic Blues giants on film. It runs about 90 minutes, but most of it is just filming the artists in their natural habitat doing their thing. Dave Stewart was around for the first couple of artists showcased and a definite highlight would be R.L. Burnside, in broad daylight on his porch, nary a whiskey bottle in sight, playing for Dave and Robert Palmer before eventually letting Dave sit in with him. Both Burnside and Kimbrough have better songs than were included in the DVD I was watching, but no matter. It definitely captured the essence of both artists. They are two of my personal favorites. If you get a chance to check this documentary out, if you are a big Blues fan, I can’t imagine you not being riveted. A trip to Memphis and Clarksdale would be one of my favorite things to do if I had time and money.
I’ve always been fascinated by the phenomenon of Rock artists selling millions of records and five or ten years after their last hit becoming the butt of a joke. I don’t understand this at all. I mean, Hootie & The Blowfish?, maybe, but you have to admit there was a catchy song or two on Cracked Rear View. 13 million records sold in year one tells you that. Sometimes I think it’s more about the people that tend to like the artist than the actual artist himself. If a hard bitten rocker like me sees all kinds of folks fawning over some new flavor of the month band experience tells us will be in the cut out bin inside of four years, than yes I’m tempted to show contempt for that band. I’ll admit it. And I’m not one of those people who hates The Dave Matthews Band just because Yuppies love them either. I give each band a listen on their own merits and I could care less what anyone else thinks. No matter how uncool it is amongst the Indie crowd, the Rock crowd, and the Alternative crowd I think the venom directed at The Dave Matthews Band is ludicrous. That won’t stop it from happening, but it’s oh so easy to wail on the alleged jam band crowd. Phish, Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic and The Tragically Hip seem to suffer from the same prejudice. Then there are Pop Rock bands that “suddenly” hit it big after more than a decade of hard work, like Steve Miller, and people want to pile on, mostly due to overexposure on the radio, when their career seems to fizzle. The Steve Miller Band suffers from exactly that.
I first heard The Steve Miller Band in the early 70′s. I’m guessing “Space Cowboy” was the first song I ever heard by them. Steve Miller, who’s birthday I missed last month, was born on October 5, 1943. He comes from hard Blues roots. He grew up in Dallas, TX for the most part, but he was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. By 1963, even though he was friends with another Blues artist turned Pop Star in Boz Skaggs, he was playing with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Paul Butterfield and Buddy Guy….at 20 years old! After spending time in New York City and Austin, TX he headed west to San Francisco. He had been playing the Blues for years by the time he released his first album in 1968 called Children of The Future. The Steve Miller Band began life as The Steve Miller Blues Band. He even covered the Big Bill Broonzy classic “Key To The Highway” that Eric Clapton and others also thought enough of to record. Boz Skaggs was in the band at the time and the record was produced by Glyn Johns. Skaggs would become wildly famous by 1976 when he released a tremendously popular record called Silk Degrees. The thing is, Skaggs recorded the Fenton Robinson Blues classic “Somebody Loan Me Dime” and those who can look past his popular music career understand he’s linked to the Blues in a big old way. The same goes for Steve Miller. That’s called street cred. With that comes a certain artistic freedom I should think.
Around the same time Boz Skaggs moved onto the big leagues of Pop music, Steve Miller, who already had a terrific 1973 LP called The Joker, released Fly Like An Eagle. The Steve Miller Band would never be the same. Prior to 1976 Miller’s music was steeped in the Blues and harder sounding Rock. After that he was arguably the catchiest Rock music maker of the 70′s. You have to understand; by 1972 Steve Miller had seven LPs under this belt and a Greatest Hits collection called Anthology. He had minor hits with “Space Cowboy, Living in The U.S.A. and Your Saving Grace,” but success was intermittent at best. I know folks like to forget this tiny little piece of import business behind the music, to coin a phrase, but the goal of any artist releasing music is to get heard and EARN A LIVING doing something they love. I’d venture to say that prior to 1976 neither Steve Miller nor Boz Skaggs, with the unscrupulous way record executives conducted their business back then, had made any real money in their lives. That was about to change big time for both of them. Millions of records sold later, both of these men would become household names. The Steve Miller Band made three great records in a row, The Joker (1973), Fly Like An Eagle (1976) and Book of Dreams (1977). They followed that up with a Greatest Hits package in 1978 that sold in excess of 13 million records and ranks, according to our friends at Wikipedia, in the top 35 selling records of ALL TIME. Let that sink in. I don’t have any facts to back this next premise up, but it’s my guess that Steve got a little sick of being a Rock Star around this time.
He basically took four years off after Book of Dreams. He had a few singles after this era, such as “Abracadabra” from the 1982 record of the same name and a minor hit with “Keeps Me Wondering Why” from the same album, but he could never quite recapture the magic. He kept recording of course, they always do, but these days I hear he fights the hits when he plays live. I got to see him once, around 1977 with Fleetwood Mac at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, but I don’t recall much of anything from that particular outing. I’d give him another chance, but if he has an attitude about his hits I might not enjoy it as much as I probably might have otherwise. He’s not an artist I would seek out today to go see, but I still like a lot of his back catalogue. It’s tough to listen to Classic Rock radio because of the tight formats as it is, but Miller’s catalogue is basically been whittled down to five or six tracks. I’m not too keen on hearing them very much anymore either, but for me that doesn’t detract from a great and successful career. I’m sorry for those that feel otherwise. I still love “Wild Mountain Honey” and “The Window” from Fly Like An Eagle, but the K.C. Douglas cover of “Mercury Blues” might still be my favorite. I’m also a fan of “Swingtown” and “The Stake” from Book of Dreams, but “Sacrifice” (unfortunately sans it’s intro instrumental here) is my choice today. Lastly, The Joker had several great songs included “Your Cash Ain’t Nothing But Trash,” but “Sugar Babe” has always been a favorite of mine for some reason. Sorry I missed your birthday Maurice…
Buy or Download The Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits from Amazon here.