Steve Miller talks San Francisco, illegal downloads and ‘The Joker’
July 24, 2014
If you go
What: Journey, Steve Miller Band and Tower of Power
When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 30
Where: Harveys Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena
Tickets: $59.50 plus fees and up
Steve Miller is one of the lucky ones – a musician who has sold millions of albums, has a catalog full of hit singles and, 50 years after he got his start playing blues in bars around Chicago, still has a thriving career.
It's something he never could have fathomed as he grew up and began playing guitar.
"When I was a kid, I never thought I would ever be able to make records and never really thought seriously about a musical career because a musical career was being Fabian or Frankie Avalon or something," Miller said in a recent teleconference interview. "It didn't make any sense. There wasn't any possibility to get into that world."
If Miller were coming up now, he said he would have a very similar outlook on his prospects in music.
“That was really exciting, and it was really art and culture and literature and music and new newspapers, new ways of doing everything. That was one of the most vibrant periods in history for a cultural revolution. That stuff that started in San Francisco and came out of San Francisco changed the whole world.”
"It's kind of like that for kids right now," he said. "Right now, I don't think they have much of a chance. I think all of this get it on the Internet is all BS and nonsense. You have to really connect with people. There aren't very many clubs. There's no place for people to develop and play. It's a bad time right now for young artists.
"I worry about that because it doesn't look really good. But when I was a kid, it didn't look good either," Miller said. "Big time success then was to be on a bus with seven other bands doing a (package tour) for 90 shows in 80 days."
Reaching million-selling success didn't come easily — or immediately — for Miller, either.
After leaving college in the early 1960s, Miller moved to Chicago, looking to become part of the city's legendary blues scene. He did just that, but grew disenchanted with the Chicago scene and, in 1965, packed up for San Francisco.
At the time, the San Francisco rock and blues scene was blossoming into what would become the most vibrant hotbed of music. These were the early days for the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, for hippie culture and for a vibrant concert scene spearheaded by maverick promoter Bill Graham.
"As soon as I understood what was going on in San Francisco, which was in 1965 and '66, I immediately left Chicago where I was working in a nightclub that was being shaken down by the mafia and the police for payments," Miller said. "I mean, it was a real thug world.
"I left Chicago where I was playing with Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and James Cotton and Junior Wells and Buddy Guy and immediately went to San Francisco because it was a chance to play in a ballroom to 1,200 people instead of a bunch of drunks in a nightclub," Miller said.
As he settled in, Miller realized something revolutionary was happening in the Bay Area — and it went way beyond music.
"I got out there and it was a psychedelic experience. There were a lot of drugs," Miller said. "There were people coming from all over the world. There'd be a film crew from Japan one day, a film crew from France the next day. They were just coming in to see what was going on.
"That was really exciting, and it was really art and culture and literature and music and new newspapers, new ways of doing everything," Miller said. "That was one of the most vibrant periods in history for a cultural revolution. That stuff that started in San Francisco and came out of San Francisco changed the whole world."
The San Francisco scene of the late 1960s and early '70s is worth noting this summer because Miller is touring with two other groups with roots in the city's music scene of that era — headliner Journey and opening act Tower Of Power.
Of course, by the time these three acts started having major success in the mid-1970s, the glory days of the San Francisco scene had faded.
Miller had spent the first five-plus years of his recording career on pretty much of a nonstop cycle of recording and touring. He was selling roughly 200,000 albums a year – not bad – but he wasn't getting played on radio or making enough money to enjoy anything resembling a good living.
By the time he finished recording his 1973 album, "The Joker," Miller's expectations were modest at best. He had decided to make an album that sounded just the way he wanted, with a more relaxed, spacious sound and a strong pop element. The last thing he expected was for the album to catch on.
"I thought my career was over. It was my seventh album for Capitol Records and they had pretty much moved on from my world," Miller said. "I remember leaving to go on a 60-city tour and somebody at the record company said, 'Well, I think 'The Joker' might be a single' and I said, 'You know what? Don't worry about singles. It just would be nice if you actually have records in the cities where I'm actually going to be working. That would be a good idea, and here's a list of the cities I'm going to be in in the next 75 days.' We left to go do that tour not really expecting much to happen and when we came back it was the number single in the country."
It was merely a sign of things to come.
His next two albums, "Fly Like an Eagle" and "Book of Dreams," were blockbusters that went multiplatinum and produced a string of hit songs. Miller, though, only had one more hit album, 1982's "Abracadabra," but that was enough to keep him on classic rock radio and allow him to continue to play large venues through the next three decades.
Miller continued to release albums in the '80s, but after 1993's "Wide River," he stuck to touring and didn't release any more studio albums until the one-two punch of "Bingo" in 2010 and "Let Your Hair Down" in 2011. Those two albums came from a session with engineer Andy Johns during which Miller and his band cut versions of 41 blues, soul and early rock and roll tunes — a project that was a true labor of love.
He continues to work on new music and recently recorded a new version of "The Joker" album for its 40th anniversary. But Miller is discouraged by how illegal downloading has made it difficult for artists to sell albums, and he isn't giving "The Joker" the high-profile release some might think the project deserves.
"It's really a live performance and we love it," Miller said of the new "Joker." "We decided not to give it to a record company, and we're putting it out and we're going to sell it ourselves at our concerts.
"It doesn't make any difference whether Capitol Records and EMI put it out, or Universal or whether we do. They're not going to sell any of it anyway."
He'll continue to play his hits during the concerts with Journey and Tower Of Power this summer, but Miller wishes audiences were more open to him playing lesser known songs and stretching out musically in concert.
"I love performing and connecting with an audience never gets old for me," Miller said. "But it does get old for me when my audience is just only interested in something they've already heard, and it makes doing new stuff very (difficult) — it's a strange experience right now."