The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Steve Miller cracked the code of 1970s radio. But he’s still raging against the music industry.

Steve Miller on his tour bus before a show at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in August. (Austin Hargrave/For The Washington Post)
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Steve Miller should have nothing to complain about. But on a recent afternoon, sitting in the elegant patron’s room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the singer and guitarist fires away when asked about his new set, “Welcome to the Vault.” The box, out Oct. 11, is a fascinating dip into his archives, 52 tracks that stretch over 65 years, from a 1951 performance by blues legend T-Bone Walker in his childhood living room to a 2016 jazz band reinvention of Miller’s “Take the Money and Run.”

Why did it take so long to put out his box? That’s when Miller brings up Gary Gersh, who ran Capitol Records back in the 1990s.

“Just a little gangster,” Miller says, winding up. “A complete, incompetent, lying piece of s---. And you know, that’s candy-coating it.”

In this context — a quarter of a century after Gersh’s reign, inside the rarefied walls of the Met — it’s an unexpected, almost jarring digression. Except if you know anything about Steve Miller. Record business figures have always occupied a special space in his Rolodex of revenge. They lie, steal your money, and, worst of all, have no idea how to push your records.

To be specific, Miller blames Gersh for what happened the last time he put out a box, a career survey released in 1994. There were several problems, from the release date (too late that summer) to a production error on early pressings. Miller remembers Gersh ignoring his calls, and that got him daydreaming about what might happen if they bumped into each other in his then home of Idaho.

“Gersh used to come and ski in Sun Valley and I was afraid I was going to see him and beat him to a pulp — because I would’ve, if I had seen him,” says Miller.

To a pulp? Is he serious? Miller has never shied away from conflict. In the ’60s, when any kid with a guitar would have killed for a record deal, Miller studied the fine print and resisted until the terms changed. In the ’70s, when he became an arena star, he virtually disappeared, refusing to put out music until he felt it was ready. Miller has not softened with age. Only three years ago, he turned his own Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction into a scathing and thoroughly entertaining takedown of the “gangsters and crooks” who are part of what he called a “private boys’ club.”

It’s not pleasant to be at the other end of a Miller grenade. Black Keys singer Dan Auerbach, who helped induct him that night, said he had trouble sleeping for days after the event. Gersh, today an executive at concert presenter AEG Live, seemed stunned to hear of Miller’s anger.

“Twenty-five 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,” he said. “Are you kidding me? That’s insanity.”

But speaking out has always been Miller’s way and it hasn’t stalled his career. At 75, he can play as many gigs as he likes, his catalogue remains a consistent seller and he’s able to promote the music he loves through his relationships with the Met, where he serves on the visiting committee of the museum’s Department of Musical Instruments, and Jazz at Lincoln Center, where he’s on the board and programs a concert series that has included Marty Stuart and Jimmie Vaughan.

“You know, I was raised with jazz musicians,” says Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter who serves as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. “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.”

A star, not a celebrity

Start with the hits. They occupy a special place in the classic rock canon, stretching from Miller’s first No. 1, 1973’s “The Joker,” a swaggering, country-rocker, to his last, 1982’s “Abracadabra,” a song inspired by a chance encounter with Diana Ross.

Those FM-gumdrops have helped Miller sell more than 60 million albums over his career, including 14 million alone on the compilation “Greatest Hits 1974-78” album. That record is among the top 40 of all time, a few slots ahead of “Abbey Road” and “Purple Rain.”

The hits are an important part of understanding Miller’s genius. His approach in the studio is humble and patient. Hooks are everywhere and not only in a song’s chorus: The wolf-whistles in “Jungle Love,” the echoing synthesizer in “Fly Like an Eagle,” the “hoo hoo” in “Take the Money and Run.” Guitar heroism is to be avoided or, on the rare chance a solo is employed, it simply mirrors a song’s melody. And then there’s that voice, youthful, pure, with layers of perfect harmony. That voice hugs you, holds you and offers unconditional love.

Miller was deliberate in how he cracked the code of pop music.

“I had choices to make,” says Miller. “You have to be really disciplined, but at the same time you want to get this great, spontaneous feeling on the record and you know you’ve got three seconds to capture people’s attention at the very entrance of a song.”

Was it hard for him to hold back on guitar?

“I’ve always considered myself a serious guitar player, but I haven’t been really worried about whether the public thought I was,” he says. “That never was part of my record sales strategy.”

That wasn’t the only thing that set Miller apart. In the 1970s, when Jimmy Page wore his dragon suit and Elton John performed while dressed as Minnie Mouse, Miller’s greatest flourish would be turning up his shirt-collar. He rarely put his picture on album covers and when he did, as on “The Joker,” he wore a mask.

Greg Fischbach, an attorney who renegotiated Miller’s contract in the 1970s, remembers walking outside the Los Angeles Forum after a concert with Miller at his peak.

“And Steve is dressed like I am,” says Fischbach. “Khakis and a blazer and a button-down shirt. The fans were saying, ‘when’s Steve going to be coming out.’ And he gets in the car and we go. That’s the kind of anonymity he loved.”

Miller did not party at the Playboy Mansion or hang with Mick and Bianca at Studio 54. He tried cocaine once but reports that it “felt like I had rock salt in my sinuses.” He stopped drinking in his 30s when it became a time-killing crutch during late nights on the road. In 1976, Miller even abandoned the hub of the record industry, moving from California to Oregon and setting up a farm.

“He had paid for everything,” says guitarist Les Dudek, who worked with Miller. “His cars, everything. He had all kinds of trusts set up. I asked him one day, ‘Steve, why did you move from California?’ He said, ‘Les, in California, those people invent ways to steal my money.’ ”

This wasn’t just a line. Miller’s most powerful weapon was always his willingness to walk away from any offer. If you ran a record company, you also couldn't win him over with flattery. One night, at a restaurant in Beverly Hills hotspot, Capitol saluted him by presenting a live horse.

“I had just sold 13 million records or something,” says Miller. “It was the first time they ever thought about doing anything nice for me. They gave me a horse and the horse was so stoned it could hardly stand up. And it was a pregnant horse. And I said, ‘Did you give this horse anything?’ And they said, ‘Oh, absolutely not.’ And about eight days later when the horse arrived at my ranch, it just looked at people and just totally freaked and bolted, and it took us two days to catch it and get it back in.”

“Steve’s impression of people in the music business is right,” says Fischbach, who would leave Miller in the early ’80s to become president of Activision. “They basically took advantage of the artists. The question is how can you take advantage of the label? You can’t do it by calling people dumb. You do it by working with people.”

Growing up, Miller was surrounded by music. His father, George, a pathologist, loved jazz and blues and purchased one of the first reel-to-reel tape machines in the late 1940s. T-Bone Walker and Les Paul found themselves stopping by the Miller house to make recordings with his father’s gear. Paul would become his godfather and lifelong friend.

By 12, Miller and a buddy had started the Marksmen, taking calls from frat houses, sororities, churches and synagogues.

“And they’d say, ‘Hey, this is Bobby Jones at SAE house and I understand you’ve got this rock band. How much is it?’ I’d say, ‘It’s $125.’ The guy would go, ‘That’s an awful lot of money.’ I’d say, ‘Thanks for calling man. If you change your mind, let me know.’ I’d hang up the phone. The phone would ring and they’d book us. I don’t know why I was this way at the age of 12. But I didn’t want to hear your sad story. My price was fair and it was good and I had the band booked in three weeks for the whole school year.”

Miller practiced endlessly and developed confidence. It could have been arrogance, except he was that good.

Ken Adamany, a keyboardist at the University of Wisconsin who would go on to manage Cheap Trick, remembers meeting Miller in 1961 after the guitarist arrived on campus to study comparative literature. Adamany’s KnighTranes were playing a fraternity party. A kid with a crew cut stood in front of the stage the whole set.

“And he came up to me afterward and introduced himself,” says Adamany. “‘I’m Steve Miller from Dallas. I’m looking to get in a band.’”

He told Adamany he played guitar, bass, harmonica and sang. Then, he offered a blunt critique.

“I’m better than everyone in your band, including you.”

“That’s his actual quote,” Adamany says. “And he was right.”

'He didn't trust anybody'

At the Met, Miller walks through the museum’s latest blockbuster, “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll.” He saw it on opening night in April, but the galleries were crowded as Miller posed with Jimmy Page and jammed with the Roots. The exhibition features several of Miller’s instruments, including a painted Les Paul that’s on the back cover of the catalogue.

The galleries are closed now and he stops at Muddy Waters’s candy-apple-red Telecaster. He remembers, at 20, backing the blues icon in Chicago and being impressed with himself. “When it was over, Muddy said, ‘Hey, that great. Let’s have a nice round of applause for — what’s your name?’ ”

Jimi Hendrix’s Flying V also catches his eye. Miller played Monterey Pop and remembers Hendrix setting his Stratocaster on fire that Sunday in 1967. He found it annoying.

“I thought that was pathetic,” says Miller. “When I saw Jimi Hendrix stop playing the music he was playing and get down on his knees and pull out a can of lighter fluid and squirt it on the thing and light it, I went, ‘Boy, this really f---ing sucks.’”

A few minutes later, Miller walks into the “Expanding the Band” gallery and stops in front of a case in the center of the room and smiles.

“Now, here is the thing I’m proudest of,” he says.

Across the room, prog rock keyboardist Keith Emerson’s rig towers over Miller. It’s a ridiculous sea of cables and dials and switches and a board that looks capable of running a nuclear power plant.

“That is what I was rebelling against,” he says.

In the case is Miller’s Roland synthesizer and an Echoplex tape delay machine slightly larger than a shoe box. Around 1975, Miller walked into a music store in San Rafael, Calif., looking for, as he puts it, “the dumbest synthesizer ever made. The one no keyboard player would use.” The Roland was perfect. He took it home to work on the space intro to “Fly Like an Eagle.”

“This is how I did it,” he says.

“It,” as Miller states, has two meanings. There is the specific “it,” which is the recording of synth waves that float over “Fly Like An Eagle.” “It” also applies to how he carved out the space he needed to create the two albums that would change his life artistically and financially.

By 1972, Miller’s once promising career — three of his first four albums landed in the top-25 — hit bottom. “Recall the Beginning . . . A Journey From Eden” stalled outside the Billboard Top 100 and left expectations low for his eighth record. “The Joker,” released in October 1973, changed everything.

With that success, Miller again split from the script. A normal rock star would follow a massive hit with a huge tour, new record and another tour. Instead, Miller quickly laid down rhythm tracks for his next group of songs at a studio in San Francisco. Then he took the tapes home and spent two years experimenting with lyrics, guitar lines and laying down all of the vocals.

Miller had already fought for control of his masters. Fischbach negotiated a new deal that gave him higher royalties.

The holdout ended with 1976’s “Fly Like an Eagle” and 1977’s “Book of Dreams.” The songs on those albums were so popular that they make up 13 of the 14 tracks on “Greatest Hits 1974-78” and have dominated his concert sets for decades. The longer term implication is being felt now with “Welcome to the Vault.”

In the early ’70s, when Miller was working at Capitol, he noticed Gene Vincent’s master tapes shoved into cardboard boxes, basically forgotten. He decided only he could protect his music.

“I didn’t say, ‘Oh, can I have them?’ I’d just say, ‘We’re packing up. Put all these in boxes and put them in my truck. Let’s go.’ ”

The tapes would eventually be stored in his warehouse. About 15 years ago, Miller hired a former band member, David Denny, to convert them and deliver reports.

And I’d listen and I’d go . . . I’m not going to release that.”

Miller realizes now that he’s not the best person to scour his unreleased recordings. He has always been too hung up on making sure everything was perfect. So he’s glad that his wife eventually got involved.

Janice Ginsberg Miller, whom he married in 2014, suggested Miller release rarities while he could curate them. Ginsberg Miller listed close to 800 songs that Denny had organized. She also tracked down some stunning and previously unseen film clips, including one from Monterey. She then made her own presentation.

“I would play him ‘Crossroads’ from 1973 and he liked it,” says Ginsberg Miller. “Then I showed him ‘Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert’ and that was one of his favorite performances. And that has the painted Les Paul all over it, and so all of a sudden you’re curating the story with the artist, not of the artist after they’re gone.”

There was a catch. Miller had stopped recording new pop songs in the early ’90s and no longer had a working relationship with Capitol, which is now owned by Universal Music Group. But Gersh was long gone, as was virtually anyone else he had tangled with.

Universal President Bruce Resnikoff had heard all the stories. He also knew that Miller is “brilliant” and has “one of the greatest archives an artist has ever kept.”

That’s what he told Miller when they started talking. He promised to assemble a new team to work with him. And when Miller shared the results of his latest audit — yes, he still conducts them — Resnikoff didn’t argue. He had Universal write a check for the $600,000 Miller said he was owed in royalties.

“Is he difficult?” says Resnikoff. “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.”

And how does Miller feel about his label? He doesn’t hesitate.

“I love them,” he says. “For the first time.”

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