Fake the money and run

Steve Miller learned everything he knows about music while living in Dallas--but has he forgotten it all?

Steve Miller's last album was released more than four years ago, and even then, the collection was a three-disc boxed set--one of those cardboard tombstones beneath which most artists bury themselves and what's left of their rotting careers. He has no forthcoming album on any label's release schedule; as far as anyone can tell, he doesn't even have a label--which is rather astonishing, all things being equal in a world where Van Halen and Night Ranger still have deals. Indeed, the only news contained on any of the myriad Web sites maintained by Steve Miller fetishists is that Capitol Records, Miller's home for the past 30 years, had quashed the release of something called Joker's Choice, a best-and-rest-of featuring new and old material. Capitol has also decided not to release a double-disc live album recorded at the Fillmore in 1995. Perhaps it's reliable news, perhaps not: These postings date back to 1996--but who needs to update the present when there isn't one?

So that leaves Steve Miller--born in Milwaukee in October 1943, raised near White Rock Lake from the age of seven till he left for the University of Wisconsin--as nothing but one of those artists who hits the road every year or so and makes some cheap coin hauling out his greatest hits for an audience that knows the set list by heart. Yesterday's innovator is too often today's nostalgia-circuit headliner, and why should Miller--who sold out 16 long years ago, when he released Abracadabra and pulled a dead rabbit out of his hat--be any different? Aging gracefully has never been any rock-and-roller's strong suit. Just ask Miller's old pal Paul McCartney, who showed up on Miller's oft-brilliant 1969 album Brave New World and then had Miller return the favor by getting him to play and write on the golden turd known as Flaming Pie 28 years later. Never trust your idols--they set you up to break your heart every single time.

So maybe Steve Miller is a lost cause; perhaps The Joker's a joke, The Gangster of Love shoots only blanks from here on out, and The Space Cowboy has fallen off his horse and broken his ass. Perhaps this is his ultimate destiny, playing these shed tours every year until someone tells him that enough is enough and the audiences shrink to the thousands and then the hundreds and then the handfuls. (Then again, the classic-rock audience is a most faithful and forgiving lot--just ask the boys in that Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band touring as the real thing.) Maybe Miller will one day land on the CMC International label alongside Pat Benatar, Eddie Money, Styx, Little Feat, Skynyrd, and all the rest of the '70s heroes left to die in the '90s. If so, too bad--he deserved much better.

After all, Steve Miller was never just some kid who got into rock and roll for the chicks, for the cheap thrill of strapping on a guitar, spreading his legs, and straddling the world. He was the son of music fanatics who were best friends with two of the pioneers of the electric guitar: Les Paul, the father of multitrack recording and the solid-body guitar, and Oak Cliff's own Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, the man who put the electricity in blues guitar. Steve was the product of '40s pop and '50s blues, a child who entertained his neighborhood friends with bedroom concerts. He could no more escape music than he could air. It was his destiny.

"I was born to be a musician," Miller said in 1994, during a previously unpublished interview with the Dallas Observer about his days growing up in Dallas. "I sang harmony with my family, and I was surrounded by music all my life. My dad loved Les Paul, and I wanted to be just like that."

In Wisconsin, it was Les Paul--a friend of Miller's father, Dr. George "Sonny" Miller, who was best man at the wedding of Paul and Mary Ford--who encouraged a five-year-old Steve to keep playing that tiny instrument he cradled in his hands and banged around the house. At the beginning of 1994's Box Set, Paul can be heard telling the kid: "You got a good, good voice there...I think you should keep singing like that. That's what I used to do when I was a little kid." To which Steve replies, "But I get embarrassed." Paul laughs and then offers him this: "Steve, you're really gonna go places."

Sonny Miller often recorded Paul and Ford during their nightclub days; he constructed Plexiglas walls long before engineers and producers thought of such things. "By 1949," Steve said, "I knew all the studio tricks."

A year later, in 1950, the Millers moved to Dallas, and soon afterward, T-Bone Walker became a patient of Dr. Miller's. T-Bone had ulcers and was also something of a hypochondriac. He used to check himself in and out of local hospitals, and usually nothing was wrong with him. But during those stays, he became one of Sonny's close friends, and every now and then, he would show up at the Millers' White Rock home with a trio and perform for a handful of invited guests. A few moments of one such performance also landed on Box Set, and it's a rare, inspiring treat: Walker, legendary for his rendition of "Call it Stormy Monday," plays guitar like ordinary mortals pour water, and his voice is sweet, sharp, full of swing and soul. His playing became a template for Steve's own style--never in the history of rock and roll did a student have such a gracious, giving teacher.

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