I wonder what it must be like to be Steve Miller? What would it be like to spend the bulk of your life rehashing the best years of your youth? I mean, if you read any Steve Miller setlist – including the one I saw him play at the Ottawa jazz festival on June 25th, 2015 – you’ll notice that it starts, ends, and heavily middles with songs exclusively selected from a very successful nine-year period of Miller’s career.
And what a career! The son of a doctor, Steve Miller was encouraged to play the guitar by his godfather(!) and inventor of the electric guitar(!): none other than Les Paul. Masters like Gatemouth Brown and Charles Mingus used to come ‘round the house when Steve was a young, ambitious kid looking for musical tips and tricks. The dude studied freakin’ comparative literature at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark fer cryin’ out loud. Then in ’73 his blues band finally gets a hit, they drop the “blues” bit and record a bunch more hits over the next five years, carrying right up to Steve Miller’s “comeback” hit in 1982 Abracadabra (not his best work) which proved to be his last FM radio home run (barring any miraculous late-career Hail Marys, if you’ll allow the mixed metaphor).
And while the hit records stopped dead after 1982 Steve’s touring schedule didn’t. In fact, I can’t imagine that he ever stopped touring, nor that he ever changed his setlists. I mean, I’ve seen him four times over the span of a quarter-century and the first time I saw him his most recent success was already fifteen years behind him. Fifteen years! Imagine going through the motions onstage night after night for fifteen years. And that was twenty-five years ago.
Like, is gigging still fun for him or is it like being stuck in some nightmarish Groundhog Day scenario? I know people must think “Oh, it would be so awesome to stand up there and play The Joker every night!” and though I assure you (unnecessarily) I have never been even remotely famous or have any experience with big-time performing whatsoever, I can tell you that even a year of gigs playing the same songs – yes, even if they are your own original songs – can become extremely tedious. Go ahead, ask any band member what their favourite song is to play and they will tell you that they like playing their newest material the most. Every single time. How many times can you play Jungle Love, Take the Money and Run, Fly Like an Eagle, Dance Dance Dance, Rock’n Me, Swing Town…Really, how many times can you play these songs?
I know…how many times can a cab driver make another airport run, how many toilets can a janitor clean, how many papers can an office worker push? And yeah, I suppose Steve Miller can always imagine his paycheque floating in front of his eyes if he ever needs inspiration, right?
And it’s not like I’m passing any judgement here; I’m not. I think he’s well within his rights to rest on any and all laurels he can muster. Like I say, I’ve seen him four times and I wasn’t forced against my will to go to a single one of those concerts. I just wonder if he enjoys it, and who knows, maybe he does. I’m sure Gene Simmons is very, very happy to perform the ancient KISS catalogue so long as the fans are still screaming. Same for Paul McCartney. He very obviously enjoys playing those old songs again and again. But does Steve Miller? I wonder.
I wonder if he is envious of the young, hungry bands that he sees performing on the smaller stages at the same festivals, guys playing their hearts out eager to attract a bit of attention to their new exciting sound. Does he look at a band like Ikebe Shakedown – who funked their butts off to a tiny but excited fraction of Miller’s post-show crowd on the small stage inside the late-nite OLG tent – and remember wistfully what it was like living on the cusp of wide-eyed youthful excitement and plush Green Room catered comfort? Does he look at the NYC Afro-groove seven-piece band piling into their Econoline from the luxury of his customized Greyhound and wish he could go back in time?
Nah, doubt it. Dude gets $75,000-100,000 a night and he doesn’t have to play more than four different chords. I’m sure he gets through it somehow. I’m just not entirely sure how.