Steve Miller Is A Mensch
Here’s an absolutely wonderful story you should read RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND about how the 1970s rock legend Steve Miller befriended a suburban Dallas boy, and became his guitar mentor. Here’s how it begins:
Steve Miller had attended the Dallas all-boys school St. Mark’s fifty years before we did, and he was back to play its hundredth birthday concert. Our house was near campus, and St. Mark’s borrowed our yard for his welcome dinner. We were bummed we couldn’t spot the famous guy mingling with everyone else, but after a few hours of gawking, my brother and I were allowed to come down and say good-night. We walked outside, and our parents tilted their heads toward the blazered man who could sign our CD copy of Greatest Hits 1974–78.
He was the one who looked the most at home with a cigar. Even though he was sixty-something years old, his hair was longer, featherier, more swooped and tangled than the dad cuts at the party. We walked up, and he blew out smoke and grinned. “When I was your age,” he told us, “I was already a working musician! I wrote out professional contracts, and I paid my brother to drive us to gigs at frat parties.” Not to be one-upped, I told him my band had recorded four songs and was a fixture on the bar mitzvah circuit. His grin widened, and he asked if I had two guitars I could bring outside.
I did, and my brother brought his bass. Mr. Steve—he said he wasn’t comfortable with “Mr. Miller”—left the donors’ table to play music on the porch with two middle schoolers. My brother sat down and thumped out a rhythm. Mr. Steve laid down some chords, and I tried to show off. I played some blues licks, the only kind of guitar licks I sort of knew how to play. I ran up the pentatonic scale like my uncle had taught me, hammered a Freddie King riff, and watched Mr. Steve’s eyes light up a bit.
I didn’t realize it then, but I was crudely speaking the same vocabulary that he’d used to build his career. Before he rejoined the adults, he showed me a chord progression the great Texas blues musician T-Bone Walker had taught him when Mr. Steve was my age, and then my parents made me go to bed.
But before I left, he extended an invitation: He was headlining the school centennial concert, which was being held on our football field the next day, and he asked if I wanted to watch the sound check. Yes, I said, I did.
You keep reading, thinking, “naw, that’s not going to happen” … and then it happens. Over and over. You run across lines like, “I chugged rhythm chords for a few verses, until Steve tilted his head to say, Take a solo! Then I kind of blacked out.”
Pretty soon it dawns on you that Steve Miller is just about the coolest dude. The piece, which appears in Texas Monthly, contains Miller’s wisdom about ’70s rock audiences, and building a career in music. This is gold:
“Your CD is promising, Max. Especially for a fifteen-year-old.” Steve fixed both poles in the ice. “But in music, you have to hit a real home run. And then two more home runs, and then a triple immediately afterward. And then maybe you own the world for a while, but then you either have to write something even greater, or you disappear, and that’s how it really works.” If I wanted to “climb the mountain,” he told me I’d need a routine. I’d need to master my songwriting voice: writing every day, charting other songs’ chord progressions, feeling out the rhythms of words and the arcs of melodies. I’d need to tighten up my guitar voice: practicing scales every day, exploring tone in my fingers and through an amp. I’d need to find my singing voice: practicing scales, studying harmony, controlling my breath, learning to shape tones in my throat and phrase them through a line. I’d also need to find the right musicians, practice until we were a single organism, and figure out how to bring a song to life in a crappy venue with a bad P.A. Of course, we’d also need to develop an aesthetic and learn how to produce. Then, if we pulled all that off, we’d need to set up a publishing company and sign a contract that preserved our blood in an industry famous for leeches. After that, I’d really have to get to work.
Read the whole thing. Trust me on this. I can’t quite get over that a musician of Steve Miller’s level of success took so much time and effort — years of it — just to be nice to a kid. Max Marshall, the kid, must be a pretty great guy. He’s certainly a lucky one. This is exactly the kind of generosity you hope that mega-successful artists will bestow upon nobodies, but that you’re sure never happens in real life. Except in Steve Miller’s real life, it does.
There’s more in that story, about how hard Steve Miller still works at his art, even though he’s 74 years old, and certainly does not need the money. That’s how it is with artists. It’s not a job; it’s a vocation.
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