Saturday, December 5, 2015

Steve Miller: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Justifications & Excuses, Part V

To me, the most interesting thing about Steve Miller is the fact that I don’t know what he looks like. He was one of the biggest rock stars of the 1970s, with three Number One hits ("The Joker," "Rock'n Me" and "Abracadabra") and albums like Fly Like an Eagle and The Joker in constant rotation on your best friend’s older brother’s turntable. But to most of the public, he remained faceless. The most memorable vision most people had of Steve Miller was of his face in a cheap Halloween mask – if that was even Miller at all.

The stars of the Sixties had had no such compunction about showing themselves. Everyone knew what Mick Jagger and Diana Ross looked like, even if you weren’t such a big fan of their music. In those days, rock stars conceived of themselves as showmen, or in Bob Dylan’s case, as a song and dance man.

It was sometime around the time of Moby Grape that rockers decided it was really all about the music, man, and they didn’t want their faces plastered on album covers or The Joey Bishop Show or on teenage kids’ walls. By the time of Steely Dan, and Chicago (q.v.), and the Steve Miller Band, it was considered a sign of your seriousness that no one knew what you looked like.

The age of MTV and music videos killed that off pretty good, but I'm not sure why anyone thought this was a good thing in the first place. Rock stars are entertainers, after all. The persona they present is a big part of why we love these performers in the first place.

It's kind of fitting, though, for Steve Miller, who churned out the most generic imaginable MOR Seventies rock. I don't mean that to be entirely negative: His songwriting was solid and unpretentious, his band rocked without being flashy. If you heard a Steve Miller Band song on the radio, you were unlikely to change the station.

But is that really what we want to be honoring here? A journeyman's competence? Is there anything distinctive or influential enough in the entire Steve Miller oeuvre to warrant immortality? I vote NO for Steve Miller.


  1. When I think about Hall-of-Fame worthiness, I ask "who did this person/group influence, and how ?" It knocks out a lot of people (lookin' at you, John Mellencamp), and it would knock out Steve Miller.

  2. I agree that Steve Miller, even when lifted by the ferocious many-pronged collective energy and innovation of his Band, does not make rock's top tier.

    I am always wary of arguing the Seventies with people who were old enough to be there (I ended the decade as a first-grader), but I question your proposition about rock n' roll facelessness.
    Steve Miller appears on several of his album covers, most prominently Fly Like An Eagle.
    (Although I traded in my copy of The Joker many years ago, I am fairly certain the LP includes a gatefold shot of him lifting the mask and smiling. I remember thinking his teeth seemed very even, and that he must have had them done.)
    And that doesn't include things like magazine interviews or TV shows -- a quick YouTube search suggests he did "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" and "Midnight Special" in 1973 alone.

    It's true that his face is not particularly distinctive: He looked like the young guy on your uncle's bowling team.
    But it seems to me that anyone who really wanted to construct a mental image of Steve Miller in the Seventies had the tools available.
    It's not like he spent the decade wearing Space Ace makeup.

    I also kinda *like* the reticence, if that's what it was, of some Seventies rock performers.
    Becker and Fagen were skinny pasty guys who spent most of their time indoors and probably lived on takeout Chinese; I don't want or need to see them in Nudie suits on their album covers.
    Same with Chicago: They devoted the covers of their first two post-Guercio (and post-Kath) albums to fashion-style photo shoots, and they looked dorky. They were better off hiding behind that marvelous logo.

  3. I said he was faceless, not that he was J.D. Salinger. You are correct that he is pictured on the Fly Like an Eagle cover, but it's not exactly a recognizable portrait. I do think it was a conscious decision on his part to downplay his personal appearance in favor of the music. Steve Miller lasted into the video era, and even in his videos, his face was never especially visible.
    None of that really bothers me: The music it what really matters to me, although I'd be interested to hear from people who have seen the Steve Miller Band in concert as to the quality of his shows. I suspect they were far from scintillating live. I do think the facelessness is an appropriate metaphor for the journeyman quality of their work. There were plenty of stars of the 70s who were highly recognizable - Elton John, Stevie Wonder, even Aerosmith, to name an act that was analogous to the Steve Miller Band. Hirschfeld never drew a caricature of Steve Miller.
    Miller pointed in the other direction, toward bands like Kansas, who were more likely to have a logo than a frontman. That, to me, is his legacy.

  4. Steve Miller's show quality is probably about what you would expect. Solidly arranged performances of his hits and classic blues covers, some very nice tasteful guitar solos. Nothing flashy or outrageous, just solid and reliable.

    Influence - Not wide, but it's certainly out there. Spin Doctors seemed very heavily influenced by Steve Miller; Big Head Todd and The Monsters certainly as well; and I would say John Mayer is as well. Nobody that I can think of that are actually strong HOF candidates in their own right though.