Mention comparative literature to most rock stars and they’ll quote their latest rankings in Cashbox and Billboard. Not Steve Miller. He’s as likely to talk about Proust or Dostoevski. Not that the stats on his 11th album, Fly Like an Eagle, don’t move him. After all, the LP has been aglide in the Top 20 for an astounding 42 weeks and sold nearly three million. It establishes Miller, a 33-year-old trouper who has had his own band for two decades, as the newest American rock hero.
One reason it took so long is that Miller has refused to go along with the music-biz rules of the road. His chosen marginality in rock once was symbolized by the single gold plaque (for The Joker in 1973) hanging above the washing machine—”so as I did my underwear and socks I could consider the ‘star’ who wore them.” He eschews all TV offers, never hired a publicist and has managed himself most of the way. He now retains only a lawyer and accountant—”I pay them fees. Nobody has a percentage. When somebody’s got 10 or 25 percent of you, of course he’s going to make you work all the time. People like Elton John do 32 cities in 42 days,” Steve notes, plainly appalled. “You pay for that. I want to lead a normal life, to walk into the grocery store and go unnoticed. I am a musician, not a rock personality.” Not surprisingly Miller is now in the process of rusticating himself from his already remote retreat north of San Francisco to a working farm in the wilds of central Oregon.
There he and his Australian girlfriend, Jennie, will run a self-sufficient 24-track studio, a photo darkroom and raise wheat, oats, corn, alfalfa and rose hips. A couple with two small kids help in the maintenance. As for Steve, he had one failed marriage in the ’60s, and he’s waiting for the road life to slow down to start a family, or until, he explains, “I have enough bread like Paul McCartney. Then you charter a jet and take along the wife, kids, nanny and cook.” Right now Jennie, a farmer’s daughter who worked for a London promoter and met Steve at a Pink Floyd concert, remains behind supervising construction in Oregon. She joins him on the road, says Miller, “only to straighten things up when they get messy or boring.” The last mess was booking himself into a tour of intimate 3,000-seat halls that brought esthetic delight and fiscal disaster—a 22-man entourage can’t be supported on a nightly $3,200 net. But his next tour will hit the megastadiums.
Miller, the son of a pathologist, was born in Milwaukee but grew up mostly in Dallas. His father was into designing sailboats (he and Steve built 38) and a variety of musical tastes that helps explain Steve’s eclecticism—as does the fact that mother and three brothers all sang and played, one with Paul Whiteman. Boosted by informal musical instruction from family friends like Les Paul and Mary Ford, Red Norvo, Charley Mingus and T-Bone Walker, Steve formed his first band at the age of 12. Among the members: Boz Scaggs, a fellow blue-eyed soul brother whose Silk Degrees LP also just struck double platinum.
Though developing what has now become his flashy lead guitar style, rhythm power and vocal intricacies, Miller “believed like all other middle-class kids back then that you had to go to college.” At 17, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. Before abandoning his first goal—a doctorate in comp lit—he also studied at Copenhagen University. Then he went to Chicago, jamming blues with the likes of Muddy Waters before settling into the mid-’60s rock scene of San Francisco. There he became a central—and, in his words, a “sort of weird”—figure in the developing San Francisco Sound. “It was the only place a band could play its own music to 2,000 people instead of to a bar full of 250 drunks.” As for himself, Miller reports, “I don’t drink, I don’t do dope, but I do smoke, and I do drink a lot of coffee.”
He is contemplating giving up his only other expensive habit—and one certified flash toy—an $18,500 1972 Dino Spyder Ferrari. The reason: it’s too hard to get parts in central Oregon, and besides, he’d really rather drive a tractor.