6:20 p.m. July 11
There are several timeless rock n ‘ roll questions:
Who put the bomp in the bomp-a-bomp-a-bomp?
Where is my mind? (Vanilla Fudge)
And who or what is “The Pompatus of Love”?
Rocker Steve Miller coined the weird phrase on his 1973 hit “The Joker.” He sings, “Some people call me the space cowboy/Yeah, some call me the gangster of love/Some people call me Maurice (screeching)/Cause I speak of the Pompatus of Love…….
“The Pompatus of Love” has since assumed folkloric proportions, including a 1996 film called “The Pompatus of Love.” Miller doesn’t do a lot of interviews and in the past has declined to talk about the impetus for his Pompatus.
But things went so well last week in a 45-minute conversation with Miller, at the end of the interview I decided to pop the Pompatus question.
“It was like Space Cowboy, Dave,” Miller said in fatherly tones. “It was something that got tossed off without any thought or any reason. I get about six letters a year from lawyers going, ‘Steve: what does the Pompatus of Love mean?’ I refuse to tell anyone anything. What is it? It sounds like pompadour. Its got something to do with hair and French kissing?”
I was introduced to Steve Miller through 1970’s “Number 5” album, which I still have on vinyl somewhere in my condo-mess. The album is musically deeper than most of Miller’s smash hits. There’s lilting acoustic workouts on “Going to the Country” and “I Love You” as well as the hard driving “Going to Mexico.” Miller also sings “Tokin’s,” which may offer another clue to “Pompatus of Love.”
Only one year removed from Bob Dylan’s watershed “Nashville Skyline” sessions, Nashville cats Charlie McCoy (harmonica) and fiddle player Buddy Spicher guest on “Number 5”. Beatle brother Nicky Hopkins is on piano and Miller’s Madison Wis. running partner Ben Sidran plays keyboards. “Number 5” was recorded in Nashville.
But Miller’s breakthrough record was “Fly Like An Eagle,” which was released 31 years ago. Miller heard the potential in FM radio and took the money and ran. “FM radio was growing quickly,” Miller said. “We’d go to Chicago and play a concert then go to whatever the local FM station was and play Lord Buckley records until four in the morning. You could do anything you wanted to.
“I was trying to make a record that could be played on FM stereo. Its hard to believe, but mono was fine back then. We did stereo and even a quad mix on ‘Fly Like an Eagle,’ which I think was the last one Capitol (Records) put out. When I was making the record, I was trying to make it where they would have to play the whole side.” Side one of the record began with the loopy “Space Intro,” which led into “Fly Like An Eagle,” “Wild Mountain Honey,” “Serenade,” the country-influenced “Dance, Dance, Dance” and a cover of “Mercury Blues,” which Miller learned from an Alan Lomax anthology.
The song “Fly Like An Eagle” re-emerged in 2005 when Miller and his band collaborated with guitar legend Les Paul on the tribute CD “Les Paul & Friends (American Made, World Played).” Miller’s father Dr. George “Sonny” Miller was a pathologist and self-taught recording engineer who became best friends with Paul. The elder Miller liked fiddling around with his Magnacorder, the first professional tape recorder made in the United States. Miller figured his father was the only guy in Milwaukee to own a Magnacorder. Prior to World War II tape recorders had been German made and Americans were relegated to cumbersome wire recorders with spools.
George Miller was best man at Les Paul’s wedding to Mary Ford and Steve Miller is Paul’s godson. Miller said, “When Les and Mary came to Milwaukee they played at Jimmy Fazio’s Supper Club. My Dad tape recorded the shows on his Magnacorder. About 30 years later I go to see Les at Fat Tuesday’s in New York and (producer) Tom Dowd is sitting in the corner with a recorder. It was the same damn scene!”
” I was probably four years old when I met Les. (Jazz guitarist and sign painter) Tal Farlow came to the house, so did Charlie Mingus. When I was a kid I remember being in a club that was jam packed watching Les Paul tear it up. Tal Farlow walked in. Everybody goes, ‘Ooh, Tal Farlow is here.’ It was going to be a cutting session. In the middle of his solo, without missing a beat Les pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and put it over his left hand on his guitar so you couldn’t see how he was playing his licks. Les was a shredder beyond anything, but he was incredibly musical.
“Les showed me my first chords. He’s been my inspiration my entire life. Every time I go to New York I go to the Irdium (where Paul holds court on Monday nights) and do both shows with him. You look in his audience and there’s always the 10 best guitar players within a 300 mile radius of that room if they’re not working. In fact, he has a stooge guitar on stage. You never go to jam with Les Paul and not bring your own instrument. There’s this beautiful gold and white Les Paul with three gold pick ups on it. Its on a stand in a corner and they usually put a spotlight on it. The tuning peg and the g-string just goes around and around and the volume doesn’t do anything. Its like, ‘Next time bring your own guitar, hot shot.’ There’s nobody around like him. There never has been.”