Four Years After He Dropped Out to Go Fishing, Steve Miller Plunges into Rock's Mainstream
In the past he cynically called himself names like the Gangster of Love, the Space Cowboy and the Joker, and lived up (or down) to them. But the Steve Miller who has returned to the rock spotlight after a self-imposed four-year hiatus has become a savvy backwoods businessman whose lifestyle is reminiscent more of, say, Daniel Boone.
Since 1977 the fiercely independent Miller has lived on a ranch in the outback of Oregon near Grants Pass (pop. 15,034). "When I first moved," he recalls, "people thought it was Sin City come to the country. Now I'm just the singer in the valley."
Yet his nationwide reputation is growing again. Miller's latest blues-rock LP, Circle of Love, recently hit a half million as its top 30 single Heart Like a Wheel rolled up the charts. His lifetime sales now total nearly 13 million LPs and eight million singles.
Married twice and divorced twice, most recently in 1980, Miller, 38, is that rare pop-rocker who can avoid the New York/ L.A. axis and thrive. In Grants Pass, he rebuilt a rundown 400-acre cattle ranch and quietly became a civic-minded citizen. He has worked on United Fund drives and opened his home recording studio to a school for the deaf that needed soundproof rooms to train guide dogs. He has also started scuba diving, taken up photography and gone into fly-fishing, all with a passion. Reports his friend and lawyer of seven years, Gregory Fisch-bach: "Everything Steve does, he does 100 percent."
Grants Pass is not paradise, though. "There are only two TV channels, and they might take Saturday Night Live off for religious broadcasting," Miller laughs. He found a way to escape temporarily from his retreat while on a fishing trip in 1980. He visited Seattle and later bought a lavish town house there on the shores of Lake Washington. Now when he's not home on his Oregon range, he often takes his 48-foot cabin cruiser up to Alaskan waters ("The fishing is great—all the oysters and crabs you can eat!") and has acquired a new set of adventurous Seattle sportsmen friends. "They're not in awe of me," he says, "I'm in awe of them." Miller has even become fitness conscious and has shed the 25 pounds he gained when he gave up smoking four years ago. "I've never lived such a clean life," he admits. (He learned the hard way, he says. The LSD and alcohol he took during the '60s did little for his creative powers.) "My worst vices now are coffee and French food."
Miller grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, the son of a pathologist. "By 12," Steve boasts, "I was booking gigs, running a band and making $400 a month." At the University of Wisconsin "Steve was a degenerate guitar player," his ex-pianist and old pal Ben Sidran remembers. "He majored in music and fun" (and English). His ambitions blossomed during the flower power days in San Francisco in the '60s. By the '70s he had put out two LPs, Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams, that sold some four million apiece.
His enthusiasm for his career comes only sporadically. All the songs on Circle of Love, for example, were recorded in sessions spread over the last three years. "Steve came to a period where he said, 'Enough is enough,' " notes Fischbach. "The farm was a place to get away from it all." But Steve decided, "I could never be happy just lounging around. I'm a performer and player." Oddly, he takes inspiration from Las Vegas shows. "The last three I've seen have been Mitzi Gaynor, Engelbert Humperdinck and Bob Hope." His new album includes an 18-minute track, Macho City, which alludes to, among other things, designer jeans, Afghanistan, sharks and Vietnam. Miller recently announced plans for a world tour in the spring, after he finishes his next album. More typically, he recently gathered a four-piece band to play for friends at a fraternity-style party in Seattle. That, he says, "is what rock 'n' roll is all about."
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