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All In Good Time: Scott Miller’s Rock and Roll

Always an obsessed rock geek, yes, but also, in a time when most aspiring rockers had had a certain size of ambition trained out of them, a last great voice of golden California, updating the expression but keeping the promise of it all alive
Always an obsessed rock geek, yes, but also, in a time when most aspiring rockers had had a certain size of ambition trained out of them, a last great voice of golden California, updating the expression but keeping the promise of it all alive

If you hang in with rock and roll long enough, you will at some point come to be deeply engaged with music that is not popular. It’s a staple of rock geek life. And though it can be frustrating that so many other people can’t or won’t experience the joy you find in certain works, it’s part of the fun too. Back in the day I used to think about buying up all the cut-out copies of the New York Dolls’ first album I could find and standing on a street corner in the Loop handing them out for free to people going to work. And yes, there can be a tincture of snobbery in appreciating something the masses don’t; but I’ve just as often encountered a spirit of generosity, an evangelical desire to share the secret treasure. After all, if you’re experiencing the same thrill from a band that for all you know no one else is listening to that millions of people derive from Led Zeppelin or U2, I think the instinctive impulse is to want to turn people on to it.

But while it’s fun to make these lonely heroes into banners to proclaim our own discerning taste, the lived experience of those lonely heroes is something else. There’s nothing inspiring about playing a club that’s one-third full of people who aren’t really listening anyway. Very few artists of any kind are satisfied to do great work that no one sees or reads or hears. And I venture to say that there has not ever been a popular musician who has written a song that they intend for only a small and cloistered audience. For an artist working in a popular form, the criteria of worth must at some point be the size of the audience you are able to attract. You may deny this, you may hate it, you may rebel against it, but at some point you will judge yourself that way.

Scott Miller (Game Theory, The Loud Family) covers ‘Somewhere’ by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim from the musical, West Side Story (1957). ‘Somewhere’ is featured in Miller’s book, Music: What Happened? (2010, 125 Books), which is a descriptive listing of his favorite songs spanning the past 53 years. Here, Miller reads the song’s entry from his book and sings the song with assistance from Alison Faith Levy (backing vocals and keyboard) at a book signing and show at the Makeout Room, San Francisco on December 18, 2010.

So what if you possess the kind of musical talent and intelligence that only comes along a few times in a decade or a generation and yet you struggle with even achieving the limited dignity of cult status? What if you have talent that could contend with giants, yet are never able to quit your day job? That’s a cruel fate—the gift can curdle into a curse. As fans, we don’t have to think about this unless we want to.

The proximate cause of these thoughts is the death, on April 15, at age 53, of Scott Miller, founder, guitarist, singer and songwriter for the California bands Game Theory and the Loud Family. Miller’s career poses this kind of question in a particularly clear way. I would say that missing Scott Miller would certainly be a comparable deprivation to having missed R.E.M.’s whole career, and on some days I might substitute the Kinks for R.E.M. In all my listening (and I’ve listened for a long time) I’ve never known a greater chasm between the quality of the work and the popular reception.

The first iteration of Game Theory began to cohere while Miller was still an undergraduate at UC-Davis in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. They came in with the American New Wave bands of the late ‘70s and hung on through various lineup changes to become mid-level players on college radio playlists in the ‘80s. But even in that context Game Theory never quite got the ink that other ‘80s college radio heroes did, like, say, the Violent Femmes or the Meat Puppets or Camper Van Beethoven—I could go on but you get the idea. The general category of rock music that Game Theory seemed to fit into was what was called “power-pop,” a critical term that referred broadly to bands that chose to work with the legacy of the Beatles or the Beach Boys as opposed to the legacy of the Stones (or Led Zeppelin). A few bands like Cheap Trick, the Knack, the Cars rode power-pop to various kinds of success. There was a sub-genre of power-pop that critics seemed to like calling “quirky,” which mostly seemed to be a niche created for smart eccentric rock geeks playing head games with the tradition. Quirky pop was by and large a blind canyon though the Talking Heads, who were certainly quirky, had hits and became stars. This is where Game Theory was filed away in many people’s minds at the beginning, and, in reputation at least, they never quite broke free of it.

From the Loud Family’s Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things album, ‘Self Righteous Boy Reduced to Tears’ and ‘Jimmy Still Comes Around.’ About the latter, the author writes: ‘At first listen it’s a delirious, bruising rave-up. After more listening you can hear that you are being expertly taken point by point through a structure designed to make each verse and chorus increase the urgency of the desire to hear the next one; that the whole song has been thought through in the same way that one irresistible melody is shaped. It’s a technique of ecstasy.’

The power pop equation was a combination of aggression and sweetness that produced a singular kind of giddy ecstasy. You don’t necessarily have to be terribly sophisticated to do this. It’s a formula, a formula that most of the time works. Slade did it. The Jesus and Mary Chain did it. The Ramones based a lengthy career on it. But Scott Miller exploited the potential of this hybrid way beyond any of the others. In those other bands there’s a seam between melody and power where you could if you wanted insert a wedge and pry them apart. In Miller’s music the raw energy and the melodic sweetness are an organic whole from bottom to top. The Loud Family song, “Jimmy Still Comes Around” will show you what I mean. At first listen it’s a delirious, bruising rave-up. After more listening you can hear that you are being expertly taken point by point through a structure designed to make each verse and chorus increase the urgency of the desire to hear the next one; that the whole song has been thought through in the same way that one irresistible melody is shaped. It’s a technique of ecstasy.

This is a neck of the woods where Pete Townshend, Paul McCartney, and Brian Wilson live. I’m not saying (not here at least) that Scott Miller was in every way the equal of these giants, but I am saying that in his generation he was the master of this hybrid. I am saying that it’s not ridiculous to speak his name in the same breath.

Scott’s musical ears first opened in the high psychedelic era, where many of the idols were partly idolized precisely for being “difficult,” i.e., quirky. Acid-era John Lennon, Syd Barrett, the Velvet Underground, the early Grateful Dead all turned various kinds of artistic prickliness into a selling point. They were the artist-heroes, challenging their audiences to come one step further or higher with them. It was a moment when pop musicians were admired for taking the risk of alienating their audiences; the era of the creation of art-pop, of Dylan’s knotted parables, of oddball musical visions producing hits. The model is taken from the modernist high arts, from writers like James Joyce or T.S. Eliot (literary heroes of Scott’s), artists who were thought to be ferociously difficult yet who could still break your heart. The idea was that today’s difficult art, over time, often becomes the foundation stone of the next new structure. Although I’m pretty sure Scott never wrote a lyric quite as incomprehensible as semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower, he would always remain partly a product of that avant-garde glamor. And one way of expressing his significance is that he almost all by himself brought that sensibility forward into the present. The nearest comparison among Scott’s contemporaries would I suppose be Robyn Hitchcock, but while Hitchcock’s nonsense verse is arch and smug, Scott always had warmth and heart

Game Theory, ‘Nothing New,’ from the 1987 album Lolita Nation, produced by Mitch Easter

I’d guess that early on Scott recognized that his ability to create memorable hooks and melodies was for practical purposes infinite. He became perversely afraid of being too easily appreciated, so he began strewing stumbling blocks throughout his records. Odd effects, random studio noise, found sound, pieces of dialog or conversations, quotes from his own songs, song fragments. While to Scott I’m sure they weren’t just gratuitous, they didn’t necessarily deepen the experience of listening to the record. What they did instead was to throw people off, make them think that the songs themselves were puzzles to be solved. A reputation as an eccentric is hard to shake; it gives potential listeners an excuse to not make any extra effort regarding your music.

Even Scott’s fans, though they will defend the accessibility of his music, will admit that the lyrics can be pretty tough. I don’t know about that. Let’s go back for a moment to semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower. The seven words are purely random, pure collage; they don’t evoke an image or a mood. Their only felt effect is to enforce a sense of disorientation. Whereas a fairly representative piece of what might seem equally gnomic in Scott’s lyrics — Siamese cat ancestral twitch in the jaws, for instance, from “The Book of Millionaires”—actually pretty vividly evokes the world of languid privileged predators he’s observing.

Scott was famously self-deprecating, kind, funny, approachable, generous, gentle, but he had ambitions as big as anyone in his generation. He wanted to be a rock star, and not just any kind of rock star but a genius rock star, a Lennon or Dylan. Scott often used “we” instead of “I” in his lyrics, envisioning a whole generational cohort behind him like his ‘60s heroes had. While at the same time he recoiled, as anyone as sane and intelligent as Scott would, from that ambition.

The only way that the achievement of such an ambition can be measured, in pop music, is in sales. For classical musicians and composers other measures of success than sales have been established. There are Nobels for fine authors who have never sold very many books. For scholars there are endowed chairs. But for popular artists there are only hits. Recognitions in popular forms—the Oscars, the Grammys–are never divorced from sales. Sales are the first criteria. Only once you’ve met it is the consideration of aesthetic merit brought to bear.

In compensation sometimes a musician may be offered cult-hero status, and then at least it will not be hard to find people who will tell you how good you are despite the fact that the world has by and large taken a pass on your music. In his life Scott Miller did not even quite become a cult hero, not even with the rise of the Internet, which has fantastically enabled the production of musical cults. And yet the great songs kept coming. If R.E.M.‘s first albums had languished in obscurity, if the ignition hadn’t caught for them, would they have continued to make great records? I don’t know, but I know that Scott Miller did.

After a couple of EPs finding their feet, Game Theory were signed by Enigma Records, the plan being that Game Theory was the obvious next band to go through the crack in the market that R.E.M. had discovered. Mitch Easter, R.E.M.’s producer, was brought out to California to record the first Game Theory album. It was the beginning of a long and rich collaboration. The immediate result was 1985’s Real Nighttime, Scott Miller’s first great record. It was a quantum leap out of the quirky pop ghetto. It was in a way an update of The Graduate—a young wunderkind, just out of school, a witheringly smart and funny California dandy surveying the Reagan-era nation that is either his oyster or his target. Scott goes to a suburban party in “Rayon Drive,” a venomous Dylan-style put-down song:

Her name’s Marie earning her PhD
Tonight I think she’d still do it with me
Excellent taste–It’s in each look on your face
A proud young member of the white race

Now you come up to me so erudite,

you want some senseless scene tonight

You don’t know half what goes on live
on Rayon Drive.

With Easter at the controls, Scott’s songwriting flowered over a series of wonderful albums—The Big Shot Chronicles, the double album Lolita Nation, Two Steps from the Middle Ages. By the end of the ‘80s Scott had plenty of documentation to show that he was one of America’s most exciting pop songwriters. The reviews were generally glowing. A significant market for “alternative” or “indie” rock and roll was becoming discernible. And yet, and yet, they hadn’t quite found the trigger.

The last Game Theory album and the first Loud Family album respectively were 1988’s Two Steps From the Middle Ages and 1993’s Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things (to be referred to as PBRT). The two records were the high water marks of Scott’s reach for popularity (and yes, I admit that the titles are defiantly obscure). So if, for instance, you might have thought Game Theory was twee, they would give you as much muscle as any grunge band. If you thought Scott’s production values were eccentric, he would give you a rich and vivid sound. If you thought he was obscure, he would mostly drop the mind-game goofing between tracks. The self-enforced focus was good for Scott. Both albums belong on a short list of best music from their respective decades. The bands on each record sound like mature, rounded, strong rock and roll bands.

The Loud Family, Plants and Birds and Things, full album (1993). Tracks: 1-He Do The Police in Different Voices 2:30; 2-Sword Swallower 1:44; 3-Aerodeliria 3:00; 4-Self Righteous Boy Reduced to Tears 3:52; 5-Jimmy Still Comes Around 4:19;6-Take Me Down (Too Halloo) 3:11; 7- Don’t All Thank Me At Once 1:26; 8-Idiot Son 2:40; 8-Some Grand Vision of Motives and Irony 2:44; 9-Spot the Setup 2:12; 10-Inverness 4:11; 11-Rosy Overdrive 6:04; 12-Slit My Wrists 2:48; 13-Isaac’s Law 3:50; 14-The Second Grade Applauds 2:45; 15-Last Honest Face 4:43; 16-Even You 3:35; 17-Ballad of How You Can All Shut Up 1:21; 18-Give in World 3:15; 19-Hidden track 0:09. All songs are by Scott Miller, except “Isaac’s Law” by Zachary Smith. Produced by Mitch Easter

The two albums contain enough song ideas and hooks and melodies to sustain a whole career for a lesser talent. And they are surely the place for anyone new to Scott’s music to begin. I think one likely reaction you will have is wondering how you could possibly not have heard these songs before. In “Room for One More” from Two Steps the twining voices of Scott Miller and rhythm player/lunar goddess Donnette Thayer call and respond back and forth in a dialog that has echoes of Gracie Slick and Marty Balin, until they become totally entwined like braided silver and gold cords, rising into a thrilling arc at the chorus. These revelatory melodic inventions are set within the hardest rocking that Scott had done yet, a response perhaps to the rise of Grunge up the coastline. The songs sound so whole that it can almost obscure how complicated they must have been to write, to teach to band members, engineers and producers.

A lot of the time I think that “Inverness” from PBRT is my favorite Scott Miller song. It blows in on the sound of wind and rain. Although it doesn’t really sound like a folk song, with its strummed first chords it takes its place in your hearing with the assuredness of a song that people have sung for a long time; like a sea chantey that was jaunty in its origins, but has grown wistful over time. Haunting things rise to surround the plain chords: a clattering/chiming/knocking sound dances like Javanese percussion or a merry skeleton over the chorus, while at the top something like a tin whistle skirls off into grey clouds, the sound of something receding beyond retrieval.

And though I think it’s almost always a mistake to quote lyrics at any length, I’d like you to see these:

VERSE

At night I know

That there’s some pace I can go

When there’s no place in waking life

And I’ll dream cliché’s

That I’ve dreamed a thousand ways

I’m not above clichés tonight,

The playground viewed from blessed heights

CHORUS

Oh Inverness

I bet you’ve never actually seen a person die of loneliness (mouthful of syllables agilely turned into a hook)

 

Oh Inverness

All in good time

Delight–maybe astonished delight–is a common first reaction to Scott Miller’s music. The surface was pure pleasure, but as the albums went by a yearning and sweet melancholy came over it. I’d call the mood rueful, gentle, amused sorrow, but sorrow nonetheless. I assume that what gave that lovely tincture to the songs was distilled from real unhappiness. In Scott’s music, rock and roll is like that imaginary sea chantey behind Inverness: It transforms with time, it’s origins are in fun and pleasure; later it becomes self-aware, takes on ghosts and echoes, and is transformed back into joy in the senses of the listener.

The Loud Family, ‘Inverness,’ from Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, produced by Mitch Easter

Poetry makes nothing happen, W.H. Auden said, nor does a catalog-full of gorgeous songs. And why should we think it would? One of the characters In The Rules of the Game says, “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” The world has more than enough reasons not to pay attention when a Scott Miller comes along.

In some ways, both good and bad, Scott Miller was a rocker’s rocker-–in other words, an artist that you appreciate to the degree that you have a pretty sophisticated grasp of the tradition. But

Scott never saw why having a profound knowledge of rock and roll should be an obstacle to addressing a large public. His is intensely conscious music. Scott couldn’t make himself or his art less conscious or self-aware. He couldn’t be stupid. But while it required an awful lot of thought to make, it doesn’t require a lot of thought to enjoy. Most of his songs are about as forbidding as Carly Rae Jepsen. It goes as straight to the rock and roll chakras as any music I’ve ever heard.

It also goes straight to the heart, my heart at least. I think Scott came to have real trouble reconciling his gift with the lack of effect on the world it seemed to have—in one way or another he touches on this again and again in his songs. It became his metaphor for how human matters go. Eventually it colored his whole musical world. He expressed this most of the time with wry self-deprecating humor. But for me, the elegantly captured world-weariness, the bemused sadness of Scott Miller’s later music is gracious and nourishing, even ennobling. It has the kind of beauty you can get when you accept the sheer perversity of the world, without opting to be a victim or a martyr. How can you not love a song that begins with, “I’ve tried to live up to the times I’ve seen/But I’m feeling broke and 17”? It was way different from the noonday dream of California music in the ‘60s, but it was perfect for California by the millennium. Because the southern California sun–that sun that eventually became a cliché–was always in it, but so was the mist and fog of San Francisco, the yearning sadness you could hear now and then in the bands from the Haight.

Game Theory, ‘Last Day That We’re Young,’ from the album Lolita Nation, produced by Mitch Easter

He staked out this emotional territory the way that Sinatra staked out late-night blue smoke and bourbon heartbreak on In the Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely. Sinatra used to have a prop streetlamp on stage with him that he could stand under to sing these songs. What set would we build for Scott? Somewhere north of Del Mar and south of the Marin headland (north of Pet Sounds, south of Surrealistic Pillow), playing guitars on the front steps of a dilapidated white-washed beach house in late afternoon light with a wise and marvelous girl named Christine or Sharon, Alison, Sheila, Erica or Sandy Lee. Singing “Last Day That We’re Young” or “Crash Into June” “There’s a light on in Joanie’s room tonight/ And she won’t sleep til summer’s going right…” Always an obsessed rock geek, yes, but also, in a time when most aspiring rockers had had a certain size of ambition trained out of them, a last great voice of golden California, updating the expression but keeping the promise of it all alive.

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