Sunday, May 21, 2006

Cycles of Circular Motion

Not too long ago I was feeling sort of expansive at the record shop and I picked up a Steve Miller Band record called Number 5 as well as a copy of Shadowfax’s Dreams of Children. Obviously, this was a big mistake. I had remembered sort of grooving to the faux-world rhythms on the Shadowfax record in high school, but there’s a lot of pinched-sounding soprano sax and fretless bass, the kind that when you hear it you imagine the self-satisfied bass player (who looks like a Department of Environmental Protection soil scientist) sort of puffing out his cheeks and bending his knees a bit as he plays. So, I’m not ready to reconsider Shadowfax. Not yet. And the Steve Miller Band record proved to be the worst extended boogie rock, presaging the Dave Matthews Band in its self-deluded ideas of what’s funky.

Every time I start to totally write off SMB though I’m reminded of a time I was at Sluggo’s in Pensacola, Florida (not sure if still exists, it was one of the best rock clubs in the country, run by really cool characters who made Pensacola -- with its mix of rabid anti-abortionists and jarheads, vestigial sunny Florida vacation vortex and the weird decrepit bayou culture of the panhandle which makes the place more like New Orleans than Tampa –- seem like a cultural capitol. Pensacola is a busy shipping port and I once played a game of pool with a Russian sailor at Sluggo’s, he couldn’t really speak English, and he may have been looking for a prostitute, it wasn’t clear, but I passed on an offer to go and hang out on his ship with him, which could have ended in a powerful vodka drunk and/or my entry into white slavery). Anway, on a bathroom stall wall at Sluggo’s someone had written:

You treat me like I was your ocean
You swim in my blood when it's warm
My cycles of circular motion
Protect you and keep you from harm

It was one of those sleep-deprived, hung-over-soon-to-be-drunk moments. And it seemed brilliant (ironic) at the time. Steve Miller, perhaps more than anyone, conjures the 8-track tape era for me. Columbia Record Club deals where you get 10 for a penny or something. Bob Welch, Elton John, ELO, Boston, Fleetwood Mac. That practically does it. Well, like Fleetwood Mac and ELO at least, there was a pre-mega success Steve Miller Band. He tried to do his part for the psychedelic army.

It was while flipping through the book “I Want to Take You Higher” – a big coffee-table deal about the psychedelic era that I saw a mention of early SMB. A track called “Song For Our Ancestors” of his second record, Sailor, was included in the book’s “Top 100 Psychedelic Songs” list (#41). “Song of Our Ancestors” is pretty cool and admirably atmospheric, but I prefer the next track, “Dear Mary.” Yes, it’s a rip-off of both “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Penny Lane,” which doesn’t bode well. And yes, Boz Scaggs is involved. It occurs to me that, if you had never heard "The Joker," "Fly Like an Eagle," "Jungle Love" and "Big Ol' Jet Airliner," they would actually sound great. Like "Brown Eyed Girl," "Born on the Bayou" and "Sweet Home Alabama" and most Motown hits, these songs have been ruined by too much use. They're like some Leonardo Da Vinci manuscript that was exhibited in a bright gallery space until the light-sensitive material basically disappeared. We can't hear them anymore.

As a come down off of that, here’s some Paul Pena. Much of this record is a lot like Band of Gypsies-era Hendrix or even solo Buddy Miles with a hint of B-grade Shuggie Otis, the Meters or maybe Sly and the Family Stone. Coincidentally, the same day that I picked up Sailor, I also scored a copy of Paul Pena’s first record. Pena, who passed away last year, was the subject of the excellent documentary Genghis Blues, about his embrace of Tuvan throat-singing and a trip the blind musician made to Tuva to enter in a music competition. In the movie, it’s mentioned that Pena wrote “Big Ol’ Jet Airliner,” which Steve Miller later had a hit with. I assumed it was on this record, but evidently it was from an unfinished or at least unreleased second record. Here's a sort of extended soul gospel vamp called "The River." It's not without its chaff, but the bombast of a choir is always its own reward. A spoken-word interlude worthy of Baby Huey is also worth listening for.

Steve Miller Band -- "Dear Mary"

Paul Pena - "The River"

1 comment:

Happy In Bag said...

You’re so right about placing Steve Miller into the proper context. I’ll never forget visiting my Texas cousin in what must have been the summer of 1974. He was seven years older than me and had everything I dreamed about- a Mustang, a stash in the glove compartment and a stunning girlfriend in a tube top. His music of choice- nothin’ but Steve Miller, ZZ Top and Blue Oyster Cult. It was magic.