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September 11, 2013 8:09 AM   Subscribe

The Steve Miller Band had a number 1 song (for one week) in 1974 with The Joker, a terrific song about a picker, a grinner, a lover, and a sinner all rolled into one. One of the most famous lines in the song deals with The Joker's various nicknames - the Space Cowboy, the Gangster of Love, and Maurice (an odd nickname for sure). The nickname Maurice is allegedly earned due to the singer's tendency to "speak of the pompatus of love." Putting aside why you would call a guy Maurice for that reason - and why the existing alternative nickname The Gangster of Love would not cover it - the lyric raises the question of just what the heck the "pompatus of love" is. (The "pompatus of love" lyric was not limited only to The Joker, it also features in another of Steve Miller Band's oeuvre, Enter Maurice, and it is spoken by Wolfman Jack in The Guess Who's "Clap for the Wolfman").

"Pompatus" is not a real word, and its meaning is a common enough question that it formed the MacGuffin at the center of a 1996 movie named, appropriately enough, The Pompatus of Love (trailer). But it turns out that "pompatus" detectives were on a false trail: Steve Miller didn't write the lyric; he lifted it from a 1950s Doo Wop song by the Medallions called "The Letter" (lyric at 1:43, not to be confused with the Box Tops famous song of the same name). In that song, the speaker is writing a letter to a love interest, and - in what seems like an attempt to sound like a romantic, poetic fellow - he asks her to "let me whisper sweet words of pizmotality, and discuss the puppetutes of love." (see "Enter Maurice," above, where the line is repeated almost verbatim, but with the equally-nonsensical mondegreen of "epismotology" rather than "pizmotality.")

It is said that Jon "Duckie" Cryer - a producer and star of The Pompatus of Love movie - discovered "The Letter" only while the film was in postproduction. He mentioned the song in a TV interview, and Vernon Green (the songwriter and singer for the Medallions) was watching and was surprised to hear mention of his 40-year-old song. Cryer allegedly played The Joker for Green - who incredibly had never heard it (!?!) - and Green "laughed his ass off." Green confirmed that pizmotality and the puppetutes of love were his creations in the original song.

Bonus fact 1: the borrowing of the famous line about the pompatus/puppetutes of love is not the only line that The Joker borrowed from a 1950s Doo Wop song. The opening lines of The Clovers' "Lovey Dovey" provide some (perhaps even more blatant) "inspiration" too.

Bonus fact 2: be sure to check out Fatboy Slim and Bootsie Collins' cover of The Joker, which does not disappoint.

Bonus fact 3: surely "pompatus" would be a first ballot entry for "famous made up words in pop songs," along with the great Phil Collins' classic - I feel so good if I just say the word - "Sussudio."

(Previously, and Previously-ish)
posted by AgentRocket (75 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 


I thought Lovey Dovey is what Thurston Howell called his wife on Gilligan's Island.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:22 AM on September 11, 2013


These revelations are sure to have repercussions across Millerlandia. Texas-based detective Billy Mack, a long-time Miller antagonist, said that even in light of this change to what the facts is, he has no intention of letting the issue interfere with his pursuit of serial burglars Billie Joe and Bobbie Sue. "I ain't gonna let these two escape justice," he told reporters. "After all, I make my living off the people's taxes."

Mack refused to comment further on the weakness of that rhyme.
posted by gompa at 8:23 AM on September 11, 2013 [20 favorites]


Next on Metafilter : what the hell did "summer Sunday and a year" mean anyway? And what about "waiting on the line with greens and blues"?
posted by evil otto at 8:27 AM on September 11, 2013


I thought Lovey Dovey is what Thurston Howell called his wife on Gilligan's Island.

Just Lovey. No Dovey.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:27 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


I got no problem with slant rhymes and neologisms in the work of Steve Miller, because when he uses real words and full rhymes, we get meh songs like "Serenade From The Stars" and "Wide River."
posted by infinitewindow at 8:37 AM on September 11, 2013


You have a new message from MetaFilter member mathowie:

MetaFilter IRL has 1 new event within 100 miles of your location:

Proposed: The night is falling and the music is calling and we've got to meet up in Swingtown [Drum fill]

posted by bondcliff at 8:41 AM on September 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


A 'terrific' song? Please -- it was the Top-40 indicator that the Steve Miller Band had jumped the shark.
posted by Rash at 8:43 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


These revelations are sure to have repercussions across Millerlandia. Texas-based detective Billy Mack, a long-time Miller antagonist, said that even in light of this change to what the facts is, he has no intention of letting the issue interfere with his pursuit of serial burglars Billie Joe and Bobbie Sue. "I ain't gonna let these two escape justice," he told reporters. "After all, I make my living off the people's taxes."

Take the Joker and Run...
posted by 1367 at 8:45 AM on September 11, 2013


Dude, Abracadabra was SMB's shark-jumping song...
posted by Windopaene at 8:46 AM on September 11, 2013 [11 favorites]


Sweet! I learned all this from the Straight Dope years ago, but that was before the days when you could just link to a Youtube video of "The Letter" and educate yourself auditorially in addition to intellectually.
posted by edheil at 8:56 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dude, Abracadabra was SMB's shark-jumping song...

That’s true, but implies assumptions about how good they were to begin with. I always thought "Jet Airliner" was a terrible song until I heard the original, which is amazing. Hats off to him for exposing it to the public though.
posted by bongo_x at 8:56 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


If nothing else, there is The Pompatus Of Love Personality Test from the long shut down and missed Brunching Shuttlecocks. (MeFi's own.)
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:07 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


What an awesome post. A+
posted by spitbull at 9:07 AM on September 11, 2013


"famous made up words in pop songs," along with the great Phil Collins' classic - I feel so good if I just say the word - "Sussudio yt ."

there is nothing great or classic about Sussudio (which also ripped off Prince's 1999), but this is still a great post.
posted by philip-random at 9:07 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


From the mis-heard lyrics file: as a kid, whenever I heard Steve Miller's 'Jet Airliner' on the radio, I thought he was saying 'Big old Jed Carolina, don't carry me too far away.' And so, of course, I pictured a large, overalls-wearing guy, most likely from one of the Carolinas. Walking up to Steve Miller, and unceremoniously throwing him over his shoulder. And the oddest part of all this? I did not find this in any way strange. I just thought, well, sure. Sometimes that's just something that happens.
posted by fikri at 9:10 AM on September 11, 2013 [17 favorites]


Steve Miller took guitar lessons from Les Paul. Who he took songwriting lessons from is not known to this writer.
posted by tommasz at 9:19 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I thought he was saying 'Big old Jed Carolina, don't carry me too far away.'

So did my significant other, only she thought it was two big old guys: Jed and Elijah.

So does everyone go through a Steve Miller Band phase? I know I did, but what made mine weird is that it occurred during my teenage goth/punk phase, so my album collection was like all Christian Death, Super Heroines, X, Southern Death Cult and Steve Miller Band.
posted by infinitywaltz at 9:21 AM on September 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


I was a freshman in high school when that song came out. Too self-conscious to embrace being the pompatus of love, I hated it.
posted by maurice at 9:22 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


His name is Stevie Guitar Miller. I said that I expect y'all to get it right next time.
posted by bfootdav at 9:24 AM on September 11, 2013


Please. It's obviously Big Ole Jed Had a Light On.
posted by slogger at 9:24 AM on September 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


Favourited because one of my middle names is Maurice.
posted by surrendering monkey at 9:24 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also: somethingsomething perfectly cromulent somethingsomething
posted by slogger at 9:25 AM on September 11, 2013


"Pompatus" is a perfectly cromulent word!
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:25 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


So does everyone go through a Steve Miller Band phase?

yeah, we called it the 70s
posted by pyramid termite at 9:27 AM on September 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


Dude, Abracadabra was SMB's shark-jumping song...

I will fight you.
posted by marginaliana at 9:33 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]




Please. It's obviously Big Ole Jed Had a Light On.

I knew someone that thought it was "we go down to the lighthouse" which I didn’t even believe at first because it seemed so unlikely, but once you hear it...
posted by bongo_x at 9:40 AM on September 11, 2013


I too went through a SMB phase, smack dab in the middle of my teenage 90's rrriot girl (ehhhh, can we call it a phase if it is still in place ?)
The love of my life would play a cracked 45 of "The Joker". The look of quiet concentration when he bent over the turntable to join the broken edges together perfectly,is something I will treasure for all of my existence.
So, yeah when we have our 50th anniversary party, people will really be puzzled by our choice of a love song
posted by slothhog at 9:40 AM on September 11, 2013


Big old Jed Carolina, don't carry me too far away

I have a friend from college who swore it was Big Ole' Aunt Jemima. I think we broke her heart when we corrected her. As if there were secrets about maple syrup hidden elsewhere in the lyrics.
posted by librarianamy at 9:45 AM on September 11, 2013


Steve Miller's all right, but this song? I've sprained my wrist in a mad scramble to change the station when it came on the radio.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:45 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Miles Davis' autobiography contains many gems, including this one:
“I remember one time - it might have been a couple times - at the Fillmore East in 1970, I was opening for this sorry-ass cat named Steve Miller. Steve Miller didn't have his shit going for him, so I'm pissed because I got to open for this non-playing motherfucker just because he had one or two sorry-ass records out. So I would come late and he would have to go on first and then we got there we smoked the motherfucking place, everybody dug it.”
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:51 AM on September 11, 2013 [18 favorites]


All this time I've thought the singer had mucked up "properties" at some point and went with it.

Now I'm in the Steve Miller is a time traveler camp.
posted by notyou at 9:53 AM on September 11, 2013




I went to this concert on my 18th birthday. I wasn't really a big fan of Steve Miller, and that show did nothing to win me over. Some girl sitting behind me puked Boone's Farm Apple all over the back of my brand new Pendelton shirt, so from that point on I'd speak of the vomitus of love.
posted by Floydd at 10:02 AM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Aw hell. All I know is, back in the day I'd drive my beat-up old stickshift along one Finger Lake after another on my way to a cabin where I camped all alone in the woods every weekend as fucking free as a goddamned bird--I'd throw a Steve Miller Band tape in the player, fire up a rolled number and it was without a doubt the best feeling I'll probably ever feel in my life.

Thanks, Steve, for some mighty fine times.
posted by kinnakeet at 10:14 AM on September 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


PS great post. Really brought back some memories.
posted by kinnakeet at 10:15 AM on September 11, 2013


Great post! the Fatboy Slim/Bootsie Collins version of this song is never not in my rotation.

But, Librarionamy, it's 'Bingo Jed had a light on'
not even google can remember what comedian used that bit, but that's the way i've heard it ever since.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:22 AM on September 11, 2013


A plaque I saw at a maritime museum recently. (Not actually related, but I don't care.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:32 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Has anyone posted this yet? The Straight Dope in Chicago talked to someone who tracked down the actual author. Pizmotality is a related concept!
posted by texorama at 10:36 AM on September 11, 2013


Please. It's obviously Big Ole Jed Had a Light On.

MY GOD I THOUGHT I WAS THE ONLY ONE LET US SWEAR ETERNAL FRIENDSHIP
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:36 AM on September 11, 2013


I always thought it was "Big ol' gal had a light on."

Sounded right to me.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:40 AM on September 11, 2013


I've had the opposite problem with a lot of Jim Morrison's lyrics. I always assumed I misheard them, because what I heard was too preposterous (e.g., "I see the bathroom is clear"), then later was surprised and disappointed to discover that I heard them correctly.
posted by ogooglebar at 10:46 AM on September 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


I loved this song when it came out (I was eight) and I'm pretty sure the 45 was the second record I ever owned. I didn't find out that pompatus wasn't a real word until a few years later.
The Steve Miller Band was one of those acts whose songs were so different from each other that I was always surprised to find out they were from the same guy. April Wine was another.
posted by rocket88 at 10:58 AM on September 11, 2013


There was a recent NPR interview with Steve Miller where he was doing some "artist in residence" thing at USC and ceremonially teaching a class, and the interviewer was asking him about and gave him that sort "and do you find yourself learning anything from the kids?" type of question - just a softball setup for the subject to appear gracious and humble - and he was totally oblivious, and was basically all "what? Did you totally misunderstand what this is all about? I'm there to teach them! They're learning from my years of experience!"
posted by anazgnos at 11:04 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


The earlier Steve Miller Band song Space Cowboy also features the Gangster of Love, and also brilliantly rhymes "love" with "love."
posted by Sys Rq at 11:14 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was waiting for a bus on Haight Street once, sometime in the mid-eighties. There were a couple of guys--Deadheads, to characterize broadly--sitting on the sidewalk across the street. One of them had a guitar, and they were trying to play The Joker, but they were too high to do anything except strum the chords and giggle--EXCEPT when the line, "I really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree," came around. They were in emphatic agreement about that line, and repeatedly pulled themselves together to sing it in unison before dissolving again into giggles-and-strumming.

There was a girl with them. She was standing in a nearby doorway, smoking angrily. Every once in a while she'd look over at them, to see if she liked the idea of either of them any better than she had the last time she'd looked. Then she'd go back to standing there with her arms crossed, smoking and scowling in the other direction.

So that's the 'pompatus of love' for you. I have not been able to hear or think of this song since the mid-eighties without picturing this scene, and hoping she found someplace better to crash.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 11:33 AM on September 11, 2013 [13 favorites]


Thanks for the post. You ironed out a pop culture wrinkle that has been bugging me for a couple of decades.
posted by Didymium at 11:40 AM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's the original version of Jet Airliner by Paul Pena. I never knew Steve Miller's version was a cover, so thanks for that.
posted by Daddy-O at 1:01 PM on September 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was fascinated by Steve Miller as a kid, but I realized pretty quickly that he was a) really trying to pull off a white-Jimi Hendrix routine (even had a left-handed strat strung righty so it looked upside down on the cover of Fly Like an Eagle) and b) recycled material (lyrical and musical) a lot. I didn't hate him for it, but i remember it really puzzling me how he could take the riff from My Dark Hour and recycle it for the aforementioned Fly Like . . .
posted by gorbichov at 1:02 PM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was looking at someone's records once. They had a John Lee Hooker album from maybe 1966. Rhythm guitar credit? Steve Miller. He had paid the dues before this era of his career, for sure.
posted by thelonius at 1:18 PM on September 11, 2013


There should be no disagreement about Miller's guitar credentials.

What I really want to say though, is that, despite completely agreeing with every criticism of Miller, I don't trust *anyone* who didn't go through a Steve Miller phase. Ideally, this phase should have started before age 17 and should have mostly ended by 20.

And no one, *ever*, should have to apologize for enjoying the occasional pre-Abracadbra track. Sometimes it's warm and sunny and you have a cold beer or a j and you are reminded that being alive and free on the west coast of North America is sublime.

Interestingly, I also don't trust anyone who ever liked the Eagles, or America, both of whom are pure schlock despite sharing many stylistic features.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:40 PM on September 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


this is all very interesting - now somebody get me a cheeseburger...
posted by Billiken at 1:49 PM on September 11, 2013


I agree, Slarty Bartfast, except that Steve Miller takes me back to the senior common room of my East Coast prep school. So I'll say the key ingredients are warm weather, free time, and being a teenager.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:59 PM on September 11, 2013


Nah, I can say with certainty that empirical research shows The SMBS (Steve Miller Band Sublimicity) scale peaked in Santa Cruz, California in 1986.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 3:00 PM on September 11, 2013


Steve Miller Band: 1988, grade 11, hacky-sack and bottle tokes.
posted by Flashman at 3:09 PM on September 11, 2013


A plaque I saw at a maritime museum recently.

Previously seen on the USS Pampanito of Love.
posted by zippy at 3:15 PM on September 11, 2013


Please. It's obviously Big Ole Jed Had a Light On.

The accused stood mute and the judge ordered a plea of nolo contendere entered into the record.
posted by immlass at 4:51 PM on September 11, 2013


Steve and his family were best friends with Les Paul...taught him to play and was his godfather......so there's that
posted by shockingbluamp at 5:11 PM on September 11, 2013


nolo contendere ma ma
nolo contendere ma ma
come on baby let's slip away ...
posted by pyramid termite at 5:48 PM on September 11, 2013


I also don't trust anyone who ever liked the Eagles, or America

Bummer!

(I'm pretty sick of most of the former's greatest hits, although I still have a soft spot for "Desperado", which is a nice, quiet song that hasn't been as badly overplayed as the rest. And I knew some older kids in the seventies who would just play the shit out of America's Greatest Hits, and after not having heard almost anything they'd done (except for "A Horse With No Name", which I assume endured because it sounds like a deliberate parody of Neil Young more than a mere imitation) for over thirty years, picked it up on iTunes and still get a nice nostalgia rush off of it.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:01 PM on September 11, 2013


Can I favorite this post five times?

Once because I fucking love The Joker.

Once because I just learned it's from 197ty fucking 4.

And thrice because the etymology angle is frigging awesome.
posted by 256 at 7:22 PM on September 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Steve Miller Band: 1988, grade 11, hacky-sack and bottle tokes.

Steve Miller Band 1976, Grade 11, Doug's mom's place, drinking contests, cheap weed, vomit.
posted by philip-random at 7:26 PM on September 11, 2013


Lacking the time or inclination to even skim this thread, I will add, however redundantly, that Steve Miller was a guy who made a very tepid and pedestrian cover of the song Gangster of Love, which was written and recorded by Johnny ''Guitar'' Watson in 1957. His cover compares to Watson's version as Pat Boone's cover of Tutti Frutti compares to Little Richard's original. Watson most decidedly deserves the cognomens ''Guitar'' and Gangster of Love. Miller most decidedly does not.
posted by y2karl at 7:26 PM on September 11, 2013


Steve Miller Band: 1969, Redcliffe Gardens, London SW10
posted by Mister Bijou at 8:05 PM on September 11, 2013


I'm going thru a SMB phase...again. The last time was at least 25 years ago. I had a strange moment when I had to ask my wife, "Surely the lyric is 'funky shit going down in the city', right? And she said, yeah, I think so. Well, the version I had just heard on the radio definitely did not say "shit". We can see sex on tv but they can't say "shit" in a song on the radio.

Anyway, all things being equal, Steve Miller is often trite, simple and meaningless, but it's also some of the best summer music I can find, filled with great sing-along songs, friends hanging out with beers, the occasional super trippy intro to Fly Like an Eagle, sunshine, bonfires, girls, talking about girls and tons of other fond memories.

So you people who don't have the time for him, that's cool. Hopefully you've got some other musician that does the same for you that Steve Miller does for me - a little nostalgic trip to different days when life's responsibilities didn't weigh quite so heavy.
posted by ashbury at 8:31 PM on September 11, 2013


I thought Lovey Dovey is what Thurston Howell called his wife on Gilligan's Island.

Split Enz: Lovey Dovey.
posted by ovvl at 9:58 PM on September 11, 2013


Steve Miller Band 1976, Grade 11, Doug's mom's place, drinking contests, cheap weed, vomit.

... but seriously, the Steve Miller stuff that interests me these days is pretty much everything before (and including) The Joker. Yeah, some of the mid-70s hits were okay, but that early stuff, those first albums (1968-72) really tell a cool story about what music was going through in those pivotal years, because the beauty of time is that it's snowing ...
posted by philip-random at 10:10 PM on September 11, 2013


Don't much dig The Joker, man, but get this ... dug into the Medallions on YT ... and covered the price of admission when I uncovered this Buick 59 tune. Never heard a doo-wop do 4 beats / 5 beats like that.
posted by Twang at 10:53 PM on September 11, 2013


... but seriously, the Steve Miller stuff that interests me these days is pretty much everything before (and including) The Joker.

be careful, though - between the boz scaggs/ben sidran version of the band and the joker, he did some weak, inconsistent albums

there was a 2 record set called the steve miller anthology - even that's not totally consistent, but it's your best bet
posted by pyramid termite at 5:15 AM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


The mom of a old friend of mine used to date Steve Miller. When my friend was in the car with her mom and The Joker came on, whenever they arrived at the line "I'm a midnight toker," her mom would shake her head, giggle to herself, and say "he sure was...".
posted by umbú at 12:08 PM on September 12, 2013


I just learned it's from 197ty fucking 4.

Just out of curiosity (not smug judginess, I swear!), when did you think it was from?

It's just that, to me, "The Joker" sounds about as mid-seventies as anything could possibly ever get.

That said, I wasn't even born then, so what the hell do I know.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:10 PM on September 12, 2013


I don't trust *anyone* who didn't go through a Steve Miller phase.

I grew up then, and I honestly didn’t realize until this thread that anyone went through a Steve Miller phase. I didn’t know anyone. Just one of those mystery things that you always hear, but no one really seems to be a big fan of.
posted by bongo_x at 12:11 PM on September 13, 2013


I grew up then, and I honestly didn’t realize until this thread that anyone went through a Steve Miller phase. I didn’t know anyone. Just one of those mystery things that you always hear, but no one really seems to be a big fan of.

My experience was exactly the opposite. All through the 1980s, and into the 1990s, about once a week someone I knew suddenly had the Greatest Hits tape or CD, the blue one with the Pegasus head on the cover, and they would play it non-stop.

For the record, I like Steve Miller just fine. It's harmless, sing along 70s rock. Texas/Taxes/Facts is. Great stuff.
posted by bondcliff at 12:35 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wonder if it’s regional. A friend blew my mind in the mid-early 90’s when he told me Jimmy Buffet was a really big deal in the MidWest and drew big crowds (he’s since expanded that empire). I couldn’t believe it. I barely knew who he was. Sort of like how Oingo Boingo would play arenas in L.A. and then small clubs in neighboring states.
posted by bongo_x at 1:07 PM on September 13, 2013


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