‘70s rocker Steve Miller is no softer in his 70s

Geoff Edgers

THE WASHINGTON POST – Steve Miller should have nothing to complain about. But on a recent afternoon, sitting in the elegant patron’s room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the singer and guitarist fires away when asked about his new set, Welcome to the Vault. The box, out on October 11, is a fascinating dip into his archives, 52 tracks that stretch over 65 years, from a 1951 performance by blues legend T-Bone Walker in his childhood living room to a 2016 jazz band reinvention of Miller’s Take the Money and Run.

Why did it take so long to put out his box? That’s when Miller brings up Gary Gersh, who ran Capitol Records back in the 1990s.

“Just a little gangster,” Miller said, winding up. “A complete, incompetent liar. And you know, that’s candy-coating it.”

In this context – a quarter of a century after Gersh’s reign, inside the rarefied walls of the Met – it’s an unexpected, almost jarring digression. Except if you know anything about Steve Miller. Record business figures have always occupied a special space in his Rolodex of revenge. They lie, steal your money, and, worst of all, have no idea how to push your records.

To be specific, Miller blames Gersh for what happened the last time he put out a box, a career survey released in 1994. There were several problems, from the release date (too late that summer) to a production error on early pressings. Miller remembers Gersh ignoring his calls, and that got him daydreaming about what might happen if they bumped into each other in his then home of Idaho.

Steve Miller on his tour bus before a show at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in August. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

“Gersh used to come and ski in Sun Valley and I was afraid I was going to see him and beat him to a pulp – because I would’ve, if I had seen him,” said Miller.

To a pulp? Is he serious? Miller has never shied away from conflict. In the ‘60s, when any kid with a guitar would have killed for a record deal, Miller studied the fine print and resisted until the terms changed. In the ‘70s, when he became an arena star, he virtually disappeared, refusing to put out music until he felt it was ready. Miller has not softened with age. Only three years ago, he turned his own Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction into a scathing and thoroughly entertaining takedown of the “gangsters and crooks” who are part of what he called a “private boys’ club.”

It’s not pleasant to be at the other end of a Miller grenade. Black Keys singer Dan Auerbach, who helped induct him that night, said he had trouble sleeping for days after the event. Gersh, today an executive at concert presenter AEG Live, seemed stunned to hear of Miller’s anger.

“Twenty-five years ago, I had one interaction with him and he’s now saying he would beat me to a pulp because of a production error that I didn’t cause,” he said. “Are you kidding me? That’s insanity.”

But speaking out has always been Miller’s way and it hasn’t stalled his career. At 75, he can play as many gigs as he likes, his catalogue remains a consistent seller and he’s able to promote the music he loves through his relationships with the Met, where he serves on the visiting committee of the museum’s Department of Musical Instruments, and Jazz at Lincoln Center, where he’s on the board and programmes a concert series that has included Marty Stuart and Jimmie Vaughan.

“You know, I was raised with jazz musicians,” said Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter who serves as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. “Jazz wouldn’t exist if people weren’t like that. If you didn’t have Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Miles Davis. They rubbed people the wrong way all the time.”

Start with the hits. They occupy a special place in the classic rock canon, stretching from Miller’s first number one, 1973’s The Joker, a swaggering, country-rocker, to his last, 1982’s Abracadabra, a song inspired by a chance encounter with Diana Ross.

Those FM-gumdrops have helped Miller sell more than 60 million albums over his career, including 14 million alone on the compilation Greatest Hits 1974-78 album. That record is among the top 40 of all time, a few slots ahead of Abbey Road and Purple Rain.