Tuesday, April 30, 2013

For Scott Miller, a tribute.

I honestly don’t know how to properly pay tribute to one of the musicians whose art really touches my soul, without getting too maudlin, too overtly complimentary, or any other excessive use of positive descriptor, or appear self-serving (I promise you that’s not my intent at all), so I’m just gonna go full-stream-of-consciousness ahead with what feels right. Maybe I will go back and edit accordingly; maybe I won’t.

Scott Miller was the brain behind two incredibly wonderful Northern California-based groups whose music (a wonderful, slightly psychedelic, sometimes experimental, highly intelligent, somewhat quirky, always wonderful brand of power pop) still holds me in thrall: Game Theory and The Loud Family. Those groups lasted between 1982 or so until 2000, and released a total of seventeen albums and EPs. After that, Scott released the occasional track online here and there, performed the occasional gigs only in the Bay Area, near his home, released an album with Anton Barbeau in 2006, wrote a book which came out in 2010, and lived a life as a father and database programmer / consultant. All of this came to a rather abrupt end on April 15, 2013 with his untimely passing. Scott was 53.

Those are the bald, passionless facts, but they don’t explain what Scott Miller and his music meant to me, so let me somewhat autobiographically attempt to make sense of that part. Game Theory first came to my attention by accident while I was still in college. I got to like the two CDs by Animal Logic, which was a supergroup trio composed of renowned jazz bassist Stanley Clarke, ex-drummer from the Police Stewart Copeland, and a newcomer singer/songwriter Deborah Holland. When I asked my friend Andy if he knew whether or not Deborah Holland had done anything prior to Animal Logic, he thought on it for a couple of weeks, then told me he thought she’d been in Game Theory. But after scanning the backs of the Game Theory CDs (this was when you could still somewhat easily find them in used CD stores, before their relative scarcity drove the prices up to sky-high levels), I discovered no mention of Deborah Holland’s name, and later determined that a) Deborah Holland had not indeed done anything professionally prior to Animal Logic, and b) that my friend Andy must have confused Deborah Holland with Game Theory’s Donnette Thayer, two women whose singing styles are only slightly similar to each other.

The next time that Scott Miller crossed my attention was in 1994, when I was working as an assistant manager at the Rogers Park Coconuts. By this point, I had become a massive Big Star fan, and had heard that both of Scott Miller’s groups had done Big Star cover versions (Game Theory had done “You Can’t Have Me” on Real Nighttime; The Loud Family had covered my favorite Big Star song “Back Of A Car” on their EP Slouching Towards Liverpool). An Alias Records retail publicist called the store and asked if we would be willing to play current Alias releases in-store. I said sure, and isn’t The Loud Family on your label? “Why yes, and the song you’re looking for is on this particular CD, do you want me to send it along too?” Why sure! So along with Knapsack and Tommy Keene CDs (I think we got an Archers Of Loaf CD, but I’m not sure), there was Slouching Towards Liverpool. The Big Star cover version was indeed great, but the songs on it that really got me hooked were “Aerodeleria” and “Slit My Wrists” (both presented on that EP as live-in-studio versions which had been recorded practically up the street from Rogers Park, at WNUR in Evanston). Both were really great, quirky, complex, and musically wonderful songs, and I had to have more. I special-ordered the debut Loud Family CD Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, and fell for Scott Miller’s music HARD. Wow!!!! What an amazing album. It is still one of my top 5 albums of all time (don’t ask me what’s my #1; it’s a constantly changing thing depending on the day). For an extended review of this album, see my blog review of the album here. Next, I found a copy of the quintessential Game Theory LP Lolita Nation, and let’s just say I liberated it from its existing place and gave it a good home. I’m not always proud of that, but it is what it is, ahem. I will say it wasn’t shoplifting, and let me leave it at that. While working at that Coconuts, my boss realized he had a CD copy of Lolita Nation (which by that point HAD become rare, and highly sought after), and sold it to me very cheaply. The catch? It had a rather severely water-damaged cover, but played perfectly. (A few years later I had one of those moments where God truly must have been smiling down on me, and managed to score a perfect copy of the CD for $7.99 in a record store that obviously didn’t know the CD’s true market worth, thank God). I became a part of the online fan community Loud Fans, and little by little, I began accumulating the entire catalog of Game Theory and Loud Family CDs, and learned that in 1995, he would soon be releasing a new CD, Interbabe Concern. I special ordered that, and got it on the day it was released. Another winner. It wasn’t as accessible on first listen as Plants and Birds… was, but ultimately in the long term just as satisfying.

I also was able to catch the band live on that tour. Back during this time, I placed a personal premium on trying to get as many autographs of my favorite musicians as I could. But I also wanted to ask Scott to explain a lyric of his that had me stumped. In his song “Idiot Son”, Scott sings a line, “And I saw real estate that I would not call land”, which perplexed me. So before the concert started, I approached Scott, asked him for his autograph on both my Plants and Birds… CD and my Lolita Nation LP, and asked him if he could shed some light on that lyric. He told me that it had to do with land whose practical use had been exhausted, and the only purpose that it served was its financial value. He told me the song contained not only an environmental concern, but images he’d compiled from a dream. He’d used dream imagery for a few of his songs, he told me. Wow… Later on, we talked some more, and he’d enthusiastically told me that he’d been reading a book called I and Thou, written by a Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. He was really fascinated by what he was reading, and had me read a passage of the book. On first blush, the passage he had me read and also his interpretation of it were heady stuff, very intellectual, but at no point during his very intelligent explanation of the philosophy did he use his obvious intelligence in an arrogant way. Rather, you could see his very real enthusiasm for it, and his want to share that with me. I was really touched that he’d spent so much time speaking with a fanboy like me. I honestly think I got to know him somewhat well that night. And the concert was amazing too, of course. Scott and his band really gave it their all. Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt was at that show, standing a little behind me, and when Scott launched into “Like A Girl Jesus”, she sang along with the first two lines of the song. It was an unintentional duet, and while that wouldn’t mean much to most people, I thought it was cool that here are two musicians whose works mean a lot to me singing along together. And I was there to hear it.

The Loud Family’s next release in 1997 was Days For Days, and on that album, he gained a new keyboardist in Alison Faith-Levy, but also a new drummer who looked familiar to long-time fans… Gil Ray, who had been the long-time drummer in Game Theory!! We fans were ecstatic at this turn of events; Gil is a hell of a drummer. With both Gil and Alison on board, it not only allowed the band to put some Game Theory songs back into their live set which Donnette Thayer had originally sung background vocals, but retained some of that male/female dynamic interplay which frankly enhanced the Game Theory albums. This lineup (with longtime bassist Kenny Kessel) would remain the same until the group called it a day in 2000. The tour behind Days For Days was also great, and Scott signed more autographs for me and talked with me some more.

In 2000, The Loud Family’s contract with Alias Records was coming to a natural close, and it would not be renewed (Alias was not the record company it once had been, and Scott’s hipster cachet had faded somewhat, certainly not due to lack of quality music). Knowing this, not only did I buy the last Loud Family CD Attractive Nuisance at Tower Records’ midnight sale the day it was released, but I made a point to catch not only the Chicago show of that tour but the New York City show as well. At that time, my brother was a student at Pratt Art Institute, and gladly loaned me the couch in his dorm room. Airfare was inexpensive, since my father worked for the airline and got it virtually free. Both shows were great, and I think Scott still remembered me. I remember asking him before the NYC show started if he minded if I took photos; he smiled, and gave me a look that said, “Are you kidding? Go for it!” I never want to take that question for granted with any artist, let alone one who I really respected.

And for the Loud Family, that was it, sort of. The record company 125 Records put out two wonderful documents after the fact: the live CD From Ritual To Romance, compiled from recordings made on the Interbabe Concern and Days For Days tours, and the wonderful live DVD entitled Loud Family Live 2000. On the occasion of the release of the DVD, I asked Sue at 125 Records if Scott would mind if I did a long-form interview with him in Glorious Noise webzine to promote the DVD. Scott said yes, and I submitted a rather long list of what I thought were atypical questions to Scott via email, all of which he answered candidly, thoroughly, and with quite a bit of humor. The finished article was part history of Game Theory and Loud Family, and partly my review of his CDs. Scott wrote me a note complimenting my mini-history of his groups, saying that he felt that it was one of the most extensive articles written about his groups to that point. I was on cloud nine that he took the time and wrote that to me.

In 2006, Scott and Anton Barbeau released the collaborative CD What If It Works. Scott graciously submitted to another email interview for Glorious Noise with me, in which I tried to bring up to speed what had happened in the interim, as well as promote the CD. During the course of that interview, he made some joking reference to being happy that What If It Works was outselling the Grease 2 soundtrack on Amazon. To my horror, my editor sort of tacked on his own paragraph to the end of the article I submitted (without noting that it was from him, not me) what he thought was his own jokey rejoinder saying that it wasn’t so, that as of the publication of the article, Grease 2 was indeed still outselling What If It Works. I emailed Scott to apologize for it, especially since it was being passed off as something I had written when the opposite was true. Scott took it in stride, and said something to the effect that he had always had better success making his music than promoting it.

And that was that. I kept up reading his online Ask Scott column, the serialized Music: What Happened? columns as they came out, and watched enviously from Chicago as Scott would perform the occasional show in the San Francisco area where he lived, but not tour outside of California. I knew that his computer day job he’d held during his musical career was now something he could concentrate on more fully, as well as getting married and having two wonderful daughters.

I guess I always hoped that Scott might be coaxed back into recording, releasing another album and touring nationally behind it. But it wasn’t to be. Scott’s passing is still hurting me incredibly; not only is there now a musical void, knowing that such a great guy like Scott is no longer with us really hurts. I honestly have never been this affected by the passing of any other of my musical heroes; maybe because Scott was always so generous with his time, his thoughts, his humor with all of his fans, the fact that he never pulled a “star turn” and tried to distance himself from us, maybe that’s why not only I but so many of us who are fans of his music, maybe that’s why we’re still in such shock and heart sick. Scott’s passing doesn’t make sense; he was too young. I know his music, and the memories we have of him will live on forever (we fans will see that he achieves immortality in that sense), but like another fan's tribute to him alluded to, I think many of us would trade in every last LP / CD / mp3 we own if it meant he were still here. This one hurts, and for me, it probably will for a really long time. Thank you Scott for your generosity in so many areas both musically and personally; may you go gently to the other side, and please tell everyone there that you meet that we miss them, too.


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