Say It In A Goodbye Letter (Scott Miller R.I.P.) / Tough Love: Scott Miller's Secret Shame

<------- If you love Scott's music, please contribute something to his daughters' college fund.

It was the mid-1980s at UC Santa Cruz, and my friend Ken Rudman asked if I wanted to go see a band that was playing for free in The Stevenson College dining hall. He'd heard they were good. With no urgency, Ken, Cathy Lynch and I sauntered in mid-set and discovered the "Real Nighttime"-era Game Theory, filling the cavernous and nearly unpopulated space with exquisite shards of brainiac pop.

We raced up to the lip of the stage and drank in the glory, and when they finished, were compelled to slip into the wings and thank the players for bringing something so gorgeous to us hicks in the sticks. Scott Miller and his bandmates couldn't have been nicer, or more appreciative, and when I expressed regret at having missed my favorite Todd Rundgren song ("Couldn't I Just Tell You"), which I'd seen on the set list, Scott said they'd just have to play it again.

And like the kind of dream you don't want to wake up from, Game Theory went out and did a second set even better than the first. Cathy and I were fervent converts from that moment, sometimes going to ridiculous lengths to catch their shows in San Francisco and spicing our mix-tapes with the perfect Scott Miller composition, of which the only problem was that there were just too many.

But it wasn't easy to spread the word about Game Theory. Lesser bands got the airplay, record label support and the critical acclaim. The records slipped out of print, locked in a crummy contract. Scott's subsequent band, the Loud Family, was terrific, but more sonically challenging. While the cult was ever fervent, Scott grew tired of beating his head against a music industry wall that seemed to have no place for him, and retired.

So it meant the world to me when Scott agreed to play the tenth anniversary Scramarama fest, an achingly lovely acoustic set that brought the venue, a long-derelict vaudeville house in downtown L.A., alive with wonder. And when David Smay and I compiled an anthology of essays about great lost records ("Lost in the Grooves"), Scott would appear twice (Mike Appelstein on "Real Nighttime" and William Ham on the Loud Family's "Interbabe Concern").

Recent years had seen a glacial, but encouraging, return to creative activity. A fine new Loud Family album with Anton Barbeau, the funny and fascinating "Ask Scott" column on the Loud Family website, occasional live performances, and the release of his essential critical compendium "Music: What Happened?" which I was honored to be asked to blurb. And then earlier this year, the announcement of a new Game Theory record in the works, to be called "Supercalifragile."

Then the shocking news of Scott Miller's death, aged 53, on April 15, 2013. It's very hard to accept that such a quick and questing mind has been stilled, that there won't be any more melodies, that this book is closed.

The obituaries have appeared widely, the sort of press Scott too rarely got in life. The marvelous Game Theory recordings, long unavailable, are now free for downloading at Loudfamily.com, and the music is spreading through the ether, finding new converts, blowing minds and breaking hearts, as it was always meant to. The technology finally is a match for the magic, and bad businessmen on ego trips can no longer suppress the beauty that Scott Miller brought into the world. Small comfort, perhaps, but comfort all the same.

The column that appears below was Scott's contribution to Scram #9 (1999), a celebration of his top five most embarrassing favorite records. This piece contains the germ of what would grow into "Music: What Happened?" and I send it out into the ether today, with love, to my friend who has gone ahead and all of us left behind. (Kim Cooper, Editrix)

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Tough Love: Scott Miller's Secret Shame

Now that I'm pretty old (38) and at this point only a little bit chagrined when my tastes in music damage my credibility, I find it a fun idea to select records I like which would cause the most embarrassing public spectacle.

This used to be an easier exercise, by the way. You could once mention liking the Monkees and be martyred lustily. Nowadays, reviled artists from the Carpenters to Kiss have indie support. I sang "We've Only Just Begun" at a friend's wedding last year, thinking the college radio contingent might blink, but no, they thought this was a nice, sensitive song. Add a J-card with a picture of an anorexic Barbie and it could have gone on the comp tape between the Palace Brothers and Sunny Day Real Estate.

But I was just warming up then; the gloves come off now.

Scott’s Shameful Top 5

YES "Relayer" (1974)

This one may have offended a little more profoundly in, say, 1992, before putting-analog-synth-on-everything started anew, but Relayer still delivers a mighty payload to ears unused to side-long prog narrative epics. My reading of the lyrics is that they espouse nonviolence, warning that violence is unknowingly "relayed" from one ostensibly nonviolent party to the next via revenge cycles. Rock lyric writers weren't good on this subject then or now, but looking at content alone Relayer was a very respectable effort. It would have been natural for them to reason that the best way to relate to a large audience would be via a sort of ancient warrior drama, that sort of thing being solid box office at the time. But by the climactic battle sequence (set to a galloping-horsy beat with ARP synth alarums) you'll probably be in full retreat.

Yet, I really like it. I think the lyrics get their point across artfully, and at the end of the battle passage -- I should say, what I take to be a battle passage -- comes one of my favorite prog moments: as the band veers into chaos, the drummer goes into a roll that slows down to discrete whacks, then they crash into a new theme that I think is supposed to be one army's deliverance of the death blow to the other. And boy, it somehow really captures that evil ecstasy. I got the record out this year had to replay that part about ten times (no easy task; Yes were the sworn enemy of cue points) and still wasn't tired of it!

THE THREE O'CLOCK "Sixteen Tambourines" (1983)

Michael Quercio has a high, pretty voice. It's hard to imagine throngs of aggressive counterculture types ever rallying to it. Yet, they did: for years, the Three O'Clock reigned supreme in the California club scene and even had actual chart hits. Most of the rock press thought this was a terrible turn of events, feeling I guess that if the underground were going to assert itself, the party's masculine vigor would be better paraded by a band like Big Black.

Sixteen Tambourines is a gem of an album. It's tight, punchy, imaginative, and possessed of a melodic gorgeousness it should be embarrassing that bands rarely achieve. Just picturing a room full of dour bohemians sneering and wincing at "A Day In Erotica" makes me smile.

THE TUBES "The Tubes" (1975)

It's rare that any satirical record ages well, and seventies drug and sex humor is so very hard to love. It amuses me to imagine playing "White Punks On Dope" for the people at Drag City or Matador, as if they might say "yeah, that's really good, and funny."

There are songs such as "Haloes" that many people would find entirely lovely, but I'm firmly behind this record for all the wrong reasons, too. The arrangement of "Mondo Bondage" is so skillful, yet completely unaffected by common sense, that it seems like some ineffable knockout punch to me. They did S & M shtick when playing this live, but the words are just sort of about how when you're in bondage, it's sad, because you can't move around. Poetry will never soar this high again: "I could run off to Jamaica, if this bondage I could break-a."

CAT STEVENS "Tea For the Tillerman" (1971)

Even before he endorsed the persecution of Salman Rushdie, it was more or less open season on Cat Stevens. Baby boomers felt terribly betrayed that in their youth they put stock in him as a profound, sensitive soul only to discover later that he was usually dismissed by critics as a lightweight.

Of course, what critics routinely miss in all the hubbub is whether or not a record has some good songs on it, and to my ears this one does without question. "Wild World" is delightful, and it was kind of nervy for such a hippie record to be observing that it's "hard to get by just upon a smile." Especially true if you're Salman Rushdie.

GEORGE HARRISON "Dark Horse" (1974)

If the most effective way to engage the new generation of record buyers in 1974 was with strutting rock ala Kiss or Bad Company, then probably the least effective way was with Krishna consciousness. I think it's sad that no one appreciates the strange nobility of George's sticking to that marketing strategy as long as he did. George got knocked all the time for being preachy. Had anyone ever heard of gospel music? It's preachy! And most rock music is fairly preachy, too. Kiss, for instance, used to preach about how the days of sorrow and madness get you under their thumb when you're out the street for a living, and so forth.

Revisiting "Dark Horse" for the first time in years, I was struck by what a solid record it is. The consumptive gasp of a vocal on the title cut sounds swell to me. The weird, marginal cuts like "So Sad" and "It Is He (Jai Sri Krishna)" were charming as hell. I never cared for the song "Ding Dong Ding Dong" before, but found I had the strange desire to hear it several times in a row simply for how rocking a mix it has.

Well, five is probably enough. Thanks, Scram, for allowing me to share. The healing can begin now.

by Scott Miller…as originally seen in Scram #9

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