Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Masks: Steve Miller - the Joker

purchase [The Joker, album]

I think it's safe to say that the visual image most people conjure of the joker is some variation of the classic Batman archenemy - pretty much what the cover of the Steve Miller Band's 1973 album of the same name depicts.

You've got to drill down to the fifth page of a google search for the term <joker> before you can get out links to the movies and reach the Mirriam-Webster definition of the generic term, which is what I was looking for. Looking for because I suspicion that the popular association with the Batman character is relatively recent. The first entry at is "a person given to joking". The second is what I was looking for: "a playing card ..". And that is what I suspect would have been the popular visual association up until a few decades ago. Granted, the associated image from a deck of cards is what most of us would term a "jester".

Jester or Joker, Batman or Steve Miller, all "mask up" (Miller's covering and the KISS images that you are familiar with are pretty muchly contemporaneous) You can dig deeper here: there is a Wikipedia category labelled <Masked Musicians> with 114 entries as I write.

We are also aware of the "classical" Greek theater masks, and that's about as far back as written records of their use go. No small number of articles in publications such as Psychology Today look at the masks we all wear, knowingly or not, without actually "putting" them on. When Oscar Wilde said "Be yourself; everyone else is taken.", he was referencing this use of masks - pretending to be something/someone you are not in the face of society.

But this isn't a blog about states of mind - unless you want to consider that music is in fact a state of mind. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to enjoy and consider Steve Miller's Joker. I had been listening to a fair amount of Steve Miller before The Joker. Songs like

Space Cowboy, from Brave New World

and Song for Our Ancestors, from Sailor

I seem to recollect that Joker was a breakout piece for the Steve Miller Band, a trend that continued for a few years after with the similarly well-received Fly Like an Eagle and Abracadabra. The lyrics of The Joker get at the stuff of Oscar Wilde and Pychology Today: a life of many facets. Maurice, the space cowboy, grinner, lover, sinner, joker, smoker, midnight toker. The lyrics also include a "nonce word" [a coined word]: pompatus, as in
'Cause I speak of the pompatus of love.
And there is a Wikipedia article about how that all probably came about.

The list of on-time members of the band include Boz Scaggs, Nicky Hopkins, Les Dudek among another 20 or so that I confess don't mean as much to me. And that is undoubtedly my loss, but one that I can correct somewhere down the road.

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