Pete Johnson’s Blast From My Past: Steve Miller “Book of Dreams”

I would love to tell you all grand stories of deep intellectual inspiration for this week’s Blast From My Past. I have been on vacation for a week and have not written a review. I suppose that week should have given me time to ruminate on an album that has deep and consequential meaning (which this album does by the way). But the real reason I chose it was for the song “Jet Airliner”. I spent the day getting bumped and delayed on flights trying to get back to NJ from California. “Jet Airliner” was the song that kept popping up in my head.

Steve Miller, singer and guitarist for the Steve Miller Band, performs during a concert. 1988

It did get me thinking though. Steve Miller is one of the great American artists that do not get remembered enough in the top tier of the US musicians. He has a fascinating back-story, as does the album “Book of Dreams” itself. Steve was born in the upper Midwest, to a doctor father and a jazz singer mother. This musical enthusiasm infused with high intelligence created a unique pathway for both his parents and for Steve as well. Steve’s father and mother became friends with the great Les Paul and Mary Ford. To the point they were even in the wedding party for Les and Mary’s wedding. Les first heard a recording of Steve playing guitar at a mere 4 years old.

From the upper Midwest Steve’s family relocated to Dallas, Texas. There he was in proximity to some of the true American giants of music, and particularly guitarists like the amazing T Bone Walker. There are not many contemporary artists that can claim T Bone came to their home and taught them how to play guitar behind their backs and gave lessons on how to pick with their teeth. Other great artists he came into contact with were Charles Mingus and Tal Farlow. There is no equal to being exposed to greatness at such an early age. I think that is why Steve achieved the heights he did musically.

The story of the recording of “Book of Dreams” fascinates me as well. “Book of Dreams” was Steve’s tenth album. Usually, an artist’s career is on the wane after such a long period creative expenditure. The genesis of “Book of Dreams” is musically tied to Steve’s previous record “Fly like an Eagle”. Returning home from tour after the album the “Joker”, Steve had enough money and time to take a year off from the road. This coincided with technology being advanced enough that he could record a large part of both records in his home. He cut roughly 30 basic tracks of the tunes he had written in known studios and then spent the majority of the next year refining them and experimenting in his home studio. The trial and error process led both records to have a level of sonic perfection few albums ever truly achieve.

Classic rock radio ensures that we hear these perfect songs again and again. The moog synth stylings that open “Book of Dreams” are so familiar to me they are imprinted to the point I can anticipate the changes when the song “Jet Airliner” emerges from the still other worldly sounds of “Threshold”. I have stolen so much about mixing sounds and how a great fade in or out works in recording from these records. I honestly believe this album is one of the greatest examples of recording a Fender Stratocaster ever, besides from Jimi Hendrix. The song I will use to make my case is “Swingtown”. Though I must digress a moment to praise the drummer Gary Mallaber. I think the fade in drum and hi-hat groove is one of the greatest ever done, still so funky, solid and cool sounding. Kudos is also deserved to the bassist, Lonnie Turner, who is in the pocket on every track. Then comes the muffled Strat track, coupled with the power chord Strat. The combined effect with the vocals and moog keyboard lines and the pop nature of the song, achieves a unique total effect that I cannot think any other song has ever truly equaled. Really listen to the guitar solo, it is a great and incisive use of a Stratocaster.

Every song on this record is a gem. From the brooding melancholy of “Wintertime”, to the 1950’s pop influence of “True Fine Love”. “Wish Upon a Star” I believe is the source of Dr Dre’s use of keyboards on records like the “Chronic”. “The Stake” is also a great example of Steve still flying the flag for the blues music that he carried in his heart. The whole record has been infused by a truly inspired and competent artist exploring his own creativity and stretching his musical boundaries. “Jungle Love” is a killer track as well, with one of the coolest guitar riffs and turnarounds ever perpetrated in Rock and Roll. “Sacrifice” is another wonderful atmospheric track that gives an insight into a touring musician’s life. This album is great from top to bottom. If you do not own it, rush out and get it today and thank me later. ;o)

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