Losing Scott Miller

I’m sure much of my prattling on about music and my own music listening history seems irrelevant to most of those that stumble across the JBE. I really don’t know why that is.

At Lisbon High School, my friends and I all had tastes that ran counter to the Molly Hatchett, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eddie Money, and Meatloaf that most of our classmates were listening to. At the time, this difference and separation was a badge of superiority that we wore prominently. Now, I realize that musical tastes, much like food, are subjective.

We live in a capitalist land, so everything, including art like music (and often, writing) must be commodified, with value assigned to that art—that which sells is relevant—that which doesn’t, doesn’t matter.

Of course, there is music and literary criticism, which assigns value and ranks art in various ways that’s less about the marketplace and more about the supposed quality of the art and possibly, the talent and skill of the artist. This is all a much larger subject than I intend to tackle with this post.

Scott Miller was the lead singer, guitar player, and chief songwriter of the band Game Theory. If you don’t know who Game Theory was, don’t feel bad—most people don’t. They were like a host of other bands across the rock and roll landscape that made really good art but could never figure out how to sell it to the masses. Their records have long been out of print and aren’t easy to find. I’m glad I picked up Big Shot Chronicles (1986) a few years ago; I’m glad it’s on vinyl, as it should be listened to on a turntable, turned up loud, taking me back to days when all my hair was black and the whole world was in front of me. Prior to picking up that Game Theory record, I also owned Tinkers, to Evers, to Chance, a compilation disc, on cassette, back when I was rocking a cassette deck in my ride. The Chicago Tribune wrote in 1990 that Tinker to Evers to Chance, while displaying all of Miller’s shortcomings during the band’s “seven-year history of obscurity”, also made a “powerful case” that Game Theory had been “unjustly overlooked.” Overlooked, indeed!

Scott Miller and Game Theory.

Scott Miller and Game Theory.

Game Theory followed Big Shot Chronicles up with their double-album, Lolita Nation. If reviews could be cashed in, then Scott Miller and Company would have been able to laugh all the way to the bank. Spin, the magazine of music hipsters in 1987, called Lolita Nation “some of the gutsiest, most distinctive rock ‘n’ roll heard in 1987,” with “sumptuous melodic hooks … played with startling intensity and precision,” while simultaneously noting that the band “elected to shinny way out on an aesthetic limb” with “a thoroughly perplexing conglomeration of brief instrumental shards and stabs.”

Another rock critic had the album at #4 on his list of top 100 albums of all time. The record sold poorly and by 1990, Game Theory was no more.

Miller continued to play music, while working as a software engineer. He formed another band in 1991. The Loud Family proffered up a more revved up version of Game Theory, although that description would do the music and Miller’s literate songwriting a disservice.

The Loud Family was named after a real-life family that was the subject of the television documentary, An American Family.  Rolling Stone, another arbiter of American musical tastes, described the name as both “a hip allusion to the mid-Seventies PBS series” and “a clever way to describe the sound and feel of the band. Either way, it’s a great hook – smart, funny and instantly memorable. All of which, appropriately enough, are qualities shared by Miller’s songs.” That’s a decent summation.

I like to write and work to music. Lately, on days when I’m home, scratching out an article, working on book #4, or working on some other paying project, I’ve been dredging up random albums via YouTube. Yesterday was The Loud Family’s, Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things (an allusion to the America song, “A Horse With No Name”). Again, the record was a hit with critics, and sales were minimal.

I played that record and a lot of Game Theory during my stint as a community DJ on WBOR, at Bowdoin College, during the mid-1990s, a time when I was teaching the kids about American music of the Scott Miller (and Alex Chilton) variety.

A few years back, I stumbled across Miller’s blog, “Music: What Happened?” where he shared his own critical musings and wrote intelligently about popular music from the past 50 years. Later it would be published as a book under the same name.

At the end of my workday yesterday, I was curious—what’s Scott Miller up to now on the music front? Nothing, apparently; Scott Miller was found dead at his California home last April. He left behind a wife and two young children.

This article is a nice summary of Miller’s music and includes a number of songs that are all great introductions to his work.

The Guardian, a year before Miller died had this to say about the man and his music:

“Scott Miller was always a little too out of time for his own good, which means his towering talent is near forgotten”, attributing Miller’s cult status to the contradictions of “pretty but muscular pop, characterised by a mix of acoustic and electric guitars, by literate but often non-specific lyrics, by keyboard sounds and production techniques that were sometimes unfortunately era-specific, by Miller’s sometimes quavering and uncertain voice. Too spiky for the chart kids; too smooth for the alternative kids—the curse of Scott Miller was being only himself, rather than finding a movement or a trend he could be part of.”

2 thoughts on “Losing Scott Miller

  1. I’ll admit to being unfamiliar with Miller’s work, mostly because I generally follow “almost antique” musical notes. But your quote sounds about right.

    “We live in a capitalist land, so everything…must be commodified…that which sells is relevant—that which doesn’t, doesn’t matter.”

    A damn shame, I guess. I wonder if it mattered to the artist.

    Nice piece, Jim.

    • Thanks, JAB. Game Theory and The Loud Family, Miller’s later outfit, were important musical markers for me during those difficult years in the 1990s, at the tail-end of the power company years, then the stint selling water treatment systems, insurance, and eventually landing at Moscow Mutual–all to service the gods of capital.

      I know Miller had to have been affected by lack of commercial success, although he was a software developer and must have had the “day job” that kept his art alive. It’s the rare person in our land of hustle not to feel slighted when your music, art, or books/writing is ignored by the masses. Of course, my friend, Ken, from the water treatment days used to tell me, “Baumer; the masses are asses.” He was right.

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