Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Scott Miller

Two weeks ago, DQ Musicologist Chris Hornbostel mentioned that I should read Music: What Happened?

He was right. I don't think I've ever read a more interesting book about music.

I've also never read one with such brilliant wordsmithing. The language is both wickedly clever and tremendously thoughtful, and every page was a pleasure.

Sadly, the author--Scott Miller--passed away recently. He was an accomplished musician, a tremendous writer, and a brilliant intellect, and Chris agreed to write about his life.
Last month, a fellow you’ve likely never heard of named Scott Miller passed away suddenly at the age of 53. I wasn’t a close friend of his (more like nodding acquaintance), but his death left me mourning in ways that were difficult to comprehend easily.

Scott was reluctant to reveal things about himself easily, and there were things about him that I wouldn’t discover until years after that I might’ve found useful in forming opinions about his work. I first heard of him because he was the leader of a band in the 1980’s called Game Theory, and I enjoyed them a great deal. In interviews he cited all the normal checkpoints--The Beatles, Big Star, Bowie--that 1980’s college radio guitar pop auteurs were required to cite. What intrigued me was hearing Scott Miller also cite James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and a whole variety of difficult literature as influencing his music. Given the cultural references that peppered his song lyrics I had always figured him for a student of English, or perhaps history or philosophy. (Sample lyrics: “It gets harder each night, gonna take a miracle/Gonna take Ernst, Dali, and DiChirico” or “There’s a light on the 19th floor tonight/They don’t know there won’t even be a fight”; your google bar awaits.)  

In the 1990’s (he was touring with his new band, The Loud Family) I discovered how wrong that impression was. Over a conversation initiated by my question regarding an impossible song title of his, Miller told me he’d gotten an engineering degree at UC-Davis back before computer science degrees were common. (The song title in question is usually abbreviated as “Song 22” on Game Theory’s Lolita Nation lp, but the title actually starts “DEFMACROS..” and goes on and on from there for 173 characters and turns out to be programming language stuff.) He was working as a computer engineer and programmer in object-oriented database work. Pressed further, he revealed that he was something of a math, physics, and science prodigy. Indeed, up until his passing he worked as an engineer at a Bay Area software/tech company.

With that information--and studies from prestigious university think tanks  linking music and math affinities in the human mind--I leapt to the conclusion that his arithmetic leanings were the source and structure that drove Scott Miller’s unique and oftentimes brilliant sense of melody. (A critic describes him as “smart pop heaven”; a friend put it as “His songs are like a Hot Wheels track that loops around and goes all over the place”. His friend Aimee Mann simply deconstructed it as “a gazillion chords”.) That was a wrong assumption of mine, too. Last week I heard a clip of Scott playing some of his songs acoustically at a radio station in 1985, and his struggles to remember one of his songs that had been requested on air was revelatory. Hearing him fumble for the right chords, I realized that he didn’t use the math part of his brain to write songs at all, but rather wrote songs the same way as every other musician I knew of, with that un-analytical/more creative part of his mind. That was a shocker--that a person so gifted at an empirical undertaking like math was also somehow skilled at artistic creation...well, that sort of thing doesn’t occur often in humans, I don’t think.

I’d always known Scott Miller to be a literate guy. His interviews over the years reveal a thoughtful, self-deprecating, and humble fellow, but one with a blazing, intellectually curious furnace. Toward the end of his music career he began writing in a sort of ad-hoc manner for an online column on his own website called “Ask Scott” where he was as likely to weigh in on Led Zeppelin as Kierkegaard.

All of that eventually morphed into a book released in 2010 called Music--What Happened. Miller had since childhood kept notebooks where he’d assiduously listed his favorite songs and albums of each year. The pretense of his book was collecting his 20 favorite songs of each year and him writing about them in what ends up as being a sort of chronological written-down mixtape. If that sounds self-indulgent, it ends up not being so. In fact, the personal-ness of his choices fuels the passion and accessibility of his writing. The book turns the neat trick of making you want to hear songs you’ve already heard a thousand times again (and you’ll hear them with new ears; for instance, “Lola” by The Kinks) as well as providing a path and guided tour to new musical discoveries. The writing is sharp, very witty, and occasionally quite touching.  Mostly though, it is accessible. Although Miller never dumbs things down, when he does go into the high weeds of music theory he does so in a way that makes it reasonably easy to follow.

More importantly--on a personal note--is that the book feels like having a conversation with one of the sharpest and most original minds to ever come down the musical pike. I’m naturally drawn by curiosity to persons of uniqueness and intelligence. A real-life talk with Scott Miller could always threaten to be like staring into the sun; if you gave him a free rein of your own nodding and pretend understanding you’d risk hearing him make a point where Jacques Derrida, Cubism, Finnegans Wake, and The Monkees could be equal sums of the whole. Part of Miller’s own genius was to recognize that his head made these connections unique to him. More special was that it fueled a  vibrant personality with a way of expression that allowed him to explain his thinking in a nearly apologetic, un-condescending, almost gentle way. That humility and ease of access is really what comes across in his book, which I suppose now stands alongside his music catalogue as a pretty fitting tribute and legacy.

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