Scott Miller, 1960-2013

April 25, 2013 at 1:08 am (Uncategorized)

(I have started and stopped this post over a dozen times in the last week. Writing it has left me in tears more often than I care to admit. There are many things I want to say about Scott Miller’s art–his music–but right now does not feel like an appropriate time to say them.  Instead, I would like to give a final homage to Scott Miller, the man.)

miller big star

“Our Scott”

Years ago my friend Mike speculated on how odd it must be to be Scott Miller. Imagine that you’re Scott,  a normal guy doing normal guy stuff. You’ve got a job, family, a home, and you do stuff that guys with jobs, families, and homes do 99.99% of the time. But…there’s always that one time for you where you’re having a coffee, or waiting in line at the DMV or eating dinner in a restaurant when someone recognizes you and that someone swarms over you with the kind of adulation normally reserved for people who are a lot less unassuming than Scott Miller was.

That would be the crazy part of being him:  the recognition. Because the thing is, people who would recognize Scott Miller don’t just “recognize” the guy. No, if you’re able to pick him out of a lineup, you’re likely a fan, and if you’re a fan of Scott Miller’s music, there’s not a whole lot of middle ground there.  As such, Mike wondered about the awkwardness of Scott  standing at a urinal stall or browsing in the cereal aisle at the grocery and suddenly getting accosted by one of us over-eager fans desperate to tell an idol how awesome he was.

Don’t laugh. That’s the kind of personal relationship Scott seems to have inspired in so many of his fans.  Something about his music seems to speak personally to those of us who get hooked by it. The joys and pains and happinesses and hurts of life are usually far more multifaceted than we’re easily able to express; Scott Miller’s genius was to embrace the complexity in those emotions and expound upon them eloquently, perhaps too much so to ever capture a mass audience…but for those willing to combine a nerd-ish frame of cultural obsession with a need for introspection, Miller hit like a ton of bricks.

You See The World Just As I Do

My own Scott Miller testimony goes like this. From my senior year in high school into my freshman year in college I’d begun to articulate past the classic rock of my early days to see how folks like REM or the Replacements sort of could trace a connection back to artists and records I was more familiar with. Through the Replacements and an interview in Creem or something, I learned of the existence of Big Star, and paid too much money for a double-length cassette (The People’s Format plays a starring role in this tale of mid-80’s self-discovery) of those first two Big Star albums shortly thereafter. About the same time I’d picked up a copy of Ira Robbins’ Trouser Press Record Guide (1985 version), and somehow decided that based on glowing reviews from the book, I really would like the music of Agent Orange and Plan 9, if only given the actual opportunity of hearing said music. (Yes kids, before the internet you’d buy music based upon critical description of it in words, rather than actually hearing it.)  One aimless afternoon at the MusicVision store in Cave Springs, Missouri in that summer of 1987, I found a cassette called The Enigma Variations 2–basically a label comp for Enigma Records bands. Jackpot. It had not only two songs each from Agent Orange and Plan 9, but also one from Mojo & Skid.

Please don’t laugh. It was 1987.

Somewhere on that tape–probably after the lame SSQ song–this revelatory thing happened.  It was called “Erica’s Word” by a band called Game Theory, writing credit to one S. Miller, the band’s frontman.  I think I rewound the tape and played it over and over again, and then seeing a song called “Shark Pretty” by the same band on the other side of the tape, I listened to that over as well.  Later that same day I was back at MusicVision buying Big Shot Chronicles. I was hooked completely, immediately grabbing onto the connection with and influence of Alex Chilton and Big Star. It likely helped that this same summer the girl I had been dating for 2 years brought the sky down on my head and caused me my first real relationship heartbreak. To say I was ready for the sentiment of “Erica’s Word” or “Make Any Vows” or “Too Closely” at that moment was an understatement.

When I got back to Mizzou in early August of that year (some buddies and I had taken off-campus housing), I happened to hear “Waltz The Halls Always” on KCOU, the campus station I didn’t yet work for but soon would. This was revelatory. I hadn’t yet been able to track down the EP with “Shark Pretty” on it, so I’d assumed it was very rare (it was in the midwest) and guessed that all Game Theory stuff to be similarly hard to come by. “Waltz” was a totally new song to me, and it amazed me, and thus later that day I was delighted to discover Real Nighttime at Streetside Records on Broadway. Still remember that Robb Moore rang up the sale and said “This is a great record,” and made sure that I already had BSC.

(A brief interlude: I cannot believe I have thus far failed to mention that for the time being, every Game Theory album can be snagged and downloaded for free  here:  http://www.loudfamily.com/ If you don’t have them, you need them. Start with “Erica’s Word” like I did.)

That fall before Lolita Nation came out, I wrote a fan letter–something I absolutely never had done before or since. In fact, I didn’t think of it as a fan letter. Although there was a fan club address on the cover of Big Shot Chronicles that I had to address the letter to, I think I had the pretension to say something snotty to the effect of “Hey, this is for Scott, really don’t much do the fan club thing, thanks.” Basically, I wrote Scott and told him I was a big fan, told him how much his music meant to me, how much it helped me get through blah blah blah. Typical stuff, I’m sure. I was stunned a few weeks later when Scott wrote back, and wrote a longer letter than I’d sent. He thanked me profusely for taking the time to write, mentioned that he hoped they’d get  to Columbia on their next tour (they’d missed my college town on their most recent). I’d mentioned I had family in the San Francisco area in my letter. Scott’s letter ended with him saying that if I had free time on a visit to give him a call to maybe hang out.

Seriously. It said that. Still have it.

Perhaps that doesn’t make an impact, so let me try to couch it in ways that can help makes sense for how that hit me: imagine writing to Leonardo Da Vinci to tell him how much you admire his art, and Leo messages you back with “Thanks! We should have a beer together sometime if you’re ever in Milan.”

When Game Theory did get to Columbia for their final major tour after the release of 2 Steps From The Middle Ages, I was stunned when Scott seemed to almost recognize me before I introduced myself.  I wouldn’t see him again until 1993 on the first Loud Family tour. That time he walked right up to me in the basement at Cicero’s and said “Hi…Chris, right?” That’s how things continued. Saw the Loud Family play two shows in St. Louis, saw them twice in Chicago after I moved there, had a water or coffee or beer with Scott at a few of those shows and just sort of chatted about whatever.

A Nice Guy As Minor Celebrities Go

I tell all that not to paint myself as an insider or blow my own horn. Hardly could be any less true. The reason I tell that story is because there are perhaps 200-300 folks across the country who Scott Miller treated the same way. People who this unbelievably talented artist made to feel like a friend, made to feel important in our own ways. 200-300 people who likely have pretty much the exact same Scott Miller story of their own to tell. I’ve heard stories of fans who were 18 and not allowed into a club where Game Theory was playing, and Scott resourcefully having that person carry a guitar into the club and informing the staff there in all seriousness that said teenager was an essential member of the band’s road crew, thus allowing that person to stay for the show. One memorable story I read was from a fan who informed Miller after a Game Theory show that she was bummed the band didn’t do “Together Now Very Minor”.  Scott put that person on a guest list for the next show up the road, and told her to get there for soundcheck if possible. When she arrived the rest of the band had already split to grab a pre-show meal and she found Scott the only person still hanging around the club. Miller dutifully pulled out a guitar and played “Together Now” solo in an empty club for one person’s enjoyment.

Scott Miller also never just signed his name on an autograph. His signatures always conveyed a sense of whimsy and artful amusement, like so (clicking the images embiggens; I am reliably informed that the bottom image is exceedingly funny for folks who know their Star Trek):

scottsigns2

scottsigns1

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She’ll Be A Verb When You’re A Noun

Although reading interviews with Miller over the years reveals a thoughtful, humble and deep thinker, none of that prepared me for the brilliance of Scott Miller’s music criticism. Published as a book a few years ago, Music:  What Happened? is almost absurdly good. The premise is simple: Miller had kept notebooks listing his favorite songs of every year in order, chronologically from 1957. The book allowed him to present songs from those lists as a sort of written-down mix-tape, with amazingly spot-on, funny, and sometimes moving commentary about each song and artist. One of my favorite pieces touches on a completely counter-intuitive premise, but one the author defends brilliantly:

“The nineties were better than the eighties, and one key reason was that there was less originality. Originality is unmusical. The urge to do music is an admiring emulation of music one loves; the urge toward orginality happens under threat that the music that sounds good to you somehow isn’t good enough. In the nineties, bands pretty much all had a single thought:  we want to be the next Nirvana. Bands had the least fear in years that following their hearts and doing straight fuzz-guitar pop-rock was somehow old-fashioned. There were a lot of good songs. Life was simple.”

The book is full of similarly smart, thoughtful, and well-argued points that will make you go diving into your record collection to hear songs you know by heart in new ways. Perhaps even better, it sends you down paths of exploration into new music happily and willingly. That’s a tough trick to turn for a music writer.

DEFMACROS / HOWSOMETH /INGDOTIME /

In the most recent post to this you can find the link to donate to the education fund for Scott Miller’s two daughters. Perhaps most heartbreaking things for me to read over the last week were comments there from folks who likely had no idea that they were working alongside a beloved musician–Scott’s co-workers at the tech company where he was an engineer. They perhaps didn’t know Miller as the guy who wrote the soundtrack of the uncomfortable post-collegiate years of so many others. No, they knew Scott as the warm and funny and interesting and helpful co-worker. It always rather boggled my mind that a guy who wrote such agile, gorgeous melodies and who clearly had such mastery of pop culture and literature had earned an engineering degree from UC-Davis.  I know engineers.  As a matter of fact, I know plenty of them. Engineers just…well, they sure don’t know (or care) who Eliot or Joyce were, that’s dead certain.  At least not usually.

Always The Eyes, Never The View

It is also worth noting that Scott Miller was very much into visual artistry. Looking back at Game Theory covers and then on into the Loud Family, Miller’s infatuation with elements of graphic design and typography are obvious and on display. What I never realized was the gift he had for drawing. Scott’s lovely wife Kristine (who has frankly been a marvel in the last week, managing to somehow through her own grief share remembrances and nuances of Miller with fans) posted these sketches of her and the family that Scott had done fairly recently:

scottsketch1

scottsketch2

These were sketched from original family portraits. As Mrs. Miller tells it, Scott would likely dismiss any compliments on the work because he’d just been drawing from photographs, but even so…the likenesses are stunning and accurate and perhaps capture even more than the photos they’re based on can convey. So yeah. Dude could draw too. Kind of amazing.

Go Ahead And Scare Me With The End

I realize that at this point I’m mostly rambling about the death of a guy I knew only in passing. I guess what I really wanted to convey is maybe a fraction of why those of us who are so sad and grief-stricken and bewildered right now feel that way. The world is a messed up, arbitrary, frequently angry and ugly place. It needs people in it like Scott Miller to shine the light on the beautiful and worth-living parts of it.  One of those lights has dimmed now, and that’s why I am so sad. Scott Miller was one of the most unique and interesting and charming and humble and talented and beautiful human beings I have ever had the pleasure to have known, and I will miss the light he brought into the world terribly.

scottsigns3

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25 Comments

  1. Bill Belt said,

    I’ve been roaming the internet, looking for information about Scott and his fans, searching for company in my grief, and came upon your article. It’s the best description of what I loved about Scott Miller that I’ve read yet. Thanks.

  2. Gordon said,

    Great write-up. Thanks very much.

    I worked with Scott at his most recent job and I too have been roaming the internet, learning more and more about him each day. I only wish I knew what I know now when he was still alive.

    He would bring his two girls to work sometimes and sit them down in the cube next to mine. They are SOOOOOO cute! Even when they banged on the wall and shook my monitor, I had to smile.

  3. Chris said,

    Bill, thanks so much for the kind words. I’ve been doing the same thing and have found solace in the shared experiences of so many others.

    Gordon, thanks very, very much for sharing that! Can’t tell you how much it means to hear from folks who knew Scott and interacted with him under the more “regular” circumstances of work and family.

    • Gordon said,

      I should say more about who Scott was to me. Honestly, he wasn’t anyone “special,” He was very low key; but very approachable and supportive. He was positive in an “easy” way. A true gentleman, in every respect.

      I was able to get him to laugh a few times and that meant something, because I didn’t see that from him very often. He always reminded me of Lyle Lovett, but now I understand that he had more musical talent.

      Again, if I knew then about him what I know now, I would have made and extra effort to dig deeper and gotten to know him personally. A very interesting and worthy guy, in retrospect. And it’s that “retrospect” part that sucks for me and many of the others at MarkLogic.

  4. Anonymous said,

    Thank you for this beautiful piece. It touches on the big stuff that we are grieving, and articulates our awe in the face of Kristine’s grace and generosity, and the impact of Scott in our lives. Scott’s effect was personal and intimate and open and joyous. His intellect was devastating, his curiosity and openness inspiring, and his kindness more so. Your daVinci reference hit close to home.While not a unique experience, my husband and I hosted Scott (and others) at our place. My heartfelt and ultimately failed attempt to convey the wonder, joy and humility of that to friends and colleagues was something like, “imagine that John Lennon is in your home, on your couch, petting your cat, chatting with you, kind and warm and funny and giving and…well, okay…think Einstein…but no, that’s not right…Lennon is a better analog. Or maybe not. So, yeah, um, it was special. ” Lame, huh?

    • Bill Belt said,

      This morning I was writing to a friend, trying in vain to convey what I’m feeling, when I happened upon your Lennon analogy. I hope you’ll forgive me for swiping it, otherwise I’d no doubt have spent another hapless hour staring at my keyboard.

      As an east coaster, I never met Scott, or even saw him play. All I knew about him was his music and his writing, including a couple of exchanges between us on his Ask Scott blog. And a bit about the company he kept, I suppose, like Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey and Aimee Mann. Yet what I knew of him made me absolutely positive that, had we known each other and had I been able to get past all my awkward idolatry, he’d have been my friend. At least if I’d had anything to say about it.

      Heck, who am I kidding? He WAS my friend, even though he couldn’t know it. I knew what he thought and felt about a lot of things, to the point I was convinced I knew who he was as a person, maybe as well or better than I know some of my actual friends. But last week he took a chunk out of my certainty. What did I really know? What did I miss?

      In my personal and professional life, I’m surrounded by mental illness, and mood disorders in particular. I certainly was well aware of Scott’s many depressive lyrics, and of the resignation that imbued his later work especially. But underneath wasn’t he always too positive, too sunny, too giving to leave us this way? Yes, he saw the stupidity and irony and fatefulness of the world, but hadn’t he risen above all that? And did he not have a wife and two little girls? What anguish must he have felt, and spared us from, that he could have taken himself away from us, and, my god, from them?

      A guy three thousand miles away that I never met is gone. Why does it feel like he took a piece of me with him?

      • Tom G said,

        “What anguish must he have felt, and spared us from, that he could have taken himself away from us, and, my god, from them?” Bill, is this speculation on your part or have you come across further information about Scott’s passing? I ask in all sincerity as the mystery of how he died troubles me still. Thank you.

      • Bill Belt said,

        Tom, I have no concrete information and speak only from inference. But the suddenness, the stunned-but-not-completely-surprised reaction of those closest to him, and the lack of commentary about cause (which may reflect the desire to protect his progeny) are all highly suggestive. Like you, I’d be less troubled were I to learn my inference is false, albeit no less bereft.

  5. Chris said,

    The Lennon analogy is interesting to me, mostly because I used it in the first draft of this…but decided it didn’t quite hit the note I wanted to hit. I’ve got a rough draft of a post that will hopefully explain some things better that I’ll post up next week sometime.

  6. dennis sacks said,

    Really REALLY awesome remembrance of Scott. This is just so sad for everyone. You really nail his interaction with fans. We all do have our own similar tales. Thank you!

  7. Chris said,

    For Tom:
    You may assume by the lack of discussion on the how and why of Scott’s passing that it is a sensitive subject and likely always will be. From that sentence you may infer some things, and those things you are inferring would likely be correct and confirmed by folks close to Scott and his closest friends and family and I will leave it at that. I would hope that Kristine and his girls–if they should ever drop by this post–would find some solace in a dorky fan’s remembrance of someone they knew far better than I, and I would like this post to remain that source of comfort.

    • Tom G said,

      Thanks, Chris. As befits my namesake and state of birth (MO) I needed to be shown the “prints of the nails in his hands”. Please delete my initial comment if you feel it best. I would like your post to be a source of comfort to his family as it was to me.

      • Chris said,

        Fellow Show Me stater here as well, Tom! Your post is fine, and it’s a question that’s going to come up, frankly. There’s a facebook page for all things Scott/Game Theory/Loud Family, and the subject was briefly addressed and confirmed there by persons in a position to know more than me. I think there may come a point when things related to this can be delicately discussed a bit more in terms of the music, perhaps, but I’m not quite ready for that.

  8. Jonathan Segel said,

    How odd is must be to be Scott Miller, doing normal guy stuff, when suddenly your brain floods with an incredible set of words describing the scene, words that would have bubbled up through the brains of no other human being, words that fall precisely in a beautiful sequence to convey something that so many experience but nobody can describe with both the same feeling but also laden with such a heavy set of potential references to things only important to those who may also have similar experience… and to have them come to you in such amazing melodic phrase…

  9. Aunt Mimi (@amiehartnett) said,

    Awesome.And, based on my experience, totally believable/accurate. (I’m the gal for whom he played, “Together Now…” for at a sound check in Milwaukee!)

    • Chris said,

      I’m so glad you saw this, and hope mentioning the experience you wrote about on facebook was cool. It was one of many things I’ve seen and read that brought some solace in a very sad period of time.

  10. Cameron said,

    Thank you for writing this. I never met Scott or had the opportunity to see and hear him play. I too was introduced to his music when a friend played “Erica’s Word” for me. I had never heard anything like it and was instantly hooked. To this day I get chills when listening to “Throwing the Election”, “Erica’s Word”, or “Room for One More, Honey” It makes me feel happy that there are other people in the world who were as touched by his music as I have been.

    • Chris said,

      Thanks for the kind words, Cameron. It’s crazy to me that I’ve written so much about Scott in the past week or so, and yet I don’t think I’ve mentioned “Throwing The Election” even once…and that might be in the running for my Scott Miller Fave Five songs ever. Thinking about him using the Watergate break-in as a metaphor for relationship betrayal…that’s just astonishingly brilliant. Glad it’s on others’ lists as a favorite as well!

  11. Aunt Mimi (@amiehartnett) said,

    Yeah, it was cool – not sure how you extrapolated the part about the “pre-show meal” though? Artistic license, I suppose? 🙂

    • Chris said,

      More likely transposed memories. Was at a couple of Game Theory/Loud Family shows in the day and noticed that they tended to go get fed/do laundry/wander around once they’d finished soundcheck.

      • dennis sacks said,

        My first time meeting Scott and seeing him play was at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco. I was so anxious to see the Louds – I walked into the club early – no bouncer yet – the band was doing a sound check – the waist and the knees, which I didn’t expect to hear live.

        After they finished I walked up to the stage and said “Hi, I’m Dennis from Phoenix”. I had been emailing Rob Poor, so he knew who I was. They invited me to join them across the street for a meal before the show.

        It was all surreal. I had a salad, chatting with Rob, talked about how I had discovered Game Theory. We walked back across to the club. It was an amazing show.

  12. C said,

    Excellent post. Thanks.

  13. Cathy said,

    Just spent the past 24 hours with my sister and my best friend, and talked way too much about Scott Miller and Game Theory. They tried to be cool about it, but eventually started to get that glazed look I’ve been seeing on my husband’s face lately. I can’t help it. While I’ve been able to share my grief and memories with the folks on the Facebook page, none of my close friends or family is/was a fan, and they just don’t “get it.”

    Scott wrote easily a dozen or more of my all-time favorite songs, including “We LoveYou Carol and Allison,” “Together Now, Very Minor,” “Don’t Entertain Me Twice,” “Never Mind,” “If and When It Falls Apart,” “Erica’s Word,” “I’ve Tried Subtlety”…I could go on and on.

    And I’ve used an analogy remarkably similar to the John Lennon/Leonardo Da Vinci one outlined here on my husband.

    I met one of my idols (Boston, 1988, The Rat), and he talked to me like a regular person. And he answered not one, but two gushing “fan letters,” with handwritten postcards that I still have. How many people can say that?

    Rest in Peace, Scott. God knows you deserve to.

  14. INCINERATOR (@incineratormuse) said,

    This is amazing. Thank you so much for sharing this. Honest to god and from my heart and soul.Best,LILIA

  15. Anonymous said,

    I just found out tonight. I am stunned. I was creating a Pandora channel for Game Theory (because I didn’t think the Loud Family channel covered the territory adequately) and was reading the bio on the band on the screen that came up and there it was staring me in the face.

    My best friend suggested I give GT a listen back in the late 80s (I think his recommendation was Lolita Nation along with The Replacements’ “Hootenany” both of which I promptly purchased to my everlasting good fortune) and I became an instant fan. Like I’ve seen it expressed elsewhere, I often expressed amazement to Andy (my friend) that neither Game Theory nor Loud Family ever had a hit record. I passed this off to lack of marketing but I knew his music was just a little too challenging to be widely popular (if often incredibly infectious).

    I never got to see Scott perform – I live in Texas and that made it pretty tough. My brother lives in New York and last year I went to see a Feelies concert with him and Andy. After the show I walked up to the stage and started talking to Bill Million. I thanked him for allowing me to cross the Feelies off my bucket list of artists to see in person. The only one I really had left was Scott Miller – he nodded, understood.

    This really sucks. We born the same year. Coincidence, I know, but it seems to make it seem worse to me.

    My heartfelt and belated sympathies to his family. Shit.

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