I remember when I was about 10 years old, sitting on the living room floor playing (Legos, I think), when my father told me something that changed my life. The stereo was on, as it always was in our house. (My parents had “Quadraphonic Sound” – anyone remember that?) A song came on the radio that I hardly noticed, until my dad said, “Do you like this song?”
“Sure,” I said, not really having much to compare it to at ten years old.
“I used to play the drums with this guy,” my dad revealed.
“No way – really?” I was having a hard time believing my dad could be that cool.
“Yeah, really.” It was 1973, the song was “The Joker,” and the “guy” on the radio was Steve Miller. It was at the tender age of ten that I found out a regular person could become a musician. Rock stars weren’t born, they didn’t appear on the earth as if dropped out of heaven – they were regular people who worked hard at a craft and got a few good breaks and ended up making a living doing something they love. And some of them were even known to hang out with everyday folks like my parents.
In the early 60’s, my dad played the drums in a band called the Ascots. They mostly played the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, but also had some summer festival gigs, and once even backed up Bobby Rydell when he was in town (boy did I hear that story a lot). Anyway, for a while, the rhythm guitar player was Steve Miller.
Well, my father opted for dentistry, but he still plays the drums from time to time. And he taught me to play the drums, and now one of my sons plays the drums. As for Steve, he left Madison for Chicago, then San Francisco, and the rest is music history. Since that time, we’ve gone to see the Steve Miller Band just about every time they came to town, and sometimes even traveled out of town to see them. Often we would get backstage passes and get to talk to Steve before or after the concert. Steve Miller is a rock star by anyone’s definition, and he’s one of the best guitar players on the planet. And still he’s an amazingly gracious, humble and personable man for the legend that he is. He was never too busy or too big a star to have time for a guy he played with in a college band – not too mention that drummer’s star-struck kid. He’s even taken the time to be somewhat of a mentor for me in my own musical career, listening to my recordings and writing letters with advice and critique. I’ll always be grateful to him for that. And now I want to share the one piece of advice he gave me that has turned out to be the most profound.
Steve Miller told me to enjoy the journey. He said that if you pursue music because it might bring you to a certain destination, then you’re missing the point. The music is for the journey, not for the destination. Some people write songs and play in bands because they hope that will bring them to the point where they can live a certain lifestyle – lots of money, exotic cars, a big house, the ability to sleep late every day, (oh, if only…). But that’s not what music is for. It may in fact bring you to that point, but probably not – and if you’ve ever seen any of those “behind the scenes” shows on TV, you know that getting to that destination does not guarantee happiness. It’s a short and slippery slope from “True Hollywood Story” to “Celebrity Rehab.” The bottom line is that happiness is not a destination, you don’t “arrive” at happiness. Happiness is how you go about the journey.
So what is music for? It’s an art, it’s not a commodity, simply existing to be bought and sold. It exists to heighten our awareness of human emotions, and to say what needs to be said when words fail us. That’s what music is for, to bring joy to the journey of life. Steve Miller told me that, but I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t believe him until I learned it to be true from experience.
Steve and his wife Kim are great people, and Steve remains one of my favorite songwriters. In fact, in my song Paradise, there is an homage to Steve’s songwriting – see if you can hear it (it’s pretty obvious). Anyway, the special thank-you note on the copyright page of my book Spiritual Blueprint is because Steve personally gave me permission to quote from his song, Fly Like an Eagle. Be sure to check out the Steve Miller Band website.
I’ve written many songs, and played a lot of gigs, and I’ve even been fortunate enough to teach songwriting, but this realization has freed me to write songs for the art of it, and for what the songs will say to people’s spirits, without worrying about whether the song will be commercially successful. This realization has brought me full circle, back to the reason I started writing songs in the first place – because I love to write songs, and finish songs, and perform my songs. If you are a songwriter (or any kind of artist), remember Steve Miller’s advice to me. Go about your life, and don’t worry about where the art will take you. Just let it make you happy along the way.
If you’re not a musician, if your instrument is a CD player, learn to listen to the music and the words as they speak to your spirit, and to the common human experience. Let music connect you to your fellow humans. Don’t just let it go in one ear and out the other – invite it to stay a while, so that wherever you are in your life’s journey, the story will be made better by the soundtrack.