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Steve Miller's 'Joker:' Pompatus, Maurice And The Space Cowboy, Lyrics And Meaning

Music | January 12, 2021

Steve Miller wearing the creepy mask on the cover of the 1973 album 'The Joker.' Source: shopify.com

From its first lines, Steve Miller's 1974 #1 hit "The Joker" is a jumble of enigmatic lyrics: Are we supposed to call him the Space Cowboy, Gangster Of Love, or Maurice? And what's the meaning of "pompatus?" And then there's that bridge, where he seems to break into lyrics from an entirely different tune, with the bit about peaches and "Lovey Dovey" -- what's up with that?

Perhaps the mystery makes it a better song -- from "American Pie" to "You're So Vain," we as listeners enjoy trying to tease out the meaning of lyrics we know by heart. The names Miller lists are references that faithful fans of the Steve Miller Band would get, and the lines that sound like they were pinched from somewhere else were indeed pinched from somewhere else. In fact, he ended up getting sued over them.

Which leaves "pompatus" -- is that just a made-up word, or what? Basically, yes -- although it too was lifted from a song by another artist.

Today, "The Joker" is among the most popular classic rock staples. It was the hit that broke the Steve Miller Band, setting the stage for the successful singles that followed: "Take The Money And Run" (#11), "Rock'n Me" (#1), "Fly Like An Eagle" (#2), and "Jet Airliner" (#8).

Steve Miller Band Went Through A Blues And A Psychedelic Phase

Steve Miller and a few friends moved to Chicago in the ‘60s to form a blues band and play across all the iconic venues of the blues-infused city. Boz Scaggs was even a part of the group until 1968, when he dropped out to embark upon his own successful solo career. The Steve Miller Band moved to San Francisco in 1966 to join the thriving psychedelic scene, and their own sound morphed with this mind-bending music of the city. Between 1968 and 1972, they released seven albums of psychedelic blues-rock with avant-garde tunes that never reached above no.69 on the charts.

The Joker Was A Completley New Sound For The Band

By the early ‘70s, The Steve Miller Band almost became an entirely new band as their sound took a complete 180 turn. They released the album The Joker in 1973 and replaced their psychedelic, experimental music with a laid-back, melancholy, and polished sound perfect for a lazy Saturday. This smoother style found more success with listeners, as the album reached #2 on the Billboard 200. The most popular song from The Joker was the title track where Miller boasts about being an ultra-cool guy who has a lot of sex and smokes heaps of marijuana while kicking back and simply enjoying life.

Unlike their previous artsy songs, The Joker doesn’t go too deep and is just a goofy sunshiney tune full of humorous anecdotes and a message of enjoying life that would be great to play in a weekend jam session. It was a way for Miller to celebrate his free-spirited nature and lifestyle that would otherwise be criticized. The wolf whistle on the slide guitar adds to the song’s lightness by producing a noise that sounds like a cartoon character’s heart just fell out of their chest at the sight of their crush.

Steve Miller Referenced His Older Song Titles In The Joker

"The Joker" takes a very unique, although at the same time unoriginal, approach of joining together a mix of previous lyrics from his own songs and the songs of other bands. The three names he mentions refer to songs off his early albums. The “Space Cowboy” was a tune from his 1969 album Brave New World; “Gangster Of Love” is a track from the 1968 album Sailor; and “Maurice” comes from the song "Enter Maurice" from the 1972 album Journey From Eden. It's possible that Miller was paying homage or even bidding farewell to his older psychedelic personae as he abandoned the trippier sound for his new melodic style.

The Made-Up Word 'Pompatus' Is A Distortion Of Another Made-Up Word

Source: discogs.com

Steve Miller not only referenced his own songs, but also others’ famous tunes which got him into some trouble. The phrase “pompatus of love” is also a quote from "Enter Maurice," which contains the lines:

I can whisper sweet words of epismetology
in your ear and speak to you of the pompatus of love.

"Pompatus" might have been Miller's own invention, but the presence of "epismetology" leads music historians to believe it came from the 1954 tune "The Letter" by The Medallions, specifically the lines:

let me whisper
sweet words of pizmotality
and discuss the puppetutes of love.

Miller's "epismetology ... pompatus" pretty clearly echoes "pismotality ... puppetutes." Miller thought of “pompatus” as meaning a sort of professor or master of love, sex, and relationships. But Vernon Green, who wrote "The Letter," said that he made up the word "puppetutes" to describe "a secret paper doll fantasy figure." So while Miller was working with Green's made-up word, he didn't quote it exactly nor did he know its meaning -- so in effect, he created a new made-up word, one which never quite made it into the official Oxford Dictionary. "Pompatus" has taken on a life of its own as a slang term and was even used for the 1996 film The Pompatus Of Love

Ahmet Ertegun Sued Steve Miller

Source: Rhino Records

We're not done yet, though -- the song also pays tribute to a 1954 song by The Clovers, "Lovey Dovey" with the lines 

You’re the cutest thing that I ever did see
Really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree
Lovey dovey, lovey dovey, lovey dovey, all the time

Well, "pays tribute" one way of putting it -- others might call it plagiarism.  Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun, who co-wrote the tune two decades earlier, sued Steve Miller and earned himself some songwriting credit. The song is also heavily influenced by Allen Toussaint’s 1972 tune "Soul Sisters," in which the same bass lines and guitar effects are played in the introduction, but it features an entirely different melody and chorus along with distinctive lyrics.

'The Joker' Changed Steve Miller Band’s Legacy

Although it was his first attempt to tackle the genre, Steve Miller mastered the pop formula with his iconic song. Miller continued to take the poppier course of music with his albums that followed throughout the next decades up until now. The Joker went on to reach no.1 on the UK Singles chart in 1990 when it was featured in a Levi’s television commercial, which broke the record for the longest gap between transatlantic chart toppers. Even in the modern world, the light-hearted song can be heard all over from department store speakers, rock concerts, and radio stations as it doesn’t seem to be disappearing any time soon.

'The Joker' Lyrics

Some people call me the space cowboy, yeah
Some call me the gangster of love
Some people call me Maurice
'Cause I speak of the pompatus of love

People talk about me, baby
Say I'm doing you wrong, doing you wrong
Well, don't you worry, baby, don't worry
'Cause I'm right here, right here, right here, right here at home

'Cause I'm a picker, I'm a grinner
I'm a lover and I'm a sinner
I play my music in the sun

I'm a joker, I'm a smoker
I'm a midnight toker
I get my loving on the run

You're the cutest thing that I ever did see
I really love your peaches, want to shake your tree
Lovey-dovey, lovey-dovey, lovey-dovey all the time
Oh, baby, I'll sure show you good time

'Cause I'm a picker, I'm a grinner
I'm a lover and I'm a sinner
I play my music in the sun

I'm a joker, I'm a smoker
I'm a midnight toker
I get my loving on the run

I'm a picker, I'm a grinner
I'm a lover and I'm a sinner
I play my music in the sun

I'm a joker, I'm a smoker
I'm a midnight toker
I sure don't want to hurt no one

People keep talking about me, baby
Say I'm doing you wrong
Well, don't you worry, don't worry, no, don't worry, mama
'Cause I'm right here at home

You're the cutest thing I ever did see
I really love your peaches, want to shake your tree
Lovey-dovey, lovey-dovey, lovey-dovey all the time
C'mon, baby, and I'll show you a good time

Tags: Number-one Singles | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | The Steve Miller Band

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Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.