For Packers fan Steve Miller, there's a little Lombardi in his legendary rock band

Kendra Meinert
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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Steve Miller will break out his many rock hits when he plays a free concert outside Lambeau Field at 7:30 p.m. Saturday as part of the Packers' 100 Seasons. And heck yeah, he's sticking around for the Packers-Bears game the next night.

Some people call him the space cowboy. Some call him the gangster of love.

But ask Steve Miller, and he’ll lay a label on you that never made it into one of his songs. 

“I’m a cheesehead at heart,” he says.

A pioneer of psychedelic rock who went on to make blues-rock his signature sound, Miller is a Wisconsin boy. He was born in Milwaukee in 1943 but moved to Texas when he was 6. It was when he returned to his home state in 1961 as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that he got hooked on the Green Bay Packers — and he can do the name-dropping to prove it.

“From 1961 through really 1965, I watched every game the Packers played and read about every game,” he said by phone from a recent tour stop with his Steve Miller Band in Bend, Oregon. “I was a big fan of Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Max McGee, Ron Kramer, Jerry Kramer, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley. It was just amazing to watch a team coached by Vince Lombardi. I was totally absorbed in that whole time of history for the Packers, and I’ve been a Packers fan ever since.”

Miller gets a chance to show off his allegiance to the team and a music career that earned him induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when he performs a free concert Saturday night outside Lambeau Field for the Packers’ Celebration Weekend and the season-opening game against the Chicago Bears on Sunday. 

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One of the most storied franchises in football is celebrating its 100th season. One of the most iconic names in classic rock is marking the 50th anniversary of his band’s first album and tour. It’s the perfect game plan.

“I never thought as a kid watching the Packers that I would ever be invited to do this, so it works both ways,” Miller said of getting the call for the milestone event. “My grandfather was a football coach. He and my father and my brothers and I, we all played football. We’re real football fans. We love the game. So to be asked to be part of this celebration is absolutely super special. We’re really excited. We can’t wait to get there and just see the team and see Lambeau stadium and see everybody, and the fact that we’re going to get to play music for everybody is just a bonus.”

Miller was back in his hometown last year to play Summerfest’s 50th, but he hasn’t unleashed such hits as “Fly Like an Eagle,” “The Joker” and “Jet Airliner” on Green Bay in more than a quarter-century. Not since a 1992 concert at Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena. Even Miller seems surprised by the gap.

“1992?! Holy Toledo! Everybody ought to be really looking forward to it,” he said, laughing. “We haven’t worn out our welcome. That’s for sure.”

Miller has lived mostly on the West Coast in the last 40 years, but Wisconsin remains dear to him. Some of his best friends are from the state, and he still has family here. It's the home state of his godfather, guitar innovator and Waukesha native Les Paul, who taught him his first guitar chords at age 4.

“Whenever I go back it always feels special. I have a lot of friends and relatives in Wisconsin, friends I went to school with in Madison. We just played homecoming at Madison last year. It’s always great to come back. We have a plan to work with student music scholarships at the University of Wisconsin. We really care about the state and the university. It’s my home.”

The Lambeau show will likely take a cue from the setlist the band put together for this year’s tour. Miller knows everybody wants to hear the hits — he had five go Top 10 on the Billboard charts from 1974 to 1982 — but there will be a few new songs, too.

“We might play ‘On, Wisconsin’ or something. You never know.”

The Steve Miller Band — a well-oiled machine of about 45 people onstage and behind the scenes, including a year-old road dog named Louie — plays 70 cities a year. There’s no mellowing or slowing down for Miller, who moved to New York five years ago to raise his creative environment up a notch. He’s since found himself on the board of directors for Jazz at Lincoln Center and the board of the Department of Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s still taking guitar lessons, still working on music.

Fifty years with the Steve Miller Band has felt more like 50 months.

“To me, it’s gone by so fast. ... Every year you get older you go, ‘Wow, this has gone by fast. Hey, it’s almost over, you know?’ For us, so far, we’re really lucky. Everybody is in good shape. Everybody is healthy. We’re rolling along and having a great time.

“If you can imagine what it would be like for Bart Starr when he was like 36 years old and they said, ‘Well, that’s it, Bart. You know, you’re kind of old and you’re not as good as you were. Now you’ve got to quit.’ That’s what happens to athletes. Whereas if you’re in music you can keep growing and keep getting better and you don’t have to retire at doing something you really love. It’s been a great life.”

The band has already gone through four or five generations of fans but continues to grow its audience. Look out at the crowd on any given night and you’ll see 6-year-olds to 80-year-olds singing along to “Rock’n Me” or “Take the Money and Run.”

“It just looks like friends I want to invite into my house," Miller said. "I feel so good with these people. ... I’ve always taken my audience very seriously and always tried to give them my best whenever I perform. Bring the best band I can and the best sound and the best lights and the best presentation. It’s always just been the way I’ve operated all my life, and it’s paid off really well. If we come to your town and we play to 100,000 people for the Packers and their 100th anniversary and everybody has a great time and they leave with their hearts full of joy, I’ve achieved what I want to do.”

Inductee Steve Miller performs at the 31st Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2016 in New York.

Miller’s iron-clad work ethic was cultivated by growing up an athlete in Texas, where he competed in football, baseball, track, basketball and swimming, and by watching Lombardi’s tough Packers teams of the ’60s. “Such rascals” off the field, he says, recalling Hornung’s suspension in 1963 for betting on NFL games. 

“I always really, really loved Vince Lombardi. Just his drive and his demand for excellence and seriousness. I got a lot of that from my coaches in Texas growing up, and I applied a lot of that teamwork to my band and my organization as I put everything together, “Miller said.

“I always say that our gigs, it’s kind of like you’re in the playoffs when we’re playing. It’s sold out. A lot of people have real high expectations. You don’t want to get too high. You want want to have a really high bar and this high standard, where you’re operating all the time and really bringing it. You’re not faking it. You’re not tired. You’re not whatever. You’re there live on the stage in the moment actually thinking and doing and making choices and being spontaneous, and it’s a lot like sports. 

“That’s kind of how a tour feels to me. We’ve got to perform at this certain level all of the time, so I relate to sports — a lot — and to teamwork. That’s what a band is. We go out, there’s five guys in the band, they say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Steve Miller!’ And boom, the ball gets dropped on the floor, and we pick it up, and we keep moving it around. That’s what we do.”

Miller has attended games at Lambeau in the past, but it’s been ages. He plans to take the Packers up on their offer to stick around and catch the Sunday Night Football game.

“Absolutely. Are you kidding me? These will be the best tickets I get to see any game,” he said. “We’re staying over. We wouldn’t miss it for anything.” 

Put him down for two brats — one with cheese, please.

Not unlike a whole lot of other Wisconsinites you may know, Miller has a good feeling about the Packers-Bears game.

“I’m thinking the Packers have got all these new coaches, and they’ve sucked it up from their bad season last year, and they’ve got a lot to prove. I think the Bears are in real trouble,” he said. “I’m looking for them to whoop some Bears tail. What could be better than to have it be the Bears, right? It’s a great rivalry. When you get older, you understand great rivalries and you really respect both teams, but I would love to see the Packers thrash the Bears and start their season just full tilt. Ready to go.

“So my word to the Packers is 'be great instantly.' You make that the headline.”

How ‘The Joker’ saved his career

“Up until ‘The Joker’ (in 1973), we were considered an underground progressive rock band. AM radio would not play any of our music. We were never invited to play on television. We couldn’t take part in anything. We were treated badly. We were an alternative kind of music ... For the longest time we were just ignored," Steve Miller said.

“Then finally when I released ‘The Joker,’ the record company didn’t particularly think it was a hit or anything, but today we would say it went viral. It just got out, people heard it and boom, it just went all over the country. I sort of had gone around the record company, gone around the radio stations and then established a connection directly with the people with ‘The Joker.’ And then that changed everything.

“I was pretty much at the end of my rope. I don’t think my record company was thinking, ‘Yeah, let’s sign Steve to another five-year-deal’ or anything like that. It’s a tough world trying to make records and have hits and have a record contract and be in show biz. I never considered myself in show biz. I just considered myself a musician and was grateful to have a band and be part of an underground movement that was really different.”

He wrote ‘Space Cowboy’ in 15 minutes

“I was always very serious and am always very serious about my writing and trying to make really good records and write really great songs. But some of them, like ‘Space Cowboy,’ it was written in like 15 minutes. I didn’t even like the song when I wrote it. I didn’t want to release it on the album, and my engineer and my bandmates said, ‘Are you nuts? You have to put that on.’ I said, ‘It’s terrible.’

“Fifteen minutes goofing around in the studio one day and here we are 50 years later. You can go to Fiji and meet the natives and they know who 'the space cowboy' is. It’s mind-blowing. It’s something I never expected. I never thought anything like that would ever happen, that the music would last that long and that it would become part of the culture of the western world, so to speak. I don’t think anybody ever knows that when you start to do something like this. It’s very rewarding."

Do it

Who: Steve Miller Band

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Outside the Oneida Nation Gate in the Lambeau Field parking lot

Cost: Free

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