Hearing about the death of songwriter and Game Theory bandleader Scott Miller gave me the peculiar twinge of regret I imagine people experience when they learn a loved one has passedthat is, a loved one with whom their last encounter was an argument.
Miller and I hadn’t argued. We actually didn’t know each other. Rather, my feeling stemmed from my attempts to reach him in regard to a book I’d been writing, in which I pay tribute to Miller’s song “24,” a scrupulous paean to the self-doubt that accompanies that age. I’d written to him a few times, hoping for some response or commentary. Perhaps I just wanted him to know that the book existed, that I existed, that I loved his music.
When I first heard Game Theory in the late ’80s, I fell hard. Sometimes I’d just go through the longboxes in the G section of Tower Records to see if there was a record I’d missed. Like his major touchstone, Alex Chilton of Big Star, he sang with a precise but gentle tenor that signaled vulnerability. But the production and the words showcased Miller’s baroque sensibility. Album titles riffed on John Cheever (The Big Shot Chronicles), a famed double-play combination (Tinker to Evers to Chance) and a line from a cheesy America song (Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things). There were impossibly cool song titles, including “I’ve Tried Subtlety” and “Nine Lives to Rigel Five.” And there were the women, those mysterious evanescent ones he sang about: “We Love You Carol and Alison,” “The Real Sheila,” “Like a Girl Jesus.”
But it was never just a massively clever guy at work. Miller was high-minded, not high-handed. Anyone who credits himself with “Guitar, miserable whine” does not suffer from excessive self-regard.
More than a year after the book was published, there remained that nagging association with my petulance over never hearing back from him. Death has a way of erasing hurts both big and small. Last week, with my petulance erased, I remembered something.
In late 2000, I had written in to the website of The Loud Family, Miller’s other band. There was a section called Ask Scott. In my over-eager letter, I’d vented my frustration about not being able to find the band’s latest, Attractive Nuisance, in any New York City record store. I couldn’t recall what he’d said, so in a strange way, reading it again on the Loud Family website felt like reading it for the first time. It was as though he’d written back, after all.
Thank you for writing. So many things didn’t quite click in my music career that no particular one irritates me anymore. What I do is somewhat inherently uncommercial (both my content and my not overly obvious vocal merit), and when I look back I’m a little astounded that so many people supported me. It’s weird to reflect that there was a time when I would walk into a record store in London and actually be recognizeda memory that seems oddly parallel to going into the same store as a teenager and being in awe of anyone who had a record on sale there.
So I’m thinking of everyone who bothers to read this on Thanksgiving.
come on pilgrim,
Miller may not have told me about “24,” but he told me something much more valuable:
Be thankful. Buck up. Go crank the Pixies.