Like A Boy Genius: RIP Scott Miller

During one of the worst job interviews of my life, with former Pioneer Press executive editor Vicki Gowler, I was asked to recall the best compliment I had ever gotten. Huh? I froze. Vicki yawned. I confessed I couldn’t think of one. I got the job, anyway, and when I told my future boss later that it was the worst interview of my life, she confessed that she had no recollection of it.
So it goes.
But that question stuck with me, and when I occasionally get a compliment — rare for a sportswriter of any stripe — I tend to remember. Two have stuck with me. The second came in about 2007, my second season covering the Wild. Mike Russo and I were walking back from the morning skate on a beautiful fall day in Calgary when we spied Jacque Lemaire ahead of us. He must have noticed us, too, because he slowed down so we could catch up and we all chatted until we got the Marriott, where Russo got off.
Lemaire and I were headed to the Westin, about seven blocks farther, and kept chatting. He asked me what I had been doing before covering the Wild and how long I had been covering hockey and I told him I had never covered a hockey game until getting my current gig. He looked at me, raised his eyebrows and said in that magnificent French-Canadian accent, “You have a very good understanding of the game.”
Hall of Fame coach; hard to forget that.
The first came from Scott Miller, who died April 15 at the age of 53, too early for anyone. It was a bigger deal. My old Iowa City band, a power-pop outfit called the Kingsburys 20 years behind its time, would get a lot of opening slots for like-minded real bands that rolled through town in the mid-’90s. Our best assignment was opening for Miller’s second band, the Loud Family, upstairs from the local pool hall. We were, of course, first on a bill of three. The second band was a coterie of XTC acolytes with no sense of humor called Sugarplastic (or something). I’m sure they have their own acolytes now.
Anyway, we were awful. I had been a big fan of Miller’s first band, Game Theory, since their first record, “Real Nighttime,” had come out around 1985; had seen them play an inspired show at Gabe’s in 1987. So I was eager to make a good show of it. But we didn’t. The harmonies were off from the get-go; worse, we had no energy. Midway through a mercifully short set, the bassist’s entire rig crashed, which was funny to everyone but me. I played a song on my own while comedy ensued behind me and after that we were somehow worse. I was crushed.
But afterward, Miller, who had been sitting conspicuously (to me) at the bar watching — rare for the “big act” — made a point to find me after the set.
“I like your songs,” he said. “They have real melodies; not many bands do anymore.”
Well, he sure as shit didn’t have to do it. That he was trying to make me feel better somehow mattered more than whether he really thought my songs were any good.
“Thanks,” I said, still unavoidably dejected. “That means a lot coming from you.”
“Oh,” he said — and I’ll never forget this — “I’m nothing.”
I nearly said, “You wrote ‘Like A Girl Jesus,’ Scott. C’mon, man.” But I didn’t, just generally assured him of his stature in my world.
Now he’s dead and I’m sad. Ony 53, he was working toward recording a new Game Theory record this summer, which I didn’t know. I also didn’t know he shares a birthday with my son, and that he had just celebrated it.  I was stunned when Lennon was shot; confused when Dennis Wilson drowned. But Scott Miller was, essentially, my age. One of us, only better.
Miller was a real voice; an inimitable songwriter and underrated guitarist with a sweet voice and uninhibited gift for melody. His lyrics mined a middle-class life of music and girls, and if that makes him sound like fellow Californian Brian Wilson, well, it’s not unapt. Miller’s lyrics were nothing like Brian Wilson’s — or Tony Asher’s or Gary Usher’s — yet evoked the same mix of excitement and dread, glee and melancholia that only a teenager can muster. Even at 47, I’m still sent there by Game Theory. There is nothing more profound than the right minor chord in the right place, and that combination of an aching melody and immature angst is unbeatable, and the great Game Theory songs are many.
The first I ever heard, “24,” the opening track on the first Lp, still jumps from the speakers every time I hear it. The list goes on — “Too Closely,” “The Real Sheila,” “Mammoth Gardens, ” “If and When It Falls Apart” and, my favorite, “Rolling With the Moody Girls.” 
MIller also was a terrific band leader, putting together a unit of different voices and styles, sometimes ceding a beautiful melody to guitarist Donnett Thayer. As a result, Game Theory is one of a handful of bands — the Smiths some directly to mind — that both define the ’80s yet still sound fresh today. Miller went to UC-Davis and I visited Davis, Calif., while interviewing at the Sacremento Bee in the late 1990s. It’s one of the loveliest towns I’ve ever been to, and it looks like Game Theory sounds — lush and green, straddling academia and suburbia, the cerebral and the mundane.
To celebrate Miller, the webmistress of his site has made the five Game Theory records, plus their best-of, available for free download. Please take advantage of this largesse. If you’ve never heard them, I envy you.
I read here that Miller wrote a book about music and I’m so sorry I never knew that. Sorry, frankly, that I never really listened to the Loud Family, either. Even that night in Iowa City. I went home, stuck in my own head. Miller  clearly spent a lot of time in his own head, but he wasn’t stuck there.
I know this for a fact because one night back in the mid-90s, Scott Miller went out of his way to make a fellow musician he didn’t know feel better about himself.
God bless you, Scott.

3 thoughts on “Like A Boy Genius: RIP Scott Miller

  1. Great tribute, man. You really nailed it. Enjoy reading “Music: What Happened?”. Oh, and give the Sugarplastic another chance! (you nailed that, too–they sounded exactly like XTC!)

  2. Such a lovely tribute to a generous and kind soul. I have a similar Scott story — I had started a zine back in the late 80s and sent Scott a copy of an issue where I reviewed Lolita Nation. He sent me back a postcard saying that he thought the zine had “way better writing than your average fanzine.” My 20-year-old self was over the moon that someone who I thought was a brilliant writer thought I was a good writer, too! Whenever I had nagging doubts about my writing ability I’d always think back to Scott’s words and it would instantly make me feel better. Now over 25 years later I still cherish those few kind words. And I went on to become a writer and editor in “real life.” I hope Scott realized before he left us how his kindness and thoughtfulness helped so many.

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