Offstage, Steve Miller drops all the masks of his rock star life: the Joker, Gangster of Love, Space Cowboy. He answers every question, except for the big one.
What exactly is the "pompetus of love," the cryptic phrase that crops up both on his 1973 hit "The Joker" and on his new album?
" Pompetus of love will be written on my tombstone. I'm sorry, I can't tell you," Miller says, mock-seriously. "Whatever you think it means is what it means."
The Joker laughs.
"It's a good topic in an interview, don't you think?" he asks.
Lounging in a hotel room, wearing a white T-shirt, khaki pants and plastic-rimmed glasses, Miller's appearance is in stark contrast to his onstage persona of the guitar-slinging, dressed-in-black rocker who never takes off his sunglasses.
He began his recording career more than a quarter-century ago in San Francisco during the Summer of Love and played at the Monterey International Pop Festival. He doesn't tout himself as a rock survivor, but admits the term fits.
"I've had many careers," he says. "I've been No. 1 a bunch of times and No. 5,000 a bunch of times."
Miller, who turns 50 in October, is out to reclaim his crown as king of spacey pop, a title he earned with his 1970s albums "Fly Like an Eagle" and "Book of Dreams." His first studio album in five years, "Wide River," is in the stores and he's on the road for a North American summer tour that began June 4 here and continues in Southern California with shows July 29-30 at the Greek Theatre and July 31 at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.
A staple of "classic rock" radio, Miller is playing for a second generation of teen-agers.
"They still like those tunes that I recorded 20 years ago, and that's what they're buying and listening to today," said Miller, whose greatest-hits package has sold more than 6 million copies.
"So I have a brand-new audience. It's a very young audience. It surprises a lot of people when they see it. They go, 'Oh, it really is a young audience.' "
More than a decade has passed since Miller's last hit. "Abracadabra," the title cut of his 1982 album, soared to the top of the U.S. and worldwide charts. But his next three albums--"Italian X-Rays" (1984), "Living in the 20th Century" (1986) and the jazzy "Born 2B Blue" (1988)--stiffed.
Miller blames his record company of 22 years, Capitol Records, for failing to promote him.
"They had to give me like a million dollars a record and they'd give me the money and then they'd sort of do that with the record," Miller said.
When his contract expired, Miller decided to go with PolyGram, which had distributed "Abracadabra" in Europe. He got something on which he has insisted since starting his career in 1967--complete artistic control.
"You can't be an artist and have 12 people schmooze your stuff," Miller said. "It'd be like having people go, 'You know, well, Picasso, I don't know about that shade of turquoise blue, man. Let me just paint that over for you.' "
Miller abhors the sounds of his first albums ("Children of the Future," "Sailor," "Brave New World," "Your Saving Grace"), which are considered late-1960s classics.
"I hired the producers and the producers screwed my records up. I had to argue with them all the time," he said.
"I finally said, 'This is nuts,' fired everybody, went and made my next record, and that was 'The Joker,' and it sold millions of copies and it was one of my biggest hits ever."
A fan of multitracked vocals, Miller learned his earliest studio tricks as a boy in Milwaukee by watching electric guitar pioneer Les Paul, a friend of Miller's family. Paul's wife, singer Mary Ford, taught Miller his first guitar chords, and Miller watched Paul make his first records with Ford.
After Miller's family moved to Dallas, blues guitarist T-Bone Walker and jazz musician Charlie Mingus were regular visitors to their home. Miller's father, a doctor and home-recording buff, invited Walker to a party and recorded him.
"I think what really sealed it for me was when (T-Bone) did the splits with the guitar behind his head," Miller said. "I just went, 'Yup, that'll do it.' "
Miller kept those recordings and plans to include them in a retrospective of his career that Capitol Records hopes to release this Christmas. The boxed set also will include recordings of Miller's high school and college bands featuring Boz Scaggs, who played on Miller's first two albums.
Miller has lived the last 10 years in Idaho, where he built a studio 2 1/2 years ago. He frequently sings about the joys of mountain streams and going back to the country.
And after a career of ups and downs, Miller is looking at keeping a steady pace.
"And now that I'm 50 and I've learned how to do it, hopefully I can do it for another 25 years."