The Meaning of Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker”

The Joker (1973)

While the Steve Miller Band enjoyed moderate success in the late 1960s with a psychedelic blues sound, it wasn’t until the 1973 release of “The Joker” when their career truly exploded. Released as a single from their album of the same name, “The Joker” rocketed to number one on the Billboard charts, taking the whole album there with it.

The song has Steve Miller singing about the things that people say about him, suggesting that he is good-for-nothing and cheating on his girl all over town. This song is his way of reassuring this special lady that he is faithful and only has eyes for her, and that the things that people say about him are far from the truth.

The lyrics to “The Joker” have sparked much discussion over the years as to their meaning, and especially the meaning of the first verse. Let’s dive in and see what this song is all about, starting with that iconic first verse:

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

First verse to “The Joker” by Steve Miller Band.

Steve Miller’s lyrics often contained references to other songs, and oftentimes those songs were his own. The first three lines in this verse are all references to previous songs released by the Steve Miller Band: “Space Cowboy” (Brave New World, 1969), “Gangster of Love” (Sailor, 1968), and “Enter Maurice” (Recall the Beginning… A Journey from Eden, 1972).

Then, we have the final, and most often-discussed lyric, which includes the word “pompatus”. Many assumed that was a made-up word invented by Steve Miller himself, and had previously been used in “Enter Maurice”, which contained the lyrics: “My dearest darling, come closer to Maurice so I can whisper sweet words of epismetology in your ear and speak to you of the pompitous of love”.

Things get a little complicated here, as the Straight Dope uncovered in 1996, as the lyrics to “Enter Maurice” were actually borrowed from a 1954 song by Vernon Green & The Medallions called “The Letter”, which contains the lyrics, “Let me whisper sweet words of pizmotality /And discuss the puppetutes of love”.

Speedin’ by Vernon Green & The Medallions, containing “The Letter” (1954).

Note that while the pronunciation is quite similar, each instance of the word has a different spelling. That’s because the word is in fact made-up, and thus has no official meaning, but according to a conversation between Green and Jon Cryer, actor in the 1996 film Pompatus of Love, Green made up the word to describe “a secret paper-doll fantasy figure who would be my everything and bear my children.”

All this considered, “pompatus of love” in the context of Steve Miller Band could be taken to mean a fantasy of how love should be, almost like a hopeless romanticism.

This first verse is strange and somewhat meaningless, but it sounds great and has struck a chord with many, many listeners over the years, most of whom had no idea what the song was about. Hearing those lyrics ring out, you know you’re in for a treat, because everybody and their mother knows the words to “The Joker”.

In the second verse, Miller sings in more concrete terms:

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

Second verse to “The Joker” by Steve Miller Band.

Here, we can see the theme of the song, with Miller assuring his “baby” that he’s not doing any of the things that people say he’s doing, but rather he’s right there at home.

In the chorus, Miller sings about himself and the things he enjoys, and even some of his vices:

‘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 sure don’t want to hurt no one

Chorus to “The Joker” by Steve Miller Band.

Breaking this chorus down line-by-line, the first line features Steve singing about happily picking his guitar, with a big old grin on his face. He’s a lover, but he’s also a sinner, which suggests that his reassurances about his faith toward this woman are perhaps not always true.

Steve Miller smiles while playing his guitar outside, 1970s. Photo by Lee & Lesser.

Next, Miller sings about playing his music in the sunshine, enjoying every minute of it. We picture him with that big grin on his face while doing so. He sings about how he’s a joker, as in he’s got a sense of humor, and also reveals that he likes to smoke — both cigarettes and late night puffs of marijuana, as evidenced by the “midnight toker” line.

Even with all of this, his vices and pleasures, Miller ensures that he means no harm to anyone with the things that he does. He’s simply trying to enjoy his life, and maybe spend his time with a special lady (or several of them).

The chorus is repeated twice in a row here before the first slide guitar solo that leads into the third verse, which describes the woman whom he wrote the song for and the things that he would like to do with her:

You’re the cutest thing that I ever did see
I really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree
Lovey-dovey, lovey-dovey, lovey-dovey all the time
Oee, baby, I’ll sure show you a good time

Third verse to “The Joker” by Steve Miller Band.

This third verse is ripe with sexual innuendo, with the lyric about how he loves her peaches and wants to shake her tree. Nowadays it is common knowledge that a peach is a term referring to a woman’s buttocks, and wanting to “shake her tree” very clearly means that he would like to have some fun with her in the bedroom, ensuring her that he’ll love her and show her a good time always.

In classic Steve Miller fashion, this verse was actually borrowed from a 1954 song by The Clovers called “Lovey Dovey”. The Clovers ended up suing Steve Miller Band for plagiarism. The lawsuit resulted in Ahmet Ertegun, “Lovey Dovey” co-writer and Atlantic Records executive, receiving a songwriting credit on “The Joker”.

The Clovers (1960).

Following the third verse are another two hits of the chorus, followed by a second slide guitar solo. Then both the second and third verses are repeated again as the song fades away.

And thus we have the meaning of one of the most iconic rock ‘n’ roll songs of the 1970s, “The Joker” by Steve Miller Band. Watch the music video for the classic song below.

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