Tuesday, May 13, 2014

No. 23 – Fly Like an Eagle

Performer: The Steve Miller Band
Songwriter: Steve Miller
Original Release: Fly Like an Eagle
Year: 1976
Definitive Version: King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents the Steve Miller Band, 2002. That would be the one on Disc 1, not Disc 2.

One thing I like to do when I get a new album, particularly when it’s a live album, is look at the song times if they’re listed on the back. When Laurie bought the King Biscuit album, I immediately checked it out to see what was on there.

The album, of course, is a double CD of two different broadcast concerts, one in 1973 just before Steve Miller supernovaed and one in 1976 just after. Two versions of his signature song, Fly Like an Eagle, are on there, and I was fascinated in particular by the one that was on the 1973 disc.

Aside from the obviousness that this was nearly three years before Fly Like an Eagle was released, I noticed the time length. How do you get 11+ minutes out of Fly Like an Eagle? I know, you jam it out. But Fly Like an Eagle is a self-contained pop song. There really isn’t room to jam it out.

There were only two possibilities, I thought. One, you have a superextended Space Intro, which really is part of the song. (I didn’t list it thusly here, because there is no Space Intro, not really, on my definitive version.) Two, at the end, Steve Miller introduces his band, and all of that is left on as one long cut.

It turns out neither is the case. Fly Like an Eagle was noted in the liner notes as a “work in progress” at this point, so it was loose and jammy while Miller tried to figure out what he wanted to do with the song.

This “work in progress” version, which, by the way, is the most played song in my iTunes library as of this writing, is incredible. Paired with a rollicking version of Living in the USA (good ol’ No. 67), it contrasts that raveup by starting with Stevie Guitar playing solo, under I imagine a single cold spotlight. He’s picking out random notes here and there, weaving in God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (swear to God), with notes that sound like an eagle about to soar.

Finally, he breaks into the familiar chords that mark the beginning of this song, but it’s not as tight as on the version with which we’re all familiar. And the song develops a more gritty, jazzy sound, having almost none of the studio sheen of the studio version (and to a large extent the 1976 live version). From there, Fly Like an Eagle is instantly recognizable but different, including multiple extended solos after each verse, even down to the order of the lyrics. It’s a work in progress, but in my opinion, it’s better than the “original.”

Fly like an eagle. Yeah, I know what that feels like. When I started at my magazine, I was overwhelmed. A lot of that had to do with the lateness of when I entered the publishing cycle. I came in during the third week of what typically is an eight-week cycle, so there was no time for getting up to speed, as I’ve mentioned. I was dropped off a cliff, either to fly or flop.

In addition to the five projects I had to land in five weeks before the magazine went to press, I had to find authors for the five projects I had in the next issue and for which first-draft deadlines were scheduled in about two months. The clock was ticking.

I’d never looked for authors before, and it was a delicate process in which I was asking people to apply to write for my magazine. Rich shot down the first two candidates I’d approached for a couple of car-related pieces, which flushed a bunch of work down the drain and didn’t ease my mind in any way.

So I pushed harder and found two great candidates—one a former editor of Car & Driver, the other a guy whose name I recognized from my Dispatch days who now wrote for The New York Times. Rich approved them.

When the drafts came in, I worked hard to make them fit the direction Rich and the publisher wanted our articles to go, and in so doing, I acquired the art of walking the tightrope. The trick was to get the freelance author to do the work we required but not push them too hard so they just up and quit on us. If they did, I had to finish the project, which I was loath to do.

It must have worked, because I had smooth sailing most of the way. I felt particularly gratified when one of my auto writers went from practically cussing me out on the phone one day to saying at the end of the process what a good editor I was. I learned it was all respect and the art of negotiation.

However, I hit the panic button when Rich sent out a notice at the end of June that Sue, the other senior editor, was leaving in two weeks. What? I just got here! I don’t know what I’m doing. She CAN’T leave!

Rich took over her projects, but now there was no room for error as far as I was concerned. He didn’t have time to spend reading dreck, so I had to make all my projects good, and I had to hit all my deadlines, or I might be following Sue out the door.

So I worked pretty much round the clock through the early summer. It was OK to a certain extent, because Laurie was in a play most of that time, so she was gone. That meant I had lots of free time to fill with work, and work became part of a Friday night, Pizza night in America routine.

I’d take the second to last train home at 8:48, which would put me back at my car about 9:15. I then drove to Ranalli’s on Irving Park Road where I’d order a deep dish pizza, go to the corner liquor store for beer (Ranalli’s was BYOB) and hunker down for the night.

The pizza was OK, but what made it was the place itself. Ranalli’s dining room looked like someone’s bad basement, from the furniture used for booths to the board games that were available to play and the old beer cans and Matchbox cars on the wall. (That Ranalli’s location is gone, alas, has been gone for several years. The others don’t come remotely close to measuring up.)

Somehow, everything got done … on time. When the September/October issue—my first issue from cradle to grave, second overall—went off to press, I already was hip deep in November/December and feeling as though I finally was getting my head above water. My first 14 weeks on the job were a blur, but I was getting the hang of it. I’d faked my way into the job; now I was making it.

Other people noticed. Soon after we cleared, Rich came into my office and thanked me personally for my work the past issue. His exact words were that while he was swamped picking up the pieces from Sue’s departure, “every project that came out of this office was outstanding.”

When Rich left, I put my feet up on my hutch and gazed out the window in triumph … for 15 seconds before getting back to work. There were more authors to find, stories to edit and direct revisions. Time kept on ticking, ticking away, but I’d flown … like an eagle. I’d made my reputation and justified my hire. Now all I had to do was keep living up to it.

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