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Artist: Steve Miller Band
Album: The Joker (Capitol)
It is one of those musical ironies that so many people wonder about the lyrics to Steve Miller’s song, The Joker, “the pompatus of love.” The song is catchy and it is one of those classic rock songs you can’t help but sing along to. But let’s face it. It’s fluff and the lyrics are really not that important.
For all that, none of the other songs on the album are worth talking about. Don’t get me wrong, I love singing along to the joker, and it was a number one hit for a reason. Also, I am not among those who think that Steve Miller’s earlier “blues” efforts were his better days.
Still, when you get hit with a word such as pompatus you have to wonder. Here is the 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
Nobody is actually sure how to spell the word pompatus. The spelling here was probably made popular from the 1996 movie The Pompatus of Love, with Jon Cryer. Other times it’s spelled pompitous, pompitudes, or even pulpitudes.
No, it is not in any dictionary. But that doesn’t stop people from thinking that Steve Miller was really saying something in the lyric.
There is no shortages of examples of nonsense lyrics in rock songs. Some words have meaning but not when put together in a sentence. Other words are just made up. Clearly, if we could discern the meaning of pompatus, there would be some profound message there.
Well, it so happens that Steve Miller probably didn’t make up the word. At least, not exactly. It is similar to a word that another songwriter made up, Vernon Green of The Medallions, as far back as 1954.
The Medallions have a song called The Letter. And in that song is the lyric:
Let me whisper sweet words of pismotolity
And discuss the pulpitudes of love.
Pulpitudes has sometimes been rendered puppetudeness, and puppetutes, perhaps a play on the word puppet. Others claim a less innocent meaning, saying that he was talking about a woman you could control like a puppet. Vernon Green, has, in fact, said that when he wrote the song he was 14 years old, and he was on crutches, unable to get around. The word puppetuse or pupetudeness refers to a paper doll, and the word pismotolity with secret feelings or “sweet nothings” whispered to a fantasy version of a girl he had secret feelings for. Some people just have to see evil in everything, even the unrequited love of a 14-year-old kid. Somebody will surely think stalker since secret crushes have all been rendered creepy by people raised on the internet.
With all the different spellings, clearly, it is not clear what words we are actually talking about here. You’ll find that there are as many versions as there are journalists to interpret the sounds of the words, or outright mishear them, whether from the songs or from interviews about the songs. Regardless of what meaning Green gave to them, both neither word is a real word.
The Joker was not the first time Steve Miller used the word pompatus, however. He was actually referencing an earlier song from 1972 called Enter Maurice from the album Recall the Beginning: A Journey From Eden.
My dearest darling, come closer to Maurice so I can whisper
sweet words of epismotolity (or epistotology, epistemology?) in your ear and speak to you of the pompatus of love…
I think you get it. Now, all you have to do is compare the songs. Vernon Green makes no bones about the fact that he made up both words. And Enter Maurice is clearly inspired by The Letter. Except at the end of Enter Maurice, the song takes an ominous turn:
Just remember sweetheart, I bought myself a gun
and I will be the only one.
So, “some people call me Maurice” is a reference to Maurice as introduced in Enter Maurice. Then we have the first two lyrics. “Some people call me the Space Cowboy” is a reference to yet another earlier Steve Miller Song, 1969’s Space Cowboy from the album Brave New World. In this song, he also uses the phrase Gangster of Love.
This was a reference to an earlier recording from 1968. You guessed it, it was called Gangster of Love. Gangster of Love was actually a remake of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s original tune, which had begun as Love Bandit, recorded by The Cadets and later re-imagined by Watson into The Gangster which he recorded with Keen records in 1957. It has been called one of the first rap songs, and it was also remade by Johnny Winter.
Steve Miller was fond of taking on personas, and Gangster of Love was one of them, as well as Space Cowboy and this fellow named Maurice. Johnny Watson, who was a big influence on Jimi Hendrix, was oddly proud of Steve Miller’s taking on his song title as an alter-ego, even though he himself never had a hit with it, as Miller did.
And there you go. The pompatus/pompitous of love is a nonsense lyric, based on a lyric originally written by Vernon Green. However, Vernon Green did have the imagination to say that it was about intimate things that you would tell only to a close and special person. Or something like that.
Included below are YouTube videos of Enter Maurice by Steve Miller Band, and The Letter, by The Medallions, for comparison’s sake. Then, comes The Gangster of Love by Johnny “Guitar” Watson, just because…Watson mentions the Steve Miller version at the beginning.
Steve Miller “Enter Maurice” – First of His Songs to Use Pompatus of Love
The Medallions “The Letter” – Origin of Pompatus of Love
Johnny “Guitar Watson” – The Gangster of Love
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