Album: Book of Dreams
. . .
So I never bought any Steve Miller Band albums, so it wasn’t until I did my usual half-ass research for this post that I realized that two out of the three singles from Book of Dreams were covers. One of those was the ebullient “Jungle Love,” and the other was “Jet Airliner,” which is second after “Take The Money and Run” for my favorite Steve Miller Band song.
But while “Jet Airliner” was a cover, it was quite literally a cover of a song that nobody had ever heard before: because of a contract dispute, the guy who wrote the song, Paul Pena, never got to release it on his own, and “Jet Airliner” made it to Miller via Miller’s old keyboardist, Ben Sidran, while Pena’s — which is pretty fucking great — languished in the vaults until the year 2000. I wonder if Pena was a bit steamed when he realized that Miller substantially rewrote the verses.
Leavin’ home, out on the road
I’ve been down before
Ridin’ along on this big ol’ jet plane
I’ve been thinkin’ about my home
But my love light seems so far away
And I feel like it’s all been done
Somebody’s tryin’ to make me stay
You know I’ve got to be movin’ on
But given that “Jet Airliner” has been on records that have sold over 20 million copies, I somehow doubt Pena cared that much. Miller’s version starts off with a honking guitar riff echoing Pena’s followed by a longish section where it’s just his guitar being strummed, like he forgot the first verse or something. Maybe he’s giggling to himself because he snuck “love light” into yet another song this deep into the 1970s.
Goodbye to all my friends at home
Goodbye to people I’ve trusted
I’ve got to go out and make my way
I might get rich, you know, I might get busted
But my heart keeps calling me backwards
As I get on the 707
Ridin’ high, I got tears in my eyes
You know you got to go through hell
Before you get to heaven
Lyrically, “Jet Airliner” is about a guy who is torn between his past and his future — and you know that the future is going to win, because he’s on the damn plane — a totally relatable scenario, though not as relatable as the insanely hooky chorus. Everybody sing:
Big ol’ jet airliner
Don’t carry me too far away
Oh, oh, big ol’ jet airliner
‘Cause it’s here that I’ve got to stay
I don’t know who’s doing the harmonies — could just be Steve multitracking, and the wiki pages are no help — but they’re just aces throughout, especially on the final verse.
Touchin’ down in New England town
Feel the heat comin’ down
I’ve got to keep on keepin’ on
You know the big wheel keeps on spinnin’ around
And I’m goin’ with some hesitation
You know that I can surely see
That I don’t want to get caught up in any of that
Funky shit goin’ down in the city
It’s those last two lines, of course, that jump out at me: the weird-ass phrasing of “dooonnnt want to get caught up in any of that”, and the fact that the single substituted “funky kicks” for “funky shit.” In fact, along with cutting out the long wordless strummy part at the beginning, the substitution of “kicks” for “shit” was how you knew whether you were listening to the single or the album version.
And in 1977, if you were listening to the radio, you were going to hear “Jet Airliner,” because it was Miller’s fourth straight smash single, peaking at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100, and helping drive Book of Dreams to #3 on the album charts.
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