Like many 1970s classic rock artists, Steve Miller has made the rounds in own personal approval ratings. He was a mainstay in my 8-track player as a teenager; was demoted to “I’m too cool for this” in my 20s; and resurfaced to “I don’t know if this is cool or good, but I like it” in my 40s and 50s.
Open your mind and dig around, you may learn that some of your guilty pleasures have interesting roots.
Yesterday, my friend Paul Jeannotte sent me a link to the original “Jet Airliner,” which became a hit for Steve Miller in 1977. It’s the product of the interesting, short-changed life of Paul Pena.
Born in 1950 of Cape Verdean descent, Pena had congenital glaucoma as a baby and was blind by age 5. With roots in west Africa, his grandfather and father both were professional musicians. As a kid, Pena spent a summer in Spain and Portugal, where he learned flamenco music. As a young adult in Philadelphia he was befriended by Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead, and his music career took flight. In 1973 he released the album “New Train,” featuring “Jet Airliner.” The album was produced by Ben Sidran, the keyboardist for Miller. Sidran gave Miller an early copy.
Miller rode that and other hit singles to fame and fortune. Though Pena lived off the royalties, his path wasn’t as glamorous.
In the 1970s and ’80s, Pena largely suspended his music career to care for his wife, Babe, who had suffered from kidney failure. She died in 1991. During this stretch, Pena became interested in and taught himself the Tuvan language, from south-central Siberia. And he got interested in throat singing, a technique indigenous to Mongolia and Siberia. Pena perfected the vocal style, becoming a cultural phenomenon in Tuva. In 1999, he was the subject of the documentary “Genghis Blues.”
Because of legal and contract issues, “New Train” wasn’t released until 2000 — twenty-seven years after it was recorded. But it attracted the attention of other musicians, including Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, who recorded its songs. Pena rode a brief wave of attention, appearing on “Conan O’Brien” and playing festivals.
Pena lived a life filled with pain and loss. He was badly burned in a house fire in 1997, and long suffered from diabetes and pancreatitis. He died at age 55.
And because Steve Miller discovered him, so too have the rest of us.
“I’ve got to go out and make my way, I might get rich, you know I might get busted.”