The line in this song, "I speak of the pompatus of love," has baffled listeners for some time. Greil Marcus provided the best explanation we've seen in a 2002 article for Los Angeles Magazine titled "In The Secret Country." The word "Pompatus" does exist in the Oxford English Dictionary, and it means "to act with pomp and splendor." Miller most likely heard the word on a song called "The Letter," which was recorded by the Los Angeles Doo-Wop group The Medallions in 1954. It was written by their lead singer Vernon Green, who was 16 at the time and crippled with polio. The song contains these lyrics:
Let me whisper sweet words of dismortality
and discuss the pompatus of love
Put it together and what do you have?
The Pompatus Of Love is the name of a 1995 movie starring Jon Cryer, and Cryer tracked down Vernon Green to ask him about these lyrics. Green defined "Dismortality" as "Words of such secrecy they could only be spoken to the one you loved" and "Pompatus" as "A secret paper-doll fantasy figure who would be my everything and bear my children."
Miller drew associations to some of his other songs in the lyrics to this one. The line, "Some people call me The Space Cowboy" is a reference to Miller's 1969 song "Space Cowboy." The line, "Some call me a gangster of love" is a reference to his song "Gangster of Love." The line, "Some people call me Maurice" is a reference to Miller's 1972 song "Enter Maurice." In that song Miller also sings about "The pompatus of love."
Miller got the line at the end, "I really love your peaches want to shake your tree, lovey dovey, lovey dovey..." from "Lovey Dovey," a 1953 song by the R&B group The Clovers. That song's co-writer was Ahmet Ertegun, who later became head of Atlantic Records. Ertegun sued Miller for plagiarism. Miller recalled to Mojo magazine in 2012: "To me, it was an old blues double entendre, but I had to give him credit. I don't mind having Ahmet's name beside mine though."
Miller won a lawsuit against rap group The Geto Boys when they used this without his permission in 1990. In 2000, he let Shaggy use the bass line from this on his hit, "Angel." A year later, Miller let Run-D.M.C. sample "Take The Money And Run."
The line "I'm a midnight toker" is a marijuana reference (as is the "toke" in Brewer & Shipley's hit "One Toke Over The Line
" from 1970). Many stoners related to this song, and in 2012, Spin
magazine named it the most commercially successful pot song of all time.
This finally hit #1 on the UK charts in 1990, thanks to its inclusion in a Levi's jeans commercial. In the spot, a guy rides a motorcycle into an office building and rolls up to an attractive worker, who puts on a pair of 501s and gets on the back of his bike as he takes her away.
In the TV show Friends
, Joey has an imaginary friend named Maurice whose occupation is "Space Cowboy."
Homer Simpson sings this (poorly) on a second season episode of The Simpsons where we flashback to him driving to school.
Steve Miller told the story of the song in an interview with Mojo November 2012: "I got this funny, lazy, sexy little tune," he recalled, "but it didn't come together until a party in Novato, north of San Francisco. I sat on the hood of a car under the stars with an acoustic guitar making up lyrics and 'I'm a joker, I'm a smoker, 'I'm a midnight toker' came out. My chorus! The 'some people call me the space cowboy' and 'the gangster of love' referred to earlier songs of mine and so did 'Maurice' and 'the propitious of love.' You don't have to use words. It was just a goof.
I produced myself. Nobody pushing us around. That 12-string acoustic I played, it was made by Epiphone's last master guitar-maker. I forget his name, sorry.
The basic rhythm track, when we cut it I was very precise with the bassist, Gerald Johnson about the line he should play. Then there's the slide guitar sound, which I put through a Leslie speaker and a wah-wah pedal, among other things."
Original Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley
covered this on his 2014 solo Space Invader
album. He explained his decision to record the song to Guitar World
magazine, saying, "It was the record company's idea, to be honest. And I was a little resistant when it first came up. But then I thought back to my 1978 solo record, when [producer] Eddie Kramer's assistant said to me, 'Why don't you try this song?' And it was 'New York Groove
.' At first I said, 'I don't want to do that,' and it turned out to be my biggest hit. So maybe history can repeat itself."
Miller's subtle approach to the wah-wah pedal earned him the #16 spot on Guitar World's 2015 list of greatest wah solos of all time.