the straight dope

By Cecil Adams World's Smartest Human

What does the word "Pompatus" mean in Steve Miller's song "The Joker"?

Dear Cecil:

What does "pompatus" mean? There's a movie out now called The Pompatus of Love, and of course it contains the Steve Miller song as a theme. I can't find "pompatus" in the dictionary. Any clues? --Cane95, via America Online

Dear Cane:

Clues? Pfui. We have cracked the freaking case, thanks to some outstanding legwork by Jon Cryer--actor, cowriter, and coproducer of the movie Pompatus of Love--and my new assistant, J.K. Fabian. J.K. has what it takes to make a real impact in this business: brains, resourcefulness, and best of all an outstanding record collection.

"Pompatus" mystified millions when Steve Miller used it in his 1973 hit "The Joker": "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."

"Space cowboy" and "gangster of love" referred to earlier Miller songs. Maurice was from Miller's 1972 tune "Enter Maurice," which appeared on the album "Recall the Beginning ... A Journey From Eden."

"Enter Maurice" had this lyric: "My Dearest Darling, come closer to Maurice so I can whisper / sweet words of epismetology in your ear and speak to you of / the pompitous of love."

Great, now there were two mystery words. What's more, it appeared even Miller himself was uncertain how pompatus was spelled. It appeared as "pompatus" in at least two books of sheet music but as "pompitous" in the lyrics included with "Recall the Beginning."

Miller has said little about the P-word over the years. In at least one interview, fans say, he claimed "it doesn't mean anything--it's just jive talk."

Not quite.

Some sharp-eared music fan noticed the "Enter Maurice" lyric above bore a marked resemblance to some lines in a rhythm and blues tune called "The Letter" by the Medallions. The song had been a hit in R & B circles in 1954.

J.K. found the record. It had the lines, "Oh my darling, let me whisper sweet words of [something like epismetology] and discuss the [something like pompatus] of love."

J.K. tried to find the sheet music for the song, but came up only with the Box Tops hit of the same name. (You know, "My baby, she wrote me a letter").

We were momentarily stumped. Then came a stroke of luck.

Jon Cryer the movie guy had stumbled onto the secret of pompatus. Eager to reveal it to the world, he sent it to--who, Rolling Stone? The New York Times?

Of course not. He sent it to us.

Speculation about "pompatus" was a recurring motif in the script for the film The Pompatus of Love. Cryer himself had long wondered about it. While the movie was in postproduction someone told him about "The Letter."

During a TV interview Cryer said the song had been written and sung by a member of the Medallions named Vernon Green. Green, still very much alive, was dozing in front of the tube when the mention of his name caught his attention. He immediately contacted Cryer.

Green had never heard "The Joker." Cryer says that when he played it for Green "he laughed his ass off."

"You have to remember, I was a very lonely guy at the time," Green told Cryer. "I was only 14 years old, I had just run away from home, and I walked with crutches." The young man scraped by singing songs on the streets of Watts.

One song was "The Letter," Green's attempt to conjure up his dream woman. The mystery words, J.K. ascertained after talking with Green, were "puppetutes" and "pizmotality." (Green wasn't much for writing things down, so the spellings are approximate.)

"Pizmotality described words of such secrecy that they could only be spoken to the one you loved," Green told Cryer. And puppetutes? "A term I coined to mean a secret paper-doll fantasy figure [thus puppet], who would be my everything and bear my children." Not a real liberated concept, but look, it was 1954.

Green went on to record many other songs and is still writing today. He can be reached at P.O. Box 1394, Perris, CA 92572.

"Puppetutes" is what Steve Miller heard as "pompatous." In other words, one of the great mystery lyrics of our time was actually a word its author had misunderstood himself.

Steve Miller must have loved R & B. Another line from "The Joker" goes "I really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree. / Lovey dovey, lovey dovey, lovey dovey all the time."

A similar line may be found in the Clovers' 1953 hit "Lovey Dovey": "I really love your peaches wanna shake your tree / Lovey dovey, lovey dovey all the time."

When I spoke to Miller's publicist Jim Welch about these remarkable coincidences, he said Miller's comment was "artistic license." Pressed a bit, Welch said Miller acknowledged that he'd been "influenced" by earlier artists. Not perhaps the most forthcoming statement in the world, but at least we now know it didn't come to him in a dream.


Copyright 1996 Chicago Reader

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All photos by Tom LeGoff