He trick-or-treated at Liberace's house, planned a two-day stay in Amsterdam that ended a month later with him escaping the city under the cover of darkness, and was Bob Hope's favorite altar boy. Alone, these anecdotes go well with a fistful of peanuts at a cocktail party. But on top of these add that this person also co-wrote the longest-running song on the Billboard Top 100, had a debut solo album that earned three and a half stars in Rolling Stone, and was awarded the title of "San Diego's Most Influential Artist of the Decade" at the San Diego Music Awards. What you end up with is one of the most engaging, twisted, and prolific songwriters of our time - Steve Poltz.
"Paying dues" is certainly not a foreign concept to most successful musicians, but Steve seems to have single handedly redefined what that phrase means. Born among the hearty, seafaring folk of Halifax, Nova Scotia, his parents up and moved him to Palm Springs, where he was raised. After a rather liberal approach to the liberal arts at the University of San Diego, Poltz began his colorful musical career selling pipe nipples. Let us forego the fact that pipe nipples exist, let alone the fact that an entire industry seems to be devoted to their commerce. No, we need to confront how it is that a pipe nipple guy from Palm Springs ended up flying around the world in a private jet, playing songs like "SkyfuckinglineofToronto" to stadiums full of rabid, screaming fans.
OK, here's the thing- like the question of what Richard Nixon ever saw in Pat, there are no easy answers. What we do know is that at some point, Steve decided to bid the pipe nipple industry sweet adieu, and became a full time musician. He started out playing bars and coffee houses around San Diego, eventually forming the college radio favorite band, The Rugburns. The Rugburns are well-known and appreciated by DJs all over the country, due in no small part to the fact that the anthemic "Dick's Automotive" was long enough to afford them the opportunity to relieve themselves and then some during their shows. The Rugburns blended punk, pop, folk, and if you listen close enough, you might just hear the slightest hint of a whisper of the possibility of Swedish Christian Death Metal. They were so freaking good that they found themselves in a crappy old van 300+ days a year, playing packed and sold out clubs and bars all over the country. The weird thing is that with a catalogue of literally hundreds of songs and three albums behind them, they developed a fan base that put the "U" in cult-like. Steve would write a song onstage in one city, and two nights and two time zones later, there would be people screaming for that very song at another show.
So there he is, more prolific than two rabbits on E, traveling the country playing songs about truckers feeding strychnine-laced granola to deer, and he starts writing songs like "Lockjaw," an achingly sweet and sincere love song. What do you do with that? What happens when you're in this wildly popular band, rocking your mojo coast to coast, and you find yourself coming out with gorgeous heartbreaking acoustic tapestries? You go with it.
Hey- here's a good time to mention that Steve Poltz is the guy who stumbled upon Jewel. Yes, Jewel Kilcher. By "stumbled upon" we're saying that he beckoned this plucky Alaskan waitress in a San Diego coffee house- "hey, come up on stage with me and sing a song." A few months later, there are limos pulling up in front of said coffee house, ferrying in record company moguls who have come to hear the babe in swaddling tube tops. Around that time, Poltz thought it a capital idea if he and Jewel absconded to the Yucatan peninsula for a bit of creative R&R, as they say. Whilst on a beach in Mexico, the two of them sat over a guitar and wrote "You Were Meant For Me," which, as referenced earlier, ambled its way on to becoming the longest running song on the Billboard Top 100.
It is entirely appropriate to ask oneself at this point how it is that someone who wrote the catchy, goofy, infectious "YWMFM" could also write a song like "I Killed Walter Matthau." The creative contrasts run deep, wide, and sometimes they call each other in the middle of the night, and Steve wakes up with a beautiful piece like "10 Chances" (on his new album; we'll get to that soon).
YWMFM took Poltz farther than any pipe nipple ever could. He soon found himself touring the world with Jewel, pulling double duty as her opening act, and then playing as a member of her band. Ever hear of a folk musician play a stadium show solo, armed only with his acoustic guitar? Indeed, the list is short. But he pulled it off, and ended up with a fervent, near-maniacal fan base stretching all over the world. Want proof? Check out his web site (http://www.poltz.com), where you'll not only read the pained applications of American fans, clamoring for the next tour and the next album, but Australians, French, English, and Irish people posting for information on when they can get their next fix.
This all landed Poltz a deal with Mercury Records, for whom he recorded his first solo effort, "One Left Shoe." Rolling Stone gave it high marks for its clever lyrics and contagious melodies, and the single "Silver Lining," saw considerable airplay. Songs like "Kicking Distance From Your Heart," and "I Thought I Saw You Last Night" showcase the depth of his songwriting talent, and particularly his knack for layering lyrics of vivid images between his inimitable acoustic melodies. He then found himself trapped in his obligation with Mercury, where they found themselves utterly incapable of finding their own direction, let alone nurturing the talent of the man who won San Diego's "Most Influential Artist of the Decade."
So in typical Steve Poltz fashion, he recorded an album on his own. But of course, not any measure of a normal album. He followed up his major label debut with "Answering Machine," which is an album of 56 songs (plus several hidden tracks to afford the proverbial buck a bit more bang), all of which were outgoing messages on his answering machine while he was out on the road. So each song is 45 seconds long, with titles like "Sugar Boogers," "Ken Follett Stole My Wallet," and "Dog Doo Blues #48." It was later reported to him that Neil Young was quite an enthusiastic fan of "Answering Machine." Poltz did meet Young sometime thereafter at a wedding reception, but rather than engage Neil in a musical discussion, he chose to approach the legend thusly, when they met at the buffet table: "[w]ow, these quesadillas are great. The tortillas taste real homemadey." Young allegedly arched a confused and alarmed eyebrow and beat a hasty retreat.
Eventually Poltz was forced to extend his hoary, weathered middle finger at Mercury and take his leave of their services. Of the many lessons that he learned from all those years and miles out on the road, most important was that no one knows Poltz like Poltz. So he started his own label over the past year, called "98 Pounder Records." 98 pounds is the weight at which he wrestled in high school and is approximately 50 pounds lighter than his current fighting weight. Not that that has anything to do with it, except to note that he's freakishly skinny and fit. Which is curious, when one considers that his body has survived the onslaught of myriad allergies, sprains, twists, and an impressive collection of lung collapses. Many people who have shared a lager or two with him into the wee hours might be surprised to learn that he has developed a rather advanced yoga addiction. But no worry- you haven't figured him out yet, because this very summer he was seen playing an acoustic show for a yoga class, doing poses while he played guitar, and somehow managing to drink a beer in the process.
This brings us to the present. Steve has taken his talent, his sincerity, and a well-honed work ethic, and put together his latest solo album, "Chinese Vacation." This album is a tribute not just to his gift for songwriting, but also to the blood, sweat, and tears that run through each song. He began recording the album only two days after the World Trade Center attack in 2001. Itself a heady source of inspiration and contemplation, those days also found Steve in a courtroom each day, watching the trial of the people convicted of the violent and senseless killing of his closest friend. He completed the album, but the perfectionist within was not entirely satisfied. Another seeming contrast- the witty, charming, and self-deprecating artist who has spellbound talk show audiences around the globe is also an unapologetic perfectionist- which is allowed when you own the record label. Poltz decided that this initial rendering of the album did not truly reflect the place in life where he found himself, so he changed venue and moved to Austin, where his energies and spirits were reinvigorated, and where he re-recorded the entire "Chinese Vacation" album.
The title "Chinese Vacation" is the product of a songwriting game that Steve played while on the road with musicians Bob Schneider and Glenn Tillbrook. One person would introduce a theme, such as "Friendly Fire," and everyone would have 24 hours to come up with a song involving that theme. So from this game came the titular track as well as "Friendly Fire," which opens the album. The first single, "You Remind Me (Who I Am)" is a driving, immediately hummable tune that shows Poltz' own unique take on the love song- not a sappy, cliché-ridden ballad, but a crisp and catchy ode to the ups, downs, and ups of love. Each song on "Chinese Vacation" is a fascinating, achingly sweet postcard to the world, and in each one can see his unique gift for considering what's happening around him, and presenting it in ways one could never expect. In "California," he rewrites a modern day take on "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," confronting the isolation of mental illness in terms of warm days and palm trees, under a light crisp acoustic medley. "Chinese Vacation" also features the aforementioned "I Killed Walter Matthau," which is paralyzing in its beauty, and which is guaranteed to take the listener far, far away from wherever they find themselves listening.
This album has already garnered considerable attention from his legions of devoted fans, and it is sure to reach a whole new audience with its warm and hopelessly melodic pieces. This album is worth your undivided time and attention, if for no other reason than to see what happens when a pipe nipple guy from Palm Springs decides to follow his dream.