If Steve Poltz were any more of a San Diego icon, he'd have his own show at the water park. Whether local music fans know him as a Rugburn ("Hitchhiker Joe," "Me and Eddie Vedder"), as Jewel's songwriting and one-time romantic partner, or as a quirky solo artist, Poltz is one of the finest, and most delirious, tunesmiths to ever call our burg home.
For an artist as prolific as Poltz-who once developed a habit of writing a new song almost daily for his answering machine message-it's been five years since his last solo album. It wasn't for a lack of trying.
As part of an article warning against major label deals in this month's GQ, Steve Poltz is a featured artist-a failed major label artist. "As Jewel's album was going platinum, mine was going tin-foil," he's quoted as saying.
But over the past few years, Poltz has made the transition from big-label casualty to indie stalwart. And he's finally released his sophomore album, Chinese Vacation, on his own 98 Pounder Records.
"It's a labor of love, and a long time coming," says Poltz, on his way to yet another one-night stand on the East Coast.
Chinese Vacation is a topnotch collection of songs. Their quality belies the fact that some, including the title track, were composed during informal songwriting competitions between a number of his tour mates, including Glen Tilbrook of Squeeze, Bob Schneider and producer Billy Harvey.
"We did this game where somebody would come up with a song title and a bunch of us would write a tune to that. We'd play them for each other, and if your song sucked, you'd know it real fast," he laughs. "The only rule was that you had to write it and finish it in a day, just an exercise to get the creative juices flowing while on tour. It taught me how little of my brain I really use, which my mom had been telling me for years."
Poltz was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, relocating to Palm Springs as a youngster. Life in the resort town inadvertently set the wheels in motion for Poltz, who at a young age made the acquaintance of many an entertainment legend. He trick-or-treated at Liberace's house and was Bob Hope's favorite altar boy.
More importantly for the then-budding guitarist, "I met Elvis Presley," he says, still giddy. "A guy who lived across the street from us was the general manager of the airport, and he would tell us whenever Frank Sinatra or other celebrities would be arriving. He let my sister and I ride our bikes on the runway and meet the private jets when they'd come in."
Presley is the reason Poltz was inspired to pick up a guitar in the first place. The day he and his sister met the King on the runway, Elvis was "nice," Poltz says-especially to his sister, who was a really mature-looking 12 years old.
"I just remember him hugging her for too long and me getting this really uneasy feeling," he says, half-joking. "I was an Elvis freak. We had a guitar in the attic. It had three strings on it, and I remember pulling it down and dusting it off. The first thing, I was pretending I could play a chord and going "Well it's one for the money, two for the show.'"
Eventually, Poltz got lessons on the instrument that would make him a household name in San Diego. Already chuckling at the memory, he says, "We had a guy come over who had a glass eye and a wooden leg and smelled like mothballs. I said, "I want to learn how to play Elvis songs.' And he said, "No.'"
"The first song I learned was so unromantic... the old gospel tune "Down in the Valley.' And I'm thinking, "This sucks, I want to rock.'"
After graduating from Palm Springs High School, Poltz moved out to San Diego, following his sister, whom he idolized. She was attending San Diego State at the time and working at KCR, the college radio station. It was big sis who turned him onto non-mainstream music.
"My life [was] like the movie Almost Famous, where my sister left me with a bunch of records that changed my life," he recalls.
He spent the next decade-plus perfecting his songcraft, eventually coming to prominence as ringleader of alcohol-fueled satirical rockers The Rugburns. Like Country Dick Montana and Mojo Nixon before him, Poltz' stage personae was larger than life. On just two albums and an EP, The Rugburns released great tunes like "Hitchhiker Joe," "The Fairies Came," and "Rioting." But it was his liaison with a certain singing waitress that brought him major-label attention.
"It was like winning the lottery, writing that song," he says of the massive hit, "You Were Meant For Me," which he co-wrote with Jewel Kilcher before stardom cleaved her surname. "I didn't even like the song," he says. "I looked at the lyrics and said, "That's corny.' I remember it was written on a napkin and I said to her, "You can have this one,' not knowing that it was like tossing a winning lottery ticket."
He later toured the world with Jewel as both opening act and her guitarist. The resulting co-songwriting royalties gave him the freedom to do things on his own terms. "It gave me enough where I can finance what I'm doing and tour," he says. "I have a nice van on the road, but I'm totally punk-rocking it. I'm sleeping in it and staying in trailer parks for $10 a night.
"There's something really neat after having been on a private-jet tour with Jewel and having someone plug in your guitar and leave you a schedule every day," he says. "To be doing it this way again, things have gone full circle."
Thanks to his songwriting success, he was snapped up by Mercury Records-a bittersweet partnership that saw the release of 1998's One Left Shoe. Though the album made the critics happy, Poltz' relationship with Mercury crumbled when the company went through a big-time merger. The A&R rep who had signed Poltz-and thus believed in him most-left the company.
"I got transferred to the A&R guy for Korn, and we didn't speak the same language. I got stuck in demo-making hell," Poltz says, reenacting what it was like to phone his A&R guy:
May I tell him who's calling?
How do you spell that?
With the release of Chinese Vacation, Poltz is entering a new era, this time completely under his own control. "I'm getting a crash course in record-mogul-dom," he says, noting that it will be hard to come close to the roughly 57,000 copies that One Left Shoe sold. He explains that Tower Records in La Jolla only bought two copies of the new album from his distributor.
"They said it's a depressed market, and they have central buyers who are somewhere in Nebraska," Poltz says, somewhat incredulous. "They don't know to bring in more and then nobody follows it up. I'm just realizing how much work this is."
There's a certain sense of melancholy that permeates Chinese Vacation, yet Poltz claims it could've been sadder. He recorded two versions of the album-the first with established producer Steve Soles and cameos by Elvis Costello sideman Pete Thomas.
"I sounded really depressed on the original album. I just lost my spark somehow, and it wasn't Steve Soles' fault," he explains, citing two events that led to his disillusion: "Guys flying planes into the World Trade Center and the death of Steve Foth."
Foth was a well-known San Diego musician and a close friend of Poltz. The two co-authored "Hitchhiker Joe" before Foth moved to San Francisco to run a record store in the late-'90s. In September of 1999, Foth was found murdered. At the trial, it was determined that he had been trying to buy crack cocaine from two men-Ronnie Jermaine Sherrors and Willard Hall-who were eventually convicted of first-degree murder. The men had forced Foth into the trunk of his car, drove him to a reservoir and fatally stabbed him.
The comical lyrics of the two friends' tale of a cannibalistic hitchhiker took on a dark, tragically ironic new tone:
Don't pick up Hitchhiker Joe,
He'll slit your throat
And cut off your big toe, I tell you
He'll make you smile
From ear to ear
Gonna lock you in a trunk
For ninety-nine years
"Nothing's ever been so powerful and affected me that bad," Poltz says of Foth's murder. "I was just completely depressed and I just wanted to drink myself into oblivion. I didn't really care. I didn't have much respect for my own body and health.
"I had to go to trial every day and face those murderers. It was awful. I was just questioning everything."
So though Chinese Vacation may sound down in the mouth to listeners, to Poltz it's sunshine in comparison to those times.
Poltz is healthier, too. Gone are the days of partying as hard as he plays. When he's home in La Jolla, he's developed a routine that includes (but is not limited to) fish tacos, Persian food, walks along the beach, sweat-drenched Beakram's yoga, Rocket from the Crypt, The Ould Sod, Hatchet Brothers and "Java" Joe Flammini, who is now booking shows again at Kelly's Pub in San Diego.
While successfully self-releasing Chinese Vacation may be difficult, at least he's the one giving the orders.
"I'm self-managed, started my own label and got distribution," he says. "I'm in complete control, I can do whatever I want." ©
Steve Poltz performs at the San Diego Music Awards on Oct. 14 (www.sd musicawards.com) and at Victor's on the Bay on Oct. 17 (858-490-3389). A.J. Croce will perform with him at both shows.