It's happy hour at the Starlite Lounge. For now, all is quiet. A server sets flickering candles on empty tables while a lone bartender wipes down the bar with a towel. The only sound is the muffled cacophony coming from Interstate 5 and the ragtime jazz echoing softly inside this hipster hideaway on India Street.
The serenity splinters when three Brooks Brothers burst through the front door and plop down at the bar. They scan the drink menu and loudly debate the merits of Timm's Cup (Pimm's No. 1, lemon, lime, orange, sugar, ginger ale, cherry vanilla bitters and cucumber) versus the Starlite Mule (Rain Organic Vodka, Cock 'n' Bull ginger beer, lime and Angostura bitters). A consensus is reached after it's decided that ginger beer is more testosterrific than ginger ale.
Make it three.
A few minutes later, Steve Poltz (sweet and sour songwriting, wry humor, ginger melodies, lyrical bitters) arrives. The bartender--who also happens to be Royal Campaign bassist Jack Reynolds--and Poltz exchange pleasantries and a one-armed hug.
'I'm looking forward to tonight,' Reynolds says.
'Me too, man,' Poltz beams. 'Me too.'
It's a week before Christmas and, in a few hours, Royal Campaign will open a show at The Casbah headlined by Poltz.
Not with The Rugburns. Not with Jewel. Not even as Steve Poltz. Instead, he is joining comrades for a tribute to a friend (Steve Foth) and a band (C.L.A.), both long since passed. It's a fittingly bittersweet night for a musician whose songs camouflage scars with smiles.
Poltz is smiling now. He is endearing, courteous, funny and humble. He exudes giddy exuberance. But, like a downed power line, there's also an unpredictable electricity coursing beneath his ear-to-ear grin.
No coffee ('I'd have an anxiety attack') or alcohol (he's adopted a more holistic lifestyle that includes a devotion to Bikram yoga) for Poltz. He asks for a mineral water and slides into a corner booth, turning his head to take measure of his surroundings.
'Man, this place is beautiful,' Poltz gushes. 'I don't get here nearly enough.'
This isn't his first time at the Starlite. In fact, Poltz is one of the owners. But one of San Diego's favorite sons doesn't find himself in San Diego all that often these days.
Among other things, the last few months were spent fine-tuning his new albums (Traveling and Unraveling) in Austin, showcasing them in Nashville and intermittently flying to New York for his band-leader gig on AT&T Tech Channel's The Hugh Thompson Show.
Poltz is in town for a few days before flying to Australia to kick off a tour that won't stop to catch its breath until the end of March. Not that the pace bothers Poltz.
'To be honest, I kind of don't know what to do with myself when I'm back home,' Poltz says. 'At least for the first few days. Problem is, I'm only here for a few days.'
Relaxing isn't exactly his forte, anyway. Poltz is animated, a Pixar creation come to life as he talks, smiles, frowns, shifts posture, waves his hands and steadily kick-drums a beat into the floor. He is, by his own admission, a bit manic.
'I'm a little mental sometimes,' Poltz laughs. 'Or at least obsessive compulsive. I've lived in the same apartment for 18 years. I'll wear the same clothes for a week. If I find a restaurant I like, I'll go there every day and order the same thing. I don't eat potato chips on an empty stomach. I don't like sitting on a seat that somebody else has just sat on--you know, when it's still warm?--it just kind of creeps me out.'
That quirkiness extends to his music in the same way his relentless energy feeds his prolific songwriting. This is, after all, a guy who writes children's albums (The Barn with Songs by Steve Poltz), instrumentals for beleaguered Balkan countries ('A Song for Kosovo') and entire albums filled with 45-second songs left as outgoing phone messages (Answering Machine) in his spare time.
Poltz's songs have turned up on commercials ('You Remind Me' was used in a recent Jeep spot), soundtracks (like Notting Hill) and, most famously, as the longest-charting single in Billboard history ('You Were Meant For Me' with Jewel).
He has a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes and experiences to cull from, though the incredible nature of his stories--and the manner in which they're delivered in song--can stretch the limits of credulity.
'I really don't know why so many weird things happen to me,' Poltz says. 'But I really did go trick-or-treating at Liberace's house. I really did meet Elvis. My first guitar teacher really did have a wooden leg and a glass eye. I really did see somebody get their tooth pulled by a monkey in Marrakesh. It's crazy, but it's the truth.'
Truth really is stranger than fiction, and Steve Poltz is a Wes Anderson movie--a narrative that's equal parts dry comedy and metaphysical angst.
Musically, it begins with The Rugburns. The group eventually evolved into cult favorites--renowned for tongue-in-cheek rock songs like 'Me and Eddie Vedder'--but had humble beginnings in the mid-'80s as an acoustic duo featuring University of San Diego students Steve Poltz and Robert Driscoll.
'A friend told me that I had to see this band The Rugburns,' singer/songwriter Gregory Page recalls. 'I walked into the club and there were these two guys with acoustic guitars standing on stage in their underwear, pouring beer on themselves. It was the most ridiculous, obnoxious thing I'd ever seen.'
Page and Poltz quickly struck up a friendship--centered on their mutual adoration for James Taylor--with Page eventually joining The Rugburns. Back then, Poltz supplemented his music career by, among other things, selling plumbing supplies like pipe nipples. But it was on the local coffeehouse circuit that he caught his 'break' and the plot thickened.
Poltz met Jewel Kilcher. Their personal and professional relationship has been well-documented, but their link is inexplicable and their song ('You Were Meant For Me') inescapable. Poltz initially thought the track--written on a napkin while vacationing in Mexico--was a throwaway.
Then the song hit the stratosphere. He suddenly found himself playing in front of 10,000 people and pawing Jewel on MTV in a sultry video that became one of the best things to ever happen to a silk nightgown.
'It's a blessing and a curse in a way,' Poltz says. 'No matter what, that connection will always be there. Some people might hate you for that or love you for that.'
Poltz maintains a friendship--Jewel performed with him at a recent showcase in Nashville--and he praises her 'sick and twisted' sense of humor. But it's easy to detect a twinge of hipster guilt.
'The way I look at it is the songwriting gods bestowed something that allowed me to pursue my creative endeavors,' Poltz says. 'It was a bizarre chain of events, but I'll always look back at that time fondly. It gave me the freedom to do what I love the way I want to do it. So, in the words of Bill Murray, I've got that going for me. Which is nice.'
The experience also led to one of the biggest disappointments of Poltz's career. He was signed to Mercury Records (a subsidiary of the Universal monolith) and released One Left Shoe and Conversations Over a Cerveza in 1998 before being unceremoniously dropped from the label.
'I went from being the golden child to them not knowing my name when I called,' Poltz says. 'It was like 'Steve who?' After Mercury dropped me, I thought I would get another record deal real fast. That didn't happen and I was filled with self-doubt. I felt like a failure, like I was tainted meat.'
The fallout emboldened Poltz to embrace what he calls his 'fierce independent streak' and led to the creation of his own 98 Pounder Records label. But the Mercury experience also fed on his self-conscious tendencies, which is evident even in the name of his company, a reference to his meager high-school wrestling weight.
At a basic level, Poltz is still the skinny twerp with weak lungs who was the only kid cut from his ninth-grade basketball team. He shies away from accolades (he seems genuinely embarrassed about being named the Most Influential San Diego Musician of the Decade at the 2000 San Diego Music Awards), but he can quote directly from unfavorable reviews.
But for all the insecurities that pester Poltz off-stage, he's nothing short of fearless on it. Poltz recently wrote a song called 'Trash' (based on Johnny Cash's 'Folsom Prison Blues') told from the perspective of the man Cash shot in Reno just so he could watch him die. In Poltz's version, the man is a transvestite who meets Cash in a bar and promptly makes love to The Man in Black. After consummating the tryst, Cash freaks out and tells the tranny he's going to shoot him but that he'll be immortalized in a song. Poltz unveiled 'Trash' last November at a show in Nashville.
The reaction was mixed.
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'You could feel the tension in the room,' Poltz says. 'But that's one of my favorite feelings in the world when half the audience loves what you're doing and the other half wants to kill you. That's good art, I think. Not just being shocking for shocking's sake but having an effect on people, making them feel something.'
'Trash' is one of what Poltz calls his 'vomit songs,' sprung from fits of inspiration that close him off from the world, feverishly writing until the creative hemorrhage is complete.
'I love that,' Poltz says. 'I live for that.'
But despite his seemingly bottomless inkwell, Traveling and Unraveling will be Poltz's first proper studio albums since 2003's Chinese Vacation.
'For some reason, recording is very difficult for me,' Poltz says. 'I always have five albums waiting in the wings but I end up giving away more songs on my blog than I actually release. The way I get paid is writing songs and having people actually want to listen to them.'
The 'You Were Meant For Me' royalty checks don't hurt, either. But the dedication that went into his new albums--Poltz reportedly had more than 100 songs under consideration before paring it down to 11 for each album--represents a new plot twist in Poltz's musical career.
'He's essentially the same guy he was 20 years ago,' says Patrick Dennis, a longtime friend and vocalist/guitarist for The Truckee Brothers. 'I just see there being several chapters in his life, musically speaking. There was The Rugburns. Then there was the whole Jewel era. Then his solo career. Now, with these two new albums, he's just gone completely beyond what he's done before.'
Traveling and Unraveling represent the paradox that is Steve Poltz, a man whose music is both playful and painful in a way that leads Page to compare him to a bizarre cross-pollination of Weird Al and John Prine.
'He's always retained this beautiful balance between heartbreaking and comedic,' Page says. 'Steve is a rare bird in that he's able to do both. I've probably seen more Steve Poltz shows than anyone on this planet and I'm always amazed at how well he's able to relate to an audience regardless of what song he's singing.'
Nevertheless, Poltz runs the risk of becoming The Boy Who Cried Wolf (or at least the man who wrote 'I Killed Walter Mathau!') when it comes to people taking his music seriously.
'There has always been a perception among certain people that Steve is just a comedian, a court jester,' Dennis says. 'But the truth is, he's always brought a lot of sensitivity, pain, hope and humor to what he does. In my mind, there is nobody capable of being darker than a comedian.'
Poltz reportedly scrapped the original version of Chinese Vacation, in part, because it was a little too dark. But he says there's also another explanation.
'I'm a complete idiot,' he laughs, 'especially when it comes to money. I recorded [Chinese Vacation] and then I trashed it and recorded it all over again.'
But it goes deeper than that. His new albums plumb even greater artistic depths, emblematic of both maturation and the relationship he forged with producer Billy Harvey on Chinese Vacation.
'Ever since I was a kid I've had a fear of someone taking away my independence,' Poltz says. 'I have a hard time trusting--or getting close--to people.'
Poltz trusts Harvey. And he became consumed with the new songs, even sleeping on an air mattress in Harvey's studio in Austin during the recording of Traveling and Unraveling.
'For me, this is undoubtedly Steve's best collection,' Page says. 'I'm always honest with him and I think this, from start to finish, is beautiful.'
Traveling (along with what Poltz calls its 'quirkier cousin,' Unraveling) is also arguably the most personal album he has ever done. Songs like 'Haters' Union' and 'Street Fighter's Face' (on Traveling) and 'Bombs' and 'Once Again' (on Unraveling) showcase both the sensitivity and ferocity of his songwriting.
But perhaps no song represents Poltz's laugh-lest-we-cry dichotomy more than 'Brief History of My Life' on Traveling. On the song, Poltz uses his trademark wit on reverent reflections on his Catholic upbringing, love for baseball and meeting his idol (We met Elvis Presley in the middle of the summer / He hugged my sister for far too long / Well, I felt kinda weird but I would have pimped her out just to hear him sing a song).
The song also takes a heartbreaking turn. Poltz--who had three of his closest friends, including Steve Foth, die in particularly tragic circumstances (one suicide and two murders) during a relatively short span--reflects on 'Brief History of my Life':
Now here I am a grown up boy, at home on the Fourth of July starin' out at the ocean and the fireworks in the sky. I miss my friends who aren't around, the ones who passed away. Well, I'm feeling kind of grateful here on Independence Day.
When those lyrics are recited to Poltz at the Starlite, his eyes well up. The normally loquacious musician simply nods his head and props up a weak smile.
Moments later, his composure returns as he talks about the show tonight and his plans for the future. He'll be 48 in February but still has the energy of an 18-year-old as he talks about traveling and Traveling and songs he hasn't even written yet. Then he pauses.
'I sometimes think that all of this is a dream,' Poltz says, thoughtfully. 'That this right here--sitting here talking about music--is just a dream. That I'm going to wake up tomorrow morning and my lungs will be collapsing and I'll be back selling pipe nipples.'
He lets the thought linger, but just for a second.
'This is a way better life.' Steve Poltz plays at 9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24, with Tim Bluhm of The Mother Hips at Belly Up Tavern, 143 S Cedros Ave., in Solana Beach. 858-481-8140. www.poltz.com.