Forgetting the Last Laugh

For the past decade or so, Steve Poltz has enjoyed indie-label-sized celebrity and a healthy level of musical notoriety as the leader of the Rugburns, a group of satirical semi-twangers from San Diego. But after years of whiskey-soaked tours to small clubs across America, he's now marking time in the big leagues thanks to One Left Shoe, his solo debut on Mercury Records. And who does he have to thank for his ticket to the top? She goes by the name of Jewel.

You read right. Poltz, who on the 1994 Rugburns album Morning Wood sang the line "Satan's in the bagels, and my toaster's masturbating" was once romantically involved with fellow SoCal songster Jewel Kilcher, and the two remain good friends and frequent musical collaborators to this day. In fact, Poltz co-wrote the acoustic-guitar-slinging starlet's biggest smash, "You Were Meant for Me."

For Poltz, the song's popularity has meant platinum royalties, greater credibility as a composer and friends in high places--but the perks are what excite him most. "I went to the Super Bowl this year," enthuses the devout San Diego Chargers fan, who pulled for the Broncos during the game. "It was cool. And I got a really good seat, since Jewel sang the national anthem."

The effect that "You Were Meant for Me" has had on Poltz's life and career is a still a bit hard for him to believe, especially considering the tune's humble origins. "Jewel and I were surfing down in Baja, California, one day, just hanging out," he recalls, "and we wrote it on the back of a cocktail napkin." His first instinct, he recalls with a chuckle, was to turn the earnest ditty into a gag: "After we wrote it, in my sick little way of thinking, I wanted to change the lyrics to 'you were meant for meat' and give it to the Meat Council or something. We'd do a real punk-rock version of it and have a guy on the cover holding ground beef in his hands."

Luckily for Poltz, he didn't get the chance to rework the composition--and the next thing he knew, he says, Jewel "had gotten a record deal with Atlantic. We had written a bunch of songs together, and if her record had sold 30,000, we'd have been happy. But all of a sudden, it was a hit song; we knocked 'The Macarena' off the charts. Now it's the longest-running song on the Billboard Top 100--it set the record."

How has Poltz handled his sudden success? "You're talking to the same guy who wrote 'My Car Phone's on the Pill,' so I take all of this in stride," he points out. "I feel like I tricked someone. I'm waiting for someone to say, 'Look, we were just kidding.' It's funny."

Most of One Left Shoe isn't. The disc is a collection of sweet, understated little numbers that will appeal to lovers of introspective, observational songsmithing. Adherents of Poltz's former girlfriend will be pleased as well; Jewel guests on the platter and shares songwriting duties on four numbers. One of these, "Silver Lining," is an instantly catchy confection that's garnering airplay on adult-contemporary stations. But although such exposure should insure that Poltz's current solo tour will last for a while, it's no guarantee that Rugburns loyalists into the band's more raucous, irreverent side will be thrilled.

"Oh, yeah, some of them want to kill me--and these songs might be a shock to some people," Poltz concedes. "This is a side of me that I was probably too much of a wuss to ever show before. But that's okay, because most of the fans are really liking them. The bottom line is, you've got to please yourself. It gets old being in a bar band, and I've done it for years. That's why I wanted to try something different. I just wanted people to see that I had some different kinds of songs. And so many of the people who had seen me solo kept asking me when I was going to do a solo record. It was bumming me out, because I felt like I was selling myself short as a musician by not playing some of these songs."

Poltz didn't land his Mercury deal solely on the strength of the Jewel connection; he'd been offered solo contracts long before the rise of Ms. Kilcher, but he turned them down in favor of staying with the band. Following the departure of a pair of Rugburns members, however, he finally jumped at the opportunity to establish a new identity for himself. He got an important assist from producer J. Steven Soles, who enlisted the studio help of heavyweights such as Jim Keltner, Benmont Tench, Leland Sklar and Van Dyke Parks during the making of One Left Shoe.

"Part of picking a producer is getting somebody with a good Rolodex," Poltz says. "Steven knows all these guys and was able to get them tapes of my songs, and they really dug them. It was so mind-blowing for me to do this record--to be playing live with all these people and to have them ask me how I saw these songs and how I wanted them. I have millions of albums with these guys on them, and they're asking me these questions. It was a dream come true."

On the road, Poltz is playing without the safety net of back-up musicians; he's doing the solo troubador thing. "At first it was really scary," he notes, "but the more you do it, the better it gets. I've done hundreds of shows since Christmas, and I've only been home for three nights since then, so I've got my show down more. I get nervous every time, and I still start feeling nauseous about three hours before I go on stage. But when I'm done, I'm so happy. It's a really fulfilling experience and a challenge, because sometimes Rugburns fans show up and they do get mad because it's such a different show now. But I still write really strange songs, and then I'll write love songs--and in my show, I like to showcase all of those sides. There's something wrong with me, I guess."

Despite his newfound status, Poltz continues to operate on a relatively small scale. "I still live on my $25 a day per diem, I still have an '89 Ranger at home, and I still have the same little beach apartment that I've had for years. And I buy all my clothes at thrift stores, because I like polyester." He's also appeared at a handful of "living room" dates, wherein he'll set up shop in the parlors of fans who sell seats to friends and family. Because of his rising stock, the shows (inspired in part by similar concerts by California-based songwriter Cindy Lee Berryhill) might seem like a surprising gesture, but Poltz doesn't see them that way. These up-close-and-personal gigs are appealing, he says, because "you're not in a noisy bar; you're getting people who are really there to listen to your songs, and you're getting to meet each other, because it's a more intimate thing playing somebody's house. You don't go into a bar and say, 'Now, who are you?' You just don't do that. In this day and age, we don't interact as much. We're in the age of mass media and mass images, and this is kind of a little folksinging thing.

"That's what I like about what I'm doing right now and not playing with a band," he says. "My show's about telling stories and playing songs that make people laugh. It's not about a light show."

AT&T LoDo Music Festival '98, with Joan Osborne, Morphine, the Why Store, Spearhead, Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans, Steve Poltz, Boom Shaka, Cola, Nina Storey, Cabaret Diosa, Judge Roughneck, Swingbilly, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Stuart Lewis and David Booker. 5 p.m. Friday, July 17, 19th and Wynkoop, $12, 888-LODO or 329-6353.

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