Man on the Street | Music | Denver | Denver Westword | The Leading Independent News Source in Denver, Colorado

Man on the Street

Denver's Andy Polt is homeless; he's spent most of the past seven years living in back alleys, rescue missions, rehearsal spaces, cars and various warm-weather job sites. But he hasn't let his circumstances stand in the way of his musical objectives. Late last year, he released Hard Choir Gospel, six...
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Denver's Andy Polt is homeless; he's spent most of the past seven years living in back alleys, rescue missions, rehearsal spaces, cars and various warm-weather job sites. But he hasn't let his circumstances stand in the way of his musical objectives. Late last year, he released Hard Choir Gospel, six self-produced cassettes featuring a staggering 234 songs. Given this avalanche of material, which spans approximately nine hours, it's hardly a shock to discover that the tunes cover a broad range of topics--from astute glimpses of street life and angry diatribes on the ills of society to bawdy odes like the self-explanatory "I Want to Be Reincarnated as the Panties of Miss America." What's more surprising, however, is the driving force behind Polt's creations: the Almighty.

"God wants his songs," says Polt, a handsome, clean-cut 32-year-old. "So I've got to deliver them and spread the word. And there's a lot of fear that comes with that, man. What if I fail? I mean, you don't want to let God down."

Polt needn't worry about that. After all, he churned out his multi-volume opus in the face of tremendous obstacles--not the least of which was an almost total lack of funds. The so-called "bathroom recordings" of this one-man, Jesus-styled musical ministry, made in part with the use of a micro-cassette player, take minimalism to new levels; they consist mainly of Polt's conversational vocals, which he accompanies by pounding on newspapers. ("I've used the Sunday News and the Post, but lately I've been using Westword," he reveals. "The rain and the heat flattened it real good.") The results are primitive, certainly, but also quite striking. They suggest the inspired oratories of a street preacher agitated by the sound of the Devil's anxious footsteps close on his heels.

By pop standards, Polt's tunes are not the Garden of Eden, but they're marked by rare fervor and unique insight. Simply put, you've never heard anything like them--and the Lord above probably hasn't, either. If Polt is worried that some of his more risque efforts will incur Jehovah's wrath, however, he certainly doesn't show it. "I think God's got a hell of a sense of humor," he says. "See, that just goes to show--you don't have to be some lily-white, perfect person to have Him running through you."

After being asked for an interview, Polt suggests a meeting at his "office," but his digs are far less professional-looking than the term implies. The space turns out to be an open basement stairwell attached to a vacant, deteriorating building near a central Denver pawn shop that Polt uses as his mailing address. (To learn how to get your own copy of Hard Choir Gospel, write to the singer at Polt Records Underground, 845 Lincoln St., Suite 101, Denver 80203.) His headquarters are lacking in both standard finishing touches and feng-shui: The furnishings--a six-foot stone slab that serves as a desk, a pair of mattresses, piles of outdated magazines and empty quart bottles of cheap beer--are arranged haphazardly. To make matters worse, a clean-up crew sent out by the owners of the property is moving piles of rubble and debris in an attempt to make the structure more salable. In the midst of this mayhem, a prospective buyer chats with Polt about the merits of the fading edifice. Unaware that she's essentially standing in Polt's waiting room, she offers an assessment of the area: "The problem with doing business down here," she confides, "is that you've got to run off all the homeless people first."

The frenzied activity at the building soon convinces Polt that the interview should be conducted on foot. Hence, he takes off walking at a pace that would wind a triathlete, bound for a soup kitchen across town. He asks that the name of the charity not be mentioned in print, and he's similarly reticent to publicly reveal other street secrets, such as the names of public facilities that allow vagrants to linger unmolested beneath their air conditioners; he says that doing so would violate the homeless "code of honor." But he still manages to provide a window onto the homeless world.

"People say the guy on the street isn't working, but that's not true," he points out. "You work three times as hard out here. You're either walking or waiting in a line, and it's hard, bro. I'm walking ten miles today just to get a fucking sandwich."

Things weren't always so tough for Polt, whose family settled in an east Denver suburb in 1968. As a child, he and his three siblings enjoyed a typical suburban existence, but Polt's turned sour at the age of nine, when he began trading time on the playground for shoplifting. A few years later, he placed beer-drinking and breaking-and-entering on his list of pastimes. At age fourteen he was busted for burglary, and a year later he was sent to Lookout Mountain Detention Center to get straightened out. His stint there only made him more rebellious, though, and after running away a few times, Polt was carted off to a Denver hospital for psychiatric treatment.

"They thought I was psychotic or something," he recalls. "But I didn't have any symptoms. It was more because I joked with them. People don't like it when they're trying to take the smile off your face, and you're laughing in their faces. But you've got to smile." He adds, "What the hell do they want? They're not happy if you're smiling, and they're not happy if you're crying."

To mellow Polt out, the hospital staff put him on an unwanted chemical regimen. But he says that when he returned to South High School, which he had been attending prior to his internment, the drugs did more harm than good. According to him, "When I was taking my regular 'scrip [prescription], I wouldn't know what I did for weeks." The medication, coupled with his drinking habit, eventually sealed his doom at the school: Polt, South's starting running back during his senior year, showed up for a game looped on Ativant and Jim Beam and was expelled.

After a brief stretch back home with his parents, Polt hit the streets, supporting himself by painting houses. Then, two years ago, he began suffering health difficulties associated with his part-time occupation. "I had all these paint things bothering me, and the doctors couldn't figure out what was doing it," Polt says. "I went to DG [Denver General Hospital], and they were real nice, but someone like me, they're not going to run all these sophisticated blood tests on you. They just say to quit smoking and drinking. Hey, I could be a doctor too--I can tell you that." He chuckles before noting, "For one stretch I was throwing up for ten days."

The agony of his illness led to what Polt describes as a period of re-evaluation. "You start feeling pain like that, and you get a different outlook on life. You get different values. Now I don't care if I don't have any money, as long as I'm not buckling over in pain, rolling on the pavement."

When Polt began feeling better, he realized how important music was to him. "I've been through hundreds of jobs, and I'm a loser bum, really, but writing songs always made me feel like I did something," he says. "So that's what I did." This discovery coincided with something even more profound: a religious epiphany. In his words, "I was wondering what my calling on earth was, and I was getting sick and dragging my ass to work and all. Well, there was this preacher guy on television, and I was praying and stuff, and something happened. I can't really pinpoint it, but I just started jamming and turning out the songs. And once I started writing songs praising the Lord, all this other stuff exploded in me. Now it's like I'm on a quest. But it's kind of a tormenting thing to always have a song in your head when you've got to eat and you've got to work."

The ditties that appear on Hard Choir Gospel were originally intended as demos for a band Polt wanted to form. He figured that he'd serve as the group's drummer and let someone else sing, but the musicians he lined up invariably wanted him to step into the spotlight and turn the sticks over to someone else. That idea didn't sit well with Polt, who claims he can't sing without drumming. Still, Polt concedes, the real reason that collaborators didn't stick around for long was his spiritual fire. "I've always been real religious," Polt allows. "I used to think everyone was kind of crazy like me, and that we all had powerful religious life-and-death experiences. Like where you're in a car going a hundred miles an hour that's out of control on the highway, heading straight into a brick wall, and then all of a sudden you're in a ditch, and you're out and walking away from it, and people are coming up, saying, 'Man, we thought you were dead,' and they're giving you a ride home with your twelve-pack of beer."

These days, Polt insists, he's not drinking nearly as much as he once did, and he hasn't taken psychotropics for years. Instead, he settles for more heaven-sent kicks. "I get a jolt just talking about it," he says, "I got one just then."

He's still buzzing when he arrives at the soup kitchen, located in a metro-area church. Approximately fifteen people, mainly men age thirty and up, are in line ahead of him. One male sits on the pavement, deliberately smoking a neat row of shorts he has laid out in front of him. Farther up the queue, a younger fellow, in three layers of soiled denim despite the rising heat, gesticulates to the sky and mutters to himself. The rest of the fraternity engages in friendly chatter or quietly passes the time by staring at the ground until 11 a.m. sharp, when lunch is distributed. They file past an iron gate, where a pair of cheerful women pass out ham sandwiches, Styrofoam cups brimming with chili, cookies, coffee and Kool-Aid. Polt eats his portion off the cover of a nearby trash can. After he's done, he stuffs an extra sandwich into his backpack, which also contains a bottle of water, a thick notebook stuffed with lyric sheets and a dingy white Bible, and strolls to the Cherry Creek bike path. It's one of his favorite haunts, in part because of its scenery; when an attractive woman jogs by, he says, "Man, we're really being blessed today."

This reverie doesn't last for long. A moment later, Polt is railing against the illusion that pills are the cure for all of life's ills--a theme that runs through Hard Choir Gospel tracks such as "Mentalized State," "Dr. Shrinko" and "Ritulin [sic] Kids." Shaking a newspaper article entitled "Using Drugs for Discipline" in his fist, he seethes, "This pisses me off, because they're giving one-year-olds something that will knock a grown man's dick in the dirt. This is our society. You 'dare to keep your kids off drugs,' but you go home and give them some Ritalin. You don't want Johnny running around playing, so you give him a bunch of drugs. I'm confused with this society, dude, on a lot of issues. You see shit like this, you've got to stand up and say, 'This is fucked up.' I get incensed about the doctors and all their drugs, so I started writing a bunch of 'shrinks suck' songs. I started thinking, 'I want to save these kids.'

"You've got all these shrinks talking, and people think their word is God," he asserts. "But you see the stories in the paper where this guy's on this, and this guy's on that, and they're all test subjects. And you're surprised he went and blew up a carload of people or blew his brains out? It doesn't surprise me, because when you don't even know where your own brains are, who knows what you'll do? I was in the hospitals battling them, so I know what I'm talking about; I'm an expert witness when it comes to drugs, bro. So I'm stepping up to them. This is a continuation of the battle I was in, when I told them there was nothing wrong with me, and that I was just kind of wild."

Not every Polt number is so solemn. "I've got some drinking songs, too, for the rock angle," he concedes, "because you've got to have a lighter side, too. I like the catchy comedy songs to throw people off--stuff like that. People need to be shocked a little, but you can't take things too seriously. I try to make it entertaining when I'm getting my message across."

How successful is Polt at striking this balance? He'll get an indication what the average Joe thinks this week, during his first appearance at a Denver nightspot, the Mercury Cafe. He's excited about having an opportunity to present his work in a live setting, but he also wonders what sort of responses he'll receive; he knows that raving testimonials to faith aren't exactly hip on the local club circuit. But since he's aiming more for saved souls than mass acceptance, he's hardly sweating over being rejected.

"I offer a different perspective to the listener," he says, "and maybe I can draw different crowds--people who normally wouldn't get a dose of religion. I never thought of myself as a preacher, and at first I was a little uncomfortable with it, but all the good feelings I get from it makes up for all that. And just because someone doesn't agree with what I'm saying or what I'm doing, that doesn't mean I'm going to forsake what's given to me. I could never do that. I'm strong in my convictions, and I'll die for them if I have to. I'll walk naked down the street. I don't care as long as God's with me. And you've got to remember, there was a time not too long ago that I'd give somebody five bucks just to put me out of my misery. But not now. I'm God-drunk, dude."

Andy Polt. 9 p.m. Friday, August 14, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California St., 294-9258.

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