Standing at an airport pay phone, his coke-fueled heart hammering like an out-of-control oil derrick slamming into Texas hardpan, singer-songwriter Steve Poltz found the scrap of paper he was looking for.
“Michael the Drunk Lawyer,” it said. Technically, Michael was a sober attorney by then, back in November 2004, and one of the only clean and sober individuals that Poltz knew. With a successful practice in San Diego, Poltz’s adopted hometown, chances were slim that he would answer the phone, Poltz thought, but he was broken down and desperate, so he made the call anyway.
“He never answered his phone, because he was so successful, but that day, he did,” Poltz told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “I go, ‘Michael?’ He knew my voice right away, and he goes, ‘Steven? Is everything OK?’ And I just started bawling.”
It was, as they say in recovery, the end of the road. Nine years earlier, he had been a part of the creation of one of the biggest pop hits of 1995 — “You Were Meant for Me,” which he co-wrote with his then-girlfriend, Jewel. He’d been a part of her band, appeared in the video and enjoyed all of the trappings of success. Addiction slowly stripped all those things away, however, until on that autumn day in 2004, he was coming off of a three-day cocaine binge.
He went from smoking crack with a homeless man and sleeping on the couch in an abandoned lot to sneaking rock onto an airplane, where he tried to snort it in the lavatory and gave himself a nose bleed. When the stewardess pointed it out, he ordered a double vodka, and by the time he made it to the Denver airport, where he was schedule to do a radio interview, he was having a full-blown panic attack.
“I thought I was going to collapse, and I almost couldn’t walk,” Poltz said. “I called Michael because I knew he was my one get-out-of-jail-free card, and he said, ‘Alright, we’re going to get through this together. I’ve been through this, and you’re going to be OK. Take down this number.’”
Michael directed him to an addictions counselor, who told Poltz to come by for an assessment. There, he got the grim news:
“I went in, and the guy was like, ‘I’ve seen this story. You’re going to be dead in a week,’” Poltz said.
A wild and crazy guy
Born in Canada, Poltz came by his penchant for chemicals honestly — as an altar boy in the Catholic Church, hiding out with his buddies and sneaking sips of communion wine. It was an innocent enough upbringing; drugs and alcohol weren’t used to anesthetize childhood trauma or pain as much as they were to make good times even better, he said.
“I think it was a sense of mischief and a sense of being in a gang and belonging and one-upping each other,” he said. “It was going to the drive-in and hopping a ride with somebody, being underage and drinking Coors buzz bombs and getting drunk. I always loved breaking glass and driving cars on golf courses, so we were really destructive! But drinking was something we always did. We always drank, and it just became a part of my whole life.”
It also fueled the on-stage antics of his indie-rock band The Rugburns, which became a fixture in the San Diego scene for their antics and music that meandered from bizarre to funny to bombastic. Drawing equally from the Replacements and the Pixies, with a healthy dose of Ramones-era attitude, The Rugburns were a force of nature.
“We were really drunk on stage, or trashed on drugs, and the shows were insane,” he said. “I’m talking crazy. I remember one night, the mic had this really long cord, long enough to take it outside, and I would go throw up in the middle of shows and take it with me, because I wanted people to hear it. When you’re drunk, these seem like good ideas, but it eventually catches up to you.”
In those heady days, Poltz was drawn to the visceral prose of Charles Bukowski and the boozy metaphysics of early Tom Waits records. There was a romantic appeal in drinking cheap alcohol in rundown bars off the beaten path; in those places where the regulars started throwing back at 2 in the afternoon and college kids crossed the street to avoid darkening the doorway, he found the characters and miscreants who spoke to his poetic soul.
But his alcoholic center couldn’t hold, however. He never got “Leaving Las Vegas” blotto, but once the first sip slid down his throat, all bets were off, he said.
“When I discovered you could always get blow and get it delivered, I was like a lab rat,” he said. “I would keep doing blow, and people would party with me in shifts. They’d say, ‘I’ve gotta go to sleep,’ but then another group would come in and pick up where they left off. I would do these self-imposed rehabs where I would take 30 days off, and I would do OK. I never woke up and had to have a drink. It was the shit I would do when I was drinking, because from the moment I had a drink, it would affect me.”
The long, slow slide into darkness
Cocaine, Poltz is convinced, was the drug that both launched him into the stratosphere and sent him plummeting into the cavernous depths in which he eventually found himself. And, he added, it was always wrapped up in an alcoholic package.
“I could only do it if I was drinking; I would never want it if I was sober,” he said. “I would never look at a line of coke and go, ‘This seems like a great idea.’ I would be like, ‘Ooh, no way.’ I would have to have a good buzz on.”
Early on, however, he was able to do it moderation — mostly because he couldn’t afford to otherwise. Eventually, he started dating a barista named Jewel Kilcher, and he even brought her on the road as an opening act for The Rugburns. Legend has it that he started “You Were Meant For Me” when the two were on vacation together in Mexico before giving it to her to finish. She did, and the song became one of the biggest pop hits of the 1990s. Poltz appeared in the video, became the guitar player in her band and started touring the world.
At that point, he said, he didn’t have to work too hard to get high.
“People would show up and hand me pill boxes, like a tackle box almost — ‘Here’s some blow; here’s some Xanax; here’s some Ambien; here’s something to help you wake up; here’s some ADHD medication for when you want to be really alert,’” he said. “I was traveling with all of this, and it was crazy. I really got into codeine, and I became a full-on cough syrup addict, because I used it to come down. I was getting prescriptions for it from a doctor who was on the road with us.”
It eventually began to take its toll; he remembers sleeping through a 5 p.m. soundcheck in Sydney, Australia; Jewel’s crew got worried and called the fire department, and Poltz remembers waking up to a fireman throwing cold water in his face. While he released a solo record (“One Left Shoe”) on the Mercury label in 1998, he and Jewel eventually split, and it would be five years before his next studio effort, 2003’s “Chinese Vacation.”
That one, he said, came out on the tail end of a rough road.
“A friend of mine got murdered in a crack deal gone bad, and I was part of the trial, because I was the last one with him,” he said. “I just remember meeting all of his friends at an Irish bar at 6 a.m., and we started drinking Jameson. At one point, I remember looking around and thinking, ‘Doesn’t anybody realize this is what killed our friend?’
“By that point, a lot of people were worried about me, but it didn’t matter what they said. I would always tell them I was alright.”
The steady climb back into the light
A year later, that phone call to “Michael the Drunk Lawyer” led to a 28-day stay at an addiction treatment center. On the day he was supposed to coin out with his peers, the counselors paused when it came time for him to say so long.
“They said, ‘Not so fast, Poltz. We had a meeting, and you’re not ready. You need another 28 days,’” he said. “I told them, ‘But I’ve got a show with The Rugburns on New Year’s Eve, and it’s sold out!’ They said, ‘You can do it, but we’re sending two people with you,’ which was a good thing, because I remember a girl walking by with shot glasses of Jameson, and I could smell it as she walked by! But I made it through all of that. I got a sponsor, I started working the 12 Steps and I started going to meetings, and here I am, 14 years later.”
And he’s still making a living as a professional musician. He’s always sought new methods of staking out the stage as his own country for a couple of hours — transitioning into a solo career after so long with The Rugburns, for example, was one such experience.
“In The Rugburns, we were really crazy, so when I went solo, I was trying to keep that energy,” he said. “But how do you move an audience as a solo artist with no one else up there? You have to have a sense of redemption and craziness. I’m still working on the one-man show thing, but people will come up to me and say, ‘I don’t know what I just saw or how to describe that,’ and that’s pretty cool. Now, I’m getting asked to do festivals, and they’re telling me not to bring a band.”
It takes a lot of energy to pull that off, however, and that’s one of his strokes of genius. Take his latest record, for example — “Shine On,” released earlier this year. While it includes its fair share of groove-laden country-rockers (the video for “Ballin’ on a Wednesday,” he added with a chuckle, is based on a true story), there’s a languid feel woven throughout much of the material, from the title track to the spoken-word quirkiness of “Windows of Halifax” (featuring a conversation between two literal windows) to the lullaby warmth of “4th of July.”
It’s easy to draw lines connecting Poltz’s style to the modern-day troubadours like Kurt Vile, but the charm of Poltz’s material comes from a genuine desire to make a human connection from the stage in addition to performing songs for those who turn out to see him. And he always finds a way to drop his sobriety into his between-song banter, he added.
“Every single show, I’ll say something on stage; like, I’ll tell a really funny story and say, ‘But can you believe I’ve been sober for 14 years?’” he said. “And people always cheer — well, except one time I did it at Joshua Tree (Calif.), and some people actually booed!”
Even that, he added, turned out to be a humorous experience — mostly because Poltz treats his art like a bead of mercury slipping from darkness to light, from melancholy to comedy, sometimes within the breadth of a verse-chorus transition.
“That’s the goal with what I do, to have fun,” he said. “I’ve got to surprise myself. I’m always in a state of discovery and trying to figure out how to get better.”
Living on the edge
And through the cathartic process of self-improvement — as a musician, as a songwriter and as a human being — he hopes that maybe, just maybe, he’s helped a few other people along the way. Even if, he added with a chuckle, his methods might occasionally be unorthodox.
“If someone comes up to talk to me and asks me about quitting, I’m going to tell them, ‘Don’t do it! Don’t give it up!’” Why? Because it’s reverse psychology!” he said with a laugh. “And because once you go to a meeting, that shit will mess you up! Having a head full of (sobriety) and a belly full of beer, that’s no fun, man.
“And me, I have little meetings 200 times a year, because afterward, people always come up. They’ll show me their (sober anniversary) chips, and they’ll hug me, and they’ll tell me I’ve helped them so much, or that they saw me a year ago and thought, ‘If that guy can do it, I can do it.’ And I genuinely tear up every time, man. I’ve got tears in my eyes just telling you this, because I get more out of it than anyone.”
And that, he added, is the great reward — using his own foibles to show folks a better path, and using his music to make listeners nod or laugh or cry or just scratch their heads. And it’s paying off — he’s going on the Cayamo Cruise, a music festival on the high seas, in February 2020 for the third year in a row. The month before that, he’ll be on the Jam Cruise, and before then, he’s got a whole lot of touring to do to support “Shine On.”
“Every year has gotten better than the last year, and I owe it all to sobriety, I just know it,” he said. ““I’m still a million volts, and I’m just trying to navigate this world. I don’t want to hate. I want to learn empathy and love and how not to be a dick.
“Some people might think they need a drink to take the edge off, but why would I want to do that? I like the edge! The edge is what it’s all about! When I stopped needing a drink to get on stage, that’s when it got real.”