Steve Poltz: ‘A Long Short Story’ — artist describes his onstage stroke

Steve Poltz's brain after his stroke.

Steve Poltz’s brain after his stroke.

By Steve Poltz
This is my brain. That white dot is where bad shit happened. I put an arrow by it.

The Stroke- a long/short story about what happened to me.

A silent conversation I had with myself on stage while playing a show in Wilmington, Delaware, on Oct 22, 2014.

“Whoa, This is weird- I can’t see. Wait, I can kinda see through my left eye. I wonder if the audience (although relatively small in numbers- yet still an audience) can see me not seeing? It’s like I’m looking through a small keyhole using only my left eye. Wow- I’m going blind. This fucking sucks.”

I was saying this to myself while singing a song. Some call it multitasking. I call it business as usual. You know how when you see someone on stage performing and they’re killing it and you think “Wow, they’re really in the moment?” Well, that’s not really how it works with me. I’m thinking 3 or 7 steps ahead. I like to think of it as this —> I’m like a quarterback, perhaps Peyton Manning (sorry to use him as an example because I’m a Chargers fan but he’s a good example) I’m reading the defense and dropping back, calling an audible in my head and it sounds like this: “Uh oh, that woman is yawning. I’ve done two ballads in a row. Bad move Steve. You idiot. You’re losing them. Think of an interesting story to tell after this song ends. Is it ever going to end? Jeez, I can write some long songs. Cut out a verse! No one will know. Frag, aka Rob Hanning (Steve Poltz archivist), will know but that’s ok. He expects me to screw up the words. Ok cool, song is ending- tune that g string and tell a story about the time you pooped your pants while singing live on the radio. Remember? You decided to start juicing and trying to be healthy and your system was in shock? Your body was expecting a hotdog and you gave it a carrot, apple, celery, kale and spinach juice. Your body said “must immediately eject this foreign substance.”
You were wearing white Levi’s and singing live on radio. No wonder that DJ hasn’t had you back. Yes! That’ll be a good story. Maybe not. It’s oversharing. Nah, Do it! Ok, that was a really bad idea. Note to self: Don’t do stories about pooping your pants while wearing white Levi’s and singing live on the radio. Scowling guy in second row is leaving. Yep he’s walking out. Now there are only 17 people. Better sing a fast song.”

Tim Parsons

Steve Poltz on the Big Meadow stage at the 2014 High Sierra Music Festival. Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

That’s how it works with me. I’m like a meerkat on high alert. I wish I could say say I’m in a zen space when I’m on stage and I’m at peace but I’d be lying. There’s a godamn war going on in my head.

So- getting back to Oct 22, prior to the show, I was eating some greasy cheesy pizza and drinking some super charged iced tea. I’d been drinking lots of strong black tea all day AND coffee. I definitely wasn’t drinking enough water. I hadn’t been getting enough sleep and I was tired, wired and dehydrated. I’m always naturally wired. I’m high strung. Photographers have told me that I’m like a hummingbird and many pictures come out blurry. I’m hard to photograph like The Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, except my feet are only size 9 & 1/2 and I can’t breathe underwater.

So I was sitting with my friends Lou and Rain and we were having a pre show laugh. Lou had just come back from the venue and informed me that there were only 18 people in the audience. This hurt my feelings but I didn’t let on to it. I acted like it was funny and that it didn’t bother me. On the outside I was having a pre-show FAKE laugh. But on the inside I felt sad. Ya see- when you’re a traveling troubadour you never really know what’s going to happen. Things are out of your control. There are always excuses for a poor turnout–> It was raining hard that night, it was a Wednesday, it’s finals week in Malaysia, there’s no almond butter at The Whole Foods in Austin. It’s Wilmington Delaware and I’ve never played this city. Yeah! That’s the ticket. I haven’t built up a fan base there yet. But here’s the thing: I was going to be playing the smaller upstairs room at World Cafe Live. The BIG ROOM is downstairs. Pride hurt alert! I’m playing the small room? I’ve heard it my whole life. It’s what fuels my fire. Not making the basketball team in 9th grade at Nellie Coffman Junior High in Palm Springs. Mr. Hamilton didn’t pick me. I was left out. He put up the names on a piece of paper and mine was the ONLY one not on the list. It all comes back to this. I didn’t make the team and I’m still trying to make the team.

Who was in the “big room” at World Cafe Live that same night? Southern Culture On The Skids! They’re really good. I love them. They’re my friends. I went down to say hi to them before my show and we hugged and traded stories. They said “Oh, are you in the upstairs room?” They asked the question in a sad hushed tone like they were asking me about a friend’s funeral. They were being polite by not calling it the small room. We said goodbye and as I walked out past their sparkling merch display to go upstairs, there was a long line of people waiting to get in. I thought to myself “maybe some of these people are here for my show and they’ve made a mistake.” But no. They were wearing Southern Culture On The Skids T-shirts and hats. They probably had 250 people waiting to see them. On a rainy Wednesday night in Wilmington Delaware while college students in Malaysia were taking final exams and wild zombies in Austin Texas were roaming the aisles of Whole Foods in search of almond butter. My excuses for a low turnout didn’t seem to ruin THEIR numbers. They’re definitely not here for my show upstairs in the “small room”.

So there I am fake laughing and eating pizza with Lou and Rain before my show and my vision starts short circuiting. Like an old TV screen flitting about and crackling with poor reception. I was sweating over my top lip and my hands were shaking. I felt like I was having a panic attack and my chest felt tight. I didn’t say anything to Lou and Rain because that’s how I roll. I keep stuff like that inside. I’ll just try to make them laugh to divert attention. Cause a diversion. It always works! When all else fails, change the subject and make people laugh.

Now prior to this night I’d been having head rushes and throbbing headaches. Crazy meteor shower head rushes. I would pull over in my rental car to get petrol and all of a sudden out of the blue I’d have these wild rushes of blood to my brain. I’d say to myself “This definitely doesn’t feel normal. Maybe I need to see a doctor. Next year I will. I’ll take some time off. Yeah, and then I’ll see a doctor. I’ll have time next year. Right now I’m too busy.”

So I finish my pizza and my vision stops cracking and I walk up to the venue for showtime. I stroll on to the stage and I see the people in the audience and I silently count them while grabbing my guitar and saying “Hey, good evening everybody! It’s great to be here in Wilmington. Please put your hands together and welcome 98 pounder recording artist Mr Steve Poltz.” I’ve gotten used to introducing myself over many years of touring small clubs and I just always do it. It feels natural. I actually felt bad for the audience that they were there. Like maybe they wanted to leave because it seemed like the wrong place to be and now they couldn’t leave because they’d stand out.

So I start playing my show and I feel dizzy and after about 15 minutes my vision starts crackling again and then it’s almost like a curtain comes down and this time I go blind. I’m panicking inside but I also start a comedy routine in my head while at the same time singing a song I wrote called Good Morning Waking Up With You. The comedy skit consisted of a priest, my parents and a nun all saying in unison “Stop doing that Steven You’ll go blind!” They were all dancing in a chorus line while ripping the pages out of porno magazines in a perfect assembly line rhythm. There was a freaking Broadway show going on in my skull while I was playing my other show to the small room patrons. I was also thinking that maybe every troubadour goes blind a couple times in their lives so it’s no big deal. Probably even Bruce Springsteen. Good thing I know the chord changes to my songs because I can’t see the frets on my guitar. This made me feel anxious and I kept hoping that I would be able to see again. So now I’m freaking out in panic while also enjoying the comedy show in my head while also singing the love song to the small room and ALSO thinking that I can’t let anyone know about this. I need to complete my mission and finish the performance. The comedy routine in my head was really funny. Too bad no one else got to hear it. It was definitely better than the crappy show I was playing.

So now all of a sudden my vision comes back and in my head I say “that was not right. That was not right at all!”

Next, my friend Carli requests a song I wrote about a lonely giraffe. She loves this song. In fact she loves it so much that she even got some of the words tattooed on her body along with a picture of a giraffe. I couldn’t remember the words but I figured if I forgot them that I could always read them off of the tattoo on her back. Then I remembered I had the words on a piece of paper. So I grabbed them and realized that I might be able to see again but now I couldn’t read. The sentences didn’t make sense. I could see the word giraffe but everything looked sideways and I couldn’t understand all the words. The letters looked foreign. For all I knew it may as well have been a manifesto from the Unabomber. Now I was panicking big time and I could feel my heart thumping. How did I forget how to read? I was scared, but I didn’t tell the audience. The show must go on. I struggle through one verse of the giraffe song and totally destroy it. So I just stop and say “I think my glasses are dirty. Are my glasses dirty? I’m sorry Carli, I know you drove 2 hours to get to the show and that this is your favorite song but I can’t do it. I think my glasses are foggy.” Now I feel really scared. A few people in The audience say things like “your glasses look fine Steve.” I ask the soundman if there’s something wrong with the lights. He turns them on and off and says “the lights are fine Steve.”

By now I feel like the audience is noticing that I’m really off my game. Someone shouts out a request for an old Rugburns song called Single Life. The Rugburns were my former band. Now this is a song I’ve probably played a million and six times but all I do is sing the same verse over and over. There are 5 verses and a bridge but I only sing one of the verses 5 times in a row. I really thought I was singing the whole song. The audience is now laughing nervously and wondering if I’m taking the piss out of them because this is something I might do on stage. I’m totally confused by now and kind of irritated that they’re laughing at me.

Then— I go blind again. Only this time it’s much worse and I can’t really see at all. It’s like the next level of the video game and now I’m dizzy and feel like I’m going to pass out. So I start feeling around for a chair but can’t find one. So I’m totally blind and dizzy with vertigo but I STILL don’t tell the audience. See, I was born in Canada- we don’t like to upset people. Then things get weirder because I can’t hear what note I’m supposed to sing. I think to myself “I have no clue how to find the opening note for this song. Are you kidding me? Now I’m blind AND tone deaf? By now I’m really confused. I’m usually kinda confused anyways but now I’m completely confused. I can tell the audience knows something’s wrong so I start asking the soundman and the audience weird questions like “Can you guys see? Do your eyes work? They all say “Yes we can see.” So I say “I can’t really see so I’m going to sit down. I also can’t hear that well. Are the monitors on? I’m going to unplug my guitar and try to sing.”
Someone shouts out a request for one of my songs called Chinese Vacation. So I blindly put a capo on the 7th fret of my guitar by feeling the frets and I can’t find the key to sing it in. I think I do two verses of it out of tune and forget the bridge and end the song early. So I say “I’m not feeling very well. I’m sorry. I need to end this show.” I’d been playing an hour and now I’m about pass out so I just sit there confused and people say “C’mon man, don’t stop! We drove four hours to see you. Sing some more. We didn’t hear our favorite songs. Silver Lining, Handjob on A Churchbus! Folksinger, Dick’s Automotive, tell the story about you and Jewel and the marijuana drug bust in Mexico. Do You Were meant For Me with the David Cassidy story, sing I’m In It For The Long-Haul and I Want All My Friends To Be Happy!”

There may not have been a lot of people at the gig but the ones who did attend were die-hard fans who really did drive as far as 4 hours to see the show. I don’t think any of the attendees were actually from Wilmington, Delaware. People in Wilmington must hate me.

So I pose for some pictures and shake some hands. My vision in my left eye starts to kind of return but my right eye is still blind. So I sign some CDs while squinting. One really nice guy named Frizz drove from Harrisburg Pa with his son who was finally old enough to see me in a bar. They brought six old CDs of mine and a couple old posters to be signed. I recklessly scribble on them while trying to find my balance.

Then I look at my guitar and pedal board and I’m totally flabbergasted as to how to pack them up. It all looked strange to me, like I’d never packed up a cable or guitar in my life.

Lou and Rain ask me if I’m ok and I say “Yes, I’m fine. I just need to get to a hotel somewhere and get some sleep. I’m ok I’m just really tired.”
Lou says, “Let me drive your rental car and you ride with Rain. She’ll drive you to our house. You can sleep there. It’s about two hours away. In the morning you can drive to your gig in Charlottesville, Va.”

So I say “I think my vision is back in my left eye. It’s just kind of blurry. It’s not raining too bad. I should be ok to drive with one eye toward Virginia”
Lou looks at me in a very disapproving way and uses his stern voice and says “Steven, give me your keys! You’re not driving. You’re riding back to New Jersey with my wife.” When Lou levels with you like that, he gets a Dad tone and sounds like one of the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon special. Wah wha wha wha wha wha. So I handed him my keys because he seemed serious and serious people scare me. I tried to defuse the situation through humor so as I gave him the keys I said “Allah Akbar”. He didn’t even smile. So I said “Too soon?” He finally kind of smiled. Like the Mona Lisa.

So we begin to pack up my stuff. I’m looking at my cables like I’ve never seen them before and I say to myself “what am I supposed to with these wire things?”

I get paid a very low amount for the show and sell two CDs. (check out my song folksinger for more detailed info) and pile in the car with Lou’s wife Rain. She tells me I should probably see a doctor in the morning. I look at her and say “I don’t have time. I need to be on the radio tomorrow in Virginia. I’m Steve Poltz! I never stop working! But hey, I know a doctor in San Diego I can call. He’s super smart and a really great friend. I just can’t remember his name. It’s like it was erased from my memory.” So I look at my iPhone and I remember that this doctor works with The San Diego Padres AND with Scripps Medical Center. He gave me a special number I could call if I was ever in trouble. I remember he called it his Bat-Phone and said that he would always answer it. But I just can’t remember his name. So Rain says “Try to remember. Maybe it’ll come back to you” I look at her and I get excited and say “It’s Batman. His name is Doctor Batman!”
She looks at me with her head askew. Almost the way a chihuahua would look at you if you made it wear a Christmas sweater and pose for a picture. She tilted her head and said “Batman? His name is Doctor Batman?”
So I type in Bat in my search on the phone and the words bat-phone come up by the name Dr Kakehashi.
“Oh yeah! His name is Dr Robert Kakehashi! That’s his name! I’ll call him! Hey Rain, If it’s 2 a.m. now in New Jersey does that mean it’s 5 a.m. in San Diego?”
“No Steve. It means it’s 11 p.m.”

So I call him and wake him up.
He asks a bunch of questions and one very pertinent question- “When you lost your vision was it like a curtain coming down over your eye?”

“Ummm. Yes. It was.”

“Ok Steve. You need to go right now to the nearest emergency room you can find. Hurry, go there immediately.”

So we go to Princeton Medical Center and they ask me a few questions and I tell them it happened on stage. They say “were you doing any drugs. Did you do any cocaine or anything else. Please be honest. We will be testing your blood.” Talk a bout racial profiling. What about musician profiling?

I say “no! I don’t even drink. If you had asked ten years ago then yes. You’d probably find bat guano in my blood. But now I’m sober as a Mormon. Are Mormons sober? Do they do cocaine?”

The doctors don’t laugh and immediately wheel me away on a stretcher and check my heart and take blood and do a cat scan. Then they do an MRI which takes over an hour and the machine is very loud. The radiologist gives me headphones and asks me what I want to listen to and I say “Neil Young.”
“Good choice” he says.

As Neil starts singing Cinnamon Girl I enter the tube and I’m sort of freaking out. I try to relax but I can feel my heart thumping in time with beat of the drums. It’s not that I mind being in the claustrophobic tube, I’m panicking because I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

So they finish the MRI and roll me back into the emergency area and then about an hour later this well dressed Indian woman comes in holding a clipboard and wearing a white lab coat and says “Mr Poltz, I’m Dr Nadi. I’m with the neurology department here at Princeton Medical Center.” She starts poking my legs and asks if I can feel where she’s touching me. She asks me to smile and frown and smile again and raise my eyebrows. Then she asks me if I can touch my nose and lift my legs. She asks me to follow her fingers with my eyes. Then she asks how many fingers she’s holding up on her right hand and I say “seven!” Then she says “How are you feeling?”

“Oh I’m fine” I say. “I probably just had an ocular migraine.” Even though I have no clue what an ocular migraine is, I say it with authority like I know what I’m talking about. Someone mentioned those words to me at my show and it sounded good to me. “I guess I can get out of here because I need to drive to Charlottesville Virginia. I have to be on the radio at 4pm to promote my show tonight at The Southern Cafe. You should drive down. It’s gonna be great. You know these pesky little ocular migraines. No big deal. Keep moving. Nothing to see here”

“I’m sorry Mr Poltz but we are moving you up into the hospital for a few nights for observation and more tests. You’ve had a stroke.”

Boom! A heavy cloud rolled over me and I felt like I wanted to cry but I wouldn’t allow myself to. This Indian doctor was beautiful and I didn’t want to look like a blubbering idiot. Instead I said “Are you sure? I’m Steve Poltz! I don’t get sick. The rules of jet lag don’t even apply to me. I’m superhuman. I can do 80 shows in 80 nights with no days off. I don’t even need to eat food. Maybe you’ve got the wrong guy. Is there another Steve Poltz here? Can you check again?”

“I wish I could say you were right” she said. “Here, take a look at the MRI. This is your brain. Here’s the stroke. See that white dot? It’s in the thalamus region so that’s probably why you went blind. We’re going to do a bunch of tests and you’ll be up the hospital for the next few nights in the stroke ward.”

I began to feel really low. Tears started welling up in my eyes and I wanted to call my Mom. Basic instinct I guess. But I didn’t call her because I didn’t want to worry her. Canadian instinct I guess. They ran a gazillion tests and told me I had to cancel MORE shows. This really bummed me out. I never cancel shows. Four days later I walked out of the hospital kind of dazed and confused. Lou and Rain picked me up and when I walked outside to their waiting car I stopped for a brief second to just stare at a tree. It was a weak little New Jersey Charlie Brown hospital tree trying to stay alive in the intermittent chilly sunlight. The saddest tree you’ve ever seen. The kind of tree people just walk by and ignore. But It was like I’d never really seen the beauty in a tree before. I kept staring and staring at it like I was on the moon and I looked at Lou and Rain and a few tears started leaking out of my eyes and then more and more and then I started sobbing. I’m talking uncontrollable hysterical tears. They asked me what was wrong and I said “Nothing is wrong. This tree is so beautiful. I love this tree. Look at it. Look at the sky. This world is so beautiful. I don’t want to leave it. I’m not ready to leave it yet” My face was streaming with tears that had been stored up for years. They rolled freely down my face and I stared at the sky in wonder.

So now here I am 4 and a half months later. I’m walking and talking and singing. I can see and I can read. I had to cancel 2 and a half months worth of shows. I’ve been poked and prodded and prodded and poked. They asked me if I have a family history of heart attack and stroke and I said “ummm. I don’t think so. Well, my Mom’s brother Uncle Joey died of a massive heart attack and stroke at age 39. And my Mom’s other broth Uncle Louie died of a stroke after heart surgery. And my Mom’s sister Aunt Sylvia survived a stroke. And my Mom survived a stroke AND a heart attack. And both of her parents passed away of strokes and heart attacks in their 50s and sixties.
Is that bad? Is that bad? Is that what you mean by a family history of strokes?”

So after all the tests I’ve found out that–
I don’t have diabetes. My cholesterol is 80. My blood pressure is 118 over 76. I don’t have a hole in my heart. There’s no blockage in my neck arteries! I had a second MRI and they shot dye into my brain and couldn’t find a clot. They did a test for a genetic predisposition for blood clots and I passed! Unlike my algebra test in high school which I failed. Did I mention that I hate math? I wore a 30 day cardio event monitor. They couldn’t find an irregular heartbeat. I don’t have Deep Vein Thrombosis. They even tested me for HIV and Syphilis! I don’t have them. So I got that going for me. Which is nice. On my last visit with my neurologist I said “I hear they’re having a Black Friday sale on MRIs with brain dye injections. Let’s do more!”
I actually got him to laugh! He’s from Germany and he’s a tough crowd. I also told him “Last year I flew so many miles with Southwest Airlines that I got a companion pass AND a stroke.” He didn’t really laugh at that one.
He said in a German accent, “You’ve been very lucky that you’re able to walk and talk. You need to be careful. I hope I never HAVE to see you again. Just visit me once a year and see a cardiologist. In a third of stroke cases we never know why they happened. Let’s just hope it doesn’t happen again because now that it’s happened you have a higher risk of another. Like a 30 percent chance. It could happen at any time. Anywhere. Merry Christmas.”
Thank you Dr Downer.
And now? Now I’m getting ready to play some gigs. I guess it’s like riding a bike. Except my bike got stolen outside 7/11 and replaced with a damaged one. So I’m back out on the road to do what I do. I sing songs and sometimes I make people smile and feel things. I bring people together. I’m a folksinger-people-bringer-together. I’m lucky. Really lucky.

About Tahoe Onstage

Tahoe Onstage is an online entertainment and sports magazine covering Lake Tahoe, Truckee, Reno, the Carson Valley and June Lake.

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