The Dude of Life
“What is that, Jamie?” Steve Pollak asks his three-year-old daughter, eying the chewed white lump atop the mound of fried rice on the heavyweight paper plate in front of her.
Jamie’s answer comes in the silent form of a squinched face and a small pointy tongue still stuck way out in disgust: It was a sub-par piece of sweet-and-sour chicken from Master Wok. She liked it 10 minutes ago, when it was offered to her on a green toothpick, from a Dixie cup, on a sample tray; but quite simply, it had been too long since her dad had cast his gaze in her direction. Jamie inherited her father’s love of the spotlight.
“Jamie…” A stern line appears between Steve’s eyes, below the pronounced brow ridge that, along with a super-wide jaw and lobe-less ears, makes him look like one of the Incredibles. Now that she has Daddy’s attention, Jamie does her best to secure it. She stares back up at him with big blue stoic eyes made somber by the sickening chicken. Implacable Steve shakes a napkin from a pile on the table, picks up the offending chicken piece along with the rice it has touched, and wordlessly deposits the clump in the nearest swinging garbage slot.
He eases back into his seat and swigs his Snapple, turning the cap around and around on the plastic table. Unseeing, he stares at the factoid printed on the cap’s underside. There’s a lot going on right now.
It’s Sunday afternoon at the Westchester Mall. His five-year-old son Jesse is counting out loud to 204. Jamie has ducked under the table and is sitting in my lap.
I’d called Steve’s house in Croton-on-Hudson a few days ago, wanting to do a profile of him; now, less than a week later, we’re at the mall with his kids. It’s the weekend, so he’s home from his job teaching elementary school in the Bronx. His eight-and-a-half months’ pregnant wife is home, on partial bed rest.
Steve spins the cap and spins the cap, pausing so long it’s unclear whether he’s going to speak or not.
Oh, right—he grins his wide elastic grin—how he got the best nickname ever.
It was a dark and shroomy night. At Taft, a boarding school on a 220-acre campus in Watertown, Conn., curly-headed teenaged Steve appeared in a friend’s dorm room draped in a tapestry, wearing orange goggles and muttering what seemed at the time to be otherworldly wisdom. For perspicacity surpassing what one would expect of a sophomore from White Plains, Steve’s stoned classmates dubbed him the Dude of Life, which he might well have forgotten if he hadn’t been greeted by his new title the next morning.
It was 1982, and The Dude of Life was as imperial a stage name as any that had come before, right up there with the Chairman of the Board or Prince or Queen Latifah. Steve, a fledgling singer and lyricist, embraced it. Hell, he embodied it, donning the Dude get-up (topped with a straw golf hat) when his band, Space Antelope, entertained the student body with Grateful Dead covers and originals like “Fire at the Taft School.”
Today, the thin slice of the world’s population that is aware of Steve Pollak’s existence knows him better, perhaps only, by this stage name. Other characteristics of this demographic include being “really into” the jam band Phish, unwavering confidence that “they’ll tour again, just a matter of time” and a penchant for beginning stories with, “Me and my friends scored some nitrous…”
That’s because as it happened—as a wise man liked to say, as it was meant to happen—Space Antelope’s self-taught guitarist was a kid from New Jersey named Ernesto Giuseppie Anastasio III, known to his friends as Trey, and eventually, to the world, as the founder and lead guitarist of Phish.
Steve and Trey both ended up at the University of Vermont, where they continued jamming together and generally freaking freely. It took one semester before they were asked to take a brief hiatus, for a prank I promised Steve I would not publish.
What began as mutual adulation of the Grateful Dead had solidified, by 1983, into a lifelong friendship. Trey would be an usher at Steve’s wedding 16 years later, but for now, they parted ways. Trey finished up at Goddard College, in Plainfield, Vt., where he met keyboardist Page McConnell, who joined Trey, guitarist Jeff Holdsworth, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer John Fishman to form the band that would grow quietly from playing in the basement of an ROTC dormitory at 1983 to selling out Madison Square Garden in four hours in 1994.
Meanwhile, Steve ended up at SUNY Purchase, where he majored in literature and graduated in due course. He took a series of odd jobs, working variously at Sam Ash, delivering home health care equipment and selling everything from copying machines to advertising banners to insurance. All the while, his musical muse kept whispering a song in his ear every three weeks or so. And yet, the Dude of Life might have faded into oblivion, swallowed by an oversaturated market of singer-songwriters, were it not for the fact that getting each other suspended turns out to be a particularly strong bonding experience.
As Trey became a cult icon, the Dude emerged as a sort of mythological sideshow. Consider these chronicles from a 1990 newsletter from Phish headquarters:
Nov. 1984… Burlington VT
Phish is playing their first bar gig upstairs at Nectar’s. No one has seen or heard from the Dude of Life in three years. The band starts playing the opening strains of “Fluffhead,” and he appears again, picking up the microphone and improvising the words on the spot like a man possessed. Twenty minutes of utter chaos follow, moving one woman to pour out her emotions in an ultra high-pitched squealing fest on top of Dude’s preaching. A tape recorder is running and the event is secretly documented, ending all doubts about the Dude’s existence.
Winter 1988… Johnston VT
Phish is playing at Johnston St. College. Midway through the second act there is a commotion in the middle of the crowd. A circle clears, and a man appears dressed in full SCUBA gear, complete with tank and flippers. He moves to the stage and begins to sing… Police offices on duty grow tense as the crowd erupts in a joyous moment of positive energy. The officers pull the plug and eject the patrons. As the smoke clears, everyone realizes that the Dude has vanished without a trace.
Phish is halfway through a set at Wetlands. A crazed looking man with close-cropped hair, a leather jacket, and shit-kickers approaches the stage. It is the Dude of Life. He grabs the microphone in a frenzy, sings a few lines, and vomits. Del Martin, Roadie Extraordinaire, calmly mops up the mess as the band plays on. Secretly disheartened by the incident, Del quits the following day.
Sept 1990… NYC
Wetlands again. A stretch limo pulls up in front of the club and the Dude of Life enters with an entourage of bodyguards and flunkies. He looks like a glam rocker. His hair is blue and he wears a bright green sparkling jacket and tights. The crowd is taken aback. He disappears and isn’t heard from again.
OK, so while such accounts of the Dude’s guest appearances may not be accurate to a word, they are—what would James Frey say?—emotionally true. The Dude did perform at all those shows, he did feign vomiting at the Wetlands, and he was better known for his outlandish get-ups and antics than for his singing voice or the handful of songs in the Phish repertoire whose lyrics he penned.
(While most Phishheads know the Dude wrote “Suzy Greenberg,” it takes some digging to discover that “Fluffhead” was inspired by the Dude’s oldest brother, who died of cancer, or that “Run Like an Antelope” was a Space Antelope original.)
The Dude embodied the side of Phish that was spontaneous and utterly unpredictable. While throwing yellow rubber chickens into the audience was a staple antic of the Dude’s act, even those chickens were unique. Each one had messages from band members Sharpied on them, some of which carried over from one chicken to another. On Phish.net, a mind-bogglingly comprehensive volunteer-run website, a fan named Ned reports that he caught a chicken in Toronto in 1993 with the following message from drummer John Fishman: “One day I’ll have such an orgasm that my...(To be continued on next bird).” Ned was looking for the missing chicken.
Every Phishhead wanted to own a corner of Phishtory: a rubber chicken, a speeding ticket at 4:20 a.m. on the way to a Phish show, a Dude sighting. A New Haven Coliseum concertgoer in 1998 reported after the show: “I had heard a rumor of the Dude of Life coming out, but I had heard these rumors before. When the Dude appeared for Suzie, it was mayhem.”
The way I would consider it is, Phish was famous, and I got a taste of that fame,” Steve tells me over coffee in a suburban strip mall on the day we meet, a weekday evening after class was dismissed. “It was great. It definitely could be addictive.”
We’re at the Black Cow, a funky coffee shop in Croton-on-Hudson. He chats with a pony-tailed dad in the coffee line, arranging a play date for their sons. He slaps the kid five. Then he offers me a bite of his chocolate covered pretzel, breaking off an entire half. His speech resembles his song lyrics: simple and repetitive, with long pauses that would lend themselves to jamming.
Only once does Steve open up, dropping something akin to the sophomore mumbo-jumbo that earned him his title. The tapestry and goggles have given way to slacks and an athletic pullover, the curls are short and neat with a few gray strands if you look hard; but the Dude abides, and he’s still into visions.
“When I was a little kid, three or four years old, this may sound a bit cryptic, but I used to have these visions-slash-dreams of when I was much older, I’d say in my fifties or sixties, a lot older than I am now, and I just envisioned massive crowds of people and flags flying, banners waving. It was huger than anything I could have ever imagined, and it’s much bigger than anything I’ve experienced to date. It was about 100 times more massive than the whole Phish experience. And I never felt these were delusions of grandeur, but time will be the true test. I always felt something like that was gonna happen.”
That was the one things his wife had told him not to talk about today, Steve laughs. “Just don’t mention the visions,” she’d said.
Leslie Pollak is the practical one. “Steve and I are pretty opposites, just so you know,” she tells me on the phone. “I went to Cornell. Was not the artsy type—I was an economics major. Complete opposites. I’m more of the academic kind of person, and he’s more of the artsy person, and it’s really,” she laughs, “a complementary relationship.”
The two discovered on their first date that they shared a birthday, four years apart. Seven weeks later, they were engaged. (It was the second time for Steve, who’d been married, briefly, to a woman he met at SUNY.) Leslie tells it with Queens flair:
“When I was single, I was dating someone for many years, then I broke up with him and then I was dating someone else who I knew I wasn’t gonna marry, and on my 30th birthday, I blew out the candles—oh, my aunt was into the Law of Attraction, do you know what that is? Positive thinking, you have to be positive and be specific, and she made me read all these books on this cruise to Alaska, it was ridiculous. So on my birthday, I blew out the candles, I said ‘OK, God, I want to find someone who falls madly in love with me, and then hear the pitter patter of little feet after that.’
“I found my little dog Willie dodging trucks on the Willis Avenue Bridge. So my aunt said, ‘You said pitter patter of little feet, and fall in love with you, you weren’t specific.’
“So next year—for some reason it was always at my birthday party—blowing out the candles, I say ‘OK, God, I want a tall dark male human being to fall in love with me, whom I fall in love with, but the clincher is he needs to propose to me before my college reunion on June 8th.’ Now this was January 17th. I was dating someone else.”
“Boom! Met him March 23rd. Boom! May 11th engaged. Went to my reunion, and that was it. That’s what happened. True story.”
It was Leslie, then a director of alumni at the Horace Mann School in Riverdale, who got Steve into teaching five years ago. It was clear he wasn’t cut out to be a salesman. “We both knew what we were getting into before we got married,” she says. “He knew, in order for me to be happy, I need to know there’s a pension, I need to know things like that.”
“And I knew that he was not, you know—nor did I want him to be—an investment banker or a lawyer, I knew that wasn’t what he was about. I think he thought that was what he had to do. He went into insurance for a while, and it was painful for me to watch that. I told him to get out.”
The Dude is known as Mr. Pollak now to the third through fifth graders at P.S. 16 in the north Bronx, where he teaches reading and writing, a half-hour commute from home. This is his first year there, but most of his fellow teachers know he’s the Dude. “Some care,” says Steve, “some don’t.” He has yet to bring his guitar to class, like he did when he was a private school teacher. At Ethical Culture School two years ago, he actually brought in the whole Dude of Life Band.
“One day, down the road, my aim is to help develop a curriculum that will be more appealing for these kids,” he writes in an email after our meeting, when he’s had some time to think. “There are major changes that need to take place on multiple levels in order for our national school system to become more effective. Complaining about it doesn’t do anybody any good.”
Of all his jobs to date, public school teaching is the best fit. It offers a pension, gets him home early, exposes Steve to a slice of life he missed at boarding school (city-schooled Leslie points out), and reminds him of the live performing he doesn’t have time for these days.
“Every day, I’m still center stage,” he says. “When I was touring, you can do similar shows two or three nights in a row, and every night will still be different, you’ll have a different crowd, you’ll play the songs a little differently. In a similar way, I can do the same lesson for three different classes, and they’ll all be very different experiences.”
It wasn’t meant to last with Phish. As the band matured in the 1990s, some of its more grown-up fans started to resent what one refers to as the Dude’s “bombastic stage presence.” It’s hard not to like Steve, with his mile-wide grin and earnest passion for rock ’n’ roll, but not everyone liked the Dude. A purist who attended a show at Albany’s Pepsi Arena in 1997, where each band member took turns shouting “Bring in the Dude!” snidely reported that the chants “brought fear into the patrons of the Knick that a set would be wasted by some unfunny goofball.”
Some called the Dude a “Trey-mate,” criticizing him for riding his friend’s coattails. Strange that the week I meet Steve at the Westchester Mall with his kids, Trey will spend two days in jail for violating parole by missing a drug counseling session. The Dude’s standing invitation to perform with the band was eventually revoked. Phish’s keyboardist, Page McConnell, explains one version of events in The Phish Book, by Phish and Richard Gehr: “He’s a talented and funny guy, with a knack for writing catchy songs, but most of the times we’ve played with him it hasn’t worked that well for me. It’s like seeing another act in the middle of our show. When he gets onstage, he wants to be completely out front, working the crowd, which comes naturally to him. He’s a friend of Trey’s, though, so the last time he wanted to play with us I ended up making the dreaded ‘call from Page’ you don’t want to get when you’re in the Phish organization. I’m not that hard a guy. I just don’t have a problem doing what’s best for the band.”
Whatever happened behind the scenes, the Dude mostly stopped performing with Phish (although he sang their encore, “Crimes of the Mind,” Thankgiving weekend of 2003 at the Nassau Coliseum). Younger Phish fans may never have laid eyes on him. While the Dude’s first solo album, Crimes of the Mind (1994), featuring Phish as the backing band, sold over 100,000 units, his second album, Under the Sound Umbrella (2000), sold only 10,000. When I called Paul Robicheau, a music writer who profiled the Dude in 1995 for the Boston Globe, his first thought was that I was researching for an obituary.
This is not to suggest I had to scavenge for people who’d heard of him. I found someone who had gone to crunchy Jew camp with his niece, Sarah Pollak, where they held a day of mourning when Jerry Garcia died. A friend of a friend, whose last name is Greenberg, was called Suzy in college. I exchanged emails with a guy who parked next to the Dude at a Phish show at Great Woods Amphitheater in Maine in 1994. The two got to talking in the parking lot, and the Dude, unsolicited, invited him backstage and introduced him to the band members. I happened upon a blogger whose ex-girlfriend once dated the Dude, and through him, got in touch with his ex.
“I don’t know if he still does shows at all but I’d assume having three children (almost) and a wife and third-graders would hinder those efforts,” the ex-girlfriend, who asked not to be named, wrote in an email. “Maybe he finally realizes he’s not going to be a rock star. I hope that he teaches his kids—his own and his students—that it’s OK to be anything you want, and that it’s always beneficial to follow your dreams, even if they don’t quite get you where you think. Had he become a rock star like Trey, he probably wouldn’t have the family he has now. And maybe he’d be the one with the drug problem and jail time. So it’s not always so bad to be the responsible one.” Responsible as he’s become, Steve has no plans to bury the Dude of Life. “I’m definitely going back in [to the studio],” he says, “but I definitely gotta take care of the family stuff for a little bit.”
At 6 p.m. sharp, the head of a mini Dude appears just above our round table at the Black Cow, grinning. Five-and-a-half-year-old Jesse is a carbon copy of his dad, down to the Brazilian wish bracelet on his wrist. Leslie has brought the kids here to meet Steve, but she’s parked illegally, so she pops in and out, and leaves the kids inside. Jamie and Jesse have such a grand time goofing for the camera that another mom compliments Steve on what good models his kids are. When the time comes, they are not keen on leaving.
Steve subdues Jesse in a plush armchair, holds his white-socked foot by the heel, and slips on one Velcro shoe, then the other. How they came off in the first place is anybody’s guess. Jesse wants hot chocolate. Steve shakes his head no. “They don’t have hot chocolate here?” mini Dude asks three times, each time louder than the last.
Steve casts a glance at me and grimaces, unwilling to be caught in a mistruth. “That’s not what I said,” he acknowledges. Fatigue makes Steve a weak opponent. First it’s “You can share a hot chocolate,” then “Jamie, look, Jesse put his parka on, so he gets a hot chocolate.” Finally, he’s holding the door open while the kids march out in front of him, Jesse in his blue parka, Jamie in her pink, each holding their own a cup of hot chocolate.
Watching the scene, it strikes me that it may not be humanly possible for one man to be a husband, father of three children under six, elementary school teacher, and rock star.
“A lot of my friends, we’re all in our forties now, so a lot of them have families,” Steve says. “Once you have a family, it does, it changes things. Suddenly, very often the world is revolving around your kids.”
The backlog of songs in Steve’s library that have yet to make it into the studio grows and grows. Steve won’t, or can’t, talk about his lyrics. “It always comes from the muse,” he says. “What am I writing about?—just, uh, I don’t know, I’m writing about… I try to write about… it’s a good question! I can’t answer that.”
But according to Leslie, who does not hand out compliments (she tends to judge her husband’s music by its salability), he’s doing some of his best work. “I really like a lot of his newer stuff that no one’s ever heard. Some of it I thought was superb. It’s just he hasn’t had time to do anything with it.”
The Dude, of course, agrees. One thing has remained constant in Steve’s life since he was a visionary three-year-old, and that’s his belief that his breakthrough is on its way.
In 1997, he told the Vermont Review that his second album was “rockin’ a lot harder than the first album… When the millions start rolling in, I will give it all to [my wife].” The Dude told JamBands.com in 1998: “[The Dude of Life Band is] going to be touring all across the east coast and we just got back from Toronto and those were our first gigs out of the country, and they went great. We’re looking to conquer the world basically.”
In 1999: “I’ve really been developing my own career and I’m really looking forward to putting my own musical idea onto CD. And ultimately, if everything goes as planned I am going to be making some big waves in the rock and roll world.”
And he’s saying it still.
Nine years, three kids, two marriages and two albums later, the Dude’s message has only become more urgent: “As you get older, you realize that time is short. You have to go out and live your life. If anything, my music will rock harder today than it’s ever rocked before,” he tells me, pausing to fold his coffee cup into a square. “Call it a midlife crisis.”
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