The Story Of Hitchiker Joe
My late great pal Steve Foth used to own a record store in San Francisco. He was a very astute and clever songwriter. We wrote Hitchhiker Joe together in his vintage Volkswagen van while driving down 5 South from Encinitas to Old Town San Diego. We were stuck in traffic on a Friday at 5pm (go figure) and me being the hyper passenger that I was, unbuckled myself from the lap belt (sans shoulder harness) and crawled to the back of the van to get my guitar.
As I strolled back up to the front of the van I was strumming the guitar like a mariachi. I think I was even singing a song in Spanish:
Allá en el rancho grande
allá donde vivía,
había una rancherita,
que alegre me decía;
que alegre me decía.
I didn’t know the rest of the words and Steve started laughing and we started inventing new Spanish words and using all the other words we knew we didn’t know but kinda knew. Enchilada, baño, cerveza, Guadalupe, mis amigos, besos y abrazos etc. Ad infinitum.
Anyways, as we inched toward the freeway entrance Steve said to me “Stevil, (we called each other Stevil) I haven’t written a song in a couple weeks. I have writer’s block.”
“There’s no such thing as writer’s block” I yelled back over the sound of that sputtering vintage VW engine. “See that hitchhiker over there? We could stop and pick him up and yes he looks all peaceful and hippieish but I bet he has all kinds of knives and he would kill us and eat us.”
“You’re a sick man Mr Poltz. I WAS gonna pick him up but NOW I’m not. He DOES look kinda scary. Lets make up a song about him.”
So I aimlessly started strumming G to A7 to C to D. It was almost like a real time musical. One of us started singing “Don’t pick up hitchhiker Joe, He’ll slit your throat and cut off your big toe I tell you. He’ll make you smile from ear to ear and lock you in a trunk for 99 years don’t do it man! Bop ba ba ba bop ba ba ba bop ba ba ba bop.”
Now writing a song is sometimes like fishing. All of a sudden you get a big one on the line and you get really excited. We kind of looked at each other with that look that said, “holy crap! This is cool. Lets write verses!”
The verses kind of wrote themselves and just tumbled into our laps. D to Em to C to G repeat but end on D. The words were-
“I had a cousin who came from Vermont, next thing you know that cousin was gone. Truckdriver saw him picking up hitchhiker Joe, now his spleen’s on the sidewalk helping flowers grow oh oh.”
Back to the chorus.
The next verse started as we passed Del Mar still stuck in traffic thank God. We were on to something and we needed time.
“My best friend Eddie called from L.A. said we’d have dinner later that day. I got a feeling and it’s more than a hunch. My best friend Eddie was that hitchhiker’s lunch.”
Man, when we stumbled into that verse we were yelling and howling. I remember saying “I want Eddie to be that hitchhiker’s lunch” and Steve just started shouting out words at me like he was speaking in tongues. It was a perfect songwriting moment. Like watching two people play verbal ping pong.
Then I think Steve said “should we have a bridge?”
“Oh hell yes!” I replied. “This song is dying for a bridge.”
So I went to Bm to Em to C to G.
Then F to C to F to C
“Hitchhiker Joe ain’t no vegetarian, if you see him on the sidewalk steer clear of him. He got a knife in his sock and a razor up his sleeve. A chainsaw in his pack and he’s gonna make you blee- eee- eed. Yeah yeah” -and then- back to the “bop ba bops.”
Now what’s fun about this song is that it starts on the chorus so if you’re an audience member you really get to know it well because it’s an ear worm. Very hooky. More hooks than a coat room.
The third and final verse is one of my faves because it mentions Spam. Fun fact- Rugburns fans used to show up at our gigs wearing Spam T-shirts. They also used to bring us cans of Spam. Especially when we played Hawaii.
“My girlfriend Lois called from Tallahassee. She picked up that dude at the Spam factory. That was the last time I saw her smile. My best advice is- Don’t eat Spam for a while oooh!”
Man, that versed almost killed us. I remember we were screaming “let’s have Lois get killed and put into the next batch of Spam at the factory! Yes yes yes!” Another perfect moment.
Another fun fact- I also mention Tallahassee in my song “Folksinger”. It’s a good rhyming word I guess.
A third fun fact: In the video for the song, Jewel plays the part of “my girlfriend Lois” in the third verse.
The song ends on the chorus with lots of bop ba bops. When we played it live we’d go into a cappella except we’d shout “Acapulco!”
That’s what makes co-writing a song so fun. This song would have never existed if it weren’t for Steve Foth and his VW van and San Diego traffic.
Michael Hooligan Halloran was the program director at a radio station called 91X. I brought over the Rugburns album Morning Wood to him the week before it was released. I remember I kept saying “listen to the song Holliston Street.” What the hell was i thinking? It’s a super slow song. Mike was scanning through all the songs on the CD in his A.D.D. way and when he heard Hitchiker Joe he said “this is the hit. This is your single.” He may have even added a “you idiot” to the end of that sentence.
The Rugburns ended up making video for the song but that a whole other story. It was directed by Michael Addis. You can watch it here.
This was a fun little walk down memory lane. Steve Foth is no longer with us. I miss him and think of him often. He was such a funny and engaging friend. We shared so many good times. He wrote some amazing songs for his band CLA (Carnivorous Lunar Activity) they were the funnest, drunkest band with super clever songs full of catchy melodies. You guys would love them. Seriously love them.
I’m so glad Steve Foth was on this planet at the same time as me. We got some good songs out of it.
Gracias Esteban. Vaya con dios.