The Tao of Steve

Steve Foht examines the life of a rock star—himself

Take heed! Those who prefer not to read stories about dissolution and desperation should turn the page. People who disdain narratives about life and death, good and evil, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll must bypass this section, move onto the stories with happy, predictable endings.

Mothers who would prefer their sons to be cowboys rather than rock-’n’-roll stars must diligently watch their babies, and if a newspaper with a picture of Reno rocker Steve Foht on the cover ever appears on a coffee table, newsstand or at the local restaurant, they must protect their babies with all the ferocity of a she-bear. Things in Steve Foht’s story may dissuade the pure of heart from the paths of righteousness.

When discussions arise about the Reno rock scene and why a band from Reno has never really hit the big time (although it could be argued that Seven Seconds was a Reno, not a Sacramento, band), a list of names comes up—the Dogs, the Boston Wranglers, GunShot Licker, the MudSharks, Lazy Eights, the Atomiks, Phat Couch. Few Renoites, though, have names that evoke the imagery of “rock stardom” the way Steve Foht’s does.

For one bright, shining four-year period, Foht was surrounded by some of the best rock ’n’ roll players in town, “Easy” Pete Tiffany, Scott Loring and Nick Ramirez. Many observers felt that stardom was around the corner if Phat Couch, particularly Foht, could keep it together.

If it is true that, as Picasso said, art is the lie that tells the truth, then Steve Foht is uniquely qualified to tell his own story. He’s a Dali-esque construction, a metaphor for the times in which we live, a symbol for dreams so enduring that they come true—whether in a real or imagined way. He’s a little gritty to be considered a tragic hero, but like Oedipus Rex or even Icarus, whose self-confidence and wax wings carried him too close to the sun, Foht carries and sows the seeds for his own success or failure.

For those with the fortitude to hear Foht’s tale in his own words, here’s the whole story—at least those parts that have passed the statute of limitations. Mothers who fear for their children would be correct to view this as a cautionary tale against letting one’s dreams get tied to a guitar string.

In the end, though, to quote another rocker whose personal excesses occasionally got the better of him, it’s only rock ’n’ roll.

He’s got the look

The bleached-blond, 6-foot-4-inch, 220-some-pound musician replaces his ’70s-style Foster Grant sunglasses, pauses and says with drop-dead incertitude. “I’ve been with 500 to 800 women. I loved every one.”

By “with,” it can be assumed he’s not talking about conversation or an in-the-same-room kind of moral support.

It’s an extraordinary assertion, one that treads a thin line between braggadocio and caricature. Those who’ve watched Foht on stage or have seen a row of split tails parked along a bar he is tending may be less inclined to doubt. Having sex with 500 to 800 women is less unbelievable for Foht than it is unfathomable for anyone.

It’s not like he’s incredibly handsome. If the various facial piercings—the tongue stud can be seen when he laughs—were removed, the tattoos lasered, the silver rings, bracelets and necklaces put in the jewelry box, and the slightly small, red windbreaker replaced with deck shoes, Dockers and a Cambridge button-down, he’d look like an ordinary, pleasant-enough guy. Of course, you’d also have to remove the smudges of mascara that hide with his eyes behind the rock-star sunglasses.

Steve Foht hangs with friends at the Blue Lamp on his 30th birthday.

Photo by David Robert

When he’s a day or two past the latest misbehavior, he has clear, brown eyes and somewhat ruddy skin. He has a wide, slightly crooked grin and big teeth. His large-chested frame and hands have an appearance of strength. These days, he’s got a modified Fu Manchu moustache hanging three-quarters of an inch below his chin, a switch from the 8-inch goatee from early Phat Couch days.

Foht doesn’t wear Dockers. His look is an act of self-expression; it’s art. His look says he sees himself as somewhere between bohemian and dangerous—a bad boy. And everybody knows the ladies love bad boys.

Born in the U.S.A.

Steve Foht was born at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois on May 1, 1973, the son of an Air Force officer, Dennis “Casey” Foht, and Paula Foht, who already had two children, Chris and Julie.

After the boy’s birth, the family moved to North Dakota, where they lived three years “in a single-wide.” When he was 3, the family moved to Germany, where Foht’s memories recall youthful scenes from The Sound of Music.

Foht’s dad didn’t want to live on an Air Force base with all the roar of the planes, so they moved 70 miles to a town on the Mosel River in the Rhine region, thick with vineyards. They were the only Americans in town.

“There are amazing things to do in Germany,” Foht says. “We had forts, cherry trees, nature galore. We’d hike into the Black Forest. I spent most of my time alone, I think, right on the edge of the river, just hiking around. I was intrigued by the river and the shoreline. I’d just keep trying to hike higher and higher and higher along the river.”

After Foht attended first grade, his family returned to the States, driving across the country in a Volkswagen van, visiting relatives on the way to their destination, Las Vegas.

Foht was a so-so student through the seventh grade, although he improved, excelling at math and history in the eighth grade. That was but a respite, as his real problems began with a defining event, the telling of which still subdues the fidgety man, stilling the hands and arms dotted with tattoos of stars. That moment, to some degree, led to his involvement in drugs and gangs, as well as a prison term.

It began with a girl, Gina. Foht and Gina were friendly but nothing special. Problem was, she was the girlfriend of a member of a local Mexican gang. On graduation day of eighth grade, when Foht arrived at an after-school party, the gang was waiting.

“Last day of school, you’re all stoked, beautiful day out, awesome pool party going on,” he recalls. “And these guys proceeded to damn near kill me. They beat me so bad, so, so bad. That day, I told myself that I was never, ever going to get beat up again. That’s what started my gangster days. By ninth grade I was in a gang. It ended up being a pretty ruthless gang. We ended up doing some damage, everything from senseless murder to drive-by shootings. I’ve seen a lot of death. I was with my friend both times when he got shot.”

His friend was shot once after an hours-long chase and again after a gang fight at a McDonald’s restaurant. Foht claims the stress of all the violence contributed to his becoming an alcoholic in high school. Foht’s gang days make a crazy kind of sense, to hear him tell it. Hate piled on violence seasoned by old scores and culminated in a double murder to which Foht was a witness, eventually testifying in court.

“I was pretty much done then,” he says. Trouble was, he wasn’t. Not exactly.

Foht’s Lounge was the underground hot spot on East Fourth Street.

Photo by David Robert

In the weeks after a police-foiled retaliation attempt, Foht spent a lot of time in his family’s home under the watch of an unmarked police car outside. In some ways, he reconnected with the family, particularly his father, who helped him understand violence through tales of the military. Steve’s parents, Casey and Paula, are still married, nearing a 40th anniversary and living in Pioche.

Foht’s gang affiliations got him expelled from Clark County School District schools in 10th grade. But one lucky break prevented him from becoming a high-school dropout.

“On a whim, I applied for a vocational high school, which was still a Clark County High School. And four days before school started, I got my schedule, and I was all, ‘Yessss.’ My dad talked me into going into refrigeration because he owned an apartment maintenance business.”

Two years later, in 1991, he graduated and took a job doing maintenance for an apartment complex. It was shortly thereafter that he heard a local group was looking for a rapper. He called, cued up an instrumental tape and rapped to the drummer, Vinnie, over the phone. The band was called Sugar House and featured singer Tony Fredianelli (who became best known as the guitar player for the band Third Eye Blind). Fredianelli was a Vegas phenom, gaining fame in Sin City with his band, Apocrypha. But Sugar House was a band of a different color for Vegas, a kind of Faith No More band with Foht rapping over Fredianelli’s lightning-fast arpeggios and DJ Overdose scratching the turntables.

“It was a big step away from the rock ’n’ roll that was going on, at least in Vegas,” Foht says. “We practiced with them for probably two or three weeks before we played our first show with them. It was at Club Rock in Las Vegas. This was at a time when nobody was rapping with hardcore music. There weren’t even too many white rappers.”

But this wasn’t some Eminem story. While there were moments of greatness with huge shows around Las Vegas, fame that Foht still takes a great deal of pride in, there are reasons for the cliché of what goeth before a fall.

“We played 2,000-people shows. Tony was already famous. I think I was a little too young and cocky to be playing nightclubs. After a couple months of shows, I met my future fiancé. Her name was Barbie. The most beautiful girl I’d ever seen in my life. She was Miss Harley-Davidson for like three years, toured the world. She’s just awesome.”

The first fall

Foht never got over his first great love.

“Barbie introduced me to speed,” he says with fondness. “I was 18. Before that I was just smoking weed. I hated tweekers. Nobody liked tweekers in high school. Nobody likes tweekers now. We went to the Tropicana Hotel after a show, and we went swimming in the inside pool there. I said I was tired, and she said, ‘I’ve got this little stuff.’ I did this bump of speed in the girls’ bathroom. And then we had sex in the girls’ bathroom in the Tropicana Hotel in one of the stalls for probably 15-16 hours. That might be exaggerating, but it was a lot of hours. And I was hooked. It wasn’t even the drug. It was just—girls. I started snorting speed a lot.”

A beginning rock-’n’-roll band never makes money. Foht saw an easy path to cash, and in a matter of months he was well on his way down a road paved with good intentions. His rock-’n’-roll persona got him access to big deals, and soon he was dealing in pounds and tens of thousands of dollars. He got busted when he supplied a friend with small quantities of crank to sell for pocket money. Unknown to Foht, his friend had been busted for drugs, and he narked out Foht in exchange for freedom. It’s disconcerting to watch Foht sidestep the issue that nobody forced him to sell drugs in the first place. Capture, with his high-profile lifestyle, seems inevitable in retrospect.

“In Nevada, you can give three and go free,” he says. That means a busted druggie can turn over three of his friends in exchange for freedom. “Narcotics department in Las Vegas is so ruthless. I sold to an undercover cop six times. She did rails bigger than me.”

Foht claims he had sex with the officer, and that got his sentence reduced from major trafficking. It’s a pretty tough claim to support when an 18-year-old, first-time drug dealer gets sent to prison for three years. But again, it seems a woman was at the root of his problems.

Steve Foht at the new Blue Lamp.

Photo by David Robert

He says he spent a lot of time at Indian Springs fighting, in some cases brawling with members of the enemy gangs from the Las Vegas Strip. A white kid with dreadlocks, even as big as Foht is, probably seemed like an easy target. Foht found spirituality in prison, the result of being cell mates with the “chief of the prison tribe.”

“I spent like 30 days in the cell with him,” Foht says. “Spiritually, I became an Indian. I’d never really known any religion. I never really asked questions of the universe, but I accepted Indian spirituality. The Earth. The Mother. The Grandfather. I was the only white boy to sweat with the Indians in prison. I’d sweat with them like twice a week.”

He later was shipped off to Northern Nevada Correction Center, then to Tonopah, where he fought fires and learned to play guitar. His girlfriend Barbie was back in the picture, making frequent prison visits. Finally, he arrived at the restitution center in Reno. He began barbacking and then bartending at the Club Cal-Neva, soon to take a job as the poolside bartender at the Sands.

“My last three or four months in jail was pretty cool,” he says. “I was the pool dude, the pool bartender. I probably made $250 every day in tips, and I was stashing it all away. I got out in May of ’94. Barbie picked me up, and we went on a gypsy tour from hell. We were really, really in love.” He was 23.

The pair broke up in Vegas over “something stupid.” Foht soon met a woman, Faith, at a nightclub. On a whim, he drove her U-Haul to Reno. A chance friendship made with a bartender at the Blue Lamp as he was heading back to Vegas got him a gig as co-host with Matt Waage at the Blue Lamp’s open-mic night. Those connections led to his first Reno band, Source, then circuitously to the formation of Phat Couch.

Phat couch and everything after

In the story spanning Foht’s 30 years, Phat Couch is the shortest chapter. Foht has less to say about the band’s glory days than other topics. Maybe the band’s antics were such a public spectacle there is no need for further explanation. It formed in 1996; the wheels came off in 2000. Suffice it to say the band had a reputation as the hardest partying and rocking band around town. And the band’s wildest moments are the anecdotes that Foht mostly talks about these days. Still, when Phat Couch was “on,” the band entranced crowds, the energy was sensual and every note was raw, perfect.

Many of the band’s problems had Foht at the center. He showed up late for shows, sometimes without equipment, too fucked up to play at the top of his game. Foht waffles on whether it was his lack of professionalism that killed the band. He accepts at least partial responsibility, particularly for the apocalyptic breakup of the band, but mainly he blames it on the cocaine.

“To make a long story short, there we are in Carlin, Nev., playing a show on the road. I’d been up for a couple of days, drinking straight Jack Daniels, but I wasn’t out of control. Pete was mad at me for hours and hours and hours. I said something during sound check, and Pete walks out. I follow Pete, “What the hell’s the matter with you?” Pete had been drinking, too. We were all drinking whiskey, but I was the only one high on cocaine and had been up for a couple of days, so, of course, I was the bad guy. He turned around and head-butted me. I hit him a couple times. We’re all, ‘Whoa, it’s gone too far.’

“They left me, that night, in Carlin, Nev., which sits on a bed of goatheads probably two feet deep, with no shoes, shorts and a shirt. I was livid. I didn’t think they’d leave me. Fuck yeah, they did. And I was stuck in Carlin almost a whole day. Finally, I talked this dude into giving me a ride. I think he just wanted me out of his house. He brought me all the way back to Reno.”

Foht quickly formed the band Velvet Crush. They were having good shows but never achieved the following of Phat Couch. And, though the fans went away, the cocaine didn’t.

“I really hated who I was at that time. Everybody had their preconception of who Steve Foht was, and it wasn’t me. The concept that most people had was pretty far off. People think that I just fucked and did drugs all the time. I’m way more of a deeper person than that.”

At that time Foht’s girlfriend, Stephanie, was pregnant with his daughter, Lyric. Foht was still fighting the drug demons, staying away for days at a time. His girlfriend, Foht says, was taking her anger toward Foht out on herself.

It’s all good for Foht at The Spice House.

Photo by David Robert

“I just couldn’t deal with it,” he says. “I felt too unstable myself.”

Foht headed back to Las Vegas, working on another project, Space Zero, with Tony Fredianelli, the Third Eye Blind guitarist. The band, with its integrated merchandise plan of comic books and action figures and a deal in the works with SmackDown Records, seemed poised for the big time.

Soon, Stephane and Lyric joined Steve in Vegas. While Space Zero was getting its act together, the couple’s problems cooled. Foht says these were some of his best days, with Stephanie working at Blockbuster Video while he spent all day with his daughter.

“I loved that,” he says. “It was awesome. That lasted a year. I was sober. Shot up to about 245 pounds. She would get off at 5:30, and I’d make dinner. I’d be in the studio from like 7 [at night] to 7 in the morning, seven days a week.

Then came the bad news: The record deal and the financial stability it had promised had fallen through.

“We were supposed to leave on Saturday and play Sunday on Times Square,” he says. “We got a call on Wednesday that the trip was cancelled. The record company had fired the head of A&R that had all this hardcore going and hired a new A&R rep that was going back to hair bands.”

Foht returned to Reno and began his biggest non-musical project, building Fot’s, a bar on East Fourth Street. He saw it as a family business to keep his struggling relationship together and as a source of college savings for his daughter. He thought he could have the bar open in weeks. A year and a half later, he was still trying to get a liquor license.

Grossly undercapitalized, Foht held well-publicized “private” parties to make rent, buy materials and put food on the table. He played some gigs around town with a new band, Bad Luck Breeding. Reno police occasionally shut down the parties at the bar, but Foht labored on, heading down to the city of Reno’s building department, trying to redesign the building to meet code.

Problems with Stephanie multiplied. The long, slow glide to the bar’s end had begun, and Foht began hearing stories that some of his business associates were going to take the bar from him. He refers to it as “the hostile takeover.”

Last November, a court order locked him out of the bar. Foht fled in anger to San Diego, then to Pioche, where he spent three weeks helping to build his father’s new house. He returned to Reno in April.

Postscript

Foht isn’t one to stay out of the limelight for long. On his birthday, May 1, he organized a reunion of Phat Couch, which played at the new Blue Lamp. Foht failed to bring a P.A. system to the gig. The band started late. Still, even without Easy Pete, who is living on the East Coast, the groove was unbridled old Phat Couch. Guitarist Dale Kellams from Sprout stood in Pete’s place.

Foht says he’ll bounce back, pay off some debts he accrued as a result of the bar and increase his daughter’s place in his life. He dismisses the idea that his lifestyle has tripped him up since he started his pursuit of fame.

“The rock star lifestyle is just people enjoying themselves,” he says. He’s had time to think about what he wants to do with his life during those recent weeks down in San Diego. First, he’s going to finish recording a solo CD.

“I’m going to try and quit being the cool guy who does so much,” he says. “I just turned 30; I’m getting old. Rock ’n’ roll doesn’t like old faces. I’m going to do what I was born to do. I’m going to finish this record. It’s going to be a double album. Half is going to be digital, half is going to be analog. I’m going to display and perform every avenue and corner of my talents, from rock ’n’ roll to rap to jazz. I’m working really hard on it.

He says his ultimate goals haven’t changed that much.

“Selling music. Selling a million records. This is what I love. People need me to stick with it, a little bit for them.

“Some people want me to succeed. Some people are like, ‘Yeah, man, you’re going to make it. What are you worried about, Steve Foht? You’re Steve Foht. You’re going to make it.’ ”