Punk Rock Cabaret

For years, DJ Lebowitz has regaled audiences with punk rock hits, in stride form.

It should be obvious that an artist with a stage name as cumbersome as “DJ Lebowitz” is really no DJ at all, but a cabaret pianist. Granted, the actual DJ Lebowitz might take umbrage at that characterization. So don’t tell him I made it.

Lebowitz, whose full name is David Jan Lebowitz, is a classically trained instrumentalist who grew up in Berkshire Hills, Massachusetts, and speaks with the slightest trace of an East Coast accent — which he may have acquired here, for all we know. He took piano lessons as a kid and learned all the basics — “you know, piano, forte, crescendo, staccato,” he says, proudly — and good enough technique to play any Scott Joplin rag, which any trained pianist knows is no easy feat. He’s been a full-time musician forever, which also isn’t plain sailing, particularly for a guy who doesn’t sing, doesn’t teach, doesn’t brandish any conservatory credentials, and generally eschews social networking beyond his MySpace page. “I think Facebook is really creepy,” he wrote in the postscript to an email.

Yet Lebowitz realized, decades ago, that he could eke out a living playing bar piano if he learned a full repertoire of rock music. Initially he focused on mainstream, ear-wormy songs that he could learn off the radio or from his own record collection. “But then I said to myself, ‘I gotta be doing the punk stuff — now that’s where it’s at.'” His first foray into punk was “Babylon” by The New York Dolls. From there he added hits (or rarities) by The Sex Pistols, Gang Green, Fear, Black Flag, Depeche Mode, The Dickies — you name it. He researched these musicians so extensively that he could give you the entire exegesis of any punk rocker’s career, without relying on Wikipedia.

And once he’d done all that, he began hiring himself out for weddings, bar and restaurant happy hours, mall food courts, and, on occasion, stage venues. To date, he’s opened for The Butthole Surfers, The Dead Milkmen, The Buzzcocks, Gwar, and Three Day Stubble — which he lauds as “the world’s foremost nerd wave band.” He’s even cut an album, appropriately titled Beware of the Piano. In certain circles, he’s a veritable rock star.

Around here, though, he’s mostly known as a human juke box. He holds down weekly gigs at Madrone Art Bar and 83 Proof in San Francisco, plus Disco Volante in Oakland — where he holds court every Thursday from 5:16 p.m. until about 7:15. He was there last Thursday, wearing a coral pink shirt and brown corduroy slacks, laying his song request sheets — which are either typed or handwritten and photocopied — atop the bar in neat little stacks. He also had a small stack of index cards and a flier with a cartoon depiction of his head — eyesbrows raised, eyes like two fried eggs, big rictus plastered over his jaw — bent over the piano. The drawing is pretty accurate, Lebowitz said, except it used to include a pair of glasses that he’s since eliminated, after taking a “natural vision” course. “So I erased them and drew in the eyes,” he said, squinting.

Watching Lebowitz among the mostly chic clientele at Disco Volante, it’s easy to get the impression he might have walked in from the wrong movie set, with his rumpled pink shirt and stack of papers and neatly typed index cards he uses to “remember” the songs he actually knows by rote. But he’s a fixture at the bar, having played there eleven months straight. The pianist says he was “discovered” at 83 Proof by a friend of co-owner Damon Gallagher, and that he landed the gig shortly thereafter. The customers and wait staff all cottoned to him pretty easily, and he enjoys chatting them up on his breaks. “This guy’s awesome, he’s the shit,” a bartender said, pointing at Lebowitz as the pianist listed forward on a bar stool, rifling through his song lists and checking his watch to see if it was already 5:16.

Lebowitz looked up and blinked. “Miguel, I can’t be the shit because I smell great,” he retorted. Miguel smiled obligingly, and offered himself for a fist-bump.

It was 5:30 by the time Lebowitz got to the piano that day, and he spent several minutes dusting the lid off with his fingers before opening it to wipe off the keys. He raised the lid of the piano bench, pulled out two phone books, and stacked them on top of each other for a makeshift perch. When he finally sat down, it was with the same sense of ceremony as a concert pianist fluffing his tailcoat. Lebowitz stretched his arms, curled his fingers, and hit the first chord decisively. He launched into an upbeat ditty with a rickety left-hand bassline that sounded almost like stride. The pianist hunched his shoulders in deep concentration until he’d finished the last chorus. Then he swiveled halfway around so that he could make eye contact with the bar customers.

“You recognize that?” he asked, as if seeking approval. “Johnny Cash.” A couple folks smiled back, while others turned disinterestedly to their cell phones, treating Lebowitz as mere furniture in the room. He shrugged, acknowledging that you can’t hold a bar audience captive, even for the duration of one song. It’s one of the pitfalls of being a DJ.

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