The Keys to Success

DJ Lebowitz may be the strangest punk pianist around -- or even the only one

The sign on the wall of Haight Street's swanky Club Deluxe says "DJ Lebowitz," but what most of the rain-mussed crowd doesn't realize is that the spiky-haired hipster spinning easy-listening tunes in the corner isn't, in fact, the DJ in question. When the kid at the turntables cedes the stage to the real DJ Lebowitz -- that's David Jan Lebowitz -- you can almost hear the brows furrowing. "Why," the patrons think, "is a middle-aged pianist with a crop of salt-and-pepper curls and the beginnings of a potbelly pounding out a rendition of the surf-rock classic 'Miserlou'?"

When he wraps up his first number, Lebowitz invites the suddenly captivated audience to request numbers from his hand-scrawled song list, which includes everything from "Riding on the Rocket" by Japanese pop trio Shonen Knife to "We Bite" by hardcore punks the Misfits and "You Make Me Hot" by the Donnas. Day-Glo pink business cards sit next to the sheets, proclaiming Lebowitz "the rockinest piano player in the world." And he just might be -- he stopped tracking his rock- and punk-focused repertoire when the song count surpassed 2,000.

"I do originals and I do covers, but very little of this 'I love you, you love me, how I wish you were here' [thing]," explains Lebowitz, who claims to know more Ramones tunes than any solo-piano player in the world. "I was always a rocker. I'm there to rock. I'm not there to play 'Bye Bye Blackbird.'" He pauses. "Although I could play it like nobody's business."

Akim Aginsky

Details

Fridays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Admission is free

995-2689

He also performs on Wednesday, July 10, at 7:30 p.m. at the Temple Bar, 600 Polk (at Turk), S.F. Admission is free; call 776-9650.

Rincon Center, 101 Spear (at Mission), S.F.

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Indeed, Lebowitz is a classically trained musician who can tinkle "As Time Goes By" with the best lounge acts around. But given the choice Lebowitz would rather bang out expert arrangements of obscure tracks from the catalogs of Mott the Hoople and Black Flag. And while some people may dismiss his shtick as novelty, Lebowitz brings to his playing an endearing and compelling intensity -- which is pretty much required when you're performing the Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia."

Although Lebowitz was a late-'80s college radio staple and a fixture at legendary San Francisco punk clubs like Mabuhay Gardens and the Sound of Music, he now plies his quirky trade during lunchtime sets at the Rincon Center, along with occasional stints at assisted-living facilities and the few Bay Area bars that still value his unique brand of performance. But don't be fooled by Lebowitz's fall from the limelight: His strange genius is still as transfixing as ever, his enthusiasm for hard rock piano still as refreshing, and his sound still as singular as it is weird.

Or as Lebowitz puts it, "You might love it, you might hate it, but you won't be bored."


Offstage, DJ Lebowitz is hopelessly and charmingly awkward, with a nasal stammer that brings to mind Woody Allen's neurotic sincerity. Call up his voice mail, and you'll be greeted with a squeaky, "Hi, this is DJ Lebowitz, the piano player!" Give him your number, and he'll leave rambling, good-natured messages that end only when the tape runs out. Ask him about his day job, and he'll tell you about the only one he ever had: selling carpet cleaners door-to-door about 25 years ago.

Over a late-night meal at a SOMA doughnut shop, the fiftysomething Lebowitz reminisces with wide-eyed excitement about his piano-playing origins. Beginning when he was a 9-year-old in North Adams, Mass., Lebowitz labored through the requisite classical lessons before deciding, at the tender age of 11, to dedicate his talent to the music he truly loved: rock 'n' roll.

After graduating from UMass Amherst in the early '70s, Lebowitz headed south to Florida, then went to Georgia, playing his bizarre and burgeoning career by ear. When he arrived in Atlanta, Lebowitz tried his hand at peddling home cleaning units ("I was a mediocre salesman," Lebowitz admits, "and I didn't have a car"). Soon after, he scored his first regular piano gig, playing five nights a week at a bar near the airport. Even then, he stuck mostly to the likes of Deep Purple and Lou Reed, although he was instructed to perform sedate sets in the early evening when the nerve-racked air traffic controllers got off work. But after midnight he could cut loose with his still-expanding repertoire, which included just about any song Lebowitz heard and liked on the radio. His enthusiasm was such that he often broke piano keys and strings during rowdy interludes.

"That's where I started making the big bucks playing the piano," Lebowitz says facetiously, taking a bite of his abundant dinner, which includes two tuna sandwiches, two hard-boiled eggs, two bags of chips, and a cup of hot water. "I really needed the money because I was going hungry. [But] business started improving. I'd be playing Kiss and David Bowie, and people loved it."

When a new manager ousted Lebowitz from the airport bar, he headed for New Orleans with a set tailored especially for the music-centric city. With a slew of old R&B and reggae tunes in hand, he found work at dozens of clubs and bars in the Big Easy, even opening for legendary blues pianist Professor Longhair.

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