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."
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.
After his tour of the South, Lebowitz moved to Los Angeles, where the gigs weren't as plentiful. Just when the lack of work was about to drive him from California, he decided to head to San Francisco (which he insists on calling "Frisco" because it makes everyone else crazy).
"I came here and I got all these gigs, and I was making more money than I ever had," says Lebowitz, who maintains that his only consistent job is booking shows. "I couldn't leave because I was doing so well."
Lebowitz describes San Francisco in the '80s as a punk pianist's paradise -- or at least, a climate more conducive than a Georgia bar frequented by air traffic controllers.
"In the 1980s, I used to do scream-alongs," Lebowitz says. "I would write out the lyrics to my originals and songs I covered, like 'Jealous Again' by Black Flag, and hand them out to the audience. I don't do that anymore, though. People don't know my songs as well as they know that 'I've Been Working on the Railroad' song."
Lebowitz's scream-alongs attracted the attention of local punk label Fowl Records, which released his only full-length record, a 1987 collection of covers and originals aptly titled Beware of the Piano. Lebowitz describes the album, which charted at a number of college radio stations such as Berkeley's KALX-FM (90.7), as delving into "ominous subjects like monsters and airplanes and hemorrhoids." Next, Lebowitz put out a 1993 7-inch single called Smoke, Suffer, and Die, then set to work on a follow-up effort, which he has yet to complete. (He's also planning a rerelease of his out-of-print LP, complete with bonus tracks.)
"I'm stressing quality, not quantity," Lebowitz says without a trace of self-consciousness, adding that he's been working on some songs for years. "One thing about making a record is it takes a long, long time."
One of the people who's anxious for Lebowitz to get back into the recording studio is Paul Dawson, the head of Fowl Records. Dawson's respect for Lebowitz's talent hasn't diminished with age, and he says he thinks audiences will continue to discover (and rediscover) the pianist's one-of-a-kind craft.
"DJ's career's gotten a little more low-key than it was before, but I don't think he's ever going to give up," Dawson says. "He's been playing at old-folks homes, and I think the requirements of a performer in a place like that are different than a bunch of people sitting around in a bar. He's very adaptive."
That versatility is on display during a recent lunchtime set at the Financial District's Rincon Center atrium. Because it's Flag Day, Lebowitz has littered his performance with plenty of patriotic tunes, as well as a number of Ramones songs to honor the band's recently deceased bassist, Dee Dee Ramone. While it's difficult to ignore Lebowitz and the grand piano, most of the lunchgoers seem oblivious to the actual content of the music he's playing. Ever the consummate professional, Lebowitz utilizes arrangements that amuse the few listeners in the know -- like the guy who grins as Lebowitz launches into Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" -- while providing pleasant background music for everyone else.
"Ninety-eight percent of the people do not care; they don't know it's Flag Day," says Lebowitz, who adds, without any prompting, that he refuses to buy American flags because they're all made in China. "Most of the time, people aren't paying attention. But sometimes they'll come up and say, 'Hey, was that the Sex Pistols you were just playing?'"
It's moments like these that Lebowitz treasures. And since his regular gig at Club Deluxe dried up a couple of months ago, the Rincon run is one of his most reliable sources of work -- although his enthusiasm seems steady whether he's playing a bar, a food court, or a retirement home. But even Lebowitz can't ignore the fact that the city doesn't embrace him like it used to. After being pushed out to San Leandro during the dot-com boom, Lebowitz was left wondering whether he should skip town altogether.
"The heyday of San Francisco was from 1849 to roughly 1987 or 1990," he says. "I should have been long gone. I'm just barely making it, so it's only a matter of time before I leave.
"But," he adds enigmatically, "I'm not leaving until I have one last hurrah."