Recently, filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, the director of indie smash The Devil and Daniel Johnston, was riding his bike on Sunset near Maltman. He heard somebody playing piano and singing his heart out.
“I'm looking around, I don't see anybody,” says Feuerzeig. “I'm thinking, man, that sounds like Daniel Johnston, it's so weird.” He kept riding but, his curiosity piqued, he circled back. “Inside this van there's this guy playing piano to no one, and wow! It sounds so great. I took out my iPhone with that Super 8mm app and started rolling. I was like, man, this is crazy, what is going on here?”
What was going on was Chris Stroffolino, a.k.a. Chris the Piano Van, who, it turns out, is not just another broke busker but one rather major dude with an interesting back story. A published poet with a doctorate in Shakespearian studies, the Philly-born Stroffolino had taught creative writing at NYU and Rutgers, and held the post of Distinguished Poet in Residence at St. Mary's College in Moraga. More intriguingly for Feuerzeig, he'd also been a member of Silver Jews, the critically hailed indie-rock combo led by David Berman and whose varied ranks included Stephen Malkmus of Pavement.
But Chris the Piano Van had lately suffered more than his fair share of shit. He'd lost that cushy teaching job up north, gotten his leg bashed bad in an auto accident, and had his heart broke in an ill-fated love affair. He said, “Screw this,” loaded his piano and trumpet into a clanky old Econoline and made his way to Hollywood.
Stroffolino, who'd been doing session work with bands in the Bay Area, had this notion that he could get something going down here. And, not having a place to live, he made the Econoline his temporary home and mobile stage, chalked up the side of the van with a marquee, took his seat at the piano, and played.
When it comes to the greatest hits of the '60s to '90s, Stroffolino can play them all, and just about does. (“He's like a walking songbook,” says Feuerzeig.) Stroffolino performs AM hits from the '60s and '70s, late-'80s to early-'90s punk rock and indie-type stuff, your favorite Beatles stuff (“I make people cry when I play 'Girl,'” he notes) or some funky Brill Building or Elton John, or Procol Harum. Most likely, though, he'll throw his soul into something like Richard Hell and the Voidoid's “Time,” or maybe “Lisa Says” by the Velvet Underground — and that's the Live 1969 long version.
Among the tunes that Stroffolino played for Feuerzeig were several of his self-penned compositions — hard-pumping, supremely catchy blasts of poetic passion.
“So I said, 'Hey, how would you like to do an instant record? We'll just do it lo-fi, Daniel Johnston-style in the van.' And he's like, 'Sure.' So I brought my recorder and a few mics to a quiet place in Griffith Park, parked the van, and started rolling on his originals and some covers — Burt Bacharach, Lou Reed, Bowie — he did this amazing version of 'Queen Bitch'!”
The resulting12-track album,The Piano Van Sessions, is now in the can. Feuerzeig's agent has heard Stroffolino's record and story, and is helping him get a publishing and label deal. He's got a website and even a Twitter. The past few weeks have found him holding court in front of clubs, stores and farmer's markets in Hollywood, Silverlake, Echo Park and downtown — most anywhere he doesn't get told to pack up and move on.
Meanwhile, Stroffolino is still sleeping mostly in the Econoline on these chilly nights. He suffered a mild stroke a while back, and has that bum knee, conditions that require daily therapy to keep himself in working order — and he has just had his disability claim denied again. Yet he has a curiously upbeat attitude about his situation. When Chris Piano Van gets a bit down, he oddly thinks about one particular gritty place:
“Motown is the workaholic paradigm, which to me is the American dream, and it needs to come back in some way or another. If you don't have startup capital, and can't get a small business loan? The Piano Van is the only way for me to be an entrepreneur — that's my entry to Motown.”