Chris Stroffolino Lives and Plays In His Van. Is He the Next Daniel Johnston?
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.