Gangsta Rabbi Battles Cancer, Wonders “Has the G-d of Israel written a scorching rocker for me to play in Heaven—but not until I get there?”

Guest Post by Michael Croland, author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk

In January, Steve “Gangsta Rabbi” Lieberman released The King of Jewish Punk, his 30th album (68th if you count his 38 prior cassette recordings). He worked on it while battling cancer, and it came out while he was in a medically induced coma. Now he’s plugging away at his 31st album.

The Gangsta Rabbi has ended his musical career and revived it, and he has used his music as a forum to discuss his struggles with cancer. In this July 2016 interview, he explained where he’s at with his musical career and his health.

On multiple occasions, you’ve said that you were playing your last show and releasing your last album, only to come back for more. What inspires you to keep going?

In 2011, for the “My Last Rock Show” tour, it was a good time for me to go. I barely got any reviews for the companion CD, My Magic Last Days (2012), and needed one [more] big tour to finish it up. The day after I opened for the Misfits, I went on my 1st round of chemotherapy. It didn’t work and I started downward in 2013. I signed in at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and they determined I had progressed to early myelofibrosis. I went on my 2nd round [of chemotherapy]. I went every week for 6 months during 2013–2014, most of the time too sick to record.

I needed to tell this story, and by the end of 2014, I released Cancer Ward. During the recording of Cancer Ward, I was hospitalized 11 times and received 36 pints of transfused blood. As 2015 came, the disease progression slowed down and I became extremely prolific on the musical side, releasing the 4-part, 77-song monster, Return of the Jewish Pirate #1-4. And then the partially original Blast-O-Rama and Terminator V617F… then the Dementia Series…

You just put out the song “Where the Hell’s My Nurse?” (from the album Down with a Bang #29), and in recent years, you’ve released albums titled Cancer Ward and My Magic Last Days. Do you find that making music about your struggles with cancer is cathartic? 

For me, the cancer is not a crisis. I feel I’ve been again chosen by G-d, this time to let me know that my time will be limited and there are great things to follow. He, in dreams, brings me to places where my parents (both deceased) and my puppies (Buttons, Midnite, and Mori) are. It could be at a breezy afternoon baseball game, an amusement park, a ghetto I lived in—it’s all wonderful.

But the most wonderful one happened on 5/11/2016. I was going into severe leukemic crisis for days by then. At the hospital that night, my HgB [hemoglobin] was 3.6 (normal is between 13 and 16). My cancer doctors told me under 4.0 is pretty certain death. I lay down, and I feel a hand closing my eyes. Then I suddenly appear on a pristine, white stage—playing every instrument I ever knew, all at the same time, but not as a freak, as a slight built older man with really good hair! I’m up there playing alone. The crowd is very noisy, but their faces are all hidden. Then I feel the same hand opening up my eyes. Awake, I stumbled to my recording board and tried to record what I just did. In one minute, it was gone from my memory. Has the G-d of Israel written a scorching rocker for me to play in Heaven—but not until I get there?

I use the lyrics of these albums, from My Magic Last Days to Down with a Bang #29, to proclaim the miracles I get blessed with each day. And I provide detailed references to each stage of suffering so no one forgets me too soon.

The new one, “Where the Hell’s My Nurse?,” is a protest song against the sponsor of my chemo-therapy trial. I was pretty much told it won’t help me, nothing works, but maybe I may give hope to others. … I plan to leave this study soon and suspend any and all treatment of myeloproliferative leukemia.

You’ve always drawn on many musical styles. In 2016, you released albums covering The Who’s Quadrophenia and Tommy and Jethro Tull’s Aqualung. Were your Jewish and punk approaches part of the mix even in these projects? 

This trilogy was of course Jewish punk records because it was me who did it. I wrote the official Jewish Punk riff in 2003, and it appears a lot in my records. I’m doing a 2-octave D-harmonic scale, tremolo picking the bass with my left index [finger] through distorted power chords. It is best represented at the end of the “Bombshelter” medley on Jewish Riot Oy! Oy! Oy! Since neither Pete Townshend [of The Who] nor Ian Anderson [of Jethro Tull] favored this riff, I used their chords and melodies as I had to.

In the years to come, what do you want people to remember about The Gangsta Rabbi? 

That my career was totally successful, although in 15 years I have but 120,000 sales, for revenue of less than $5,000.00. I was a greater than minimum footnote in the history of rock, thanks to bipolar disorder, leukemia, and great journalists such as Michael Croland and the like. Your book is fantastic.

Michael Croland is the author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, which was published in April 2016 by Praeger (an imprint of ABC-CLIO). Check out the book to learn more about the Gangsta Rabbi and other Jewish punk artists!

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