A razor-sharp chisel in hand, Zev Zalman “Z.Z.” Ludwick leans into the violin he is making and shaves off a sliver of wood. It curls up, a simulacrum of the Hasidic curls – payot – that hang on either side of his bearded face.
Classical music plays over the radio in the basement workshop of his Silver Spring, Maryland, home. I ask Z.Z. what sort of music he used to listen to.
“Scorpions, with their original guitarist, Uli Roth,” he says. “I was a big fan of Zeppelin, Hendrix. I really liked Black Sabbath, on the heavier side. Yngwie Malmsteen. I really like music that’s just super complex. My favorite classical music is Paganini. He was the cream of the crop. He was like a violin shredder.”
Z.Z. has always liked shredders.
One day in 1986, a shirtless, suspendered and doubtless chemically altered Z.Z. – then known as Robbie Ludwick – was partying outside a Judas Priest concert in suburban Washington, D.C., when filmmakers Jeff Krulik and John Heyn happened by. His drunken enthusiasm for the band earned Z.Z. a spot in their cult documentary “Heavy Metal Parking Lot.”
At first, Z.Z. didn’t even know about the film – or that he was in it. “I found out about two years after,” he says. “I was playing in a heavy metal band called SteelWynch – now they’re called Black Widow – and the singer, Cathy, said, ‘Hey, you’re in the movie we saw the other night. I couldn’t believe that was you.’ “
The film was an underground hit and bequeathed an underground fame on Z.Z., who worked at a Wheaton, Maryland, pizza restaurant and played bass around town.
“I had a friend of mine call me from L.A. who said, ‘Your picture is on a telephone pole out here.’ My face became the poster child for that movie. Turned out there was a picture in Penthouse magazine of me. Figure that one out.”
Z.Z. never achieved Judas Priest-level success, but not for lack of trying.
“It was all about having fun,” he says. “We were living the lifestyle. I wanted to be a rock star. I was doing exactly what rock stars do: overindulgence in everything. That’s the kind of person I am.”
When Z.Z. gets into something, he gets into it. In 2001, he experienced a reawakening of his Jewish heritage. In 2006, he embraced Hasidic Judaism.
“I was never into that organized prayer, ‘Page 232’ stuff,” he says. He gravitated toward a sect called Breslov, named after a rabbi from Ukraine who described an intimate, personal relationship with God. Breslov also stressed the importance of music.
“Rebbe Breslov said song is as lofty, if not more lofty, than prayer,” Z.Z. says, “especially songs that don’t have lyrics. Wordless melodies, he called them.”
Sort of like a heavy-metal guitar solo.
After years of slinging pizzas, working as a brewer and in a bakery, Z.Z. wanted something more stable. He loved music and was good at shop in high school, so in 2004, he talked his way into a job at Potter’s Violins, where he learned the basics of repair.
Last fall Z.Z. opened his own shop, Ludwick’s House of Violin. The logo is a fiddler on a roof. Most of his work is repairs and restoration, but he’s building an instrument from scratch under the tutelage of famed Maryland luthier Howard Needham.
Z.Z. just turned 53. He’s married to Sherrie and has two daughters and a stepson. Does today’s Z.Z. – the one who on the Sabbath turns off his phone, doesn’t drive or touch a switch – recognize the 22-year-old from “Heavy Metal Parking Lot”?
“I do recognize that guy,” he says. “I even remember that day, which is unbelievable because those of us who were really there usually don’t remember, because of all the things we were partaking. It’s like looking at an old snapshot.”
Seeing the heavy-metal kid reminds Z.Z. of those dress-up booths at a beach or amusement park, where you put on cowboy clothes and get your picture taken.
“Here’s this guy that’s me, but it’s not me,” he says. “I’m completely different. Back then I was self-indulgent, egotistical, just cared about physical gratification. … Looking back at that heavy-metal guy, I did a lot of things I wasn’t proud of. I take a lot of pride now in who I am as a father, who I am as a husband, who I am as a community member.”
He knows his life sounds like an episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music.”
“That is bizarre,” Z.Z. says. “Here’s a heavy-metal guy, and now he’s a Hasidic violin maker.”