Rock Revival: Little Steven's Underground Garage

Fox News, 2002-12-15, by: H. Andrew Schwartz
Little Steven Van Zandt wants to rejuvenate rock music. As a disc jockey on his weekly nationally syndicated radio broadcast, Little Steven's Underground Garage, the man better known for playing guitar in Bruce Springsteen's band and acting as Silvio Dante in HBO's The Sopranos, hopes he'll help usher in a rock 'n' roll revival. "Rock 'n' roll cannot be any more ignored, it cannot be any more buried, it must be time for a rebirth," he said in an interview with Fox News.

Broadcast in over 72 markets nationwide, Underground Garage spins a format that Van Zandt describes as "garage rock," which he loosely defines as pure, straightforward rock 'n' roll minus the bells and whistles of today's over-produced pop music. Rolling Stone magazine has called his show "mind-blowingly great." But at first the show wasn't an easy sell. Van Zandt needed sponsorship that wasn't afraid of his message. Enter the Hard Rock Caf?. "Little Steven pitched the show to us when the world was getting away from rock music," said Chris Tomaso, Hard Rock Vice President. "We had the chance to be at the forefront of a rock movement."

Fox News spoke with Van Zandt by telephone at his home in New York City during a break from touring with Springsteen to talk about Underground Garage, The Sopranos and life with The Boss and the E Street Band.

How would you define "garage rock" music?

The music has a certain simplicity most of the time, basically guitars, bass and drums -obviously no drum machines, no synthesizers, very little keyboards really. Everybody defines it differently, I should say. I play what I call a wide family of garage related music. I play roots of garage and offshoots of garage so that extends to everything from the pioneers of the 50s, the British invasion, 60s pop, psychedelic, traditional punk. But I do not include hard rock - that's a different genre entirely. So classic garage is really coming from the immediate post-British invasion years of 1965 through '68, in between the Beatles' Ed Sullivan performance and Led Zeppelin. Those were the classic garage years and so everybody who relates to those years and is making new music directly related to those years is playing garage rock.

What is the goal behind the Underground Garage radio show?

It started out as me just trying to get my favorite songs back on the radio, some of which had never been on the radio, and some of which haven't been played in a long time. And also to give a bunch of new bands some airplay which wasn't happening either. This whole modern garage rock movement is really something I consider to be very, very important, and I want to encourage it. As I got into it, resistance to the show was pretty severe. It became a mission when I realized all these radio stations were eliminating the music from the 1950s, classic rock radio was slowly eliminating the '60s, and no one is playing the new stuff with few exceptions.

So it became an entire format that could be put together consisting of 50 years of rock 'n' roll that had a thread that tied it all together - this spirit, this certain passion that is what I consider to be the essence of rock 'n' roll. That general thread, that spirit, I think is right now missing, not only in the music but it's been very difficult for DJs to express themselves, to have any freedom as far as what they play. That matters too, as far as how people receive the music.

What song would you play for someone as an initiation to garage and why would you play it?

"Louie, Louie" by the Kingsmen comes to mind. That's probably the ultimate and in many ways the first classic garage record. But you could certainly pick something from the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, or the Kinks or the Who, or the pioneers like Little Richard immediately comes to mind and Bo Diddley might be a great place to start. Bo Diddley is the spiritual godfather of garage. He started off primitive and stayed that way and that translates very well into the garage world.

Who are your favorite new garage bands?

My God, how much room do you have? I'm talking like 25 new bands, and I love them all, I really do: Cotton Mather, the Shazams, The Greenhornes, Creatures of a Golden Dawn, the Swingin' Neckbreakers. Now we have The Hives and The Vines breaking through, there's really a thousand others.

You're extremely busy these days. You star as Silvio Dante on The Sopranos, you're touring with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and you've got the Underground Garage. Do you feel you're at the height of creativity right now?

Not quite, no. There's room for a whole bunch of related things with the Underground Garage right now that I just don't have a chance to do and I'm trying to do in my spare time from the tour. Sopranos is done filming for the year, so I really want to try to expand the Underground Garage a bit right now and try to continue to encourage this rebirth of rock 'n' roll. Everyone is desperately looking for the next big thing and I'm saying, 'It's here!'

Garage rock seems to be influencing the music of The Sopranos. You've got the Swingin' Neckbreakers performing on the second episode this season. Is this your influence?

(Laughs) We got the Neckbreakers thing together. That was really, really fun. But David Chase (The Sopranos' creator) is responsible for 100 percent of the music. He needs no help whatsoever. He's into all of it: the pioneers, the British invasion, garage rock. The Swingin' Neckbreakers he did ask me about, he said we needed a band, and so we wanted someone who was local and one of our garage bands.

Well it worked, they just screamed 'Jersey!'

(Laughs) Yeah, they do.

Are you enjoying The Sopranos as much as you have in the past?

Yeah, maybe more so because I'm starting to get good at it and I can see my improvement every year and I really feel quite comfortable doing it, although I really have felt comfortable from the beginning. But the learning process never stops, and every year you get a little bit better. I wish it would go forever but it looks like we're only going to do about five years and then they will probably pull the plug.

This being the fourth year?

Yes, I think there will be one more year and that might be it unfortunately. I wish we'd go forever.

How is the tour with Springsteen going?

Great, this is a particularly meaningful tour with the new record, The Rising, and the content of the new record.

What was it like recording The Rising, a concept CD about the Sept. 11 attacks?

I didn't really think about it until I heard the final record from beginning to end. At that point I really felt, you know, we use the word catharsis a lot but it really did define the word catharsis. It felt to me like this explains or helps come to grips with Sept. 11 without actually talking about it. And you realize in moments like that when a great artist does great work, art has a way of communicating that you just can't do verbally. Sometimes words are just inadequate and that's where art can just sometimes speak so much more eloquently, and this is one of those occasions I think.

How does your tenure with Bruce Springsteen fit into the garage rock continuum?

We began there and we have kept some of those elements very much alive, which you can hear in our live performance on this tour. "Ramrod" is certainly a song like that - it's naked, it's right there. We very much retain some of the garage elements even though we have gone on from it. Once you have two keyboards you've strayed, but we combine classic garage with other influences to create the E Street sound. We have those garage elements with us all the time and we reach for them and use them regularly.

So you're saying Springsteen, the Who, Iggy Pop and the Stooges and the Swingin' Neckbreakers can all be garage at the same time, it's a spirit?

It all ties together, not just because I like all of it, it's no frills, no major production, it's real street type of stuff.