Clip: Little Steven Van Zandt's Underground Garage
Music Preview: Van Zandt gets creative drive from his 'Underground Garage'
Sunday, December 01, 2002
By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic
In 1984, he co-produced and played on what was then the biggest-selling
album in the history of rock 'n' roll. But by the time the '80s ended, E
Street Band guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt had, like many, lost the will
to rock 'n' roll.
"I stopped touring and making records pretty much in '89," he says. "I
produced a few things in the early '90s, and then I just kind of lost
interest in it all, you know? Until this."
By "this," he does not mean "The Rising," his reunion with the only Boss he
knew before Tony Soprano -- or the tour that brings the E Street Band to
the Mellon Arena on Wednesday. No, he means the garage-rock revival that
caught his attention at Cavestomp, a festival in New York City, and would
lead to the launching of "Little Steven's Underground Garage," a syndicated
radio show that added Pittsburgh to its growing list of markets Oct. 27,
when it settled into Sunday nights at 10 on WRRK-FM.
"I started off just wanting to hear my favorite songs on the radio, which I
haven't been hearing lately and, in many cases, never heard," he says. "I
never heard the Pretty Things or the Creation or the Birds. The English
Birds. Nowadays, you don't even hear the American Byrds. It seems like in
the last five years, 10 years, what we call traditional rock 'n' roll is
starting to become an endangered species. There's nothing wrong with what's
going on, but what's being left off is becoming a serious matter, I think,
as far as the next generation of kids. They're not gonna get a chance to
hear a lot of cool stuff."
And by "cool stuff," what he means is exactly the sort of stuff he and
Bruce Springsteen cut their teeth on.
"Bruce turned me on to the Hives," he says. "He heard the Hives before I
did. He's totally into it. Just because there's not a lot of it reflected
in our music these days, because it's evolved, that doesn't mean that's not
where we came from. There was nothing else but that in '66. Anyone who
joined a band -- which was everybody after the Beatles played "Ed Sullivan"
-- was garage. Unless you became an art-rocker in the '70s. Before that,
everybody was doing exactly the same thing -- trying to be the Stones, the
Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, the Yardbirds or the Animals."
At first, he figured he could satisfy the cravings of his own garage
revival staging shows with Cavestomp founder Jon Weiss.
"Once a year," he says, "Jon Weiss would reunite some of the '60s groups,
then have whatever garage bands were out there play on the bill. I went to
one of the shows in '98 or '99, and I thought it was just fantastic. It
really got me back into music, which I thought would never happen again. I
really hadn't been interested in years. And I said, 'This is way too cool
to do once a year, man. Let's do it more often.' He said, 'Well, it costs
money, and I barely break even as it is.' "
The two became partners, with Little Steven using his considerable clout to
line up sponsors.
"In 2001, we booked 16 shows," he says. "And sponsors did come in to
support it, which was interesting, because it was a 400-seat club and not
the kind of thing you associate with corporate sponsorship. Until recently,
they always went for the big bands and the big places, basically supported
people that didn't need it. So this was an interesting thing where all of a
sudden you've got corporate people thinking philosophically almost over
economically -- which was a first in my experience."
It was a corporate sponsor, in fact, who made the "Underground Garage" show
"I went to the Hard Rock Cafe and said, 'Listen, man, this is the
situation. You've got 50, 60, 70 bands out there, all on little labels.
Everybody's kind of not aware of them, but it could start to become a new
rebirth of rock 'n' roll -- if we could support it,'" he recalls. "And they
were like, 'We're in. We'll do whatever you want to do.' And they became
not only the title sponsor of the radio show, which helped the thing get
started, but at this point are now looking to book these bands in their
Hard Rock Cafes."
The gig with Springsteen may have made it easier to line up sponsors, but
it also made it harder to convince the purists he could be on their team.
"I think the purists are always gonna have a little bit of a problem with
me," he says. "Because it's me. They couldn't figure out why I was doing
this. And, of course, their first instinct is to be negative."
He laughs, then chalks it up to human nature.
"What's important here," he continues, "is that something be created where
these bands can actually make a living doing this. And that involves some
muscle, man, and some serious time and things that I can afford."
Among the bands he's played on a regular basis is a local garage
institution -- the Cynics, whose first release in seven years is being
celebrated with a Saturday show at Rosebud.
"The Cynics are still terrific," he says. "I love them. I think they're
fantastic. You know, they're a very important part of the first generation
of the contemporary garage movement. I remember them starting just a few
years after the first generation started with the Fuzztones and
Chesterfield Kings. But they're terrific, man. They're one of my regular
So does he think the Cynics stand to benefit from his enthusiasm?
"Sure," he says. "Why not? I've been working 24 hours a day on this for
three years just so they could benefit. If they don't benefit, then what
the [expletive] am I working so hard for?"
He laughs, then continues.
"That's what this is all about, you know? I'm not gonna benefit. This stuff
costs me money. So I'm hoping to encourage and support bands like the
Cynics so that they can flourish. It's important now that these bands see
the 'Underground Garage' and say, 'Hey, there's hope. We're getting
national airplay.' "
And on major stations.
"We're four or five cities away from having the top 20 markets in the
country," he says. "That hasn't been done since I don't know who, Casey
Kasem or someone. It's really rare to have this successful a syndicated
rock 'n' roll radio show. I'm not pretending I'm the answer, but I'm
certainly one piece of many that are gonna have to happen here to re-create
an infrastructure to support bands like the Cynics."
Other bands he's featured on his "Underground Garage" go well beyond the
punk-inspired school that produces a band like the Hives. The Shazam, for
example, is closer to power-pop.
"I realize everyone defines it differently," he says. "OK. But it is wrong
to assume that garage-rock is just punk-rock. And that's what people tend
to think. It's sloppy. It's spontaneous. A little out of tune. It's messy.
It's punky. That is one part of garage-rock, certainly. But it's the fringe
part of the family."
The classic garage years, he says, were '65-'68, although the song he
considers the archetype, the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie," hit the charts in
He credits the "Nuggets" collection with keeping the music alive when the
British Invasion that spawned the bulk of the early garage bands faded.
Released on Elektra in '72 (and reissued on Rhino a few years back as an
expanded box set), "Nuggets" gave a lot of fans their first taste of a
sound and sensibility that Little Steven praises as having the feel of a
local record the first time you hear it -- the Count Five's "Psychotic
Reaction," the Electric Prunes' "I Had Too Much to Dream," the Standells'
The primary difference between the "Nuggets" bands and the bands the
"Nuggets" compilation spawned, of course, is that the "Nuggets" bands had
"You don't see that happening very often now," he says, "aside from the
fact that there's no such thing as a rock 'n' roll hit, you know? There's
no such thing. You look at the Cynics, who started their own label, Get
Hip, out of your town, all the way to the Chesterfield Kings to the
Greenhornes to Les Sex-a-reenos to the Model Rockets in Seattle, the Mooney
Suzuki. I'm the only show that could possibly play them nationally like
And that, he says, is "something worth spending whatever celebrity capital
I have right now on, to try and support this new rebirth of rock 'n' roll,
which is what the garage-rock movement really is."
Ed Masley can be reached at emasley@... or 412-263-1865.
- --- In fearnwhiskey@y..., cz28 <cz28@a...> wrote:
> Music Preview: Van Zandt gets creative drive from his 'Underground
Little Steve is playing the new The Shazam (along with a fair amount
of other cool new music). God bless him.