Just one kind of music speaks to 'Little' Steven Van Zandt: rock'n'roll.
As he explains it, the Rolling Stones are more than a band, they're
Friday July 1, 2005
"Little" Steven Van Zandt is on a mission: to save rock'n'roll
from extinction. "If the Rolling Stones came out today, there's
not one radio station in America that could play them," says
Van Zandt, currently dividing his time between filming the last season
of The Sopranos (he plays Silvio Dante), being the guitarist for
Bruce Springsteen's re-formed E Street Band, and recording his weekly
Underground Garage radio show. "The Rolling Stones wouldn't
fit anybody's format! How did we end up in a world where there's
a format for everything apart from rock'n'roll?"
Van Zandt claims that rock'n'roll is his religion, and as he talks
with messianic fervour about the importance of saving America by
ensuring it doesn't lose the music of its youth, you have no reason
to doubt his faith. With his paisley bandanna and psychedelic shirt,
Little Steven certainly doesn't look as if he's been paid a visit
by the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy team.
His headquarters, on a stretch of Manhattan that looks out over
the Hudson river, is filled with B-movie posters, records in their
thousands, and a Sopranos pinball machine. And Underground Garage,
his two-hour show that plays modern garage bands alongside both obscure
and famous rock'n'roll from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, is a nationwide
hit that's currently syndicated to an audience of around a million.
But when Van Zandt and his producer Dan Neer approached stations
and syndicators five years ago, every single one rejected them.
"There was one thing missing in all the radio station statistics," says
Van Zandt. "It's called human nature. I was told that the audiences
are leaving and you had to give people familiarity. But there's a
reason why the audiences are going away from mainstream radio. It
sucks! There's a generation out there that needed to hear cool radio
of the kind I grew up on, and a ridiculous egomaniac like me was
needed to give it to them."
The idea for Underground
Garage began in 2000, after a seven-year fallow period in Van Zandt's
life was ended by the discovery of a
thriving garage-rock scene coming out of New York City. Having organised
the Sun City anti-apartheid concerts, played guitar for Bruce Springsteen
and released solo albums throughout the 1980s, Van Zandt entered
the 1990s to find Mandela released, Springsteen going solo, and music,
in his opinion, taking a turn for the worse. "I moved away from
music at that point and did nothing. I literally walked the dog for
seven years," he says. "Then an old friend of mine came
up to me one day and said: 'You know that band I was in as a teenager
in the 1960s? Richard and the Young Lions? Somebody's putting our
single on a compilation. Now we're re-forming and doing a gig next
week.' It turned out that there was this whole scene I knew nothing
The compilation was the Nuggets box set; a collection of mid-60s
singles by mostly teenage bands that drew their inspiration from
British invasion groups such as the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and
the Beatles. Some, like Open Up Your Door by Richard and the Young
Lions, were modest hits, but most were obscurities to be unearthed
as forgotten gems decades later. It was the kind of music that Van
Zandt had grown up on and first learned to play on the guitar.
"We didn't call it garage at the time," he says. "Back
then I just knew I was hearing great songs on the radio, whether
that was a soul track like Knock on Wood by Eddie Floyd or a garage
single like Talk Talk by the Music Machine." The idea of garage
as a genre was born in 1972 when Patti Smith's guitarist Lenny Kaye
compiled the original Nuggets album. It featured great songs by mostly
one-hit wonders like the Standells and the Shadows of Knight. "Garage
bands were linked by a snotty attitude and a sense of teenage frustration.
And the fact that they knew the Rolling Stones were the coolest band
in the world."
Van Zandt's enthusiasm
is infectious, even if you didn't already know that 96 Tears by
? and the Mysterians is the best song ever
written. He sees the Ramones, the much-loved, much-missed punk heroes
of New York, as the cornerstone of all the music he champions. "I
like everyone who influenced the Ramones and everyone the Ramones
influenced," he says. So, having heralded the return of rock'n'roll
radio, championed a generation of new bands and held down day jobs
in The Sopranos and Springsteen's band, what's next? "I need
to get Underground Garage on in Britain because England seems to
be full of arty romantic stuff right now, like Coldplay and Radiohead.
You know, it's great, God bless them all. But it ain't rock'n'roll."
Need to know
First record bought: Duke of Earl by Gene Chandler
Favourite film: Performance
Record to grab in an emergency: The London Sessions by the Rolling
Inspiration: 1960s radio DJ Alan Freed
Recent discovery: Hawaii Mudbombers
Guardian.co.uk - July 1st, 2005