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"If you can’t really characterize it, it’s probably garage."
LET YOUR FREAK FLAG FLY
Little Steven’s Underground Garage Opens Wide at Radio
An exclusive HITS dialogue with Little Steven Van Zandt by Simon Glickman

Not only are there second acts in American life, but sometimes there’s even a third act. First, Little Steven Van Zandt established himself as the guitarist for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and, as a solo artist, as organizer of the Sun City benefit compilation. More recently, he demonstrated his acting chops as natty mobster Silvio on HBO’s The Sopranos. Now, Van Zandt has emerged as a force on the airwaves with Little Steven’s Underground Garage, a syndicated weekly smorgasbord of rough-edged guitar music from the ’60s to the present. In a mere two months, the program—boosted by live appearances at Hard Rock Cafe outlets—has expanded from 23 to 51 North American markets. Fans of the show have even returned to hear archived broadcasts at littlesteven.com and hardrock.com. What’s more, indie bands featured on the show have enjoyed spikes in popularity. But after talking to out-of-tune HITS screamer Simon "Logy Logy" Glickman, Van Zandt may want to put a padlock on his garage.

How did this come about? Did you approach the Hard Rock?
The Hard Rock had always really supported live music and rock & roll in general. I went over there and met the heads of the company, and they were great guys and real rock & roll fanatics; they were itching to do something. I said, "Look, what I’m doing is below the radar. It’s not mainstream. It’s not really in the interests of the major record companies right now, or anybody else." But I’m trying to encourage this new contemporary garage movement, which is basically rock & roll as we always knew it, only now it’s younger guys, and instead of listening to the ’90s or the ’80s, these guys are listening to the ’60s. And that’s how I characterize garage—it has to be directly connected to the ’60s. Anyway, they were into it, and off we went into this crazy venture.

What are the fundamental characteristics of the music, apart from the ’60s connection?
Everybody was practicing in garages then! It’s easy to say what it’s not: drum machines, synthesizers. After that, it becomes totally subjective. I have my own definition of it—music that happened before hard rock, before Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath—around ’65-’66-’67. It’s not keyboard-oriented; if there’s keyboard, it’s one of the small ones. I have a sort of family of garage—which are the pioneers and the influences of the British Invasion, the classic Nuggets stuff, the pop music of that period that crossed over, and the punky stuff, everything from Iggy and Lou Reed to the Dolls and the Ramones. Then there are the new generations of contemporary garage from the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a broad definition, but they’re all connected. They may be from different eras, but there’s a common ground there.

Are there canonical ’60s bands that more or less developed the sound?
The Rolling Stones are the archetypal garage band. They’re the ones who made good, who graduated out of the garage and crossed over into the pop world, where they had no business being. They had pop hits for 40 years without being a pop band! They opened the doors. Without the Rolling Stones, I don’t think the Who, the Animals and the rest would have happened. And if the Stones are the archetypal garage band, [the Kingsmen’s] "Louie Louie" is the archetypal garage record. A lot of these garage bands are still around, and the nice thing is we can mix them together on the show. People say, "I wasn’t sure if that was an old song or a new song," and that’s when I know I’m on the right track. There’s a common ground, what I call that freaky element, which is timeless. It was freaky 40 years ago, and it’s freaky now. If you can’t really characterize it, it’s probably garage.

Some young bands now are really having success carrying that tradition forward.
A major label just signed the Hives, who we’ve been playing on the show. Things have gone as far as they can go. Rock & roll can’t be any more dead. The choices we have couldn’t be any more limited. We’re down to hard rock, rap and pop. That’s it. Nothing wrong with those three, but we need more choices.

What’s your assessment of what’s happened in hard rock?
I’ve met Kid Rock and Fred Durst. They actually have a very good sense of history, by the way. I met this band Puddle of Mudd—terrific. Great people, good band. They’re talented. The problem is that’s only one type of music, and we’re eliminating all the other choices for young people. That’s what bothers me. I don’t care if a kid listens to 10 different things and then wants to be Limp Bizkit or Kid Rock. Great. But maybe he wants to be the Kinks or the Yardbirds or the Troggs. But if he never hears them, and doesn’t know about them, how’s he going to do it? That’s never happened before, until this last generation or two. We always had choices. That’s what we’re trying to fix with the radio show. This has never been done before—and we’re on some mainstream stations, man! In 10 weeks, we’ve doubled the number of stations. We’re just hoping we can create a little groundswell and start booking these bands live; the Hard Rock wants to start having the local bands play in their venues. So we’ve got the national and local things going on at the same time. It’s unique.

Who’s your audience?
We did 16 live shows last year, so I got a sense of it that way. It’s really all over the place. Half the crowd was under 25. College kids all the way up into the 50s. It’s a very strange kind of music that appeals to a certain sensibility, young or old. You have a certain freak rock & roll gene in you, and it doesn’t change. I don’t feel any different about this than I did when I was 15, and there are a lot of people like me. And the younger kids are just discovering this stuff; it’s fun for them. And that’s one thing really lacking, if you look around a little bit—there’s not a lot of fun. It’s kinda serious, kinda heavy.

Rock used to be party music.
Yes, garage is really motivational, it gets you moving. But it isn’t frivolous. It’s got something that a generation or two missed.

There’s very little space in contemporary radio for a jock with a programming sensibility.
We’re trying to bring a little of that back. And if things keep going the way they’re going, we’re gonna have some impact. I’m starting to feel it. Up to 25,000 hits on LittleSteven.com, hundreds of e-mails. There’s a groundswell of people who love being turned on to new things. That hasn’t happened in 10- 15 years. Everything’s based on familiarity now, and I’m not doing that.

Who are some of the current underground bands you’re playing?
There’s the Shazam, the Greenhornes, the Swingin’ Neckbreakers, Mooney Suzuki, Cotton Mather, Model Rockets. There’s a ton of great bands—I’m finding a new one every week. It’s a ball.

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