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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."

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Where: Mellon Arena, Uptown.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Tickets: Sold out.


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 a reality.

"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 bands."

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 '63.

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' "Dirty Water."

The primary difference between the "Nuggets" bands and the bands the "Nuggets" compilation spawned, of course, is that the "Nuggets" bands had hits.

"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 that."

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@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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