Wednesday, August 11, 2004
Little Steven's Big Crusade
By BEN SISARIO
To hear Steven Van Zandt tell it, he had no choice. He had simply wanted to do a two-hour radio show, no big deal, on which he could play some of the garage rock he loves and have some fun. But when he pitched the idea to syndicators, what they told him forced him to turn his hobby into a crusade.
"They said, 'Stevie, baby, we love you,' " he said, his eyes wide in mock disbelief, "but we cannot get rock 'n' roll on the radio anymore.' "
"And it was like, aaarrrggghh," he said, his voice suddenly booming, his body shifting stiffly like a big machine making a 180-degree turn. "You just said that to the wrong guy at the wrong time. You telling me my whole life is a" - Mr. Van Zandt used an expletive then - "lie? That the 30 years that rock 'n' roll has informed our society was just a big" - he used the expletive again - "waste of time? Is that what you're telling me?"
It was a sudden coming together of the various personae who reside inside Mr. Van Zandt: the head-wrapped rock star known as Little Steven who plays with Bruce Springsteen; the political activist who spent much of the 80's campaigning against apartheid and for human rights around the world; and Silvio Dante, the gangster Mr. Van Zandt plays on "The Sopranos" on HBO, who, lovable though he might be, is no one you want to see angry.
"That was the beginning of the war," he said in an interview in his office near the Javits Center in Manhattan. "The revolution began that day."
For more than two years now Mr. Van Zandt has been waging his garage-rock war. He began with his radio show, "Little Steven's Underground Garage," for which he is host and programmer. When syndicators showed no interest, Mr. Van Zandt decided to distribute it himself; he employs a small staff for the purpose, and the show, which had its premiere on April 7, 2002, now plays on 136 stations around the country. He is also is the executive producer of three channels on Sirius satellite radio, including a garage rock channel.
Mr. Van Zandt's self-styled crusade moves to a new level this weekend with a full-blown outdoor rock festival that is an unexpected highlight of the concert season. On Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Randalls Island, more than 40 bands will blast and grunt and groove their way across the stage, playing various interpretations of garage rock - loud and uncomplicated musings expressed with the help of guitars, drums and little else - in a spectacle that will mix the godfathers of the genre with the very latest descendants.
Called Little Steven's International Underground Garage Festival, it will feature Iggy and the Stooges, the Strokes, the New York Dolls, Bo Diddley, Big Star, the Pretty Things, the Raveonettes, the Dictators, the Electric Prunes, the Mooney Suzuki, the Woggles, the Lyres, the Star Spangles, the Gore Gore Girls, Nancy Sinatra, the Creation and many others. The headliners will play full sets, but most bands will play just a few songs. For Mr. Van Zandt, who at 53 still wears the loose, brightly colored garb that earned him the nickname Miami Steve, the radio show and the festival - which he hopes to make an annual event - represent a revival of rough, honest, beautiful garage rock as a musical form and a redemption from restrictive radio formats that rely on familiarity and market testing.
"How could our culture have gotten to the point where we have a format for everything except rock 'n' roll?" he asked, hunched over a purple desk in his studio, in front of an enormous mantle painted in psychedelic colors. Around him on all sides were ceiling-high shelves of CD's and books.
"The classic rock stations are eliminating a lot of the 60's stuff - you don't hear many album cuts from the first seven Rolling Stones albums, or first five Beatles albums, or the first three Who albums, or the Kinks," he said, speaking in a slow, measured, almost scholarly tone. "That's what I call the renaissance."
What's more, he said, when he began to plan the radio show, there was a worthwhile movement of new music that was not getting enough attention from radio and from record labels. "Everyone was ignoring this contemporary garage-rock movement, which was to my ears a possible rebirth of rock 'n' roll, nothing less. So why weren't any record labels signing it?"
But since then, the labels have begun to sign it. In the past few years a wave of new bands has come along with obvious ties to classic garage rock: the Strokes, the Hives, the White Stripes, the Mooney Suzuki, the Raveonettes, the Datsuns and others play stripped-down rock 'n' roll with a passion that has attracted huge audiences.
Mr. Van Zandt is not modest in claiming some responsibility for this revival, but he cannot claim it all. The genre of garage rock has been in near-constant state of revival and reinvention almost since it began; the style was codified in the 1972 compilation album "Nuggets," and throughout the 70's, 80's and 90's various rock movements from punk to new wave to riot grrrl have updated and toyed with the form. As it will be seen at Saturday's concert, there is little to unify the many bands other than loud, short songs.
The Mooney Suzuki, formed in New York in 1997, has worked to expand its sound beyond the usual narrow parameters of garage rock. Its new album, "Alive and Amplified," to be released on Columbia on Aug. 24, was made with the pop production team the Matrix. Sammy James Jr., the band's singer, said the genre's long history makes a clear definition impossible.
"When people say garage rock revival, it's, like, the 80's had a garage rock revival, are you talking about that?" Mr. James said. "The 90's had a garage rock revival, are you talking about that? There's a whole generation now that is likely to identify garage music just with a certain kind of haircut."
Phil May, the singer of the Pretty Things, who in 1968 recorded the album "S.F. Sorrow," which is generally considered to be the first rock opera, preferred to think of it merely as a sound or a method.
"I don't think it is a style," he said in a telephone interview from London. "It's somebody playing guitar - not great, but it is a guitar sound, and it is not generated by digital software. It's people onstage, and there's a whole bunch of people who don't really know that experience."
Mr. James said, "Garage simply means amateur music."
In New York, Mr. Van Zandt's radio show is heard Sunday nights at 10 on the classic rock station WAXQ (104.3 FM), which was one of the first stations to run it. Bob Buchmann, the station's program director, said that at first he did not think it was the best idea.
"Steven told me he wanted to break the mold by doing a two-hour weekly radio show devoted to garage rock," he said. "And even I said, 'Are you sure you really wouldn't want to do only an hour?' "
But considering Mr. Van Zandt's following in New York and New Jersey, Mr. Buchmann signed on for the show and said that since it began, the station's Sunday night ratings have doubled.
Not all stations have been such an easy sell, and Mr. Van Zandt said he had traveled around the country to meet with radio executives and advertisers. Mr. Van Zandt's office sells national advertising time for the show, to sponsors like Dunkin' Donuts and Pepsi; local stations add their own commercials. In addition to the radio show Dunkin' Donuts has sponsored this weekend's festival and a nationwide battle of the bands, which in its finals at Irving Plaza in Manhattan last month contributed two acts to the festival lineup, Muck and the Mires, from Worcester, Mass., and the Blackouts, from Champaign, Ill. (They tied.)
But Mr. Van Zandt said that even with corporate underwriting, he supports the show himself and has never broken even with it. It is simply a cause that he cannot give up.
"Maybe it's a sense of injustice," he said. "That was certainly a motivating factor in the 80's when I was engaged in politics. It bothered me that nobody was talking about South Africa. Why isn't anybody talking about this? Why can't I go to the library and find anything about it?"
He added: "Why isn't there any rock 'n' roll radio? That doesn't seem right. It's a gap. Let me fill that gap."
Thank you Steven.
Posted by HMK at 2:52 PM