In 2001, little Steven Van Zandt — singer-guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and a star on HBO’s The Sopranos as strip-club owner Silvio Dante — met with executives from five top radio-syndication companies and made them an offer he felt they couldn’t refuse. “I said, ‘I got a little celebrity capital — I’d like to do a radio show, playing rock & roll records,’ ” he recalls. “They all said, ‘Rock & roll? You can’t play rock & roll on the radio anymore.’ ” Van Zandt’s reply: “You’re telling the wrong guy.”
The proof: He is now heard weekly on more than 130 stations nationwide as the host of Little Steven’s Underground Garage, a two-hour blast of 1960s garage rock featuring Nuggets-era legends such as the Yardbirds and the Electric Prunes together with new releases by hot revivalists including the Boss Martians and the Raveonettes. The show is also broadcast around the world, through Voice of America, and this year Van Zandt, 53, will launch an “Underground Garage” channel on Sirius Satellite Radio.
Van Zandt, whose chuckling-hipster banter between songs is a gas in itself, spent $1 million of his own money getting his Garage on the air, personally pitching it to programmers and advertisers. “I felt I had to do it,” he says in his Manhattan taping studio, a room crammed with CDs and splashed in psychedelic paint. Indeed, Van Zandt — a native of Boston who grew up in Middletown, New Jersey — is a true child of garage rock, along with Springsteen. The two first met in 1965 while playing in combos on the Jersey teen-club circuit. “We grew up on the Music Machine and the Easybeats,” says Van Zandt, who was the guitarist in Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes before joining the E Street Band in 1975. In fact, on his last tour, Springsteen played Underground Garage tapes over the PA before showtime.
“He’s totally into it,” Van Zandt says. “Bruce found me the Hives. He saw them on BBC TV and said, “This would be good for your show.’ He was right!”
You’ve been on the air for nearly two years. Do you have any idea who is listening?
We go by the e-mails we get. About a third are young people who have never heard anything like this before. A twenty-one-year-old wrote, “Thank you for turning us on to this group called the Kinks. We’d never heard of them.”
It’s a very scary time. That thing we assumed would last forever, the Ten Commandments of rock & roll history, carved in stone — forget it. The other day, I was with some people, and the Rolling Stones came on the radio. There was a twenty-two-year-old girl there, and I said, “Can you identify that? Who is that?” She had no idea. When I said it was the Rolling Stones, she said, “Oh, those are the people who play stadiums.”
Are you trying to save a dying music?
I believe in this world, this garageland, where everyone is in their prime. I treat new bands like Reigning Sound and the Greenhornes with the same importance that I treat Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and I play Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis like they’re new kids who just put out their first records. I don’t think of this as nostalgia.
How do you program a show?
The format is based on the Ramones. I started off joking about this, then I realized it’s true. I play the Ramones virtually every week. I also play everyone who influenced the Ramones, and everybody influenced by the Ramones. It’s all connected, certanily in my mind: the Fifties, surf music, girl groups, the British Invasion, the psychedelic period, punk. I call it fun with substance. No slow songs — and I rarely play anything over three minutes.
Is it hard to find great new garage bands? How much of what you hear is just enthusiastic recycling?
I average one song per twenty albums I listen to. And these days, they put eighteen songs on a fucking album — it’ll be the seventeenth one that I like. But we’re drowning in mediocrity. The arts have never meant less to our culture than they do now, and what’s out there is shocking. If you make a really cool record, you can get it on my show. But it’s gotta be really good — as good as everything else I’m playing.
New bands should do the same thing we used to do, what the Rolling Stones did: Start off as a bar band doing covers. I’m not sure people do that anymore, but they should. It immediately raises your standards. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were playing odd covers in ’74: Sam and Dave album tracks, reggae from The Harder They Come. I slipped in “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” the first song I’d written. We said it was a Drifters song [laughs] and got away with it. But it was that sort of thinking — you have to write as good as the rest of your set.
You have a long history of political activism. In 1984, you produced the all-star hit album Sun City to protest apartheid in South Africa. But your radio show is very apolitical.
I said everything I needed to say about politics in the Eighties. You gotta pick your fights, and the most important fight to me now is bringing back rock & roll for the generations who have never heard it. Rock & roll is something our society needs. There is something about rock & roll — more than hard rock, hip-hop or pop — that creates community and communicates adventure.
What are your politics now, off the air?
Even in my political days, I was an independent. Republicans, Democrats — I see them all as problematic. I’m an issue-by-issue guy. When it comes to human rights and environmental issues, I am more on the Democratic side. But taking one dollar out of every two I earn — absolute tyranny.
I gave up relating to presidents on my thirteenth birthday, when John Kennedy was shot. That was the last time you could look at a president and be proud of the intellect and education, the way they spoke, that thing you could trace back to Lincoln. It’s been weird ever since.
When did you first become a garage-rock maniac?
The same as everyone else: February 9th, 1964, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. But I didn’t think I could be a Beatle. They were too good. I didn’t feel I could do it until I saw the Rolling Stones on Hollywood Palace. They were a little sloppier, didn’t dress the same. Their hair was out of place, and their harmonies weren’t exactly right.
Was there a garage-rock scene in Asbury Park in the 1960s?
I got there the year of the riots, 1968. It was already a ghost town. The only thing happening was the Upstage Club-8 P.M. to 4 A.M., no booze, a teenage club just for musicians to jam.
We had different bands every few months. Bruce would be in my band. I’d be in his band. If you were in a band in those days, you were friends. If you grew your hair long — for a while we were, like, the only two people in New Jersey — you were friends. And if you had long hair and you were in a band, you were best friends.
You also toured the oldies circuit as a backing pianist for the Dovells [“Bristol Stomp”].
I was a gambler when I was a kid, so when we got to Las Vegas, it was like Mecca. I got there the last year the mob was there. Man, it was so much better then. It was very service-oriented.
Most people don’t think of the mob as synonymous with “service.”
You couldn’t spend more than five dollars for food. Rooms were ten dollars. If you were gambling and your glass was empty, another drink was there. It was the smart move financially, to keep people gambling. We paid for Southside Johnny’s first album because we had a good summer at the track. That’s the truth.
I met all my heroes on the oldies circuit: Gary U.S. Bonds, Lloyd Price, Little Richard. I ended up playing with Dion in Miami on New Year’s Eve. I came back with all these flowered shirts, the Sam Snead golf hat. I refused to acknowledge winter ever again. Everybody started calling me Miami Steve.
I vividly remember the white suits and fedoras you first wore in the E Street Band.
I never liked that look. I went through a windshield somewhere in the Seventies [laughs] — I don’t even remember how — and my hair never grew in right. So I was wearing the hats. Then I switched to the bandannas. I just didn’t feel like wearing a wig all the time. Luckily, in rock & roll, it’s looked on as an eccentricity. If I was a Supreme Court judge, I’d be in trouble.
Why did you change your name to Little Steven when you started making solo albums?
Miami Steve was so associated with the E Street Band. I didn’t want to exploit that. But we all had nicknames. And Steven Van Zandt as an artist — what kind of name is that? As Bruce’s mother said to him when he got his record deal, “So what did you change your name to?”
Were you surprised when Bruce asked you to rejoin for the E Street reunion tour in 1999?
No. We had stayed friendly the whole time, discussed everything along the way. But I had become an actor in my mind. Six months after I got the job on The Sopranos, I was rehearsing for the reunion, thinking, “Where were you five years ago? I finally got a job!” Every day off from touring, I was flying back to do The Sopranos.
How did you get the role of Silvio Dante? Van Zandt is a very Dutch name for a guy playing an Italian hard guy.
I am Italian. Springsteen’s mostly Italian, too. We’re both Italians with Dutch names, one of the many things we have in common. My mother remarried when I was young, and my stepfather adopted me. [Sopranos creator] David Chase saw me on TV, inducting the Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I did my five-minute bit, which David happened to catch. He called the next day. I had written a treatment for this character called Silvio Dante, who ran a Copacabana-type club in modern times. He was an independent hit man who had retired. David Chase liked the idea but changed it to a strip club.
Did you have wiseguys hanging around back when you played Jersey bars?
Yeah. They looked exactly like central casting: the suits, the bulge in the jacket, the hair greased back. The Beatles haircut never worked for them. But there was nobody leaning on us. There was no money to be made from us.
Between your TV and radio gigs, will you have time to tour the next time Bruce calls?
We’re back into that cycle of albums and tours. Honestly, I love it. Now with the radio show, I have an additional reason: to go to these cities and ask the local record-store guy, “What’s happening in your town?”
Isn’t it a conflict of interest when you play a Springsteen track on the show?
I play the garage-y stuff, the outtakes on Tracks — “Restless Nights,” “Take ‘Em As They Come.” It’s not a conflict of interest. This is my fucking show [laughs]. Hopefully you’ll like it. And if you don’t, wait three minutes. I got another great song comin’.