“Little Steven” Van Zandt has some of the best jobs in the world: He has been a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band for nearly 40 years; played the role of Sylvio on The Sopranos on HBO and currently stars in Lilyhammer on Netflix; and hosts of the widely syndicated weekly radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage. Really not a bad bunch of gigs. In every one of these roles he always seems to be sincerely and thoroughly enjoying himself.
No matter what I am doing on Sunday nights, I am glued to my radio (tuned to WAXQ in New York) for those two hours of pure rock and roll joy. (Podcasts of the latest shows are posted soon afterwards on the LSUG site.) Little Steven takes his audience on a trip to the musical realms of garage music. A sampling of the classic garage luminaries played and discussed include such greater lights as The Beatles, Stones, The Who, Ramones, MC5, Iggy & The Stooges, NY Dolls, Joan Jett, The Kinks, Paul Revere & the Raiders*, The Count 5, and The Sonics. A cross-section of the contemporary garage leaders recently spotlighted on LSUG include The White Stripes, The Black Keys, The Cocktail Slippers, The Dollyrots and The Jellybricks. He also plays many great rarities including, just to pick three examples: Doin’ All Right by Big Midnight, What is the Reason by The Rascals, and Bye Bye Baby by Mary Wells.
It’s difficult to precisely define “garage rock“, but you know it when you hear it – – and you’ll hear plenty of it booming out while Little Steven is holding musical court on The Underground Garage. This is guitar-driven, loud and rebellious music-to-break-your-lease-by. All of those slashing power chords, pounding drums and thumping bass-lines make it impossible to play this music quietly. It is rock music in its truest spirit and rawest forms.
Web radio and MP3 players notwithstanding, commercial rock radio is largely just a memory now here in NYC. What makes that so sad is that this city had a long and proud history of rock stations led by the gold standard of WNEW-FM. They led the way in this market and format.**
Fortunately, when Little Steven first went on the air in 2002, I immediately sense that the spirit of that station and those times had, albeit for just 2 hours a week***, had returned. His enthusiasm for this sound, the bands, and the musical history of this genre is incredibly infectious. He understands how and why these recordings were made and he cheerfully shares his encyclopedic knowledge with his listeners. Indeed, as someone who has lived the life and times of a rock and roller, there is a remarkable sincerity and authenticity to what he says.
His radio host affectations and shtick are also undeniably charming. Never have you heard anyone use the conjectures “cool” and “baby” so often and get away with it. What would be so pretentious from anyone else sounds so very right coming from him. As well, for every show he selects and expounds upon his picks for that week’s “Coolest Song in the World” and the “Freak of the Week” to honor a musician or some other figure in pop culture. These riffs are priceless!
Check out The Underground Garage’s web site for the numerous radio affiliates now carrying the show, play-lists, an up-to-date archive of playable streams, band calendars, historical essays, and a ton of other great material. More importantly, next Sunday night give it a try. It’s a welcome reaffirmation that the truest – – and coolest, baby! – – spirit of classic and contemporary garage rock and roll lives on.
* The band’s Just Like Me is considered by many of the garage faithful to be somewhat of an anthem. I could not possible agree more.
** For an excellent history of the station and rock radio during its heyday I highly recommend FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio, by Richard Neer (2002). The author was a DJ on WNEW-FM during most of the station’s history. For many years since then has has been a sports radio talk show host on WFAN in New York.
*** Little Steven also currently produces an Underground Garage Channel for the Sirius satellite radio network.