- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003

Musician, actor and radio disc jockey Little Steven Van Zandt says it's time for a rock 'n' roll revival and his nationally syndicated radio broadcast, "Little Steven's Underground Garage" can help bring rock back to prominence.

Mr. Van Zandt is better known for playing guitar in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and acting as Mafioso Silvio Dante in HBO's "The Sopranos" than as a DJ, but his "Underground Garage" is inundating listeners with garage rock, music with a raw, stripped-down sound minus the frills of overproduced pop.

"Rock 'n' roll cannot be any more ignored," Mr. Van Zandt says in an interview from his home in New York City while on a short break from touring with Mr. Springsteen.

"It cannot be any more buried; it must be time for a rebirth."

Mr. Van Zandt says the rebirth finds its roots in past sounds, which inspire current trends. Garage rock comes from the immediate post-"British Invasion" years of 1965-68, between the Beatles' performance on the Ed Sullivan TV show and the introduction of the prototype heavy-metal band, Led Zeppelin.

Mr. Van Zandt says everybody who is making music directly related to those years, such as the new bands the Strokes, the Hives, the Vines and the White Stripes, is playing garage rock. The sound is commercially viable for these new groups, as all have risen to the top of the charts.

"I play roots of garage and [modern] offshoots of garage," Mr. Van Zandt says. "That extends to everything from the pioneers of the '50s, the British Invasion, '60s pop, psychedelic to traditional punk. But I do not include hard rock that's a different genre entirely."

Part of the appeal of the program, which is broadcast weekly in more than 72 markets nationwide and locally Sunday nights at 10 on WARW-FM (Classic Rock 94.7), is the scope of garage rock Mr. Van Zandt plays music spanning 50-plus years of rock 'n' roll.

During a recent broadcast, Mr. Van Zandt spun "Main Offender," a song the Hives released last year and segued into "Jumpin' Jack Flash," a lick the Rolling Stones recorded more than 34 years ago. To Mr. Van Zandt, it's all part of a continuum, a common thread that he maintains is the essence of rock 'n' roll: music with spirit and passion.

"We are determined to play the coolest songs ever recorded within our self-imposed limitations," Mr. Van Zandt told his "Underground Garage" audience during another recent broadcast. "What matters is that you get two hours of inspiration, motivation, energy and fusion to help you make it through next week."

Energy is in no short supply from the emerging garage bands that have not yet scored mainstream hits but are getting airplay by Mr. Van Zandt, who says commercial success for these bands may be coming soon.

"I'm talking like 25 new bands, and I love them all," Mr. Van Zandt says.

"Cotton Mather, the Shazams, the Greenhornes, Creatures of a Golden Dawn, the Swingin' Neckbreakers how much room do you have?"

The Swingin' Neckbreakers band is a case in point. "Sopranos" fans may recall that the band appeared in the second episode of the series this season, performing a club gig in a haunt operated by the fictional crime family. Of course, the Neckbreakers were referred by Mr. Van Zandt, who was asked by "Sopranos" creator David Chase for the name of a New Jersey garage rock band and was happy to oblige.

"We got the Neckbreakers thing together; that was really, really fun," Mr. Van Zandt says, laughing as if he has created the right alchemy out of his science project and obviously having the time of his life influencing "The Sopranos" with garage rock.

Weird science aside, good radio forms mental pictures. The picture the "Underground Garage" elicits (because it's true) is the image of Mr. Van Zandt as a rock 'n' roll mad professor attired in Gypsy head scarf and python boots in his hotel suite while on tour with Mr. Springsteen, voicing over each week's broadcast on portable equipment. It's during his spoken interludes between songs that Mr. Van Zandt's sharp rock 'n' roll mind is revealed, providing unique insights about the music.

That Mr. Van Zandt is a musician with impeccable street credentials in the rock world lends the show and its content instant credibility. That has helped get garage rock to a mass audience while the broadcast retains a cool, subversive edge. Accordingly, Rolling Stone magazine calls the program "mind-blowingly great" and named Mr. Van Zandt one of its "people of the year" in 2002.

Despite critical acclaim for "Underground Garage," its now-excellent ratings and the success of some current garage bands, it seemed at first that no one shared Mr. Van Zandt's passion for the music. His show concept wasn't an easy sell to corporate sponsors or radio-station directors who wanted proven, formulaic pop programming. Mr. Van Zandt says he pitched his ideas to more than 100 entities, using "every ounce" of his celebrity just to get a foot in the door. He says resistance to the show was severe because "radio stations were eliminating the music from the 1950s, classic rock radio was slowly eliminating the '60s, and no one is playing the new stuff, with few exceptions."

Ultimately Mr. Van Zandt found a good match in the Hard Rock Cafe, which was onboard instantly after he laid out his ideas for a show featuring garage rock.

"Little Steven pitched the show to us when the world was getting away from rock music," Hard Rock Vice President Chris Tomaso says. "We had the chance to be at the forefront of a rock movement."

While the garage rock "movement," "The Sopranos" and the Springsteen tour all have been successful, when asked if he's at the height of his creative powers with all three projects happening simultaneously, Mr. Van Zandt quickly dismisses any such notion.

"There's room for a whole bunch of related things with the 'Underground Garage' that I just don't have a chance to do and I'm trying to do in my spare time from the tour," he says, adding that he is hoping to bring the radio broadcast to television.

"'Sopranos' is done filming for the year, so I really want to try to expand the 'Underground Garage' a bit right now and try to continue to encourage this rebirth of rock 'n' roll. Everyone is desperately looking for the next big thing, and I'm saying, 'It's here.'"

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