Little Steven Van Zandt wants people to remember what's cool. He's even willing to help them do it.
Whether he's wielding a Gibson Firebird onstage as part of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, roughing up someone in his role as Silvio Dante on HBO's The Sopranos, or introducing the world to a new radio format, Little Steven Van Zandt takes on each role with passion, professionalism, and seemingly endless energy.
"I really am a person who needs to do more than one thing," says the Boston-born, New Jersey-raised Van Zandt. "That's the only way I can give 100 percent to everything. Because if I'm just doing one thing,
I overwhelm it, and I wind up giving 200 percent to something, and it's overkill."
One of Van Zandt's most personally satisfying interests is Little Steven's Underground Garage, a syndicated show that offers an educational and eye-opening two hours of rock-and-roll radio. "We've got a bunch of young people listening for the new stuff and have older people listening for the old stuff, and we turn them on to each other's music," Van Zandt says. And there's plenty of turning on happening: More than a million listeners tune in to Underground Garage in 200-plus markets. But wait - there's more. Van Zandt has also created two stations for Sirius Satellite Radio: Underground Garage (channel 25) and its country cousin, Outlaw Country (channel 63). Between the three, Van Zandt has built a musical caulk gun, making sure nothing falls through the cracks.
When you talk to Van Zandt, who turns 56 on November 22, you can hear the enthusiasm in his voice as he reflects on the old days of rock and roll - when DJs and personalities ruled the airwaves and when listeners still got excited about music. And when he talks, you can't help but get excited about the music as well.
Of all the musical genres, why have you chosen to champion garage bands on your radio program?
We've somehow gotten to the twenty-first century having a format for everything but rock and roll. I can't quite tolerate the fact that we're going to have a generation or two of kids that have never heard it. It's just not accessible to them. So what happened was I stumbled into this whole contemporary garage-rock world.
You're talking about bands like the Hives, Vines, and White Stripes?
Yep. They kind of don't quite fit anywhere. I mean, the alternative stations will play them for a minute, and some of the harder-rock stations will play them for a minute. But mostly their music doesn't quite fit. So I decided to get some of this on the radio. And then, as I created my show, I realized I was creating a format. So I said, "Let's try it out 24/7 at Sirius Satellite." That turned into two formats because the same exact thing is going on in country music. The great classic, older cats are being ignored, the new cats are being ignored, and all the interesting cats in between are being ignored. Things are starting to move in the right direction. I'm a radio fan; I want to bring people back to radio. They've been hearing bad radio for 15 years, man. I don't blame them for leaving. We're trying to bring them back. Yeah, there are going to be trends that come and go, fashions that come and go. But great rock and roll lasts a lifetime, and cool is forever. If you know what's cool, you're going to be all right. That's what we try to do with Underground Garage: remind everybody to just keep that stuff alive.
But not just on the radio: You put together a tour called Little Steven's Underground Garage Presents the Rolling Rock and Roll Show, which is ending this month.
We are basically engaged in having to create a new infrastructure for rock and roll, because it no longer exists. In the one we grew up with, you had the local clubs, you could tour cheaply, you had tour support once you did get signed, and the local promoters were still a force of nature. Now there are all these national organizations. It's a different vibe because, once they took over, you lost that local and regional base. Plus, you had local radio [before]. You could go on your local station and get played. We used to walk into the biggest station in New York anytime we felt like it. Walked in there and played DJ for an hour or two, y'know? It was the same all across the country. And now everything has kind of gone national, and everything has become homogenized.
We're trying to bring back rock and roll in its most primitive and natural state, which is live and in person. When we do live shows, we try to have five decades represented onstage, because we always have five bands. We do it kind of the old Alan Freed and Murray the K way, where you have short sets and bang bang bang - you keep it moving. A local band gets a chance to play with some of the bigger bands, and that's always fun too. Rolling Rock sponsors it. If these go well, we're hoping Rolling Rock or somebody steps up so that we'll get to do 12 tours next year. I want to do a tour every month.
What about your own touring with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band?
I've got a feeling we will most likely do another record and do another tour with the E Street Band. I don't see why not. We're still getting better.
Yeah, you can tell by watching you onstage that you still really enjoy it.
It's fun, y'know? Bruce and I have been friends a long time [since 1965]. You don't have that many friends who go back that far. So that's unique in itself, but I just enjoy being with him - I got the best seat in the house for the show. After all these years, he can still make me laugh. And for the two, three hours or however long we play onstage up there, it's just like a vacation for me. The Sopranos is like that too. It's a wonderful, wonderful mental vacation away from being me. I get to be somebody else. I am going to very much miss that.
So who's the tougher "boss" - Springsteen or Tony Soprano?
[Laughs] They're all cool. I'm really my own boss. It's who I choose to serve at any given time. And I love it when the pressure is not all on me. 'Cause my radio world and my whole rock-and-roll world that I'm dealing with in my Underground Garage, that's my real job. Those other things are just fabulous hobbies.