Steven Van Zandt's on many missions

E Street guitarist is on TV, radio, and working to save N.Y. club

Conversations

August 28, 2005|By Timothy Finn | Timothy Finn,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

He's known for his paisley bandana, but these days Steven Van Zandt wears a few hats.

He is still a resident guitarist in the hibernating E Street Band; he's also the guy who plays Silvio Dante in the HBO serial The Sopranos. But his most time-consuming role these days is as the creator and voice of Little Steven's Underground Garage, a syndicated radio show that honors the sounds and legacies of garage/punk/"Nuggets" bands, starting with the Kingsmen and the Stooges and the MC5 and including the new generation of stripped-down rock bands, like Jet, the Greenhornes and the Hives.

Concurrently, Van Zandt has joined a campaign to save the legendary CBGB's, the 31-year-old New York nightclub that nurtured bands like the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and Television.

The club will close unless a new lease can be renegotiated. From his office in New York recently, he talked about CBGB's, his radio show and the future and past of rock 'n' roll.

In a piece about CBGB's that ran recently in the Village Voice, a columnist wrote something like: It's time to move on. The place has had its day. Give something else a chance. Your response?

Well, it's silly on several levels. How many places are there left in the world where you can go to a club where some very famous bands first got famous? How many clubs are featured in travel brochures as tourist attractions? There aren't many places where you can go and see where people got famous and that is still a working club where anyone can play, except for CBGB's.

[Owner] Hilly Kristal has maintained that policy. Anyone who wants can play there. They don't have to be a recording band, and that's unique at a time when some clubs are charging bands to play.

So, there's a historical reason. There's no club around with this club's significance. There are practical reasons just for the city of New York: Nothing that would replace it would bring in tourists like CBGB's.

At a time when we're engaged in a revolution to support the rebirth of rock 'n' roll, which was driven underground, we're trying to build a new infrastructure. The thought of losing part of the old infrastructure is depressing.

What are its chances?

There's a 50/50 chance. It was gone when we first got involved; now it could survive.

Let's talk about your radio show, Underground Garage. How old is it now, and how healthy is it?

We're in our fourth year, and it's going good. We started with 20 stations; now we're up to 130 and 190 markets. We have an audience of about a million people. We've introduced 100 new bands in the last three years. About one-third of the show is dedicated to new bands; the rest represents the past 50 years of rock 'n' roll.

When we started, not one band was signed to major label. Now about 15 are. Bands like the Hives, Strokes, White Stripes, Jet, the Vines, the Donnas recently signed to a big label. Five went gold and platinum. The major-label involvement really helps. That means an infusion of money going somewhere (laughs). We hope it goes to the right place and gets there legally. It's nice to see the big labels involved. That's progress.

What have you learned since starting the show?

The industry is more conservative. It's totally obsessed with the "f" word - that being "familiarity." That's a very bad thing. It's why the new "Jack" format doesn't excite me yet: It doesn't include music from new or unsigned bands. There are so many good young bands. Our standards are high, so when we play them, we play the best stuff, and it holds up well with the other stuff. We've got to convince classic rock brothers and sisters to please play new music. Rock 'n' roll is a living, breathing animal that needs to be fed.

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