I was privileged to get an audience with Little Steven a couple of years ago on the fifth anniversary of the launch of the Underground Garage radio show. I have three decades invested in Springsteen and The Sopranos is godhead, but I only wanted to talk about the Underground empire – the radio show, the label, the whole essence of why I respect that someone like Steve puts his energy – and wallet – where his heart is.
This ran as a cover story in Pop Culture Press, the Austin-based magazine that should be a staple of your music diet. The original article has a great layout and sidebars on The Charms and The Paybacks, two bands you need to go check out as soon as you finish this article…
Little Steven is Rock’s Renaissance Man
…and thank God for that.
What drives a man of accomplishment to take stock in himself, decide (against all popular opinion) that maybe he hasn’t done quite enough on this mortal coil, and that it’s time to raise the bar a notch? If your name is Steve Van Zandt, maybe it’s watching something you have always loved starting to wither and die before your eyes.
Garage rock is a common but misappropriated term. Too often it’s used as a catch-all phrase for embryonic upstarts too painful to be heard as far away as the sidewalk, let alone the radio. But in Little Steven’s eyes, it’s all about “hearing the roots, the ability to connect to the 50s and 60s more directly” regardless of the era. And while radio was once a vast, open playground of discovery, now formats, consultants and greed changed the rules. A generation of music was being forgotten, and a new generation was growing up ignorant to its loss.
Anyone familiar with Little Steven’s sermons about commitment and spiritual awakening might have seen this coming. Too often people talk the talk but fade when it comes time to deliver. But here was a man who saw injustice across the globe in South Africa, and promptly organized Artists United Against Apartheid; the resulting video and Top 40 single “Sun City” brought much needed awareness to an important social issue. When he was outraged by the politics and greed of the Reagan era, he let his mouth and music do the talking without concern for career damage or retribution (oh, how times have changed…) So it was no different when Little Steven saw an art form he loved being cast by the wayside. He knew that something needed to be done. So he stepped up again.
It’s now been five years since the Underground Garage burst onto the landscape to reanimate the forgotten tenets of rock’n’roll – direct, honest, heartfelt music from the soul. And what started out as a singular effort to get real rock’n’roll music back on the radio has blossomed into a syndicated radio show, a satellite channel (Sirius channel 25), a touring company, a record label and soon an Internet television station. But the King of this Underground Empire remains just as approachable and passionate as ever, focused and determined to set things right.