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.
Born Again Savage, the Voice of America
Flash back to the start of the decade, when Steven felt like he had really lost the connection to the music. “At that stage of the game, I’m thinking music’s kind of over for me. I mean I like a song here or there, a couple of bands, but it felt over.” But a friend (Jon Weiss of The Vipers) talked him into attending Cave Stomp, an annual garage festival in New York. “It was fantastic – some older bands, some newer bands, it was really great to see something that was meaningful to me.” Hearing the “roots” in a number of the lesser known acts, he excitedly quizzed Weiss about the forgotten scene and learned that it had never really gone away. In fact there were numerous bands across the country flying the flag, albeit not successfully. Inspired, Steven approached Weiss to become partners and try to produce a show every month instead of every year (they did, and ended up doing sixteen shows). But when he started meeting the bands and asked if they were getting airplay, he found the answer was almost always “no”. How could this be?
So he turned on the radio…you can probably imagine the shock after not listening for so many years. “I was surprised how things had narrowed. Man, not only am I not hearing any of these cool new bands, but I’m not hearing a lot of the songs from the early cool bands either!” Unable to find the classics from his youth – Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent – he wasn’t even hearing the Beatles, Stones, Animals or Yardbirds. It was as if two whole decades just…vanished. “All this is going on at the same time and I’m thinking…the mainstream FM stations have eliminated the 60s, now the oldies stations have eliminated the 50s. And there is nobody playing the new stuff. Basically all of the greatest music ever made or being made, is not on the radio, And that is really, really…fucked up. This is wrong! So I don’t know what I can do, but I just did the Springsteen tour and we just finished the Sopranos first season, both of which were very successful. And I thought, I got a little ‘celebrity capital’, let me spend it on this. Let me get a radio show. So that’s how it started… a desire to get stuff heard and make sure the second generation of kids get a chance to hear real rock’n’roll.”
He was also surprised to find the resistance he met trying to get started. “It took a full year to get enough stations to even launch this thing…I think we started with twenty, twenty-three stations. It was long fight to get on, and this was after the Sopranos success and after the Springsteen reunion. Nobody wanted the show, Nobody wanted rock’n’roll on the radio that didn’t fit this new, very narrow world where they’re basically playing three hundred records everywhere in America.” Finally, some “brave souls” came on board and the first rating book was so high they couldn’t deny the success of the concept. “We were literally the only game in town, and my syndicated show still is. But no regular radio station would play my format 24 hours a day; I had to go to Sirius for that.” He sees satellite and broadcast radio as kindred spirits; satellite as a perfect place to experiment and have a little more focus, but broadcast radio still the main conduit to the people. While he enjoys the freedom and knows it will be the dominant player for years to come, he’s aware that satellite radio is also years away from the sheer numbers its elder brother can reach.
Little Steven says he is still exclusively a DJ on his own show because he wants to support broadcast radio and see it make a comeback. But he also wants to see more new music played on his syndicated classic rock affiliates. “I’m always discussing it with them in a respectful way. I mean, I know you’re doing great, very successful, but it wouldn’t hurt to add a couple of new records now and then.” It’s frustrating to have to listen to excuse after excuse why music that is jumping out of the speakers can’t find a bigger home, especially when he has watched it work on his own program. “I’m a little old fashioned in this sense, but I’m sorry, I really think there should be a connection between playing music on the radio and people going out and buying those records. And that kind of went sideways somewhere along the way.”
He misses the fun and energy of classic AM radio that he grew up listening to; where in one set you could hear Dean Martin, Motown and The Beatles. As a listener, you were exposed to so much just by leaving the radio on. And when FM radio came of age, with album cuts and personality-driven DJs like Alison Steele, the wealth of new bands was enormous. While Steven understands radio can never truly go back to those simpler times, he insists on capturing the spirit. “The closest thing (to that) is probably our Underground Garage format where we play all six decades of rock’n’roll in the same place. And we throw in some fun, some various kinds of comedy or campy stuff or an Ann-Margaret track. I love that attitude when it was pure fun…so we mix it up.”
Of course, part of the allure of radio was not only the magic of the music itself, but the belief that you might even be part of it. “When we grew up, it was a long shot, but by the seventies it was sort of a pretty reasonable expectation that with a little bit of luck and a little bit of hard work, you could make a living playing rock’n’roll. There was an infrastructure there. If you were able to climb that mountain, there was a reward. But that’s not true anymore.” And with the advent of cable television, personal computers, the Internet and – yes – even satellite radio, the splintering and isolation makes it even less possible to make a huge impact as an artist these days. “That is over”, Steven agrees. “That was the star making machinery from the big record companies. The record business right now is about eighty percent different than it was ten years ago, never mind thirty years ago. Just in the last five years things are radically changing and no one knows where it’s going to end up for sure, except that the concept of developing a band, investing in that band and hanging out for four or five albums until they break…that’s gone.”
Radio fragmentation is no different. What’s missing is that monolithic mass cultural experience that just isn’t possible anymore. “We listened to one station, and there was one in every town. That creation of a mass experience grew from the entire family, every family in every house watching Ed Sullivan on Sunday night. I mean one show – bang! Yesterday people never heard of you? Today you are a star, nationwide! You know how hard it is to break in America (today)? It’s almost impossible! We’re like fifty different countries.”
Disciples of Soul
For those who remember the package tours of the earlier rock and roll era, the Underground Garage Tour is a godsend. The blueprint has been around since the fifties rock caravans and the Motown bus tours of the sixties, but for some reason no one picked up the ball with the garage bands…until now. And of course, pulling it off was anything but easy. “It was tough to get started and it will continue to be tough, because it requires sponsors to pay for it, and to acknowledge that it’s important to support up and coming bands.” Where corporate sponsorship used to be vilified, the relationship has changed with the Underground Garage. Steven believes the sponsors benefit because people understand that the tour doesn’t happen without them being there, and that creates a lot of goodwill, as opposed to the stadium shows where you don’t feel that same connection.
Steven is no stranger to the realities of trying to succeed on the road and the misconceptions that it’s a wonderful life. “I’m very hands on about everything. I want the experience to be great for the audience and I want the experience to be great for the bands. Whenever we can we always try to keep the ticket prices cheap but give them the best show they’re ever seen. Pay the bands as much as we can. Overpay them when we can, because we know they’re not making much money anywhere else.” The club shows are extremely well organized. Shows start on time; short breaks between sets feature go-go dancers and great singles. The four or five band lineups feature local bands opening for upcoming stars like The Charms and The Paybacks and headline acts like The New York Dolls and The Romantics. But despite the excitement and the success, the whole process has to start all over next year. Steven’s not certain if he’ll be able to do it again, but he’s hopeful.
One of the highlights for his live enterprise was pulling off the 2004 International Underground Garage Festival on Randall’s Island in New York City, where legends like the Dolls, Dictators, and Stooges shared the glory with the successors to their throne. It was the Woodstock of garage music, forty-three bands in one day, and despite several obstacles it was an unforgettable event. “We wanted to try one, and I’d love to do one every year, but that’s obviously more expensive. I mean we had a hurricane coming at us (laughs), but we hung in there and we still had sixteen thousand people! So it was a great success.” Sets were short but it was an incredible showcase for a lot of the lesser known artists. “It’s a great way to introduce twenty bands that no one has ever heard of. You get a taste of what the bands sound like, and if you like them, go buy their record, or go see them when they come back through town at the club.”
Unfortunately, the likelihood of a DVD release is slim. Chris Columbus (Harry Potter, Home Alone) was set to direct the multi-camera event, but a freak accident involving his daughter caused him to head back to Chicago. “She ended up okay, but he wasn’t there to physically direct the movie, and the funding went away. We never really recovered.” A few screenings were set to try and raise a couple of million dollars to continue the original plan to craft something really unique instead of a formula concert film. “First of all, it would have been the first 3-D concert ever done. I’m telling you, when Iggy Pop jumps up on one of the 3-D cameras, it’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen in your life. It’s like Iggy is jumping into your mind!” Not getting the film out was a disappointment (“it’s probably one of the top twenty tragedies of my life”) but just another in a series of setbacks that he will overcome. “We probably will start using pieces of it our Internet TV show in a couple of months”.
Freedom No Compromise
And now Steven is a label owner; his Wicked Cool imprint a home for bands that need and deserve the opportunity to take the next step. While partially an extension of his relationship with the bands, he’s also clearly motivated to tackle yet another area where no one seems to be doing what is right…or what is necessary. Not that it’s going to be easy. “It’s a challenge. I mean how do you even have a record company in the twenty-first century?” Well, sometimes you reinvent the wheel by taking it apart.
“So the first thing that I wanted to do was re-write the old record deal and create the first fair record contract ever written. I’ve been on the other side for so long I know everything about it, bad and good”. Of course, there’s no lack of bands willing to sign up. Street scouts (“we got plenty of them“, he laughs) range from longtime friends to the DJs and bands in every city in America. “We’re a little bit limited but we have a street marketing team, and a full time sales team and publicist. But finding bands isn’t the problem, it’s finding ways to make the bands self-sufficient. Honestly that’s as high as I can see right now as far as a goal…if I can get them to support themselves by recording and touring and they’re able to quit their day jobs, well, that’s the new measure of success. That’s the ultimate goal these days.”
Having a radio empire to broadcast from gives Wicked Cool artists a leg up, but no one would accuse Steven of self-payola, since he’s been playing most of these bands right along. Having been the beacon of promotion for the genre, he’s already introduced his audience to more than a hundred and fifty new bands over the past five years. But he can’t sign everyone; he assumed it might be ten. In addition, Wicked Cool will make an effort to reissue worthy out-of-print titles and introduce overseas bands to the American market. But he’s careful not to bite off too big a chunk; he sees the industry circling back to the early fifties, with albums becoming less relevant and singles ruling the day. It was an odd time recalled with mixed emotions. “In the fifties and sixties it was really hit and miss, and…well, it was kind of sleazy. But in the sleaziness, looking back on it now, there was an unwritten tradeoff (with the labels). Like we’re going to sell records and we’re gonna keep all that money – screw you out of that money – but we’re going to make you stars, and you’re going to have a career. And you’re going to be able to play live for the rest of your life. And you know what? Looking back, it wasn’t such a bad trade-off.”
The first Wicked Cool releases were exclusively available at the Best Buy chain, a seemingly ironic start for an “underground” label. Weren’t the Independent stores miffed? “We started with Best Buy because that was a very difficult deal to close. Partly because most of our bands have never been in Best Buy and never would be, and partly because I didn’t want any limitations imposed on the garage rock world. It’s all very cute and elitist to be this underground cult, and that’s cool maybe if you’re in a band and want to make sure you’re discovered by the scene. But that doesn’t help these people make a living, and I have to think about that. How do I spread this word as much as I can? Best Buy isn’t a compromise for me, we have a distribution deal we’re finalizing that will put us in all the mom&pops and everywhere else we can get it. We’ll try to duplicate what we’re doing with our own section which separates it from the pack and helps people find these records for the first time.” Best Buy will still get an occasional jump on “Coolest Song in the World” compilations, but new artists will not be exclusives. “We’re big supporters of independent record stores – to this day, we have every store on a list on our website. But when we did the research on this we found that in most cases there’s not a lot of overlap. It’s almost two entirely different clienteles.”
Frank Barsalona founded Premier Talent, the first agency to focus on rock and R&B acts that were being ignored or railroaded by a blatantly corrupt music industry. Steven says he took his friend’s concept to heart when it came to choosing bands to work with. “He said the first and most important thing is that they’re great live. All you can do is continue to get better and better live and make better and better records. Keep the expectations low and the costs low, and realize you need to redefine what success is in the twenty-first century. And I think success is basically being able to make a living if you can. Not necessarily get rich, but sell enough records to make the next one and make enough from the tour to keep going.”
So has the Underground Garage movement accomplished what it has set out to do? Steven pauses…”Yeah a little bit, but not as much as I hoped by now. Over the last few years we’ve seen five, six bands break that you could call garage bands, from Jet to The White Stripes to The Hives…so we’ve seen some success. But what’s amazing is how many bands there are playing this type of music with no hope of success. We’re the only place that these records can be played. And I really respect the fact that these guys and girls – and there’s a lotof girls in fact, – are forming rock’n’roll bands with very little hope of financial success. That said a lot to me. That means that these people are doing it because they love it, or because they have to do it. And I just want to support that.”
The conversation hasn’t even touched upon the future encounters with the E Street Band, or the bittersweet coda to his work on The Sopranos, because it’s obvious where the passion lies for Little Steven. It’s still an uphill battle in a changing landscape, but when you ask for the reason behind it all, the answer is simple and direct.
“Why do I keep doing this? Rock’n’roll has been taken for granted for too long”