As Silvio Dante on “The Sopranos,” he’s often on a mission to kill. But when he replaces the pompadour with a bandana and his gun with a guitar, Little Steven Van Zandt feels a different charge — to save rock ’n’ roll.
Van Zandt, best known musically as a member of Bruce Spring steen’s E Street Band, is pushing that agenda with a multi-pronged “Underground Garage” attack, comprising a weekly radio show heard on 141 stations, a Sirius satellite radio channel, a Billboard chart devoted to garage rock and a tour, now on its third leg, that has hosted performances by garage rock faves including Detroit acts such as the Romantics and Paybacks.
In the future, Van Zandt plans an “Underground Garage” show and record label, and he’s working on a rock ’n’ roll history and appreciation curriculum for high schools.
So he’s a busy guy, but with the last “Underground Garage” show hitting town Thursday, Van Zandt came out from under the hood to talk about his burgeoning empire.
Q: You’re in the middle of taping the final season of “The Sopranos.” How do you keep tabs on the “Underground Garage” world while you’re doing that?
A: That’s what I spend most of my time on, actually. I’m on the set 12, 14 hours, but you’re only working for two; the rest of the time you’re on the phone or you’re on the BlackBerry. You’re checking out things, listening to the shows, listening to new records. It’s a nonstop process. But it’s worthwhile. You get a little celebrity capital, what are you gonna do with it? I could get a yacht and drink piña coladas in the Mediterranean — matter of fact, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea! (laughs) Instead, I’m listening to 100 albums a week, trying to make sure somebody remembers who the Hollies were.
Q: What led you to take “Underground Garage” on the road?
A: Rock ’n’ roll needs to be seen live. It’s a participatory sport. You can’t just observe it. You’ve got to be active. You’ve got to exercise it. That’s been a problem ever since MTV started; people thought live rock ’n’ roll could be replaced by videos, but that’s just not the case.
Q: You expose a lot of new bands on these tours. Is it tough fi nding enough, or are there too many?
A: No, there’s too many choices. We’ve introduced, I think, 150 new bands (on the radio) in five years. So you have all those to choose from, and then all the great older artists, some of whom reunite just for us. It’s hard to limit it to just a few a night.
Q: What is garage rock?
A: The roots is what defi nes garage rock for me. It’s a certain reverence for the ’50s and ’60s, and a pretty obvious connection, influence-wise. If I don’t hear the ’50s and ’60s in there, it isn’t rock ’n’ roll to me. That’s just my own opinion; there’s no science about his.
Q: There is a sense of mission, though.
A: Absolutely. It’s hard to believe; rock ’n’ roll was the mainstream for 30 years, from like ’65 to ’95, but right now it might as well be 1961 again. We’re sort of back to rock ’n’ roll not being an integral, important part of the culture. In the last five, six, seven years it just finally hit me — “Man, this over. This is not gonna last forever.” I really found that intolerable. We have a generation or two already that’s never heard rock ’n’ roll, has no access to it. If we’re not careful, it’s gonna be some kind of thing that’s on some museum shelf somewhere and that’s not what rock ’n’ roll’s about. It’s like, “Daddy, where were you when elephants disappeared? How’d you let elephants disappear?” Same thing. .... It’s a worthwhile way to spend one’s time.
Q: Will Bruce (Springsteen) come along and distract you from all this in the near future?
A: I hope so. (laughs) That will eventually happen. We haven’t seriously started talking about anything, but I wouldn’t rule out something as early as ’07. We work quickly; we could talk tomorrow and be out on the road with a new album in three months. There’s no plans, and I don’t mean to suggest there are, but things could happen quite quickly.
Q: So can you tell us what happens in the fi nal season of “The Sopranos?”
A: I’ll tell you everything you want to know! (laughs) Actually we’ll find out together — really. We’re about halfway through (fi lming), and you know it’s gonna be interesting. The writing continues to be great, and there’s always a surprise or two for folks. Other than that, you gotta spring for the 20 bucks, babe, or whatever it is per month.
The third and final Little Steven's Underground Garage Rolling Rock and Roll Show -- featuring the New York Dolls, Supersuckers, the Chesterfield Kings, the Charms and others -- takes place Thursday (November 16th) at St. Andrew's Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20. Call (313) 961-6358 or visit www.livenation.com.
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