Back To Basics

Steven Van Zandt is dedicated to garage rock

Little Steven Van Zandt speaks of rock and roll as though he were mourning a friend who died a long time ago. "I just miss it, man, you know?" he says. "I don't know what happened. What we used to call traditional rock and roll just kinda went away. Other genres have hung in there. There may be some mutations, but the basic genre always stays. Blues is still blues. Jazz is jazz, country's country. But rock and roll mutated and went away."

Van Zandt's date book has to be written in eight-point font. It's crammed. In addition to his solo recording career, Van Zandt is an in-demand session player and producer and has lately turned his hand toward writing essays. He's smack in the middle of taping season four of The Sopranos, on which he plays Soprano family consigliere, Bada Bing Room manager and skilled Al Pacino impersonator Silvio Dante. (And then there are the rumors, which Van Zandt neither confirms nor denies, that he'll be reuniting with Bruce Springsteen for the first studio E Street Band album in 20 years.)

But Van Zandt is dedicated to garage rock, so much so that he's willing to devote a few hours every week to Underground Garage, his new nationally syndicated radio show (airing in Houston Sundays at 9 p.m. on KKRW 93.7). The show is more than just Van Zandt spinning a few of his favorite 13th Floor Elevators, Ramones and New York Dolls records. He hopes Underground Garage's partnership with the Hard Rock Cafe will help kick-start local garage rock scenes coast to coast. Hard Rocks in cities across the country are turning over their stages for a few hours of live homegrown garage rock before each radio show. (While the Houston Hard Rock plans to participate, the Sunday garage shows have yet to be booked.)

"We're trying to create a little bit of a forum, create a little infrastructure so that these bands can exist and hopefully flourish," says Van Zandt. "Hopefully we're going to start a scene. Once you've got a scene going, then the groups tend to come out of the woodwork, or maybe even form specifically to play the scene. Be it local radio, be it the club scene -- across the country it's in real trouble, so we have to create some kind of new infrastructure to give bands a reason to get together and play, or else they ain't gonna do it."

So what is garage rock? Van Zandt has an easier time explaining who it's for than what it is. "Garage rock is music for older people with young spirits and young people with old souls," he says. As to garage's essence, he has a short answer and a long answer. "Back-to-basics rock and roll with a direct connection to the '60s" is the pithy definition, but it's one he's not entirely satisfied with. "The reason garage became garage is because it's impossible to categorize. It's the classic rock stuff from 1966 like the Electric Prunes and the Music Machine that don't fit anywhere else. They were freaky then and they're freaky now, which is why a lot of young people love this stuff, which is what's exciting to me. There's something timeless about it and timelessly freaky about it, to where kids can relate to it now the same way they always have. It's not about nostalgia, it's just one of those strange things."

And Underground Garage, Van Zandt says, likewise will not be a pure nostalgia trip. In addition to playing selections from the Vietnam-era heyday, the show will also spotlight today's garage rockers, like the Swinging Neckbreakers, the Greenhornes and the White Stripes. "I'll be playing some fringe-garage punk, like the Ramones and stuff, but the classic garage period was 1966 through 1967, before hard rock, and obviously before synthesizers and drum machines and all that, but basically before Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath."

But isn't this show being broadcast on a bunch of Clear Channel stations? Doesn't a corporate sponsor like the Hard Rock erode garage's guerrilla-rock cred? "The corporate thing is starting to become that thing that is upstairs and whatever," Van Zandt claims. "Local autonomy is starting to go on, that's what I'm finding. Believe me, it takes a lot of local autonomy to put my show on, I'm telling you that right now. It takes a lot of balls, and it takes a lot of really secure people, because we're really unprecedented here. I'm gonna be playing things that have never even come close to mainstream radio."

Contrary to urban legend, "420" is not police code for "marijuana smoking in progress." Nor is it a reference to the 420 active ingredients smoldering away in the bowl of your bong; cannabis actually has about a hundred fewer components. Nor does it "ree-fer" to Hitler's birthday or the Columbine killings. While those regrettable events both occurred on April 20, the fact that they share a date with what has become International Get High Day is pure happenstance.

The true story of 420 is that some kids at San Rafael High School in California in the early 1970s used to light up near a statue of Louis Pasteur at 20 past four in the afternoon. The term expanded, first within this group of West Coast tokers, to include any coded mention of smoking weed. In 1988, when High Times magazine picked up the story, 420 leaped to regional, national and even international parlance. At some point along the way, 4:20 also became 4/20; not just a time but a date.

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