Q&A: Little Steven Van Zandt

NBC Photo / Heidi Gutman
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With James Brown no longer around, Steven Van Zandt might just have the title of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. In addition to hosting/producing the syndicated 2-hour weekly “Underground Garage” radio program (heard locally on Sunday nights on KKRW, 93.7 FM), he also directs the 24-hour “Underground Garage” and “Outlaw Country” channels on Sirius satellite radio; founded his own record label (Wicked Cool); production companies for live concerts and television programs (Renegade); an internet lifestyle site (Fuzztopia), and now even a educational program to teach rock history in public schools.

Oh, and then Little Steven makes records and tours around the world with his childhood buddy, some guy named Bruce. It’s a good thing that “The Sopranos” is finally over…

The bandaned whirlwind stopped moving long enough to talk with Houstoned Rocks about a wide-ranging variety of topics and why Michael Jackson is a member of a club he shouldn’t be in.

HR: You just did a Springsteen gig last night in Canada, and now you’re in L.A. this afternoon. I’m surprised you have time to do an interview.

LS: Well, I am operating at close to capacity! (laughs). I’ve got a lot of help and people doing things. You know, I love everything I do. I couldn’t do it if were an obligation! But a lot of my energy is spent with [Wicked Cool] trying to redefine what the music business is these days. These questions take up a lot of time! I find that I’ve had to stop being creative just to spend more time on the business end. I know I should be writing more music.

HR: The Underground Garage is such a great concept for a radio station. You hear a lot of older music that the classic rock stations don’t touch, and new tunes that modern rock stations won’t.

LS: Yeah. We’re playing a lot of the new R.E.M. single. It’s the only place you’ll hear Ringo’s new record, or Ray Davies’. It doesn’t matter if it’s old or new. If it’s cool, we’ll play it. That’s why we started the [Sirius channel] on top of the radio show. We’re playing the new Hives, the new Raconteurs, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, and not just once in awhile, but in heavy rotation. And Gene Vincent, the Ramones…

HR: “Garage Rock” is such an umbrella term, something that encompasses everybody from the Stones and Stooges to Safaris and Shangri-Las, not to mention the new bands. Is it easier to know what it is when you hear it instead of trying to define it?

LS: I have that problem and when people ask me, I answer differently every time! Garage Rock is…just traditional rock and roll. Listen to the first two Rolling Stones records…the Pretty Things…Them…the Nuggets box sets…

HR: I know you pushed for a long time to get the Dave Clark Five inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which finally happened just recently. Now a DJ on your channel is campaigning for Paul Revere and the Raiders. What do you think when you see people like Miles Davis, Percy Sledge, Brenda Lee, and Leonard Cohen in the Hall, but not acts like Alice Cooper, Grand Funk Railroad, Blue Cheer, even KISS…

LS: I’m on the board of the Hall of Fame, and I just go into the room and fight it out. But people who control it…who helped found it, have a different view of what a [qualification for membership] is. I love the music of Miles Davis, and I produced him on my “Sun City” project. But the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? And why is Michael Jackson in? He’s had no influence on rock and roll at all. And the Jackson Five is in there too! What about Procol Harum…Paul Butterfield…the freakin’ Hollies! They’re a big one for me! HR: And what about backing groups? Buddy Holly is in, but no Crickets…Bill Haley, but no Comets…

LS: Well that hits home, obviously! (laughs) – Houstoned Rocks realizes a bit too late that he’s talking to a member of the most glaringly-excluded “backing band” whose frontman is already in the Hall... HR: Right now, you’re on the second leg of the Magic tour with Bruce. Other than not having Danny [Federici, who is recovering from cancer treatment] on organ, what has been different from the first leg?

LS: Then we were more concerned about launching the new record and communicating that to the audience. Unlike most bands, we do resist the comfort zone of being an oldies act. But we also think we’re still 17 years old—we define arrested development! (laughs) And we are still doing quite a few numbers off the new record. Bruce has such a complex and lengthy catalogue, you know, that it fits all together effortlessly. HR: Of course, no two set lists are ever the same. When does the band actually see in writing what Bruce wants to do each night?

LS: We get the set list a few minutes before we go on, and then he changes it half way through! (laughs) We do about 24 songs, and half are pretty much set, and the other half are up for grabs. Bruce is always scanning the crowd looking for signs with requests, especially those from kids. We’ve got so many of them coming to the show now…even eight years old! We do start the show on this leg with a different opening song every night. That’s been fun.

HR: Do you think people take away different meanings from some of the songs now from when they were first out?

LS: Absolutely. Just look at something like “Lost in the Flood,” which is one of my favorite songs that we do. It was on the very first record Bruce did [Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.]. I remember when he first wrote it and played it for me. It was such an intimate picture about seeing something on the streets of New York in the early ‘70s. Now, put it in the show, and it’s about the war in Iraq, and that is really interesting. There’s such a painful, awkward situation people are finding themselves in today as Americans.

HR: Last question, and it’s not about a “Sopranos” movie. You’ve known Bruce probably as long or longer than anyone. What is one thing he’s done you know of that might surprise most people?

LS: Wow…hmm… (thinks). Well, I’ve told this story before. It’s that Bruce is a surfer, or tried it. I remember him going out into the ocean and this wave just smacked him in the face. He came out all bloody, with smashed teeth from the water. I took one look at him and said “Thanks, I’ll take a rain check on that!” – Bob Ruggiero

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform tonight at the Toyota Center

UPDATE, 9:58 a.m.: We just got a message from Live Nation that 100 tickets from Springsteen's personal allotment have just been released. Click here for more info. - kp

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