Little Steven Van Zandt: Just a prisoner of rock n’ roll

Florida Times-Union — He’s not the only one, nor the oldest, nor the richest. But Little Steven Van Zandt might be the most charismatic, dedicated and visible crusader around these days scrapping to preserve the dirty purity of what they used to call rock ‘n’ roll.

It’s a thread that runs through the activities in what appears to be a fairly insane (and probably paisley-colored) day planner. Van Zandt, 54, splits his time these days as lead guitarist for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, shooting the sixth (and reportedly final) season of The Sopranos and hosting a radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage, which airs locally from 10 p.m. to midnight Sundays on WFYV (104.5 FM).

The show, like all his projects, is powered by one core rule, Van Zandt said.

“The old and the new can live side by side, and in fact strengthen each other,” he said by phone last week. “The old stuff gives the new stuff depth. The new stuff gives the old stuff relevance. My philosophy is: Cool is timeless. And that’s how people respond. We get e-mails from 12-year-olds and 62-year- olds.”

That workmanlike investment in the sprawling history of rock is driving Van Zandt to spend most of August on a last-ditch crusade to save CBGB, the grimy, venerated New York club that became the nucleus of punk in the ’70s by first spotlighting acts such as Television, the Ramones and Blondie. The club’s 12-year lease is up on Wednesday, Aug. 31. And its owner, Hilly Kristal, and its landlord, the Bowery Residents’ Committee, a non-profit organization that benefits the homeless, have been embroiled in a tangled and long-running legal logjam over disputed rent payments for months.

“We’re making progress,” Van Zandt. “The clock is ticking, though.”

The club scored a legal victory late last week when a Manhattan civil court judge ruled that CBGB didn’t have to pay long-disputed back rent to the BRC — and that it couldn’t be evicted on that basis.

But its future is still cloudy. When CBGB’s lease expires in two weeks, its rent will be doubled to more than $40,000 a month. Yet Van Zandt remains optimistic that the club will still be standing when the legal smoke clears.

Van Zandt took the role as mediator for the club — the only one he’s heard of that regularly pops up in travel books — out of something close to duty. “I couldn’t say no, you know what I mean?” he said.

“Part of our fight in this revolution to support this rebirth of rock ‘n’ roll, this huge contemporary garage-rock scene, is creating a new infrastructure, because most of the old infrastructure is gone. To lose yet one more club . . .” he trails off. “This is the last club left! Leave us at least one!” he added, laughing.

If the club infrastructure is crumbling now, the radio infrastructure has been exploded for years. Which is why the Underground Garage is such a critically acclaimed novelty — here’s a show that spins Ramones, Carl Perkins and Amboy Dukes nuggets next to stuff by the White Stripes, the Caesars and the Kaiser Chiefs. It’s not a cliche to say that it’s the kind of thing that just ain’t done anymore.

“We’re the only format in the world that plays new rock ‘n’ roll,” Van Zandt said. “You can hear hard rock, you can hear hip-hop, you can hear pop, but you can’t hear new rock ‘n’ roll anywhere.”

The show’s a certified winner — three years in, it airs on Sirius satellite radio and 130 FM stations in 190 markets nationwide. David Moore, program director for WFYV (104.5 FM), said the show is No. 1 in the male 25-to-54 demographic for its time slot, and No. 2 among non-talk stations — all for a Sunday night slot that’s “not a day or time usually associated with high levels of rock radio listening.”

But for all its critical noise, Van Zandt seems surprised, even perplexed, that it hasn’t been ripped off more.

“We have seen some influence in odd ways,” he allowed. “Steve Jones [of the Sex Pistols] as a DJ in L.A. This Jack format, oddly enough, is kind of a result of our success — even though they’re not including new music, unfortunately. But I must be honest, I am a little disappointed we have not been able to convince people to play more new music. I don’t really think audiences are gonna run for the hills if you play something new once in a while.”

To that end, Van Zandt is working on a TV version of the Underground Garage, one of seven music-oriented pilots he has in various stages of development and more avenues by which he can get new music in front of a nuttily crowded marketplace.

“I wanna make that relationship between playing new bands on the radio and seeing new bands on TV, it makes a big difference,” he said. “We’ve now played over 100 new bands in the past three years, and we wanna put the faces to the sounds.” He said he hopes to have something on by the first of the year.

He also remains fully active on E Street as well, and has contributed to a release commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Springsteen classic Born to Run. He predicts there’ll be another record and tour with the band. “There is a very cool thing that’s gonna come out about that,” he said.

And after a 21-month hiatus, Van Zandt will reprise his role of mobster Silvio Dante when the sixth season of the Sopranos starts on HBO in March. The cable channel last week announced an extra eight “bonus episodes” in addition to the previously announced 12-show run.

But for the next two weeks anyway, Van Zandt’s energies are centered on the club. “We’re staying very optimistic about this,” he said. “It’s quite a fight, though.”

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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