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Rock and roll heart
In the garage with Little Steven

More than 20 years ago, Joey Ramone asked a pertinent musical question: "Do You Remember Rock íní Roll Radio?" The real problem nowadays, however, is that rock-and-roll radio doesnít remember Joey Ramone. When the Ramones recorded that song in 1980, they were frustrated that a band who lived and breathed for rock and roll couldnít get on any commercial playlists. And itís hard to say that things have changed that much.

Thatís where a guy like E Street Band guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt comes in. When Van Zandt announced two years ago that he was launching a syndicated radio show devoted to garage rock, few people around here seemed too excited. After all, New England has been steeped in garage rock for the better part of four decades: the Lost and the Remains in the í60s; the Lyres and the Real Kids since the í70s; and there are a slew of new garage-y bands. Did we really need some rock star coming in and showing us how itís done?

Maybe not, but that doesnít keep Little Stevenís Underground Garage (carried here Sundays on WHJY, 94.1 FM, from 7 to 9 a.m.) from being one of the greatest things on commercial radio ó hell, itís about the only place where you can hear from a raving music fan with a good sense of history. Although heís spun obvious garage heroes like the Sonics, Fleshtones, Swinginí Neckbreakers, and most of the bands mentioned above, itís become more of a catch-all rock and roll show, even down to classic artists like Little Richard and yeah, the Ramones ó the ones who should be all over the dial but arenít. And heís constantly throwing in tracks that only someone with a good record collection would know about: a recent Australia-themed show included obvious choices like the Vines and Hoodoo Gurus but went back to í70s punkers Radio Birdman and farther back to pre-disco Bee Gees.

The show has also pumped up the careers of modern revivalists like the Hives and the White Stripes; if it didnít break those bands single-handedly, it certainly didnít hurt. And itís those segues from past to present and across a wide variety of what can be called "garage" that make the show the only thing on the air comparable to the free-form days of early FM. (A 24-hour version of Underground Garage is also in the works for the Sirius satellite radio network.) As for Little Steven, he already has two of the best jobs in the world ó playing guitar with Springsteen and playing Silvio Dante, the closest thing to a nice guy on The Sopranos ó so the show has "labor of love" written all over it.

For that reason, itís easy to get behind the nationwide battle of the bands that Van Zandtís show is sponsoring, which kicked off last weekend at the new Matrix club below the Roxy in Boston (the Konks were the winners) and hits Lupoís on Thursday, April 29. It was the first even of a national series thatís running through the summer; the final night of preliminaries takes place at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park in July, with each cityís winners going on to battle one another later. The contest is open only to unsigned bands, so the better-known garage outfits (Downbeat 5, Dents, Charms, Muck & the Mires) likely wonít be playing.

Reached by phone recently, Van Zandt admitted that he hasnít been able to plow through all the tape and CD submissions himself. "I will be checking in as we go, though. Everybody is going to have a different definition of garage, but we try to draw the line at hard rock ó otherwise, itís something that you know when you hear it. The classic garage era is the post-Beatle years, from í66 to í69, before the line was drawn by Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. And to that Iíd add the punk years in the í70s. Weíre looking for the bands who most reflect the spirit of those years."

Thereís no faulting Van Zandtís credentials as a music fan: when I say Iím from Boston, he gives exactly the reaction Iím looking for. "Man, you cats have been inspiring us for years. Youíve got the Lyres, one of the great bands of all time. The Charms, this new Boston band weíve been playing; theyíre terrific. The Crybabies as well; theyíre from your neighborhood [actually, from Worcester]. There was the Del Fuegos, the Nervous Eaters. Peter Wolf has continued to make terrific music, and of course you should be proud of Aerosmith ó theyíre one of the only rock-and-roll bands left standing."

I ask why so little of his favorite music is on most commercial stations. "I wish I could give you the answer. Itís a weird set of circumstances thatís gone down, relating to corporate mergers and limiting playlists. The bottom line is probably lower than it used to be in terms of profits, but they donít even mind as long as itís consistent. The truth is, we have a format for everything in America except rock and roll. You can hear hard rock, you can hear hip-hop, or you can hear pop. And thatís it ó rock and roll is gone. The í50s are gone, because oldies radio has eliminated Eddie Cochran and Jerry Lee Lewis. Surf instrumentals are long gone; so is Ronnie Spector and all the girl-group stuff. So people are saying Iím a genius for doing this, but all Iím doing is playing the things nobody else will."

Playing devilís advocate for a moment, I suggest that the current incarnation of the E Street Band is a long way from the simplicity of garage rock. "Well, yeah ó weíve evolved in a lot of directions, and some of itís a long way from that. As long as you have a band with two keyboards, youíre out of garage territory, but itís part of where we come from. You only hear the garage sound coming through in the encores, and on the second disc of that Tracks compilation. Speaking as a fan, Iíd say that itís become a complete history of Americana at this point; virtually every genre is there in Bruce Springsteenís music. And garage will always be a part of that."

Little Stevenís Underground Garage Battle of the Bands will take place on Thursday, April 29 at 7 p.m. at Lupoís at the Strand. Call (401) 331-LUPO, or go to rockingarage.bolt.com for details.

Issue Date: April 23 - 29, 20004
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