Steven Van Zandt just called to chat about his syndicated Underground Garage radio show, which can once again be heard on 92.5 KZPS-FM at 10 p.m. on Sunday nights.
Now in its seventh year, the show can be heard on more than 140 stations and around the world on both the Armed Forces Network and Voice of America.
Van Zandt, of course, is also currently the E Street Band's guitarist and formerly (or maybe not so “formerly”) played Silvio Dante on The Sopranos. We talked about the show, the late Bo Diddley and, of course, we couldn’t resist inquiring about the possibility of a Sopranos film.
Your show has a very eclectic playlist. How do you come up with a theme and decide what to play each week?
We try to stay as consistent as we can, and we try not to take the theme too seriously. We might dedicate a content break or two to a certain theme. We might celebrate an album, or we celebrate pop culture whenever we can. We might celebrate the guy who invented the hot dog or something silly like that.
The music is eclectic in a way, but there’s a method to the madness. It’s not like we’re playing every genre. It is a strictly rock ‘n’ roll-based genre. We’ll sometimes have some fun-- like this week we’re celebrating Nancy Sinatra’s birthday, so we’ll play a couple songs of hers. It’s eclectic according to today’s narrow formats, but to me it’s just traditional rock ‘n’ roll. We’ll go back and play some roots of rock ‘n’ roll, y'know? We’ll play some Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. We play the pioneers, you know. Little Richard, Bo Diddley--who we just tragically lost--right through to the girl groups, like Shangri-Las, the Ronettes and the Crystals. And then into the British invasion--Beatles, early Stones, early Who, early Kinks. And then right into the MC5 and the Stooges and the New York Dolls, the Ramones and the Clash. And then a third of the show is the best stuff out there. So, that’s all connected in my mind. Now, it might just be in my mind, OK? [Laughs.] I’m not telling you this is a fact. But in my mind, all that stuff is connected, so it’s not wildly eclectic in my mind. It just happens to include all six decades. And that’s what we do that’s unusual. Most formats tend to stick with certain eras, thinking old people don’t want to hear new stuff and young people don’t want to hear older stuff. We’re proving all that to be wrong.
A lot of the older stuff you play goes back to when you must have been a teenager. Was that the kind of stuff you listened to as a kid, or did you go back and discover it?
A little bit of both. I certainly grew up with anything that was a hit. I don’t play that many things that are obscure, really. We’re not into that kind of thing. I’m not a record collector, you know? I’m not playing things just to show people how cool I am, and how obscure, and how vast my knowledge is. That’s not what the show is about, and my knowledge is not that vast. [Laughs.] We play mostly songs that were hits. Some of them may have been regional hits, not national. Like, we’ll play Mouse and the Traps from down your way, or Roky Erickson from Texas, Alejandro Escovedo. But, mostly, I don’t try to play obscure things, things you can’t buy. I’m kind of old-school about that stuff. I remember when radio used to sell records, and I think that was a nice, healthy connection between record companies and radio and live performance.
Do you plan to do anything to honor Bo Diddley, like have a themed show for him?
Well, yeah. I gotta do that. I’ve kinda been in denial about it, because it really was upsetting. He’s a friend, and just the most important guy as far as pioneers in the garage world. He was the most-covered artist of the British invasion. People maybe don’t know that. Just a super-important guy. So yeah, I gotta do that before I get back out on the road. I’m going out for five weeks in Europe, so I do gotta get a Bo Diddley show done, you’re right.
You had him play at your International Underground Garage Festival in 2004. Was that your first time to meet him?
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It must have been around ’73 or so when I first met him. I had gotten into playing with a group called the Dovells, who [before Van Zandt joined the band] had a couple of early ‘60s hits, “You Can’t Sit Down” and “Bristol Stomp,” two of the greatest records ever. Right about this time, a 1950s rock 'n' roll revival was going on.… So they started having these oldies shows, and I was a fan of all that stuff, so I happened to get in this backup band for the Dovells and got onto that circuit that probably still exists. It’s just not a circuit you would know about. They’d play like hotels, Vegas, these oldies shows. So I met Bo Diddley on those tours, and seen him off and on.
Watching him in those days, it was an odd time, because they were just getting used to being called “oldies,” and they didn’t like that so much. So there was a bit of an attitude going on in those days, and a lot of performers weren’t that happy. But the happiest I ever saw him, we played this very odd gig--a lot of those gigs were very odd--but the oddest gig we ever played was a coming out party. It was in like South Carolina. They have these society things, I guess when a girl turns 16, she has a party, and they all dress up in these real formal gowns. But it happens at 9 in the morning. [Laughs.] And we did this gig, and there’s Bo Diddley at 9 in the morning, this ridiculous hour, and there’s like a hundred 16-year-old girls in these ball gowns. It was just surreal. And he was as into it as I’ve ever seen him before or since. He was like a whole new guy playing to that audience. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.
I heard that the owner of Satin Dolls, the Bada Bing! in the show, was told not to renovate because of the possibility of a shoot for a Sopranos movie. Have you heard anything?
I heard that rumor too. [Laughs.] There’s never been any serious talk about it from anyone that matters. Now, that’s not to say--I hasten to add--that two or three years from now...Who knows? I wouldn’t entirely rule it out if two or three years from now. David Chase does a few other things, and Jimmy Gandolfini does a few other things, and then David gets an idea, maybe, for a script or something. I wouldn’t rule it out a few years from now. But right now, there’s never been any discussion. --Jesse Hughey