PICTURED: Van Zandt in the studio for his Underground Garage radio show.

by L. Kent Wolgamott

Stuck in his New York apartment, Little Steven Van Zandt decided he’d dig back through the archives of his weekly “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” syndicated radio program and create something special for those who are laboring under the coronavirus quarantine.
He called the new program “The Qoolest Quarantine Qollection” and found a host — “Trenton Quarantino,” another of his many alter egos.

“I’m thinking everybody’s home, everybody’s trapped at home, let’s give them some extra special content,” Van Zandt said in a late-April phone interview. “My syndicated show isn’t an interview show, but through the years, the guests would come on every now and then. So I thought let’s string all of those shows together

“Last week, it was Paul McCartney, Bruce [Springsteen] was the week before that,” he elaborated. “Keith Richards is coming up, Ray Davies of The Kinks is coming up, Brian Wilson. They’re either acquaintances or friends. It makes the conversation a little bit different. We’re insiders when it comes to the music business. So you can have a different conversation than you would with an outsider.”
The Qoolest Quarantine Qollection, a 12-episode series, can be heard on more than 80 radio stations nationwide. (Ventura County listeners can tune into KTYD at 99.9 FM.)  The episodes can also be heard after they air at undergroundgarage.com.  

Remembering the rock ’n’ roll renaissance

Bits and pieces of the shows also turn up during Van Zandt’s daily segments on Little Steven’s Underground Garage on Sirius/XM channel 21. 

Van Zandt created the Underground Garage in 2002 for a simple reason — real rock and roll had largely disappeared from the airwaves.
“I turned on the radio one day and I was, ‘Wait a minute, what happened to this or that?’” he said. “Even the oldies stations keep changing newer and newer. Now the oldies are like the ’80s.”
So he came up with the Underground Garage concept, which he brought to Sirius satellite radio in 2003.

“It was a selfish thing, first and foremost,” he said. “I grew up with great radio in the ’60s. Why should our generation be the only generation that had any fun?”

The Sirius/XM channel has had a noticeable uptick in the last two months. “We’ve got a captive audience and people can listen for free,” Van Zandt said. “They’re hearing the coolest rock ’n’ roll records ever made.”
“There’s a fertile period of time in my mind that I call the renaissance — from 1951 to ’71,” he said. “I don’t use that term lightly. The greatest music being made was also the most commercial. That only happens once in a while. The last time, there were these cats named Michalangelo and da Vinci hanging around. We need to keep the renaissance around for future generations.”

At the center of Van Zandt’s renaissance is the British Invasion, the Beatles-led English bands that sent American kids — like Van Zandt and Springsteen — into their garages to create the rock ’n’ roll that gives the program and channel its name.

But that renaissance isn’t just the three or four years of the British Invasion. So the Underground Garage goes back to play the music that influenced the invaders — Howlin’ Wolf, Little Richard, Elvis Presley — and follows the invasion with the Ramones, Joan Jett, Green Day, “all the way to the future where we have introduced 1,000 new bands in the 18 years,” Van Zandt said.

TeachRock

In between songs, Van Zandt talks about the cool culture of his renaissance, hoping to pass that on to the generations too young to have experienced, say, the surf craze.
“The ’60s will never die,” he said. “People will be studying the ’60s for years. So we throw in some cultural stuff — who invented the surfboard, who invented the drive-in theater, the hot dog.”

Or the bikini, which, as Van Zandt elucidated on a recent Sirius/XM episode, was actually invented by two French designers in 1946. The first version, designed by Jacques Heim, was called the “Atome” because it was so small. Louis Réard made Heim’s design smaller and called it  the bikini, naming it after Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, site of nuclear tests that had taken place around the same time. It was scorned, however, until Brigette Bardot wore a bikini in the 1956 movie <em>And God Created Woman</em>, Bryan Hyland had a 1960 hit with “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and the beach party movies starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon hit theaters.

That kind of musical, historical and cultural knowledge is at the center of another of Van Zandt’s creations, TeachRock, a free music-based curriculum developed by his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation that’s now being used by 30,000 elementary, middle and high school teachers in all 50 states. 

“We’ve got to preserve a lot of this stuff and use it, not just have it sit on a shelf like a museum,” Van Zandt said. “We’ve got a math lesson on how often the Beatles played in Hamburg. How much time did they spend on stage? That’s part of what we get them to add up. We’ve got a Billie Eilish lesson that’s thinking about her synesthesia, seeing music as colors. So we’ve got drawing to what they’re hearing. That’s a fascinating thing to watch. We’ve got a Greta Thurnberg lesson about climate and pollution…”

TeachRock now has 200 lessons, all online, ready for teachers to use — which, Van Zandt says, has also increased during the pandemic.

Forced meditation

Unlike many, Van Zandt isn’t going stir crazy during the quarantine. 

Rather, the guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, actor, producer, historian, activist and educator is recovering from a three-year stretch of recording and touring with his band, the Disciples of Soul, along with other activity, such as making an appearance in Martin Scorcese’s movie <em>The Irishman.</em>

“I hate to say it because of the circumstances, but I’ve got to admit, I’m kind of enjoying this forced meditation,” Van Zandt said. “I’ve been going steady for so long, it’s kind of nice to be forced to stop for a minute. It’s a time for a reset, to think and analyze. That’s kind of interesting.”

A longtime political activist, Van Zandt is also spending time on the phone, speaking with “governors, mayors, anybody who will talk to me,” urging them not to “open up” the country and to provide economic assistance to people well beyond the one-time $1,200 federal payment. 

“They’re making a big mistake right now,” Van Zandt said. “This is the worst handled emergency I’ve ever seen in my life. If we don’t get a grip on this thing, the second wave is going to be worse. And if we get a second quarantine, look out.”

Had the coronavirus not emerged, Van Zandt very likely would be preparing for a Springsteen tour right now. But that trek has now been put off indefinitely.

“It’s going to be awhile,” Van Zandt said of concerts.  “I don’t think we’re going to see anything until we have at least a fast, reliable test. Then we can have sports and concerts, but not with an audience. There’s going to be three stages. This is the first stage, the quarantine. Then you’ll have sporting events, concert events with no audience, with people watching at home, because you can’t take the chance. 

“The third stage, that could be up to a year, a year and a half, is when they have a vaccine and we can get back to something like normal. We all hope it’s quicker, but it could be 2022,” he said. “We’ve got to be prepared mentally for the worst-case scenario and then be happily surprised.”

Tune into Little Steven Van Zandt’s Underground Garage on Saturdays at 8 p.m. at KTYD 99.9 FM; on Sirius/XM’s Channel 21 and at www.undergroundgarage.com. For more information on TeachRock, visit teachrock.org.