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The Soprano in the Garage

Steven Van Zandt on new music, latest season with Tony and boys

By Todd Leopold

Van Zandt
Steven Van Zandt has devoted much of his attention to highlighting new rock bands.

(CNN) -- A thousand people a night. A few bucks a head, split among the band. Maybe $150 a month in rent and expenses.

Good times, remembers Steven Van Zandt.

"It was a great, great way to make a living," he says, remembering his days as guitarist for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in the early '70s, filling the Stone Pony club on the Jersey Shore two or three days a week.

He laughs. "I didn't make that much money [again] for years. Once I joined Bruce [Springsteen, as guitarist for the E Street Band], I took a huge pay cut."

Those good days, when he and any number of other musicians could make a living playing with popular local and regional bands, are mostly gone, he says.

"It's hard for any band to break even anymore," he says in a phone interview from New York. "Things have changed. Gas prices are high, there's very little rock 'n' roll on the radio and the infrastructure isn't what it used to be," he adds, referring to the consolidation of labels and availability of live venues. "You need a sponsor to make up the deficit."

So Van Zandt, whose many roles include hosting the syndicated radio program "Little Steven's Underground Garage," running a live event production firm and programming an "Underground Garage" channel on Sirius satellite radio, has worked to find a willing partner to sponsor bands. He's finally found what he's been seeking in Rolling Rock beer, which will back 30 "Garage Rock" club shows and supply financial support for emerging bands, according to a press release.

"We are supporting the 'Underground Garage's' campaign to save rock 'n' roll because it's important to us, too," Rolling Rock's Ronnie Tucker said in the release.

"Now, bands that people hear on the 'Garage' -- they'll be able to see them. Which is great, because rock 'n' roll was made to be seen," Van Zandt says.

Active in musical and political causes

The Massachusetts-born, New Jersey-raised Van Zandt, 55, with his trademark head scarf and voice dripping cool, has been playing rock 'n' roll almost as long as he's been listening to it -- expertise that works its way into "Underground Garage," with its historical tidbits and record-label minutiae.

Van Zandt played in an early Springsteen band, Steel Mill, in the late '60s before stints on the oldies circuit as a backup guitarist and then with Southside Johnny, with whom he formed the Asbury Jukes.

In 1975, he returned to the Springsteen fold -- the recently released "Born to Run" box set has a fascinating story about Van Zandt arranging the horn parts to "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" almost on the fly -- and stayed with the E Streeters until amicably parting after the "Born in the USA" album.

He's put out a handful of albums solo or with his group, the Disciples of Soul, as well as produced several artists, including Gary "U.S." Bonds and Lone Justice.

Through it all, Van Zandt has been active in causes, both musical and political. In 1985 he wrote "Sun City," a song protesting South African apartheid and the country's Sun City entertainment venue ("We're stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back," went one memorable line); more recently he was at the forefront of the battle to save New York's punk landmark, CBGB.

And then there's the actor side of Van Zandt, when he removes the bandanna, slicks back a toupee and becomes Silvio Dante, trusted pal of Tony Soprano and manager of the Bada Bing strip club on HBO's "The Sopranos." (HBO, like CNN, is a division of Time Warner.)

He can't talk much about the forthcoming season, which begins March 12 -- "Sopranos" cast members stick to the Italian custom of omerta, the code of silence -- but is obviously thrilled that the show returned for a sixth season after being away for almost two years.

"It's very, very good. You don't want to miss the first show," he says. "The writing is terrific. There are plenty of surprises. It's one of the best years ever.

"It's a tribute to [creator] David Chase ... that the show keeps its high standards," he continues. "The waiting was longer than we would have liked, but it was worth it."

Radio show a tour into 'Underground'

Also worth it has been "Underground Garage," now in its fourth year. "Garage" plays a combination of old classics ("Louie Louie" is a particular favorite, since it's a wellspring of the garage-band genre), "Nuggets"-type obscurities and a host of new rock artists, including the Detroit Cobras, the Forty-Fives, Los Straitjackets and the Raveonettes, among many others.

"When we started, there was no [new] rock band on a major label," notes Van Zandt, reflecting on the skittishness and pack mentality of the music industry, which was heavily into the teen pop and hip-hop sound at the time. "Now there are 40 or 50."

But even those numbers haven't helped open up radio, he says. "There's no place on radio to play [these groups] except my show," says Van Zandt, adding that the currently trendy "Jack" format, which blends classic rock favorites with new music from bands such as the Killers, "is a bad copy of us."

Moreover, he observes, it's a long way from the halcyon days of the '60s and early '70s when a band could walk into its local radio station, give the disc jockey its record and get it played on the air (popular local artists could sell thousands of singles in their hometowns), or have a local DJ discover a forgotten song somewhere and have it become a No. 1 national hit (the story of Tommy James and the Shondells' "Hanky Panky").

"It's a shame," says Van Zandt. "It's one reason we do the radio show."

He says he has high hopes for the "Garage Rock" club tour, which will begin in late summer and hit several cities, tentatively including New York; Boston, Massachusetts; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Seattle, Washington; and Atlanta, Georgia.

Van Zandt can't re-create the raucous days of the Stone Pony, but maybe he can start some new traditions.

"It's very exciting," he says. "We'll get it going and establish a pattern of Garage Nights [in various cities]. It's the beginning of a healthy thing."

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