Thursday , November 30 2023

Little Steven’s Underground Garage Festival

I’ve been listening to Steve Van Zandt’s radio program, Little Steven’s Underground Garage, for quite some time now. I usually listen to it online because the local radio station that carries it broadcasts it at 8:00 AM on Sundays, so I’m glad that he archives the shows on his website. Little Steven is probably best known as a member of the E Street Band (and now as a cast member on The Sopranos), but his current passion is the preservation and promotion of garage rock, to which his radio program and the garage rock channel he programs for Sirius Satellite Radio are devoted. So when Little Steven announced the first Underground Garage Festival, to be held on August 14 at Randall’s Island in New York City, we enthusiastically ordered tickets. It would be the perfect venue for our annual end-of-summer family celebration.

My original intention was to write a band-by-band review of the day-long show, from the perspective of someone who’s probably a tad too old to spend the whole damn day at a festival, but that proved to be too ambitious an undertaking. So what follows is more of an anecdotal personal account of the day, along with some description of what, to me, were the highlights. Hey, I even bought a little notebook and took some notes.

We get up early, around 7:30 on Saturday morning, no small feat. The gates open at 10:00, and we want to be there early, so after two brief stops (one for a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee for yours truly and another to pick up a dozen Krispy Kremes for breakfast en route), we are on our way. Bryan brings reading material in the car, but the three of us spend most of the trip chatting. The traffic on I-95 is bearable for once, a good omen. We miss the Randall’s Island exit on the Triborough Bridge due to my momentary confusion about the discrepancy between my printed directions and the road signs. To my surprise, Jim’s head fails to explode and we get off at the next exit and turn around, another good omen. We’re parking the car shortly after 9:00, and I’m looking forward to the day.

The crowd at the gate is pretty thin at this hour. The demographic is very mixed, at least agewise. There are plenty of old farts mixed in with the kids, and a lot of younger teens accompanied by parents in various stages of hipness. The festival is scheduled to run from 11 AM until 11 PM, with nonstop music all day long, so it’s safe to assume that lots more people will show up later on to catch the headliners, who won’t start taking the stage until evening. As soon as the gates open, Bryan heads off to stake out his territory in front of the stage, while Jim and I decide to spend the day in a location better suited for a long-term occupation.

I have brought a notebook with me so that I can record my thoughts for later blogging — this is perhaps the most pretentious thing I have ever done in my life.

We walk onto the field. Bryan heads directly to the stage and positions himself dead center. I wouldn’t put it past him to stay there until the end of the day. Maternally, I am suddenly mindful of the fact that he’s eaten two Krispy Kremes for breakfast and has probably had nothing to drink.

Jim and I, acting age-appropriate for once, forego stageside in favor of a spot on the ground directly in front of the tent housing the sound board. We decide to start the day off sitting, marshalling our reserves for later on. You can’t be too careful at our age. There’s probably an hour or so to go before the music starts, and it gives me a chance to case the joint. We spread a vinyl poncho on the damp ground and settle in. I ask Jim how far away from the stage he thinks we are, since I’m really lousy at estimating distances. He actually gets up and walks it, coming back in a few minutes to say that it’s probably about 150 feet. The stage is huge, and is dominated by a 5-panel video screen.

Little Steven takes the stage at 10:40, dressed in his trademark head scarf and colorful clothes. As it happens, Chris Columbus, the director, is filming the day for posterity — there will be a DVD. Little Steven talks a bit about the garage renaissance and introduces the opening band, Davie Allan and the Arrows. On the video screen, we’re treated to clips of cheesy 1950s science fiction movies. This makes us happy, because Jim and I are huge fans of cheesy 1950s science fiction movies. There are lots of go-go dancers in tiny costumes and white boots onstage. They will dance pretty much all day.

Kim Fowley, oldster music producer, songwriter, DJ and cult figure, takes the stage next. He will MC a good portion of the show, sharing the chores with Brit DJ Martin Lewis. They will be joined by a couple of cast members from The Sopranos, Chuck Barris and Bruce Springsteen, among others. All of the 45 bands that will play today will get an introduction from one or the other of the celebrity MCs.

The stage setup is ingenious. The stage has a large, revolving turntable. In order to accommodate the large number of bands, the next band to play is setting up on the back part of the stage while the current band is playing. When the current band finishes their set, the stage revolves, and then the next band after that starts setting up in back. It’s really a good idea because it virtually eliminates having to wait between sets, which is a good thing given the enormity of it all.

Several more bands play, and some of them are quite good. They have come here from all over the world. The sixth band to play, the Swingin’ Neck-Breakers, is from Jersey. They are introduced by Bruce Springsteen. From my vantage point on the ground, I can’t see the stage. But I recognize his voice the minute he starts talking and I grab the binoculars from Jim. I’m happy. I don’t have a band, but I imagine that if I did, and the Boss introduced us, I’d be in pig heaven.

I decide to be brave and head to the porta-potties. It’s early enough in the day that they’re still relatively clean, and I hope that I don’t have to pee again later on.

The sky is almost unbearably threatening. We are expecting to be swatted with the tail end of Hurricane Bonnie as she heads out to sea. I don’t see how we can possibly avoid being drenched.

The Caesars, from Sweden, are onstage now. Jim leans over to shout into my ear that the movie onscreen is This Island Earth.I am surprised to see that the band members are not all blondes. I obviously have a lot of misconceptions about Swedes. Vincent Price is onscreen now. We’re guessing The Tingler.

Kim Fowley introduces another succession of bands. If you want to see the exact lineup, you can do that here.

Somewhere around ten bands into the show, the magic revolving stage stops working. This is bad because it increases the setup time between bands, and throws off the schedule for the rest of the day. It’s also bad because it means that the DJs now have to fill the setup time with increasingly inane banter. They enlist the help of the go-go dancers in this task. This is not necessarily a good thing.

I do a time check while the twelfth band (The Contrast, from the UK) is playing. It’s 12:45.

A 20- or 30-something-year-old guy stands next to us. He, too, is writing in a little notebook. I suspect that he might be a legitimate music journalist and that he instantly recognizes me as the poseur that I am.

The seventeenth act to take the stage is Richard and the Young Lions. Richard Tepp, the lead singer, has recently passed away. His band is joined on their last song by his 15-year-old son, who does an absolutely dynamite job of singing lead. I don’t know this band from a whole in the wall, but I am moved, the audience is moved, and I’m sure that Richard is looking down from somewhere, really proud.

By 2:20, we have heard twenty-one bands.

Band #27 is the Electric Prunes, or the Electric Fucking Prunes, as Little Steven says. Of course they sing I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night. Jim and I grin at each other and roll our eyes. This is so silly. Onscreen, Annette and Frankie romp on a beach.

Because the large screens also catch frequent shots of the stageside audience, we are able to see Bryan every now and then, and he’s still pretty much dead center. We catch a glimpse of him during the Fuzztones, who are band #28. He looks totally ragged, but happy. I wonder if he’s had any water and then decide that he’s a big boy and that if he dehydrates himself it’s his own damn fault. I ask Jim to go buy a couple of extra bottles of water to have on hand at the end of the day.

Chuck Barris introduces the Mooney Suzukis, who probably should have been a little further up on the program. I don’t quite know what to make of Chuck Barris anymore, not since I saw Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. I know that he wrote Palisades Park, but apart from that, I’m not sure why he’s here.

One of the other guest MCs is Edd “Kookie” Byrnes. He still works that comb schtick. I think they just dust him off now for nostalgia’s sake. I know that later on I’ll have to explain to Bryan who he is. I am old enough to remember 77 Sunset Strip.

The Pete Best Band is #33. They do a couple of numbers, including a very Beatle-y arrangement of Twist and Shout. You have to wonder what if feels like to be Pete Best.

Band #37 is The Dictators. They do an absolutely dynamite set. They’re in-your-face good, full of New York swagger and attitude. This is the best set of the day so far, at least for me.

Nancy Sinatra follows. Again, I’m not sure what to think. She sings Morrissey’s Let Me Kiss You, which he apparently wrote for her but which I am familiar with from his album You Are the Quarry. She closes her set with These Boots Are Made for Walkin’. The whole crowd sings along on the chorus. It’s 5:50.

Big Star is on now. They do the theme song from That 70s Show. The guy behind me supplies the “We’re all alright” line from the show at the end, since it’s apparently not a part of the original song. Apart from that song, they’re forgettable, and I’m not sure why they warrant this high a spot on the schedule.

Number 40. Bo Diddley. Hard to put into words how totally cool this is. The man is awesome. He is warm and friendly, and in pretty good voice in spite of a nasty head cold. The crowd is totally mesmerized and most of us are either dancing in place or clapping. It’s hard to comprehend the reach of his influence. I’m happy to see him get the respect he deserves from the kids.

The Raveonettes have been asked to cut their set to two songs because of the impending rain, which prompts Jim to call up a weather forecast on his cell phone. We could get smacked before the end of the night.

It’s dark now, and it drizzles on and off. Band #43 is the New York Dolls. This is another high point for me. David Johansen looks like the love child of Mick Jagger and the Grinch who stole Christmas. He is the consummate front man, the band is tight, and the music is really good. They haven’t played in the US in a very long time, and they are clearly having a blast. We are, too.

We wait a very, very long time for the Strokes. Clearly, they are the big draw for a large segment of the younger crowd. They finally come out, and the lead singer decides that climbing down into the audience will be a good way to start the show. Security is appalled, and there is suddenly a lot of pushing and shoving at the front of the stage as they jostle the crowd back and escort Julian back onstage. Jim looks at me and mouths the words “Bryan’s glasses.” We are both remembering that Bryan lost an expensive pair of eyeglasses stageside at a White Stripes concert last year. It’s kind of a sensitive topic. I’m sure he’ll be responsible, though, because the glasses are expensive, and he’s blind as a bat without them. The Strokes seem pissed off at a lot of things, not the least of which is the fact that the crowd is waiting impatiently for Iggy. They’re kind of ruining the vibe for me, but the younsters seem to like them just fine.

At long last, Iggy and the Stooges are onstage. Iggy, at age 57, is a force of nature. He’s wearing nothing but a pair of dangerously low-slung jeans, and he looks to be in great shape. He’s a stringy, gnarly man, all muscle and bone. He’s dancing around the stage like a madman. The band is wailing. Iggy decides that he wants to be in the audience. I’m pretty sure that the security guards have had enough of this tonight, but Iggy has other ideas. He gets pulled over the barricade by several audience members and attempts to crowd surf. Iggy makes his way back onstage and encourages the audience to join him. The audience takes him up on it, and he’s soon joined onstage by dozens of sweaty, smiling fans. Iggy continues to rant, rave and rock. We continue to worry about Bryan’s glasses. They finish their set to huge applause — at the end of the day, I am secretly glad that it’s the old guy who’s the most extreme example of rock and roll anarchy that day, that Iggy has made virtually no concessions to age. Iggy rocks.

Little Steven bids us all a good night. The crowd is staggering off the field. We call Bryan on his cell phone. He tells us that he’s lost a lens from his eyeglasses. We meet up by the sound board and head back to the car. He’s euphoric and full of war stories and I’m mostly deaf and exhausted and royally pissed off about his glasses. I summon up enough energy to give him hell for a few minutes, but then I want to hear about Iggy. We’ll finish the eyeglass conversation tomorrow. For now, we have a long drive home ahead of us.

Going into this, I wasn’t sure I had the stamina to endure a 12-hour day. As it turns out, I didn’t. It took me all day Sunday and most of Monday to recover. Jim, who knows enough to wear earplugs, fared slightly better. On Monday, I had to drive Bryan to the optician’s to get his lens replaced. On the way, I explained to him who Edd “Kookie” Byrnes is. If Little Steven does this again next year, I’ll be there.

About Lisa McKay

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