Our umbrellas were consfiscated at the gate (they could be used as weapons, I was told), but that was the only down note in the entire day and night of Little Steven’s Underground Garage Festival on Randall’s Island. My friend Kathy and I got there at 1 pm, having bagged an overly ambitious plan to be there for the beginning at 11:00 am (who can rock at 11:00? Apparently James Gandolfini, and missing him was a drag, but we caught a few other Sopranos who were hanging onstage, like Big Pussy Bompansero and Paulie Walnuts, along with some other of Little Steven’s pals like, oh, Bruce Springsteen, who sauntered on now and then to introduce a band). It was a day of dazzling but casual star power; everyone was friendly; there was a minimum of insider/outsider vibe, and the unpretentious, inclusive spirit of the show evoked legendary 60s rock events like Woodstock (the love vibe) and Altamont (the confiscated umbrellas, the revved-up aggression in the music) and made peace with that past by connecting it to the present.
“You are saving rock and roll!” Little Steven told us, striding the stage in his loosely tied bandanna and long hippie-ish shirt. “You are the future!” We blinked; we weren’t used to being called the future. We were used to being frisked, restrained, overcharged, cordoned off. Little Steven and co. deserve a lot of credit for overturning that tradition. Ticket prices had been kept low – an amazing $20 for 40-plus bands – and speakers consistently honored the crowd along with the musicians. That felt good – it was like the rare moments on NPR when they remember to say “NPR is supported by our listeners” instead of just listing their corporate sponsors.
Okay, where was I? This show is almost too big to be written about. By the time Iggy Pop came blasting onstage at 10 pm, all sinew and sex in pants that kept sliding tantalizingly down his elongated torso, throwing himself around in ferocious rock-and-roll animal poses, draping himself with arms extended Christ-like over stage equipment or trying to dismantle a television camera while the hapless camera operater gamely tried to keep filming him (only in America are Bad Boys tolerated and supported by hardbitten union workers) – by the time he came out we had been standing for 11 hours, and probably only Iggy Pop could have revitalized everyone to the extent that he did.
Amped to the max, Iggy was energy incarnate. Orange-shirted security guys stood in front of the stage to guard Iggy from the crowd, but no force of nature could have guarded the crowd from Iggy. During the first song he threw himself down among his people, and was lost to view. Visible on the giant screen behind the stage were stressed-out security guys trying to save Iggy from himself, but they didn’t have a prayer. He was given up to the audience, and they were screaming their love. He eventually got back onstage, and I actually found most of his songs boring, but it didn’t matter. Iggy Pop would like to save America from itself, and for that he’s heroic. He demanded that the audience be allowed onstage with him. “Come on! Get up here! Let them up here, you motherfuckers!” he yelled, the security guys stressing out again as Iggy reached over their heads to help people onstage. “Fucking take over!” he screamed at his fans – a cry of anarchy that felt weirdly anachronistic. But some people took him up on it, as he launched into a version of “No Fun” that seemed to speak directly to a blanded-out America.
Rewind to the earlier in the day. It’s both deafeningly loud and somehow peaceful in the big grassy field on Randall’s Island. The crowd range from young, black-booted fashionistas to greying boomers in sensible rain parkas. My friend and I stroll around, testing different vantage points. It’s actually louder toward the back of the park, which is weird and will become exhausting since there’s no break from the noise all day. A revolving-stage device broke early on, so the MC’s are obliged to come up with a lot of unprepared between-band banter that, predictably, grows increasingly uninspired. But it’s still a real feat of engineering to get these bands on and off as efficiently as the crew does, and though cheering for Little Steven gets old when you’ve been prompted to do it what feels like 60 times, only the hardest heart wouldn’t summon up some kind of tired yowl.
Because the music is phenomenal, and he arranged all of it. Using bands from his radio show, Underground Garage Rock, Little Steven showcased a mind-blowing line-up of garage rockers old and new. But mostly old. The camera exposed plenty of wrinkles, but nothing had tarnished the spirit, intensity and tightness of these musicians. To a band, they rocked their asses off even within the 2-song set limit. Some early standouts (they’re hard to choose) included Richard and the Young Lions, whose leader Richard Tepp had passed away recently. The band brought out Richard’s 15-year-old son to do a song. Initially self-conscious, the kid slowly lost himself in the song, yelling its refrain like a veteran soul belter by the end. He got a huge ovation. Another great performance was by Jarvis Humby, who played wonderful tight Farfisa-driven pop-rock. The Cocktail Slippers were a fun all-girl Norwegian quartet; the Boss Martians, who looked about 13 years old, had the distinction of being introduced by the Boss himself. They played with knock-out intensity. The Flaming Sideburns introduced the first note of menace – the lead singer swigged from a bottle of whisky and let out a stream of pissed-off sounding Finnish before kicking a beach ball hard and low into the crowd. It hit a guy right in the face; the Sideburns started their set; the guy who’d been hit reacted very calmly and everything was fine – in fact, rockin’.
This was all early. The bands got better as the day went on. Pittsburgh’s Cynics had an angry edge that made their music even more rivetting. The Lyres were fantastic. My notes, which became increasingly repetitive and pointless, read: “Great organ, great singing, great beats.” Like many bands, the Lyres were total pros but full of heart – they played with the urgency of teenagers – maybe more urgency. Whatever inspires this music – the streak of anger gives it its link to punk – hasn’t waned with the years. It still rocks incredibly – from the Lyres to the Woggles to the Paybacks with the phenomenal Wendy Case, rasping out her vocals with passion and self-possesed power. My favorite among the countless bands I’d never heard of before were the Chocolate Watchband. Fronted by a wickedly charismatic aging singer, their songs had irresistible beats and personality. Words fail me. Chocolate Watchband.
The Electric Prunes did “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night.” Chuck Barris introduced the Mooney Suzuki (who rocked). The Pete Best Band (yes, with the Pete Best on drums) did “Twist and Shout,” which sounded so much like the Beatles it was eerie. And the day took on the quality of a dream. I’m standing next to my friends watching Bo Diddley. Bo Diddley! My friends have access to the VIP tent and are generous about sharing it, but if I go I’ll miss Big Star. Big Star! So I stay out front to see the weathered, beautiful Alex Chilton singing his complicated, high-pitched, levitating pop. And yes, he’s not exactly garage rock, but neither is Nancy Sinatra, who performs a fairly lengthy set that I miss most of because I need a break from the music at some point, and also I want to check out that VIP tent. So I have some chips and dip and try to see famous people but it’s a wash and I wander back out, feeling dazed, off the ground, floating in some unreal zone.
Getting beer means lining up for a long time, but beer is an essential normalizing element in this setting – the oppressive humidity, the huge and growing crowd, the overwhelming quality of the show, with its icons and its go-go dancers, its top-this specialness that goes on to give us an amazing set from the New York Dolls and a decent one from the Strokes, and by this time I haven’t taken a note for hours or done anything but stand and stare and cheer and wander around in a daze. I’ve always wanted to be swept up by one of these famous American crowd scenes, I think at one point, because I grew up in Canada and could only read about the intense, wild happenings in my native land in the pages of Life magazine, and now here I am: I’m in one. Little Steven is right when he wipes his brow late in the night and remarks to the crowd, “You who are here tonight, you will never forget this.” He may just be killing time while a band sets up, but he’s right too. No one has the energy to acknowledge it – we save it for the music. We watch David Johanssen strut the stage as lithe as a 20-year-old, in a pink body suit and some kind of loincloth. His face is lined and haggard but his body is eternally young. Is rock and roll the fountain of youth? It’s the fountain of something, because the spirit and belief and love shared between audience and performers is approaching religious ecstasy. By the time our god, Iggy Pop, takes the stage we are in a fervor of excited devotion. People are being carried out by medics. The medics look like they need medics. The hurricane is beginning to hit. We’re dancing in the mud. And the Stooges play on.
Little Steven’s Underground Garage Rock Festival was so huge, Glorious Noise sent two separate contributors to cover the event. Be sure to also read Johnny Loftus’ take on the same show.