Iggy Pop was fucking the camera. Lithe like a Romanian gymnast, his lifelines disappearing craggy into low rise jeans, the punk father writhed onstage like a human snake razor blade, and the camera beamed it into outer space. A veteran sex simulator and the energy source of his reconstituted Stooges, Pop’s completely unfakeable yowls, tumbles and cabinet climbs were typical of a show that delighted in refreshing the stale rock festival concept. There were a few flecks of grey in this 21st century version, and the occasional mohawk’d toddler waddled on by. It also took place in the shadows of a giant orange mocha frappucino. But with his Underground Garage Festival, Little Steven Van Zandt made his vibrant music id a touchable thing, and the jabberwocky prattlecock of today’s industry faraway for at least a day. And New York City rocked like a hurricane.
Charley says I love my humid plenty. That was my thought, stepping through LaGuardia’s blast doors into the hoary, stormy Friday air – it was like breathing through a boiling hairshirt. Luckily the pints were cold in the Bowery, and as the Guinness flowed, talk at the bar turned to the weekend’s rock picks. One boot-cut and balding rocker was headed to see haute couture faker revivalists The Killers; between sips of Amstel he recounted their alleged awesomeness. The waitress and her girlfriend were giggly from 3pm shots, but they eagerly described plans for a night of heavy folk druidism at the bloodied hands of Brooklyn’s Animal Collective. Sean the bartender shook his head swiftly.
“That’s a crock. I came to New York in 1979 and saw Talking Heads that very first night. And they were my third choice!”
The patron next to me chimed in as he returned from a smoke break. “Right on, Sean. The only real thing to do this weekend is the Underground Garage Fest.” He wiped away beads of sweat with the hem of his “New York Fuckin’ City” T.
“What the fuck is that?” The waitress’s girlfriend. Coated in Jager, it sounded like “W’daf’kishdat?”
“Fucking Little Steven! From the Boss’s band. He’s got a show tomorrow, with like the Stooges, the Pretty Things, the Dolls, even the goddamn Strokes.”
Bald Killers fan looked up from his scraps of Amstel label. “I like the Strokes.”
“Well there you go, dude. Yeah, it’s out on Randall’s Island, all day tomorrow.”
“Randall’s Island?” Sean said, twirling a pint glass in his hand. “Where the crazy people are?”
Across 110th Street, the beats boomed from the parks. It was Saturday, cloudy, and people lounged around coolers instead of the barbecues. I was walking around, trying and failing to find the footbridge to Randall’s Island. I’d decided against taking the ferry direct – a pal’s offer of unlimited guava Mexitini refills in midtown had sounded too good to pass up, since the humidity Charley had wrought was still gripping my throat like a crazed Gary Busey. So, the 7 to the 6 had dropped me here, and as I stood in the park watching a local MC flow over a track cribbed from Afrika Bambaataa, his face glistening in the oppressive heat, I heard a familiar clatter echoing off the junior high’s walls. Intertwined with Bambaataa’s electro pulse was the telltale resonance of distorted guitars, chopped up in a jagged approximation of the Who’s “My Generation.” The man on the mic kept rapping through the sweat, and the quickly gathering crowd placed cans of 7-Up to their foreheads. But I took a walk a few blocks east, and was greeted by the JFK and The Mooney Suzuki, their “Right About Now” bouncing off the buildings from across the East River. Wow, they sound great, I thought. I wonder if they’re wearing those goofy flower child getups?
Warriors, come out and play. The Mexitinis and getting mildly lost had made me a few hours late for the Underground Garage. The Mooney echo kept needling me as a walked north on along the river, having decided my best bet for finally getting to the island was the Triborough Bridge, looming ahead like a genetic freak erector set. As I got closer to the bridge, the Paybacks began to play. A Detroit hard rock quartet led by Wendy Case and featuring the absolutely blazing guitar work of Danny Methric, the band sounded awesome even sight unseen, Case’s ragged soul growl breaking the windows on 121st. As they ran through their set I ran into another group of rock refugees. Clad in boots and black, sitting dejectedly on a bench, I could tell they weren’t here to feed the pigeons. Together we started making our way across the Triborough, descending on the other side into a cement cavern hell of urine airbursts and broken glass dicks. I expected the Baseball Furies to leap out at any second. If that happened, I wouldn’t be able to rely on my crew. Haggard from the heat and hobbling along, they looked like they hadn’t left the apartment since the Nixon administration. Trash, pick it up.
As it turned out, my fellow upper east side castaways were pretty typical of the Underground Garage Festival crowd dynamic. While there were plenty of young’uns, a larger portion of the audience looked like they could’ve played bass for Alice Cooper. What everyone seemed to have in common was a genuine love for the rock and roll idiom, and not some razor crease tangent into fashion-conscious hot fuss. There were gaggles of Japanese hipster kids every 100 feet or so, but everyone knows those Jun and Mitzuko types are cooler than the polar bear’s toenails. Onstage the D4 was barreling through “Get Loose” as a fleet of glittery go-go girls shimmied on catwalks. An enormous video screen behind them detailed the singer’s pockmarks. Three stories of Dunkin’ Donuts chocolate latte oversaw the festivities from stage right; to the left were banners for Sirius and Pepsi, the fest’s other principal sponsors. It didn’t really diminish the Underground Garage’s effects – rockers of all ages sucked happily on the chocolately cool treat – but it was an indication of the compromises Van Zandt had to make to keep his festival at least mostly independent, and the price competitive. $20 for over forty bands in exchange for some minor corporate shilling? Yes, please.
The Romantics made the women dance, their hyperized versions of “61/49” and “What I Like About You” cutting through the humidity like rock and roll throwing axes. The Dictators were next, and Handsome Dick Manitoba reveled in rocking a hometown crowd. His proclamations of New York City’s greatness were almost as frequent as those promoting his band; still, the Dictators deserved the love, as their set was one of the tightest of the show. And the city really was great. With the crowd laughing at the revolving door of set-break emcees (including Little Stevie’s “Sopranos” pals Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore, Jimmy Gandolfini, as well as the Paybacks’ loud and proud Case), the shadow of the psychiatric facility overlooking the venue stage couldn’t completely obscure the north end of Manhattan, and the skyline that seemed to shimmer in the heat and the moment. This was a fest willed into life by a man possessed by rock, and participants both onstage and off were going to make it happen whether Charley wanted it or not.
Nancy Sinatra took the stage as the giant latte and hurricane rains continued to loom. Honored by Little Steven as an influencer of the garage rock ideal, she was celebrated as a woman who showed girls how to be both strong and sexy. After a somewhat shaky start she got into it, offering modern-tinged material from her Sanctuary comeback effort in between old favorites. “Let Me Kiss You,” her Morrissey-penned single, was luscious and maudlin in a classicist Moz way, but the Thurston Moore contribution seemed a bit too left-field for Sinatra to convincingly handle. Still, her “Boots Are Made for Walkin'” finale was as fun as it was predictable, and her band’s rousing horn section was a nice break from the day’s heaps of distortion. Big Star seemed disinterested in the proceedings, but Bo Diddley definitely had his rock hat on. Running through “Man” and “Bo Diddley” and even doing a bit of rapping to prove in good fun his continued relevance, the man was a delight to watch and a true signifier of the garage’s foundations.
I was still in line for beer, but it still hadn’t rained. A scenester I recognized from Detroit wandered by, holding his arm as if it was broken. Up on the stage someone was giving props out to satellite radio for carrying Little Steven’s Underground Garage program, the stellar syndicated show that had spurred this fest in the first place. The graybeard in front of me offered his hand in a hi-five to Van Zandt, but I set up for a low ten instead. Much cooler. I wandered toward the back of the long field with another glance at the sky. The New York Dolls, Strokes, and Iggy and the Stooges were set the headline the day; with my umbrella confiscated and no shelter besides the Triborough bowels, I hoped Charley would stay the fuck away. Just then, David Fricke walked out of a porta-john as David Johansen took the stage.
The New York Dolls were reincarnated more as pink ‘n’ skinny attitude than anything solidly memorable. While “Personality Crisis” and especially “Trash” found the crowd’s groovy bones and saw numerous fists and fingers thrown into the sticky air, the Dolls in general seemed to let Johansen’s persona coast them into the station. Willowy and drawn in his pink spaghetti straps and Steven Tyler wig, Johansen was certainly a convincing glam-punk cad. And the Dolls’ boogie-woogie probably sounded better than most of the newbie bands dropping their name in hyperbolic press materials. Still, you can’t put your arms around a memory, and before long the set seemed to veer toward nostalgia. I looked around for the Stevie Nicks-ish velvet enthusiast I’d crossed the Tribororough with earlier. By this point she’d likely combusted in the heat, satisfied now that she’d seen the Dolls in one final New York setting.
The Strokes have gelled into a reliable, yet somewhat predictable live act. Their set for the faithful braving the threatening clouds was rocking and enjoyable, led as always by Casablancas’ dull-eyed glower and punctuated with the twin guitar crackle of Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond. “New York City Cops” was a nice touch, and Julian had some fun with the bouncers. Verdict: not amazing, but certainly in stride with the Dictators and Bo Diddley as some of the fest’s best. It’s clear that the Strokes have potential to be one of the few groups of the early 21st century to last as long as some of the vets on Underground Garage bill. (Killers, you can turn in your equipment and fancy shoes to the quartermaster on the way out.)
The storms were still holding off, having already been ridiculed from the stage by numerous frontmen, and after a brief set change it was time for the Stooges. People like to point at Keith Richards and say, “Look at that guy, he’s like rock and roll warmed over.” They might be right, but Iggy Pop’s vitality is so wrong it’s criminal. Eyes bulging, muscles rippling, and nearly-exposed ass making the 40-year old groupie next to me unbutton her top (yikes!), Pop and his band (including Ron Asheton and Mike Watt) railed through a full and vicious set that seemed to revive not punk, but punk swagger. For in the end, the Stooges are nostalgia, too, holdovers – like many in the crowd and on stage – from a day when rock might’ve been purer. So even if “1969,” “No Fun,” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” were no longer eviscerating screeds of apathy, Pop delivered them as if lecturing for a new age on why and how they once were. There he was, thrusting that camera into his crotch, caterpillaring on a bass cabinet, pointing out people in the crowd with ringlets of his hair stringing across his face. It was an important end to a day of fervent belief, because if Iggy can believe in rock that strongly, there’s no reason why citizens who haven’t seen the ravages and crazy he has can’t keep it alive, too. Now can you dig it? CAN YOU DIG IT?
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 Kristy Eldredge’s take on the same show.