“The revoluuuu-tion is expensive,” coughs a nervous-looking Steven Van Zandt in the early hours of his much-feted outdoor garage rock music festival on New York City’s Randall’s Island. He looks nervous because he’s already experienced major malfunctions. Little Steven’s Underground Garage — which spun off from the E-Streeter-turned-HBO wise guy’s syndicated radio show — was supposed to be the most important rock ’n’ roll concert of the summer. But at this moment, something has gone terribly wrong. The stage, which was originally designed to work like a turntable — with one band setting up in back while another played in front — has stopped moving.

And it’s starting to rain.

The Singles’ Vince Frederick describes it as “a mess.” Folks backstage report a five-alarm scramble taking place and futile attempts to fix the faulty platform.

With sound guys scurrying to rejigger musical equipment on stage every 10 minutes, it isn’t the show we expected to see. It isn’t the show they expected to give. You can see the disappointment in Van Zandt’s eyes when he explains to the estimated crowd of 10,000, “It was going to be cool, man.” Not even the ubiquitous go-go dancers can shimmy us out of this funk: But then again, it’s early.

We’re in New York City, but Detroiters abound. They can be found in beer lines and backstage and, well, all over the stage. Acts include the Gore Gore Girls (whose early set ensures that we miss them), the Paybacks (who, led by shouter Wendy Case, blow in like a speedball shot of estrogen and testosterone), the Fondas (Julie Benjamin never sounded better) and the Romantics (whose newest songs have as much chutzpah as ever).

Because of the mechanical problems — and reports that Hurricane Charlie is on its way — there is little time to enjoy the lesser-known bands, but some performers make good use of their flash/pan moment onstage. The Flaming Sideburns, a Finnish outfit, whip up heaping helpings of enthusiasm. Cult faves, such as the Electric Prunes, Chocolate Watchband, and Richard and the Young Lions recall the frenetic energy of garage of yore.

To keep the increasingly rain-weary audience enthused, a coterie of Little Steven’s celebrity pals come out on stage to pacify the braying crowds (who, despite the looming black clouds are growing by the busload). “Sopranos” goombahs yap on about something having to do with rock ’n’ roll, while The Boss introduces the glam-enhanced (and fab) Chesterfield Kings. Kim Fowley’s gonzo humor is completely lost on the crowd. And what the hell is Chuck Barris doing here?

Amid the throngs, Paulie Vespole, a shirtless 47-year-old Brooklyn native, dressed in a leather biker cap and shorts is completely snockered. The former security guard at New York’s Financial Center now lives on disability due to post-traumatic stress disorder courtesy of 9/11. Tonight though, he slobbers, “I’m just here to pah-ty.” An hour later, Metro Times spots him passed out on the ground amid thousands, oblivious to the brilliance that is the older, but still effusive, Dictators.

The heart of the night, illustrated by a few thousand onlookers moving toward the front, is, of course, Bo Diddley.

“It’s feels like 1955 today,” Diddley quips. “God bless rock ’n’ roll.”

Then there are the New York Dolls. The iconic glam-punk band — that recently suffered yet another loss in Arthur “Killer” Kane — marches out to a moon-eyed audience. Singer David Johansen, still stunning in pink, coquettishly delivers “Looking for a Kiss” and “Jet Boy.” Then the band breaks into a tribute to their fallen comrade, Johnny Thunders, with his classic, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.”

Co-headliners/modeling agency progeny, the Strokes — who endure vitriolic jeers and girly cheers — dish out their detached din, led by the languid swagger of lead singer Julian Casablanca. A complete letdown.

But bringing up the rear — literally — is Iggy Pop: the man whose asscrack has become something of an accoutrement. Displaying the animalistic charisma that only he can, Pop’s musical gymnastics delight the audience (many of whom wear T-shirts bearing his image). Pop brought out the big guns: “1969” and “Now I Wanna Be Your Dog.” In a frantic moment of populist sloganeering, the sinewy icon bellows to the audience to “Take over! Take over!” Helpless security guards can do little as 50 or so fans crash the stage. A fitting end to one of the best rock ’n’ roll concerts in memory.

And Little Steven, in the spirit of rock ’n’ roll, put on a brave face, didn’t let the shit get him down, despite what could have been a disaster.

Eve Doster is Metro Times listings editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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