It was a bad time for me. When I was sick with a brain tumor I remember curling up in the fetal position and conjuring up an invisible shell around me, keeping well-meaning people away. Very few people were able to pierce that imaginary veil, but one man did. It was the man whose dulcet tones announce the music (and its backstory) on “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” every weekday morning on SiriusXM Channel 21 who finally got me up and motivated to recover.
Yes, Michael Des Barres, former front man for Power Station at Live Aid, former glam rocker, Murdoc from the first iteration of “MacGyver” and now reprising that role as the new Murdoc’s mentor. I could go on about Michael’s accomplishments, including his upbringing in the U.K. as the descendant of a legendary 13th-century French knight. From his role in “To Sir With Love” to “Seinfeld,” my friend Michael has run the gamut from Marquis to mensch, and in today’s pandemic climate, he is like a dose of hydroxychloroquine if it actually worked.
To 6 million listeners, Michael has become the antidote to isolation. Anyone privy to his Twitter feed knows of his instantaneous reactions to both pleas and questions.
“People know me as the only DJ who wears makeup and insists on good lighting,” Michael joked recently. “Because my shows are a detailed homage to the artists — their ups and downs humanized, described, felt — I’m able to turn fans into friends, and friends want to communicate, especially now.” When I asked Michael to how the queries have evolved, he thought for a moment and replied, “The questions asking what Jimmy Page is really like have changed to ‘Where can I get treatment?’ This has had a profound effect on me. When I first sat before that mic, Narcissus disappeared and at last I found a self that was part of an honest yet still rock ‘n’ roll reality.”
If there is anything worse than social distancing, it’s the danger of becoming socially distant. We crave routine, and now that our routine has been interrupted, shows like “Underground Garage” have become crucial to our wake cycle. “When I conceived of the ‘Underground Garage’ I wanted to accomplish several things,” actor/musician Steven Van Zandt explained. “Give new generations access to the greatest music ever made, celebrate the culture of the renaissance of the ’50s and ’60s for which this music is the soundtrack, and to communicate the profoundly positive energy of the era by those who could deliver it first person. From the moment my wife Maureen suggested Michael, I knew he was right. Michael perfectly fits the job. No audition necessary. I’ve known him for years. He has the unique perspective of being simultaneously a creator, a performer and a fan.”
Maybe that’s the secret sauce of Michael’s success in absorbing the angst and uncertainty that music reflects. If there is an anthem to the pandemic, it may not less the music than the voices of those who build a broadcast bridge to the listeners. With every Tweet that Michael responds to personally, I feel the soft tug of society being stitched back together — tighter and closer.
“We are zealots, missionaries and if necessary martyrs for this cause,” Van Zandt said, “and that’s what it takes to live and work in the ‘Underground Garage.’”