Steven Van Zandt: Rock & Roll’s Righteous Renaissance Man
Steven Van Zandt (aka “Little Steven,” aka “Miami Steve,” aka “Silvio Dante,” aka “Frank the Fixer Tagliano”) has spent his entire life preaching the gospel of rock and roll.
For nearly two hours on Monday night in Los Angeles at the Grammy Museum, Van Zandt reflected and dissected his prolific, 45 plus year career with Executive Director Bob Santelli. The candid conversation, in front of a 150 or so people, covered everything from music to politics to mobsters.
It’s hard to say what Stevie Van Zandt is more known for these days- his four decade long tenure as Bruce Springsteen’s consigliere and lead guitarist with the legendary E Street Band or the fictional consigliere he played to the other infamous boss from New Jersey, “Tony Soprano.” After his turn as Captain in the critically acclaimed and award-winning recently canceled Netflix show, Lilyhammer, Van Zandt proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, he could quit his day job anytime he wanted. But spend five minutes with him and you’ll know why that will never happen.
The power of music, particularly Rock & Roll, continues to tempt and seduce the man who still doesn’t think he fits “in.”
Like most of us, Little Steven still searches for his place in the world- but what separates him from the ordinary is his dogged pursuit to actually make the world better.
Van Zandt admitted his career began simply trying to “play rock and roll and get laid, and not necessarily in that order.”
It wasn’t until after he found commercial success with the E Street Band in the early 80’s that his perspective changed. Shortly after the recording sessions for the landmark album Born in the USA ended, Van Zandt found himself feeling lost, and seeking answers- he wanted to understand himself and learn more about the world he lived in. At the time, he did what many thought was unthinkable- he left one of the biggest bands in the world at its peak and embarked upon a solo journey. His unlikely path led him to South Africa.
What SVZ saw in South Africa shocked him.
“It was slavery.”
He felt compelled to do something. Apartheid must end. After speaking with a number of the split factions there fighting for freedom and basic human rights, he learned a valuable lesson about conflict resolution- something many of today’s world leaders should pay attention to.
“Don’t put everyone in a single room. I went to each faction in South Africa separately and got them to endorse me individually,” claims Van Zandt.
In doing so, he earned each of their trusts individually, which then allowed him to present a unified voice to the rest of the world- something that the groups on their own could never have accomplished. SVZ then began a grass roots efforts by enlisting artists from all genres to join him in boycott through music. The organization became Artists United Against Apartheid. Shortly after “Sun City” came out in the fall of 1985, SVZ slowly developed enough cache and momentum to sway the world’s power brokers, including the US Congress. Despite President Reagan’s vehement opposition to sanctions and getting involved, Congress overturned his veto and South Africa, soon, thereafter, changed forever.
Doing “something” could be SVZ’s personal M-O. He’s tirelessly worked to make a difference, lending his name and time to a number of causes and charities, including Native Americans and youth education. He’s a supporter of Little Kids Rock, a nationwide non-profit organization teaching under privileged school kids how to play Rock & Roll. His Rock & Roll Forever Foundation created a on-line high school curriculum covering the history of rock music.
“The continuum of Rock & Roll” matters to SVZ not just because it gave him a life, but it’s that damn important. He claims the musical era from 1951 to 1971 is the basis for all music and pop culture today. His Underground Garage channel celebrates The British Invasion, and what he calls, “Renaissance music.” With the music industry increasingly fragmented, along with the overall decline in new talent, planting the rock and roll seeds that will hopefully inspire a younger generation matters now more than ever.
“This period needs to be accessible.”
“Rock and Roll started off as dance bands. The day people started listening to music instead of dancing is the day music went down hill.”
“No one could be The Beatles- they were perfect by the time we saw them in the States- We couldn’t do that,” but when The Stones hit the scene, we thought, but maybe we can do THAT!” Just as importantly to SVZ, “The British Invasion introduced us to the concept of a band.”
When he first saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb 9, 1964 he compared it “to a spaceship landing in Central Park.”
Van Zandt’s famously stated, “Rock and Roll, it’s a bad thing.” He expanded on that sentiment Monday night.
“A band is about us. It communicates community, friendship and camaraderie. Thank God that came along or I would have been a real Soprano.”
SVZ credits the landmark Born To Run album and Springsteen for cementing Rock and Roll’s legacy.
“Born to Run made a philosophical statement. It reconnected the dots, the path…the electrical current. And by adding the saxophone, which was totally uncool at the time, he made a statement that tradition mattered.”
Another thing paramount to SVZ’s success is his burning desire to be “great.” Springsteen’s often mentioned when the E Street Band was first starting out, they all wanted to be great- beyond anything else, that was their only goal. SVZ wonders openly if anyone today still aspires to such heights. Part of the blame lies in the culture we’ve created he says, where Wall Street and bean counters rule over content and creativity.
“There’s no place for greatness in the modern world.”
In SVZ’s world, greed and corporate interests have killed the radio star, not video. “It takes time, development and patience to become great. Wall Street doesn’t have time.”
SVZ is a man of many hats, literally (the early days saw Stevie donning stylish Fedoras, today, it’s his trademark Babooshkas).
For nearly 50 years, Van Zandt’s covered the musician’s gamut from arranging to performing to writing to producing. And producing is what brought Van Zandt to Los Angeles this week. He’s in town to promote the solo album he just made for Darlene Love which drops this Friday. For the first time in her storied career, Darlene Love has an album she can call her own, and it’s aptly titled, Introducing Darlene Love. On Tuesday night, SVZ was back at the Museum alongside Darlene discussing the album and performing a few songs. He’s also set to perform with her Friday and Sunday at The Whiskey-A-Go-Go.
“I was sick of the injustice of the world not hearing this woman’s voice. She’s the greatest singer in the world.”
After hearing her sing for the first time in person with his pal Bruce at The Roxy in 1982, SVZ promised Love he would make an album with her. He just didn’t know it was take nearly 35 years to do it. Darlene never doubted it would happen. “I’m a believer your time will come,” Darlene remarked during Tuesday’s discussion. “I always knew my day is gonna’ come.” Her and Van Zandt have remained good friends all these years.
Van Zandt added how he and Bruce were truly “knocked out” by seeing one of their heroes perform one of their songs (Hungry Heart). “Bruce just flipped out,” he recalls. Legend has it that The Boss was standing on a chair or table, going wild during Love’s gospel rendition of the song. Love laughs when I ask her about that night. “The River album had just come out and my manager suggested I cover that song, and I thought it was great, so I just put the Darlene Love style to it (Hungry Heart.)”
Upon hearing the story retold, Van Zandt suggested they may have to think about putting that song back into her show. Love claims she had never actually seen Bruce Springsteen in person before, so she had no idea who he was when they met that night. When it was finally time to do the album, Stevie asked Bruce if he wouldn’t mind writing something for Darlene.
“We had to wait a bit for Bruce’s songs to come in. You know, he likes to think about it for awhile,” chuckled a spirited Darlene. “Oh, but when they did come in, Lord- you know, we were very happy.”
In addition to Bruce, SVZ called upon some of the biggest names in music to craft songs for the album, including Joan Jett, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Webb and Linda Perry. Besides, producing and financing the project himself and releasing it through his Wicked Cool record label, Van Zandt also penned the album’s closing track, “Jesus is the Rock (That Keeps Me Rollin’).”
“I wanted to wait for all the songs to come in before I wrote something, see what was missing.” He adds, “I write for a purpose- whether it’s to make someone dance, laugh, cry, whatever the reason.”
After hearing the album stream via NPR this past week and hearing some of the tracks performed live Tuesday, I can tell you it’s not just “a wall of clarity” as Van Zandt called it, but a wall of magnificence. From the first note, you can’t help but feel inspired and better about the world. Darlene’s voice is that powerful.
“No one’s ever heard the adult Darlene Love,” stated Van Zandt.
And for the most part, that’s true. Besides the occasional live show or yearly gig with David Letterman singing “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” most of the world only knows Darlene’s voice from all the ’60’s hits she sang on as an 18, 19, 20 year old young woman- unless of course you’re a member of her local church, where she still sings weekly in the choir. It’s no wonder she’s been able to keep her voice in top form all these years.
Prior to introducing Love on Tuesday night, Santelli shared a fascinating story from when she recently performed at The White House, as part of the Grammy Museum’s education series. A young student who had no idea who Darlene was prior to that day, and heard her sing for the first time, was in awe afterward. “That lady sounds like a sweet bird,” he said to Santelli.
Someone else who was blown away by the present day Darlene was the head of Columbia Records- who Van Zandt placed a call to after completing the album.
“I told him I had just produced the album of the year.
You want to hear it?”
He did, and “three songs in he says to me, you have made the album of the year!” Columbia signed Darlene and will distribute the album. Van Zandt claims Columbia told them Love is the oldest artist the label has ever signed by 50 years. At the time, she was 73. Now 74, she looks and sounds like she could be 24.
SVZ says he’s as proud of this project as anything else he’s ever worked on- and that’s quite a statement from a man who’s spent his entire life making them. Throughout his career, SVZ has always been about making bold statements and creating grand themes. Above all, Steven Van Zandt is about what matters- and at this time, it matters for the world to hear what he considers to be its greatest voice. For most of her singing career, Darlene Love was a force of nature relegated to the background- a role prominently showcased in the Oscar winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom. Thanks to SVZ, she’s now rightfully in the spotlight. Finally, she’s “the star”- just don’t call Van Zandt one.
“I don’t like being a star. I’m a working class celebrity.” He adds, “I want to observe and be free to walk around, not be the one people are looking at in the street.”
Although he claims to neither read nor write music, producing and arranging songs are nothing new to Van Zandt. He’s just got an ear for it. In addition to his “solo” albums with The Disciples of Soul, he produced a couple of records for another of his early heroes, Gary U.S. Bonds. He went on to score most of Lilyhammer and was David Chase’s music supervisor on his 2012 nostalgic teenage rock and roll film, “Not Fade Away.” In the 1970’s, Van Zandt helped formulate the sound of the original Jersey bar band, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes- writing and producing their first three records.
“The first song I ever wrote was ‘I Don’t Wanna’ Go Home’ and I wrote it for Benny King. But I never had the courage to give it to him. That’s how Southside ended up with it.”
Santelli remarked how the Jukes infused soul music into the landscape. SVZ fondly recounted that period. “We made a ‘bar band’ a positive thing. We revolutionized bar bands. Suddenly, we had a movement. We played 3 nights a week/1,000 people a night. It was a real scene.”
On Monday night, SVZ also vividly recalled the time he was lying on the floor of a NYC recording studio back in ‘75, listening to the many failed recording attempts of Springsteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” Not officially in the band yet, his friend asked for his opinion. Miami Steve less than enthusiastically told him, “It blows.” When Bruce asked if he had any ideas, Van Zandt promptly rose from the floor and proceeded to instruct “New York’s best horn players” how to play it “right.” By the time they finished recording the new version, Van Zandt had joined the E Street Band for good. He went onto co-produce The River and Born in the USA albums as well.
As for other E Street Band revelations, Van Zandt claims he doesn’t know if the song “Bobby Jean” was about him leaving the band and never actually asked Bruce. When an audience member peppered Steven with rumors about the highly anticipated upcoming “River” box set, he played it cool. “I know nothing of any sorts, but if I did, I would say there may be some surprises.”
In another surprise anecdote, Van Zandt said David Chase originally wanted him to play “Tony” in the Sopranos, but the HBO suits bluntly informed Chase, “No fucking way are you giving the lead to a guy who’s never acted!”
Un-Hollywood like, Van Zandt actually agreed, and when he saw James Gandolfini at an LA casting session he honestly and humbly said to the Casting Director, “That’s the guy who should play Tony.”
Never one to seek the spotlight, Van Zandt told Chase he was dropping out altogether because “I didn’t want to take away a job from a real actor.” Chase stayed after him- and ended up writing the “Silvio Dante” character just for him. The only change being Silvio was originally suppose to operate a modern “Copacabana” nightclub, but they didn’t have the budget for that; so they settled on a stripclub- and that’s how the colorful “Bada Bing!” came to be.
Stevie Van Zandt still has a lot to say about a lot of things- and that’s fine with me. After listening to him speak in person, I hope he never stops.
These days, SVZ may not be much of an optimist, but he remains an idealist- for what music can do- and what people can do with it. Admirably, at age 64, Steven Van Zandt continues to fight the establishment with passion and purpose- and ultimately, that’s what Rock & Roll is all about.
In many ways, SVZ is exactly like the exiled mob boss he helped craft on Lilyhammer-
He doesn’t care what you think- He only cares what’s right.
Below is a clip I captured from the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on 9/15/15 of Darlene Love & SVZ performing “Forbidden Nights”- one of the Elvis Costello penned tracks off the new album.
And here’s the official video with cameos from Bruce Springsteen, Joan Jett, Bill Murray and David Letterman.
Friday’s upcoming show at The Whiskey is sold out, but as of this writing, tickets remain for Sunday’s finale.
And no story about Steven Van Zandt would be complete without mentioning his amazing wife, Maureen- together, they may just be the coolest couple in Rock & Roll.
Long live Steven Van Zandt and long live Rock & Roll!