Steven Van Zandt

Classic Rock - - Contents - Words:

Gui­tarist with Spring­steen’s E Street band, leader of his own band, la­bel owner, ac­tor (Sil­vio Dante in The So­pra­nos), ra­dio host… And there’s more to ‘Lit­tle Steven’ than that.

n ev­ery sense, the man born Steven Lento has led a glo­ri­ously colour­ful life. At one time or other – and of­ten all at once – these last forty-plus years, he has been a rock’n’roll mu­si­cian, ac­tivist, ac­tor, broad­caster and ed­u­ca­tor. Along the way he co-pi­loted two great bands out of his adopted New Jersey – the E Street Band and the As­bury Jukes – and fronted his own band the Dis­ci­ples Of Soul. He has founded a record com­pany, Wicked Cool, de­vised a glob­ally-syn­di­cated ra­dio show, Un­der­ground Garage, and cre­ated not one but two pop-cul­ture icons: strip-club-own­ing con­siglieri Sil­vio Dante for David Chase’s ground­break­ing TV mob saga The So­pra­nos, and his own ban­danas­port­ing, gypsy-mav­er­ick on-stage al­ter-ego, Lit­tle Steven. When in 1982 he married his ac­tress wife, Mau­reen San­toro, the cou­ple were sung down the aisle by soul gi­ant Percy Sledge, Bruce Spring­steen acted as best man and the pre­sid­ing min­is­ter was Lit­tle Richard.

“The trick is to be able to keep it all go­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously, but part of the joy of life is in­te­grat­ing all of your in­ter­ests,” sug­gests the man bet­ter known as Steven Van Zandt, aka Lit­tle Steven. “It keeps every­thing fresh and you never get bored. Plus I found out a long time ago that if

Gui­tarist with Spring­steen’s E Street band, leader of his own band, la­bel owner, ac­tor (Sil­vio Dante in The So­pra­nos), ra­dio host… And there’s a lot more to Steven Van Zandt than that.

I fo­cus on just one thing I tend to ob­sess and overdo it, whereas if I have five things on the go, that’s about right for me.”

It’s a hot spring day in Man­hat­tan and Van

Zandt is work­ing out of his down­town of­fice, an hour’s drive from his home in Jersey. Mo­men­tar­ily he is dis­tracted by his wife drop­ping by and in­sist­ing that he take de­liv­ery of their King Charles spaniel, and then again by the ques­tion of whether or not he ought to re­trieve his car some­time soon. “Am I go­ing to need to go out again? Yes? No?” he asks of his as­sis­tant rhetor­i­cally. “Yes! Je­sus, I was a fuck­ing id­iot to park it up in the first place.”

Do­mes­tic dra­mas aside, Van Zandt is very much in the room. Sixty-seven this Novem­ber, he is still recog­nis­ably the out­size char­ac­ter who was gen­er­ally first sighted sidling up next to Spring­steen at the mi­cro­phone in the mid-to-late 70s, the Boss’s left-stage foil and right-hand man. The voice and ges­tures are ex­ag­ger­ated, the yad­dayadda Ital­ian-Amer­i­can­isms to­gether with an­i­mated choco­late-brown eyes sug­gest pathos and smarts. Fixed in place on his head is a ban­dana, black, the kind of which he has sported all this time – and not to hide pre­ma­ture bald­ness, but head scars sus­tained in a car ac­ci­dent as a teenager.

Get him on a sub­ject that he is par­tic­u­larly pas­sion­ate about – which is to say all of the above – and he lights up, his words spilling out a mile a minute. Right now the topic up for dis­cus­sion is Soul­fire, the sixth al­bum he has made with the now 15-piece Dis­ci­ples Of Soul and their first in 18 years. On it, Van Zandt re­vis­its a col­lec­tion of songs that he orig­i­nally wrote, and in­vari­ably pro­duced, for other artists in­clud­ing South­side Johnny And The As­bury Jukes and R&B stom­per Gary U.S. Bonds. Al­to­gether the record’s 12 tracks revel in the ‘New Jersey sound’ that Van Zandt did as much as any­one to hone. A stri­dent, joy­ful, heartrac­ing, foot-pound­ing melange of rock gui­tars and R&B horns, the sound rose up along the Jersey Shore in the early 70s and went hot-rod­ding right on into the next decade and be­yond.

“With­out re­al­is­ing it I sort of cre­ated my own genre,” Van Zandt says. “These songs don’t be­long in any one cat­e­gory or sit in a for­mat. Which if you cared about the mod­ern world would be a prob­lem. For­tu­nately I re­ally don’t. And the

fur­ther we get from the roots of where they’re com­ing from, the more unique they sound.

“No doubt, over the years my own thing has got com­pletely for­got­ten, and it was my own fault for walk­ing away from it when I did. I got into a lot of other crafts, like act­ing and writ­ing. Be­fore you knew it, the best part of twenty years had gone by. So I’m start­ing over again and also try­ing to make amends.”

an Zandt was born in Bos­ton, Mas­sachusetts in 1950, right on the cusp of the rock’n’roll era. His dad played a bit of trum­pet, but there was noth­ing about his early child­hood that fore­told to him the world of pos­si­bil­i­ties just be­yond the hori­zon. That wouldn’t come un­til 1964, and by which time his par­ents had sep­a­rated, his mother had got re­mar­ried to Wil­liam Brew­ster Van Zandt and young Steven had moved with them to live in Mid­dle­town Town­ship, New Jersey. It was there, on the star-crossed night of Fe­bru­ary 9, that The Bea­tles were beamed into the fam­ily’s liv­ing room by the medium of tele­vi­sion, specif­i­cally the Fab Four’s first ap­pear­ance on The Ed Sul­li­van Show.

“The day be­fore that, there were lit­er­ally no bands in Amer­ica,” Van Zandt re­calls. “Day af­ter, ev­ery­body had a band.”

He was no ex­cep­tion. In quick suc­ces­sion he formed The Whirl­winds, next The Mates, and then joined a third short-lived group, The Shad­ows, that was cast in the im­age of the Bri­tish In­va­sion bands. He was sent home from Mid­dle­town

High for hav­ing his hair too long, but grad­u­ated in 1968, and by then he had met the other ace young gui­tarist in the area, Spring­steen, his se­nior by one year.

Van Zandt went on to play bass gui­tar along­side the elder hot­shot in Steel Mill, a wannabe All­man Broth­ers Band, and then the Bruce Spring­steen Band, ap­ing Van Mor­ri­son’s big-band folk-rock. They built up fol­low­ings in Jersey and nearby Vir­ginia, but couldn’t break out to be­come more than just lo­cal big noises. Spring­steen’s later songs re­fract this pe­riod in grand-ro­man­tic terms, car­ry­ing with them the sense that they were des­per­a­dos on the run from their dead-end town and pro­pelled by the idea that they were meant for bet­ter things. Ask Van Zandt now if the way that it played out was quite so evoca­tive and his re­sponse is an erup­tion of laugh­ter.

“No, no, not at all,” he elab­o­rates. “There were only a dozen or so bands in the area that got out of the garage. We all be­came friendly, be­cause it was a very un­der­ground thing and we were freaks, mis­fits and out­casts to­gether. The Shore was a fuck­ing waste­land. It was a ghetto. We had race ri­ots. Peo­ple had stopped vis­it­ing, so it was no longer a re­sort. Bruce and me, right away I think, re­alised we were a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from the oth­ers, more ded­i­cated.

“Slowly, ev­ery­body who had a choice took it: they went to col­lege, or the mil­i­tary, or got a job. Even­tu­ally it was just him and me who were stood there, the last out­casts that didn’t re­ally be­long any­where. Peo­ple al­ways tell me how per­sis­tent we were and stuck to our guns, try­ing to ro­man­ti­cise the whole thing. The truth is we couldn’t do any­thing else. We were com­pletely in­ca­pable, so had no fuck­ing choice. I would run into Bruce on week­ends up in Green­wich Vil­lage, a bus ride from Jersey. We were out there try­ing to steal ideas, be­cause New York City was a year ahead of Jersey and in those days it was all about what was com­ing next. Truly, ev­ery month a mir­a­cle would hap­pen.”

Early in ’73, Van Zandt skipped town to go off and play gui­tar on tour with a doo-wop quar­tet out of Philadel­phia, The Dovells. They criss­crossed the States, end­ing up in Mi­ami, where Van Zandt picked out for him­self a suit­case­ful of lurid beach shirts. Re­turn­ing in his new garb to frigid grey Jersey, he soon ac­quired the nick­name ‘Mi­ami’ Steve. In his ab­sence, Spring­steen had been signed as a solo artist to Columbia Records and was about to re­lease his de­but al­bum,

Greet­ings From As­bury Park, N.J.

Van Zandt threw in his lot with an­other lo­cal hero, John Lyon, ‘South­side’ to his friends and sup­port­ers, and to­gether they formed South­side Johnny And The As­bury Jukes, and took up res­i­dency at a club called the Stone Pony right on the board­walk.

When it came time for the Jukes to ven­ture out of Jersey, Van Zandt cor­ralled a group of horn play­ers to flesh out their tour­ing sound and chris­tened them the Mi­ami Horns. For the next four years, on sweat-soaked club stages at first and then in the stu­dio, and with Van Zandt as their chief song­writer, ar­ranger and pro­ducer, the Jukes es­tab­lished the heart and soul of their home state sound. This burst into stereo life on the Jukes’ first al­bum, 1976’s I Don’t Want To Go Home, and on the brace of joy­ous al­bums that fol­lowed: the fol­low­ing year’s This Time It’s For Real and Hearts Of Stone in ’78. Ac­cord­ing to Van Zandt, their trail­blaz­ing was once again born out of ne­ces­sity.

“We were a bar band, so you had to make peo­ple dance,” he says. “Once upon a time peo­ple danced to rock’n’roll, and that was the same way that The Bea­tles and the Stones had started out. There’s just some­thing mag­i­cal about that com­bi­na­tion of Mo­town, Stax, At­lantic soul and New Or­leans R&B with rock gui­tar, and that be­came its own thing. By the time we got into the record busi­ness we had our own lit­tle niche, but even then it wasn’t hip. We had to make a liv­ing play­ing live, be­cause we weren’t get­ting on the ra­dio.

“Mu­sic is ba­si­cally to do with five crafts, which are learn­ing your in­stru­ment, ar­rang­ing, writ­ing, per­form­ing and record­ing. To me the main one of all those is when you get on stage and have to in­ter­act with other band mem­bers and an au­di­ence. That’s also the one that I see dis­ap­pear­ing, be­cause peo­ple are go­ing straight from learn­ing to play to sell­ing their mu­sic over the in­ter­net. They’re skip­ping the most im­por­tant phase of a ca­reer, which is to be a bar band.”

ven be­fore the first South­side Johnny & The As­bury Jukes record got off the ground, Van Zandt had found him­self back in

Spring­steen’s fold. By 1975 his old friend’s first two al­bums had tanked and he was mak­ing his third un­der in­tense do-or-die pres­sure at the Record Plant in New York City. The ses­sions had dragged on for months, and when Van Zandt dropped by one evening, he found Spring­steen, his man­ager Mike Ap­pel and co-pro­ducer John Lan­dau ag­o­nis­ing over the horn parts to most Jerseysound­ing song on Born To Run, Tenth Av­enue FreezeOut. Van Zandt leapt in and ar­ranged for them a Mo­town-kissed groove in ten minutes flat.

Af­ter that, Spring­steen in­vited him into the E Street Band. Van Zandt ex­pected his ten­ure to last no longer than it would take them to ful­fil their im­me­di­ate obli­ga­tions, which were a hand­ful of shows booked to warm-up the record. In­stead Born To Run rock­eted out of the gate and he was at Spring­steen’s side for the next seven years.

“It was a big deal, my join­ing the E Street Band, be­cause I was just as pop­u­lar as Bruce was lo­cally,” he says now. “So that when I called him Boss, peo­ple started to take it se­ri­ously. I just saw in him some­thing that was spe­cial and that I didn’t quite have, and nor did any­one else.

“There were also cer­tain things that he wasn’t so good at. Turned out I was a bet­ter ar­ranger and pro­ducer than him. I’m a good song­writer too, so was able to help ar­range his songs from that point of view. If I hadn’t been able to con­trib­ute so con­sid­er­ably, I wouldn’t have done it, be­cause I’m not ex­actly the sort of per­son who works for some­one else.”

On stage, Van Zandt was the driver of the

E Street Band’s stu­pen­dously tight back­beat, and in the stu­dio a voice of rea­son and coun­sel. Fol­low­ing the brilliant but bleak and trou­bled ’78 al­bum Dark­ness On The Edge Of Town, Spring­steen made him co-pro­ducer for his next al­bum, 1980’s The River. Van Zandt’s im­print was ev­i­dent on the greater part of that dou­ble record. Af­ter Spring­steen flew solo for 1982’s Ne­braska, Van Zandt was back in the pro­ducer’s chair for Born In The USA. That one was very much his kind of record, the band cut­ting it live in the room, and full of wide-eyed songs that hur­ried to their cho­ruses, but he upped and left be­fore it was even re­leased.

While Spring­steen had been labour­ing over the sparse Ne­braska, Van Zandt had as­sem­bled a big band of his own, the Dis­ci­ples Of Soul, and with them made a eu­phoric rock-soul record, Men With­out Women. It hadn’t sold much, but he’d got enough of a taste of his own thing to want more. Also, he was go­ing through a po­lit­i­cal awak­en­ing. In 1980 Ron­ald Rea­gan was elected Pres­i­dent of the United States, and Van Zandt be­came ap­palled at how Amer­i­can in­ter­ests were be­ing ex­panded into the Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries El Sal­vador and Nicaragua. He poured that into a sec­ond al­bum with the Dis­ci­ples Of Soul, 1984’s ex­cel­lent Voice Of Amer­ica, and very specif­i­cally on pointed protest-rock songs such as I Am A Pa­triot and

Los De­sa­pare­ci­dos.

In 1985 he threw his weight be­hind the an­ti­a­partheid move­ment in South Africa, and founded Artists United Against Apartheid to en­cour­age other mu­si­cians to snub lu­cra­tive of­fers to play the whites-only, high-roller re­sort of Sun City in the coun­try’s North West Prov­ince. Spring­steen, Bob Dy­lan, U2, Run DMC and Tom Petty were among the 49 artists who joined him in per­form­ing Sun City, the song he wrote to be its ral­ly­ing point.

It was noth­ing like the main­stream smash that an­other su­per­star-laden issue-song, USA For Africa’s We Are the World, was that same year, but Sun City nev­er­the­less helped to bring apartheid into an un­for­giv­ing in­ter­na­tional spot­light. It also suc­ceeded in rais­ing greater aware­ness of the plight of its most com­pelling op­po­nent, the ANC’s Nel­son Man­dela, then serv­ing the twenty-first year of a life sen­tence at Robben Is­land jail. By the time Sun City was out, Spring­steen was en­shrined as the rock su­per­star of the 80s and

Born In The USA was on its way to sell­ing more than 30 mil­lion copies.

“Oh, you can’t be stu­pider than me,” Van Zandt says, again roar­ing with laugh­ter. “That’s why I give the best ad­vice in the world. Not on ac­count of me be­ing smart, but be­cause I’ve fucked up in ev­ery way pos­si­ble that a per­son can fuck up. Leav­ing the E Street Band when I did, it’s one of those things you look back on and say was a tragic mis­take.

“Even still, I prob­a­bly would not have done the South Africa thing had I stayed. That’s likely

go­ing to be the one ac­com­plish­ment of my life that means some­thing, so you can also look at it that way. Now, I don’t think it will be re­mem­bered, but I know that I made a con­sid­er­able con­tri­bu­tion to bring­ing down that govern­ment and get­ting Man­dela out of jail. I feel like that is some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for miss­ing out on those tens of mil­lions of dol­lars. Mean­while, as I was sneak­ing into Soweto for a meet­ing, hid­den un­der a blan­ket in the back of a car, the E Street guys were all off buy­ing their man­sions.”

Van Zandt made fur­ther ad­mirable records with the Dis­ci­ples Of Soul, in­clud­ing 1987’s Free­dom – No Com­pro­mise, its im­pas­sioned rock boosted by elas­tic Latin rhythms, and two years later a foray into Prince-style funkrock ter­ri­tory with Rev­o­lu­tion. The wider world barely no­ticed. Van Zandt now puts his grad­ual shift to the mar­gins down to his own re­fusal to stick to one mu­si­cal iden­tity, and the fact that he didn’t have a man­ager to smooth his path.

He had all but van­ished from view by the end of the 90s and when he got handed an en­tirely un­ex­pected third act. In Jan­uary 1997 he in­ducted proto-garage band The Ras­cals into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Watch­ing the cer­e­mony on TV, writer-direc­tor David Chase was struck by Van Zandt’s comic shtick. At the time, Chase was look­ing to cast a sprawl­ing Mafia drama that he was plan­ning for the ca­ble chan­nel HBO. He called Van Zandt and in­vited him to au­di­tion for the lead role of an­ti­hero mob boss Tony So­prano. Never hav­ing acted out­side of a school play and re­luc­tant to shoul­der the show, Van Zandt sug­gested in­stead a sup­port char­ac­ter to Chase, Sil­vio Dante, who he had writ­ten up into a short story treat­ment of his own.

From when it was first broad­cast in the US in Jan­uary 1999 and over seven sea­sons of The So­pra­nos, Van Zandt, in a tow­er­ing pom­padour wig, de­liv­ered an acutely ob­served, finely sketched per­for­mance. His Dante was by turns funny, wry and chill­ing, in a land­mark drama that rev­o­lu­tionised the scope of Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion. He fol­lowed it up by writ­ing, pro­duc­ing and tak­ing the lead role in three sea­sons of an­other well­re­ceived mob drama, Li­ly­ham­mer, play­ing a hit­man ex­iled through the Wit­ness Pro­tec­tion Pro­gramme to the near-tit­u­lar Nor­we­gian town.

“I didn’t have any de­sire to be an ac­tor, so I’ll be for­ever grate­ful to David Chase for per­suad­ing me oth­er­wise,” he says. “I got a won­der­ful burst of en­ergy that learn­ing a new craft gives you. In The So­pra­nos I was able to use my re­la­tion­ship with Bruce as a model for Sil­vio’s with Tony. Sil­vio was the only char­ac­ter that didn’t want to be boss. He was com­fort­able with be­ing the right-hand man.”

s fate would have it, just as The So­pra­nos was start­ing up, Spring­steen, who had also gone off and tried to forge a fresh di­rec­tion of his own with un­spec­tac­u­lar re­sults, de­cided to re­ac­ti­vate the E Street Band. Van Zandt re-signed up, and from 1999’s grand­stand­ing Re­union Tour on­wards, and de­spite the loss of core mem­bers Clarence Cle­mons and Danny Fed­erici, they have gone blaz­ing into a new cen­tury. Their sin­gu­lar achieve­ment, Van Zandt main­tains, is that they are not get­ting by on nos­tal­gia, “or on peo­ple’s mem­o­ries of what we once used to be. Bruce is still writ­ing to an ex­tremely high level, and we’re still able to do three-and-a-half hour shows, and we bring it ev­ery sin­gle night.”

Along­side his twin rock’n’roll and TV ca­reers, Van Zandt has con­tin­ued branch­ing out. He launched his Wicked Cool la­bel in 2006 to pro­vide a home for ven­er­ated and emerg­ing garage rock­ers alike. In 2007 he es­tab­lished the Rock And Roll For­ever Foun­da­tion, de­vis­ing a cur­ricu­lum to teach the his­tory of rock’n’roll and that is free for use in mid­dle and high schools. And hav­ing switched on the ra­dio and dis­cov­ered that “rock’n’roll was gone from the air­waves”, since 2003 he has hosted Lit­tle Steven’s Un­der­ground Garage, which he de­vised and writes. Syn­di­cated through the Sir­ius satel­lite net­work, the show goes out to a weekly au­di­ence of more than a mil­lion lis­ten­ers in the US alone. Van Zandt now serves as an ex­ec­u­tive pro­gramme direc­tor at Sir­ius for both an ex­tended Un­der­ground Garage chan­nel and a sec­ond one that he sub­se­quently de­vised for the ser­vice, Out­law Coun­try.

“Peo­ple said rock’n’ra­dio would never work in this day and age, but of course it does,” he says. “We have close to five thou­sand tunes on the Un­der­ground Garage playlist now and I pick ev­ery one of them. In that re­spect it’s an ar­chive of sixty years of rock’n’roll and the roots of it, which was a true re­nais­sance era when the best mu­sic be­ing made was also the most com­mer­cial. Also, it’s giv­ing new bands a chance to be heard and who would not have that any­where else. Third, it al­lows me to show my grat­i­tude to the great­est artists in the world and that I grew up with, like The Bea­tles, the Stones and The Kinks, not to men­tion the pi­o­neers such as Chuck Berry and Lit­tle Richard. I’m also the only one that plays the Stones, Paul McCart­ney or Ray Davies when they have a new record out.

“Rock’n roll is an en­dan­gered species, and

I think it’s re­ally im­por­tant that it con­tin­ues to ex­ist and be ac­ces­si­ble to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Hope­fully what I’m do­ing on the ra­dio will con­tinue to live on be­yond me.”

In the im­me­di­ate fu­ture, Van Zandt hits the road with the Dis­ci­ples Of Soul this month. Be­yond that and jug­gling all of his other ac­tiv­i­ties, he plans to do more TV for half of each year (he says he has seven dif­fer­ent scripts cur­rently in de­vel­op­ment), and tour in the sum­mer with either his own band or Spring­steen’s. For now, though, the dog is bark­ing for his at­ten­tion and he has a car to re­trieve.

“Rock’n’roll is my re­li­gion,” he an­nounces as he scoops up his keys. “It’s what I be­lieve in and does all of the things for you that re­li­gion is sup­posed to. It’s in­spir­ing, mo­ti­vat­ing, en­light­en­ing and ed­u­ca­tional. And, god­damn it, coun­try to coun­try, it’s still the great­est form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that we have.”

Paul Rees “With­out re­al­is­ing it I sort of cre­ated

my own genre.”

Born to run: Lit­tle Steven with Bruce Spring­steen And The E Street Band in 1975: (l to r) Clarence Cle­mons, Spring­steen, Lit­tle Steven, Max Wein­berg, Garry Tal­lent. “You can’t be stu­pider than me. I give the best

ad­vice in the world, be­cause I’ve f**ked up in ev­ery pos­si­ble way.”

Nils Lof­gren (left) and Van Zandt with Bruce And The E Street Band in Jan­uary 2016

dur­ing The River tour. “The truth is Bruce and I couldn’t do any­thing

else. We were com­pletely in­ca­pable,

so had no choice.”

Still de­liv­er­ing the goods: play­ing BluesFest at The O2 in Lon­don in 2016.

“I made a con­sid­er­able con­tri­bu­tion to get­ting

Man­dela out of jail.”

As Sil­vio Dante in TV Mob se­ries The So­pra­nos in 1999.

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