“YO! Steve Van Zandt!”
That’s Steve Van Zandt talking, by the way, not me. It’s how he starts phone calls, apparently. Never meet your heroes, they say (bullshit - every time I’ve done so it’s been amazing). But if you ever get the chance to speak to Steve Van Zandt on the phone, I suggest jumping at it.
My call with Miami Steve of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Silvio Dante from The Sopranos, Little Steven of the Disciples of Soul - or however else you might like to refer to him - finds him in Cheltenham in the UK, having just been to visit Brian Jones’ grave (which he found “pathetically small to be honest, compared to what he accomplished and what he's given the world - that needs to be dealt with at some point”). I never quite get to the bottom of why he’s in Cheltenham - there’s just so much else to talk about - but I continue to enjoy the image.
From music to acting and political activism, Van Zandt has always been a man with a lot going on. It’s all detailed in the main thing he has going on right now, promoting his autobiography Unrequited Infatuations, which details in candid, hilarious and honest-to-a-fault fashion his road to rock’n’roll stardom as Bruce Springsteen’s childhood friend turned E Street Band right hand man, jettisoning fame and fortune for a solo career under a new name which would see him release only political concept albums, to activism that saw him play a role in the era’s most pressing social causes - apartheid in South Africa chief among them - and an unlikely but brilliant career as an actor, with an unforgettable turn as Silvio Dante in The Sopranos and later Frank Tagliano, the lead role in Lilyhammer, one of Netflix’s first big commissions.
Anyone with a passing interest in that CV will find the book both hugely entertaining and insightful. There’s a sense of mild melancholy to it that softens some of the more, shall we say peculiar solutions, offered to the world’s social ills, a feeling that this is a man that never quite got his fair dues despite his fair share of success and adulation. He mentions, for example, the struggle with the fact as he sees it, audiences forever define a person the way that they discover them - in his case, as the guitarist for the E Street Band, a role he only had for a relatively short but hugely impactful period. But given that he’s known for so many things besides his early work these days, I wonder if he still thinks that’s the case.
“All artists have the same dilemma, which is finding that place where art meets commerce, right? Where you find the common ground between what you are doing and what somebody needs or wants from you. I would never complain and I’m absolutely grateful for the times I had - it’s one in a million to be discovered and defined by an audience even once” he explains. “For me it was a solid twice, counting my acting which was completely accepted by an audience. Not a whole lot of musicians make that jump, so I'm doubly grateful for that. Lilyhammer was the first show on Netflix - there wasn't a lot of people who knew about Netflix and there was no marketing for it, so it not really finding an audience is understandable. Just because you don't find an audience for the more personal work, it doesn't diminish it in my eyes.
"I’m absolutely grateful for the times I had - it’s one in a million to be discovered and defined by an audience even once."
“I had a chance to re-examine it all as I was writing the book and I wouldn't change a thing. In many cases I never had the advocate, I never had the other half of the story which is, ‘Yes, the content is great but you must find a way to market it.’ That's just basic, you know, science! A lot of it didn't get seen or heard and it's my own fault for not having the manager to do it, you know? That doesn't in any way mean I would like to change something, because I really wouldn't. I'm very happy with what I've done.”
In no way does Van Zandt come off as bitter in Unrequited Infatuations, but that’s a comforting line to hear nonetheless. In fact, one of the things that makes the book such an interesting read is a recurring theme of success that’s seemingly been right there in front of him, only for Van Zandt to go down a different, more difficult path, very much of his own choosing. What is it that drives that impulse in him?
“Well, I don't know at what age this becomes your reality, or where it starts, but I've never really had money as a priority. I didn't grow up rich. We were middle class, comfortable, but it wasn't like we were rich. Both my parents worked for a living. I don't know where I developed this disdain for money, but I've never really respected it for its own sake.”
With the power of hindsight, Van Zandt tells me he’s learned there are valuable ways that money can help, that he’d never thought about when he was younger, “Like taking care of people who need to be taken care of and things like that. There is purpose in having money if you do have it, but it's never been the reason I did anything. I was attracted to a path that was more interesting artistically or in terms of the adventure of it.” These adventures have seen him starring in Lilyhammer. “I mean, what a crazy thing to do! I'd never heard of anybody doing that - who would do that? Especially coming out of the world's most popular TV show (The Sopranos, obviously) - you're going to go star in a local Norwegian show, in a country that nobody can find on the map?! But it was irresistible. I'm like, 'Man, you only live once. Let's live, let's take some shots!”, you know? What's the worst that could happen?”
As an artist, Van Zandt finds himself attracted to artistic experimentation or something that gets his blood moving. “I just find the world we now find ourselves in is just so fucking boring. I don't understand how we got here, especially when you consider the '60s which is where I grew up. Every day was exciting, a new adventure - you knew tomorrow was going to be better than today. No matter how much craziness and chaos was going on back then - and it was plenty, protests all over the place, cities burning to the ground, civil rights, Vietnam, the assassination of JFK, all kinds of crazy stuff – we had that magical music in the air at all times, which I think helped sustain us and in fact invigorate and inspire us.”
Compared to the sense of optimism in the world of his youth, when Van Zandt ponders on the current state of society, he finds less reasons to be hopeful. “All of that is gone, nobody thinks tomorrow is going to be better. It's probably going to be worse. That's how people think and that's how we elect completely incompetent assholes like Trump, and that's how we end up with Brexit, you know? By this sort of doom and gloom manipulation by these demagogues, who are just after power knowing they can get away with it because everybody in the world is waking up at this point disappointed.
“It's not just the UK and America either. I just did two world tours and half the world is in that same condition, and so you're seeing nationalism and religious extremism pop up everywhere, being manipulated by these fascists and the various kinds of demagogues. They're saying, 'It's not your fault that you're disappointed, it's his fault - it's the black guy, it's the immigrant, it's the EU's fault you're unhappy being in the UK’. People are buying it, man. I look around, I'm like, 'Jesus Christ. Can't we make life just a little bit less boring?' That's my part anyway.”
Van Zandt touches here on another through line of the book – a very keenly felt sense of injustice. Where does he think that comes from?
“I've always hated bullies. I was bullied as a kid in high school but I don't think it really would have come from that. In that case I was lucky enough to get revenge on that particular individual. I don't know why, it's just something in my DNA I think. I just can't stand somebody taking advantage of somebody's weakness or inferior position of some kind. I absolutely despise bullies and I always have.”
On the flip side, of huge importance to his life and career has been the idea of friendship, these close, lifelong relationships he’s had with friends and collaborators, obviously none more prominent in the story than Bruce Springsteen. I get a sense from the book that there might have been some regrets about the timing and manner of his initial departure from the E Street Band, but he also details how his surprise departure got rid of all of his fear - something that was key to his personal development, and his move into activism.
"I just can't stand somebody taking advantage of somebody's weakness or inferior position of some kind. I absolutely despise bullies and I always have."
“I really was able to go into dangerous situations that I may not have, had I been more sensible and had some sense of reasonable fear. It really helped me in my research (for my solo albums), you can get very deep into the research when you don't have any kind of limitation to it whatsoever. There were very few people who met with those guys (in South Africa), they were the most violent of all of them and people would be afraid to meet with them, especially in the middle of the ghetto where they had no electricity and were surrounded by military blockade.
He feels that was one of the best things about writing the book, it gave him the chance to re-examine and re-live those moments. “You realise, 'Well, there was a logic to it. There was something that changed, and those things I regretted looking back proved to be useful.' In fact, maybe that's the way destiny was supposed to go. I thought I was fucking with destiny at first, but then you start to think, 'Wait a minute, maybe this was actually what was meant to be,' because everything I know and everything I accomplished happened after I left the E Street Band. My life's plan was to miraculously try and make it in rock and roll and I never really looked past that. I did briefly experience that, but there was never a Plan B. I accomplished what I set out to accomplish but then instead of hanging around to reap the benefits I think my mind, having accomplished the plan, wandered onto something else.”
Van Zandt took an 18-year break from the E Street Band at the peak of their commercial and critical acclaim, and Bruce himself dissolved the outfit for a ten year stretch soon after. They’ve now been back together for over two decades, packing stadiums the world over. Does he think the band needed that break in order for the reunion to be such a continued success, or could they have carried on at that stratospheric level?
“That's a good question. We're never going to know that answer, but I do wonder even if I'd stayed… I don't know what would have happened next. Would Bruce have gotten bored with it all? Believe me, once you make that kind of money - the, 'I'm set for life, fuck you!’ money - your mind certainly can start wandering. If I'd stayed, I would have gone on the Born in the USA tour where everybody got rich and that would’ve been nice to have in the bank, but you have to wonder, what would have happened after that? He might have decided to try some different things anyway. Who knows? It's an interesting thing to think about. It wasn't like I was walking away from a lifelong career after that, I may have only been walking away from the one tour, you know? Which makes it less significant, in a way.”
Now with Van Zandt very much a fixture of the band again, the most recent album to hail from E Street – 2020’s Letter to You - was a live in the studio triumph containing some of the best music to bear the band’s name in decades. The book is released as interest in another of his lines of work – that of consigliere Silvio Dante, right hand man to Tony Soprano – is very much in the cultural conversation also, with the release of Sopranos prequel film The Many Saints of Newark hitting cinemas worldwide. I’m personally a little wary of the film, what with the series having ended so perfectly, I’ve some trepidation about revisiting that world even if the action’s set well before the TV show gets going. Van Zandt tries to calm my nerves.
"I thought I was fucking with destiny at first, but then you start to think, 'Wait a minute, maybe this was actually what was meant to be.'"
“I have seen it and it's great and the guy who plays me – you know, plays Silvio – is great. It's a guy named John Magaro, who I knew from him starring in David Chase's first movie. It’s so fun to be back in that world and see some of those characters, and even though it's 20 or 30 years earlier or whatever it is. In America it's being shown in theatres and on TV simultaneously, but I'm encouraging everybody to see it in theatres because you should see it with other Sopranos fanatics. Magaro has a couple of moments that just made me laugh out loud. It was fun. Nothing but fun.”
On a more sober note, Van Zandt remains active in social concerns - really the third pillar of his being if you will, besides music and acting - even if they are less overtly political than they once were. There’s a reason for that.
“These last four years, the Trump years, I decided politics is redundant. I spent the entire '80s being political for a reason, because most of the crimes were hidden and not visible, as opposed to the Trump years where they were right out-front, bragging about putting kids in cages to deter immigration. There's nothing to write about, there's nothing to reveal, you know?” Instead, Van Zandt decided to make the Little Steve & The Disciples of Soul albums Soulfire and Summer of Sorcery albums, that he describes as “the first non-political records of my life.
“Then I used two worldwide tours to say, ‘Leave the politics outside, we're going to use music as a common ground. We're here for spiritual nourishment, no criticism necessary. Let's just all get along for two hours.' I stuck with that right up until 2020, at which point I couldn't stand it any longer. My cause at the moment is trying to integrate the arts into the education system, because I believe it needs to be completely reconfigured to meet the needs of this generation. I really feel the way to do that is to integrate the arts into each discipline, not as an after-school class, but to integrate the arts into math, into science, into technology and engineering, and that's my cause right now.”
"I've got three options for projects next year, I could do a TV show, but I want to give Bruce first priority."
A week has passed and I still haven’t watched The Many Saints of Newark – being honest, I might just watch The Sopranos again – but it’s nice to have the option to get to see Sil once more. What I really want though is to see Van Zandt in his other element, as the other greatest right-hand man of all time. I want to hear the songs from Letter to You played live for the first time. Of course, I also desperately want “Born to Run”, “Badlands” and all the rest (dust off “Frankie”, I beg you). I want to see the E Street Band. When might I be able to?
“Well, we're all wondering that. I don't know. We'll see what the virus decides to do. I've got three options for projects next year, I could do a TV show, but I want to give Bruce first priority. So, if he decides to go out, I will definitely do that. I've got a feeling, if it happens - and there's absolutely no talk of it happening for sure - but if it does happen, we'll probably wait until we can play outside. I think playing inside is still a little dodgy, maybe a little bit weird until summer. We've got, what, six months to see what happens with this virus I guess, and then with a little bit of luck and depending on what he decides to do… I think it's going to be a fun album to play live, that's for sure.”
It’s a tantalizing thought; the best stadium band of all time, playing outdoors, next summer. Maybe tomorrow won’t be so shitty after all.