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Steven Van Zandt on Activism and How to Save Rock ‘N’ Roll

Steven Van Zandt
(Credit: Elena Di Vincenzo/Archivio Elena Di Vincenzo/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

He’s best known as Bruce Springsteen’s legendary E Street Band guitarist (and consigliere) but in 1982, Steven Van Zandt, a.k.a. Little Steven, was in heavy rotation on MTV with “Forever,” Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul’s debut single. A few years later, Van Zandt recruited a collective of famous musicians including Miles Davis, Bono and Bob Dylan for Artists United Against Apartheid to protest South Africa’s institutionalized racial segregation with “Sun City” which garnered two Grammy nominations (Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal, Best Music Video, Long Form). By 1999, when Van Zandt set aside his solo career to rejoin Springsteen after a 15-year absence, he released six records that eventually went out of print. 

Tomorrow (July 31), Van Zandt is re-releasing these newly remastered records along with 51 bonus tracks of unreleased material and live concert footage with RockNRollRebel – The Early Work, a 13-disc CD/DVD box set. “We just decided to get everything out there, man,” Van Zandt says. “For those who want to discover that I’m actually an artist, which many people don’t even know that I’m an artist in myself, and I don’t blame them for not knowing since I didn’t do it for 20 years. I kind of disappeared.” Since 2017, Van Zandt’s released two more Disciples of Soul studio albums.

Van Zandt’s nearly two-decade-long “disappearance” from the Disciples of Soul included high profile acting roles on TV shows The Sopranos and Lilyhammer (which he wrote, produced and scored) and the critically acclaimed Broadway musical Once Upon a Dream: The Rascals which he wrote, co-produced and co-directed. He also started a radio channel (Little Steven’s Underground Garage/SiriusXM), and his own record label (Wicked Cool).

SPIN caught up with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer over the phone from his home in Greenwich Village to discuss his solo work, his love of the ‘60s, and trying to save rock and roll.

SPIN: You created the Little Steven moniker for your solo work not only to get some distance from your E Street Band nickname Miami Steve but also to honor some of your favorite artists?
Steven Van Zandt:
Yeah, both things. I wanted to separate a little bit because Miami Steve was a character that had a role to play in the E Street Band which was Bruce’s best friend, Bruce’s right-hand man. We were like the rock and roll Rat Pack and I was like Dean Martin to Bruce’s Frank Sinatra and I was a fun guy, the party guy. I had that identity and I thought, “Well, now, becoming a solo artist, that’s not going to be me. I am not going to make party records.” I probably should have! [Laughs] I probably would have sold a hell of a lot more if I had. But I decided, “No, I’m going to explore the more serious part of myself. I’m going to take the work seriously but I’m still going to have a nickname to make sure people know I am not taking myself too seriously,” so it’s a tribute to Little Richard, Little Walter, and Little Anthony.

Were you initially worried people would draw comparisons between your solo work and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band?
Well, I already had that musical identity from the Southside Johnny records so the three of us, between Southside and Bruce and myself, we were all related and using a lot of the same influences and hanging out together and we were writing songs together, so it was three parts of the same thing. I wasn’t that concerned about really being compared because my full thing, especially on that first album, that was mostly my thing. If anything, I could be compared to Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes which was fine because I was a member of that band and I wrote a lot of those songs and arranged those horns so it was kind of my thing. I look at myself as a spin-off from what the Jukes were doing.

Steven Van Zandt Reuven Kopitchinski

Did you envision your first solo record as a one-off project or did you see it as embarking upon a solo career?
I wasn’t looking at it as a career which I should have been. I was looking at it more as an artistic adventure. The music was extremely different from album to album which is great artistically, and I’m very happy with it all but as a career, you really can’t do that. You can’t confuse people by having completely different music and a completely different band every album, but I was a little naïve about it.

Out of the blue, Gary Gersh who was at EMI America, which was kind of a new label, asked me to do a solo album which I had never really thought about doing and I said, “That would be fun. Maybe.” As I started to think about it, I had started to become obsessed with politics and I said, “No one is really writing about a lot of these things and maybe that will be my unique identity.” I felt you had to have a unique identity to make a record. I grew up in that renaissance period where everybody was quite unique so I carried that in my head.

On the first album, I figured, “Let me introduce myself as an artist” because it would be a whole new identity. All I did was foreshadow the future with that very first song “Lyin’ in a Bed on Fire.” What happened with the ‘60s ideals we grew up with? I thought we were going to change the world and what the fuck happened? The rest of that first album is pretty much personal stuff. Starting with the second album, there was nothing but full-on politics for the next four albums.

Apropos of your “I thought we were going to change the world. What the fuck happened?” sadly, some images in your “Sun City” music video, police brutality against black people and protests in the streets, look like present-day America.
Yeah, I know. I mean, isn’t it a shame how little things have changed? It’s really pathetic. Honestly, going through my own songs these past three years it was amazing how many of those songs held up so well and it was actually depressing. The things I was talking about thirty years ago, it’s still the same. I’m like, “Jesus, when are we going to learn? When are we going to start evolving?”

You’ve spoken publicly about the importance of trailblazing disc jockey Alan Freed and you were the keynote speaker at the unveiling of his monument and memorial ceremony in Cleveland several years ago.
If it wasn’t for Alan Freed and some of these really brave DJs in the ‘50s when things were extremely segregated, you had white radio and black radio, and you had these brave pioneers like Alan Freed playing black music for his white teenage audience. DJs like Alan Freed started playing the original black records because the original black records were covered by white artists. They took advantage of the fact that the black artists could not be played on the white radio and so they weren’t being played to the masses and so you had Pat Boone covering Little Richard and the white stations would play Pat Boone and it would be a hit but then Alan Freed came along and said, “Wait a minute. If you think that’s good, let me play you the original. Let me play you Little Richard.” Once that happened, once they heard the real thing, they didn’t want to hear Pat Boone anymore. So that’s when things started to change, really, and music was integrated long before our society was and we’re still not integrated.

With your reverence for ’60s music and ideals, you are definitely ride-or-die for that era.
What can I say? I call the ’60s a renaissance period. When the greatest art being made is also the most commercial, you’re in the middle of a renaissance and I think it will never grow old or tired; that whole era, the colors, the represented hope, and optimism. What happened to us? What happened to hope? What happened to that optimism? What happened to those beautiful colors and the flowers and the love and the vibes that every day is going to be better, man? We were floating six inches off the ground because of all that great music. It was propelling us and sustaining us. It was like oxygen. That’s what really carried us through. It was the birth of consciousness. All of the movements now, the gay movement, the women’s movement, the climate, the environment, all that stuff was swirling around. We were trying to end the Vietnam War, we were trying to get civil rights to happen, all of that craziness and chaos…assassinations…you know, some bad things, but mostly it was hope and optimism and positive energy. We’ve got to find our way back to that and I directly relate that, in part, to the rock and soul music of that era. We have to try to find our way back to some of that and it’s not necessarily nostalgic. It could be a new hybrid of it but we need to find our way back to that kind of high standard of quality because we’re drowning in mediocrity now and I think it’s affecting everything.

Steven Van Zandt Guido Harari

How do you think it can be rectified?
Well, the nice thing about it is the source remains. It’s a matter of finding our way back to that source. That’s why I started the music history curriculum [TeachRock] for that specific reason. I want to make sure young kids have access to that greatness. How can you aspire to greatness if you don’t experience it or if you can’t find it? You’ve got to do some searching these days because there’s no place for greatness in this society. I’m sorry, but people wouldn’t recognize it if it walked down the street at this point. We’re so numb to what greatness was. We don’t have the context, the knowledge, the history or the wisdom to recognize greatness at this point so we have to get that back into the system and get it back into the DNA a little bit so that we can start evolving again because, man, we are going backward for the first time in my life.

Speaking of greatness, in one of your recent Tweets you expressed that The Beatles being the best-selling rock band in 2020 gives you hope. There’s been the idea floating around for a while that rock is dead. What are your thoughts about that?
I think as far as the industry is concerned, the business really is dead. We started off as this cult in the ‘50s and had little breakthroughs. Bill Haley and the Comets broke through with “Rock Around the Clock” and then Elvis Presley broke through and slowly because of the Alan Freeds of the world, rock slowly made a coup on the charts and by the British invasion, rock had taken over and we remained in a rock era from “Like a Rolling Stone” in ‘65, which was really when it was recognized as a new art form, until Kurt Cobain’s death in ‘94, almost exactly 30 years. Starting around Kurt Cobain’s death, we went back into a pop era. The rock era ended and we returned to the pop era that we were in before The Beatles. But the difference is a big difference because the pop music of the ‘50s and ‘60s was among the greatest music ever made and now pop music is just not. It’s extremely mediocre and very diluted, so rock music has now gone back to the cult where it started in the ‘50s, except for live. Now look, we don’t know where rock is going to go from here but if it ever returns to anywhere close to where it used to be just a year ago, rock still was the dominant genre live because that’s what rock was all about. Rock was all about playing live and has remained so until this day. But rock is no longer is on the radio which is how it was in the beginning. It’s hard to get rock on the radio now unless it’s on my station of course. [Laughs.]

For the most part, what’s the last rock band that really broke through? I can’t even remember. You have Pearl Jam and Green Day, there are a few, but those groups are 20 years old, 25 years old, 30 years old. It’s really gone back to a cult unfortunately. The festivals were making up for a lot of the clubs…a lot of the infrastructure is gone which is what I’ve been trying to do for the last twenty years is to try to rebuild the infrastructure to support rock music going into the future which is what my radio station’s all about and what my record label is all about and it’s what my music history curriculum is all about. I’m trying to shore up the roots of rock and roll and make sure it’s sustainable and accessible to future generations because a lot of it’s gone.