Singer, Songwriter, Sideman, Actor, Producer, Entrepreneur: Little Steven Shares Big Ideas

Steven Van Zandt has assumed a wide variety of roles over the course of his career, both real and imagined. Most know him as Bruce Springsteen’s buddy, his second in command and longtime guitar foil. Others recognize for the roles he’s played in two memorable TV series — Silvio Dante, the ever-loyal mobster and confidante of Tony Soprano, on the acclaimed gangland series “The Sopranos,” and Frank “Frankie the Fixer” Tagliano, the ex-Mafioso who’s forced to flee and go on the lam in the taut HBO drama “Lilyhammer.” To others, he’s the popular host of “Little Steven’s Underground Garage,” a celebration of music that’s cool and creative, as well as program director for two channels on the Sirius Satellite Radio network. Then there’s the part he plays behind the scenes as a producer and mentor to any number of up-and-coming combos. That’s in addition to running his own record company, his various charitable efforts and curriculums he’s created to foster music education.

The fact that he’s also known by two nicknames, Little Steven and Miami Steve, also adds to his iconic image, one bound up as the grinning, bandana-wearing sideman and the ever-loyal companion and confidant.

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It’s also worth noting that he, along with the other members of Springsteen’s E Street Band, is an inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

These days however, the identity he’s most eager to instill involves his simmering solo career, one that was initiated nearly 30 years ago and has quietly evolved ever since. It’s the subject of a newly released box set, Rock and Roll Rebel: The Early Years, a massive volume of work that collects all the individual albums he’s recorded up until now — Men Without Women, Voice fo America, Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid, Freedom – No Compromise, Revolution, and Born Again Savage — as well as various unreleased live tracks, radio spots and demos that have been collected on both CD and DVD.  It’s also the culmination of a career that defines him as an artist, advocate, activist, bandleader and provocateur

“It had to do with the record  company,” Van Zandt says when asked about the timing of the set’s release. “In fairness, I hadn’t paid much attention to my own work during the last 20 years of so, so a couple of years ago, after a bizarre circumstance where a guy asked me to put a band together and play a blues festival — it was reignited. Not having anything else to do, that’s what I did, and we decided to make an album and it turned into a tour and that led to my first new music in 30 years with Summer of Sorcery. So the last three years have been sort of a gift and more importantly, it’s been profound in the way it’s attached me to my early work again. I’d kind of been estranged from it. It wasn’t intentional, but I had kind of said what I wanted to say with it and learned what I wanted to learn.”

Indeed, if there’s one definitive description that fits Van Zandt perfectly, it’s best summed up by a single word, that being “restless.” His muse takes him in different directions, sometimes by choice, other times by necessity. Yet once he makes his move, he commits to it entirely.

“I had kind of moved on,” he recalls. “I started acting, Bruce put the band together, and before you know it, 20 years goes by. So it was kind of a revelation to reconnect with my old music again. It has value. It really does. It’s kind of unique. And none of it has really been available. So if Universal is enthusiastic about putting out a new album, let them put everything out.”

It’s noted that his ever prolific prowess could lead some to believe that he is, in fact, quite the multitasker. Given all his activity and accomplishments, it’s only natural to ask him how he manages to find the time

“It doesn’t overlap that much,” Van Zandt explains. “Even with 14 years of acting, we were touring the entire time. And believe it or not, I only missed one month of an E Street tour in Australia and one month of a different E Street tour in America. And that’s it. I only missed two months of touring in 14 years. If you love it, you get done. That’s what it comes down to. Nobody makes me do anything. My brain kind of likes jumping from one thing to another. It keeps things fresh. That first year I did “Lilyhammer,” I literally flew home every other week. I told the producers up front I couldn’t spend all my time in Lilyhammer Norway. I have my radio shows, I have my record companies, I have my publishing companies, my foundations…So I literally worked for a week, and then I’d fly home for a week. I had to come home every other week to sort everything out.”

One would think then that Van Zandt would be quite satisfied with his own prolific prowess, but that’s an assertion he surprsingly denies. “I have 25 projects in my head I know I’ll never get to,” he insists. “Most of my life I’ve been quite frustrated with my limited output. I really wish I had a greater output, but I decided early on that quality was going to be greater than quantity. Everything that has my name on it has to have a very high standard of quality.”

Nevertheless, he says the last three years have been satisfying as far as his creative efforts are concerned. He points to a live three CD box set released two years ago, a project he describes as another monumental undertaking. Two volumes of music related to the  “Lilyhammer” series were also released. Looking ahead, he points to another live undertaking that’s scheduled for release next May.

“The last three years have been quite productive,” he concedes. “Some day I hope it turns into actually making a living. None of it has to do with revenue. So there’s a little bit of a mixed feeling about it.”

Whatever that situation may be, there’s no denying that Van Zandt continues to live his rock and roll dream. A self-professed rock and roll rebel who once got kicked out of school for having long hair, he grew up on the Jersey shore where he became an integral part of several local groups, among them, the Shadows, the Dovells and Steel Mill, the band that first found him making music with Bruce Springsteen. His efforts were elevated to a new plateau when he cofounded South Side Johnny and the Asbury Dukes and reunited with Springsteen in the E Street Band.

Indeed, that spirit and inspiration that were so integral to rock and roll in the 1960s  remains with him today. Music remains his mantra. “We really were very lucky, my generation,” he professes. “I look around now and I have to say, I really feel so sorry for the kids today. That’s one reason I started my radio show, to ensure that future generations had a chance to hear the greatest music ever made. How can kids aspire to greatness if they don’t have access to it?”

That was also his goal when he formed his own record label, Wicked Cool Records. He’s proud of the fact that he still plays an active role in the company by ensuring the music stays true to its original standards while maintaining its quality control.

“That came from growing up in a renaissance,” he says, speaking of his intents. “That’s what it was. The ‘60s were a renaissance that will be studied for hundreds of years to come. It’s a very rare thing when the greatest music ever made is also the most commercial. That was what was going on.” He points to the other art forms it nurtured as well — film, literature, poetry, and theater — as well as the various populist movements that pursued the cause of civil rights and other pertinent issues of the era as well.

“It was a wonderful, wonderful time to grow up,” he reflects. “I certainly feel lucky to grow up when I did and to be able to make a living by doing what I love. I do get paid, but I do a lot of it is done out of love. I may be a moving target, but overall I’d say I’m a little too easy to find. I’m busier than ever. There’s always reason for more.”

Asked if he’s nostalgic, given that penchant to look back so fondly, he suggests that though that might be what it seems, it’s really not the case. “It’s not that I’m nostalgic about the ‘60s,” he maintains. “It’s more like I never left. I’m still that guy. I find everything about the ‘60s completely relevant today. It’s not that I’m thinking about fond memories of this or that. That’s not it at all. I couldn’t wait to grow up and find a craft, and get on with it.”

He points to his promotion of the Young Rascals reunion that eventually led him to produce a  Broadway show about the band called “Once Upon a Dream.” It is,  he says, an example of how he’s been able to help keep that fabled decade alive.

“What happened to the optimism, that hope that was so present every single day?” he wonders. “You looked forward to every single day because you knew it was going to be better. We were evolving as a species, and you could feel it. You could hear it in the music.”

That said, he opines what he calls a “de-evolution,” Society is going backwards, he insists. “You can’t help but look back and ask what happened. We were on a wonderful trajectory towards a new era of enlightenment. Then it slowed down in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. In the ‘90s and now today, we really seem to be going backwards. I hope that it has a happy ending of some kind, but I can see it ending really, really ugly.”

Of course, Van Zandt made his own break with the past when he left the E Street Band in 1984 and opted to venture out on his own.

“My first album was a reintroduction,” he recalls. “People had accepted me in a certain way. I was a sideman. I was Bruce’s right hand man. I was the fun guy. I was the Dean Martin in the rock and roll rat pack.”

Once he went solo and formed his own band, The Disciples of Soul, Van Zandt made it his mission to immediately issue his own musical statement. The new music was fiery, anthemic and unrepentant.

“The first song on that first album, Men Without Women, “Lyin’ in a Bed of Fire”  portended where things were going in terms of the politics,” he reflects. “It asked, ‘what happened to the ideals of the ‘60s?’ I attempted to answer that question the course of my next five albums, starting with Voice of America, my second release. It became exclusively political. I became an artist slash journalist. I’m very concept oriented. Every album has a theme. I started outlining every album even before I started writing them. I tell my songwriting students to always start with one simple purpose. Why are you writing this song? What do you intend for it to accomplish? Who are you writing it for? It is actually good to consider what it is you want to do before you actually do it. Otherwise you find yourself just scribbling away, waiting for some muse that may show up or may not. The craft begins with purpose. You’re trying to discover what’s going on in the world, and you’re also trying to discover something about yourself. And so Voice of America was a rallying cry. A call to action. I was trying to get people moving, provide some motivation. It helps to have marching orders.”

That philosophy still informs his songwriting. “Our art form is a storytelling art form,”  Van Zandt advises. “You begin there. You’re telling a story. It’s also about emotional communication. Our art form isn’t necessarily built for information per se. You’re trying to communicate emotionally. I also assume a character in the song because that’s another way that helps me communicate.”

That said, Van Zandt maintains that he’s always enjoyed the role of second banana in the E Street band, that of the perennial sideman supporting the big boss up front. “I’m not naturally the front man,” he says. “I’m not naturally the guy who likes being in the spotlight. I prefer being the guy behind the guy. If I had one ideal job I’d really love to do, it would be the producer, somebody who creates or writes or produces a live show or a radio show or TV show or a film, whatever it might be. I enjoy the full creative process of putting things together and being familiar enough with all the different pieces to be very specific about it. Performing is fun, being a rock star or being an actor are fun. But to me, that’s not using my full creative potential. Whatever I do, I want to give a hundred percent.”

Van Zandt said he eventually left the E Street Band due to his increasing involvement with political activism and his desire to make that statement with his music. He cites Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash and the Grateful Dead as having influenced his decision to pursue that potential. He said that at the time there simply weren’t enough songs making the statements that he felt needed to be made. Likewise, he was in search of an identity, one that would allow him to share his stand.

Nevertheless, he would eventually return to the fold. The reason he said was because he was looking for closure. “I was gone 18 years, but I felt like there was more that could be done with that band, he explains. “We were kind of starting to be forgotten, and I thought we should remind people what we were all about. I felt like we had made an important contribution when we were very active and making albums like Born To Run, The River, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and  Born in the USA. But then we disappeared for a lot of years after Bruce went solo. It was time to revisit that world, and see what we could do.”

Even after all that time, and the addition of Nils Lofgren and Patti Scialfa into the E Street Band ranks, Van Zandt says his status in the group never changed. “My role is Bruce’s best friend, being the right hand man, the consigliere, if you will,” he maintains “That is something you can’t replace.”

So too, that role translates to real life. He and Springsteen remain the best of friends, and as close as they’ve ever been. Yet he also admits that the way his life has played out, he’s assumed different as a series of guises. “Wearing this bandana nearly my whole life really paid off,” he reflects. “I could really transform myself physically into a whole other person. I’m really lucky I could be defined by an audience in different ways… a musician, an actor, a deejay… I feel very fortunate for that.”

The CD/DVD box set of RockNRoll Rebel – The Early Work is available to purchase exclusively via the uDiscover music store.

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