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Detour off E Street: Steven Van Zandt’s solo excursion to NZ

Steven Van Zandt with The Disciples of Soul. Photo/Bjorn Olsson/Supplied

The Springsteen sideman and ‘Sopranos’ star is reviving his own music career. 

Steven Van Zandt is calling from New York. You might assume that he’d be somewhere in New Jersey, the place he’s helped immortalise in his roles as sideman to both Bruce Springsteen and Tony Soprano.

Van Zandt, who had never acted before The Sopranos, played the Mob boss’ consigliere, Silvio Dante, in the six-season drama that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Wearing an impressive pompadour, sharp suits and a permanent frown, Silvio, the loyal lieutenant, had duties that included offing those who turned informant. In the final episode, it was Silvio who was left bullet-ridden and on life support.

His Sopranos character may have been a man of few words, but Van Zandt is voluble down the line from his home in Manhattan, where he’s just been walking the dog (the yapping in the background suggests it’s a small one) and rehearsing with his band, The Disciples of Soul, for a tour down under.

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He describes the concerts with the 15-piece group (“It’s the best musicians in New York. Wait until you see this band, it will blow your mind”), complete with brass section and backing singers, as being like a Broadway show: part rock’n’roll history lesson, part musical autobiography. And unlike with those arena gigs as part of Springsteen’s E Street Band, he doesn’t have some sweaty bloke hogging the microphone.

“You can’t take the ham out of that guy,” he says, laughing about the man he’s called “the Boss” since the late 1960s. Their paths first crossed as teenagers. Van Zandt joined the E Street Band in 1975 – Springsteen credits him with having come up with the guitar riff to Born to Run.

In 1984, after the runaway success of Born in the USA (which he co-produced), Van Zandt departed for a solo career under his Little Steven moniker. The period delivered five genre-mashing, politically charged solo albums. In 1985, he helmed Artists United Against Apartheid, an all-star rock, jazz and hip-hop conglomeration that delivered an album and the protest-charity single Sun City. It reached No 4 in New Zealand, one of its highest chart positions in the world.
With Bruce Springsteen. Photo/Getty Images

“Wow,” says Van Zandt, after being told that bit of pop trivia. “I had better consider adding that to the set.”

He has dialled back the politics in his own music in recent years. His 2017 album, Soulfire, was largely a collection of his songs originally recorded by others. His forthcoming one, Summer of Sorcery, also sounds as if it’s harking back to his 1960s pre-E Street days.

“I was the most political writer in the business,” he says about why his new songs aren’t grappling with the world of 2019. “I did nothing but that. At the time, it felt necessary, as most of the politics was behind the scenes. Bad things were going on, hidden behind Ronald Reagan, who looked like everybody’s cowboy grandfather, and who everybody loved, except me.

“Now, it just feels like politics is completely redundant. It’s just in your face here 24/7. I am not going to say anything they don’t say themselves every single day. They are not hiding anything. Any administration that basically kidnaps children and brags about it as a deterrent to immigrants … what are you supposed to say? I don’t have anything to add to that.”

If Van Zandt isn’t flying a musical protest flag any more, he’s still been active in other areas. Twelve years ago, he started teachrock.org, a music curriculum that aims to give teachers in the US public-school system a way to engage students through pop history.

“We have no art left in the public-school system in America, which is terrible, so we are making sure we can try to get the arts in somehow. We also really needed to devise a new methodology for teaching this generation of kids: they’re faster, they’re smarter than us and they have no patience. They get things instantly. So, it’s hard for teachers to get their attention. We devised this thing using music as a way to get their attention, because every kid is into music and every kid is an expert on one single singer, which is their own taste.

“Whatever artist they say, we take them back: ‘This one came from that one, that one came from this one.’ We talk about the context of why artists wrote what they did and where they came from. It might be Ariana Grande came from Aretha Franklin, so we talk about Detroit, the gospel church and civil rights. We provide the context around the music and the kids are completely engaged. These millennials are a different kind of student, and the bureaucracy, of course, will never adjust fast enough. So, we are doing it directly with the teachers.”

Steven Van Zandt, centre, with fellow Sopranos cast members James Gandolfini, left, and Tony Sirico. Photo/Alamy

He has another outlet for his passion for rock history: his internationally syndicated radio show, Little Steven’s Underground Garage, which he has presented since 2002 and which has since expanded onto satellite radio and into a record label and live events.

The permanently bandanaed musician is both veteran rock star and rock nerd – sometimes simultaneously. When he and his band toured Britain in 2017, they played a lunchtime show at the Cavern, the Liverpool venue where The Beatles were discovered. Van Zandt’s set was all Beatles songs, some that the Fab Four had never played live themselves. Paul McCartney joined him on stage in London, too.

“It was one of the great thrills of my life. My religion being rock’n’roll, Liverpool is pretty much my Mecca.”

It was seeing The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 that turned the boy from Middletown, New Jersey, into a guitarist and singer. He formed his first band two years later, then met Springsteen, who was fronting another group, in 1967.

“We formed a mutual-admiration society of two,” Springsteen wrote in his 2016 autobiography Born to Run, in the chapter titled “Once There Was a Little Steven”. “I’d finally met someone who felt about music the way I did, needed it the way I did, respected its power in a way that was a notch above the attitudes of the other musicians I’d come in contact with, somebody I understood and I felt understood me … Steve and I believed big time and together we created a world of our own, all rock’n’roll all the time.”

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Van Zandt liked Springsteen’s book.

“I knew it would be good. I didn’t quite expect it would be quite that good. It was better than it needed to be, and I was just quite awestruck.”

Van Zandt has been asked to write his own memoir, and even signed a deal.

“Well, I tried, and I did about 200 chapters, but I realised it’s just too soon. I actually know too much to write the book. Plus, I didn’t feel I had a happy ending yet. So I just gave them the money back.”

He’s had other non-music writing gigs. As well as starring in it and co-producing it, he co-wrote the television series Lilyhammer in which he played a Silvio-like New York mobster in witness protection in Norway.

“People are still discovering it now. It was all local Norwegians except for me, so it was quite a ridiculous show, but I was really quite proud of it.”

The 2012 series was also Netflix’s first original content, which means that, with The Sopranos having ushered in the golden age of television in 1999, Van Zandt was part of two pivotal moments in TV history. Not bad going for a guy whose main qualification for a role in The Sopranos was his accent and that he’d played a long-time consigliere to another New Jersey Boss.

As Sopranos creator David Chase told Deadline: “I used to buy Springsteen records … [Van Zandt] was always there, looking like an Italian punk. He reminded me of Al Pacino at that time. That’s what attracted me to him.”
With Springsteen in the Upstage Jam with the Upstage Allstars in New Jersey in 2017. Photo/Getty Images

Van Zandt auditioned for the role of Tony Soprano and was the frontrunner until the show’s backers, HBO, objected to a non-actor taking the lead. Chase created the role of Silvio especially for Van Zandt, instead.

“It was a gift from David Chase and to have, at this stage of the game, a whole new craft to learn, which was fun. I dedicated myself to it. I learnt a lot from that wonderful group of actors and directors and David Chase himself.

“When the show first hit, I had been a rock star for 20 years, and within three weeks of that show being on, all people talked about was The Sopranos … everybody on the streets was stopping me about The Sopranos. It was like, rock star, what rock star? Who cares?”

And how did he feel about Silvio’s finale?

“I wanted to make sure he stayed alive just in case there was a sequel, but David Chase told me he’s going to do a movie, but it’s a prequel, so it’s 30 years before we arrive on the scene. So, it didn’t really matter in the end.”

Still, if Silvio isn’t coming back from the near-dead, 68-year-old Van Zandt has had a seemingly charmed life, between being part of both the E Street Band and one of the greatest television shows in history.

“I don’t do much, but whenever I do work, I keep the standards high,” he says, laughing. He thinks coming of age, artistically, in the 1960s helped.

“It comes from growing up in that renaissance period when the greatest art being made was also the most commercial. Greatness was fashionable back then, greatness was commercial … the better you were, the more successful you would be. I didn’t realise that that was going to end and, of course, it did end. The whole world is just drowning in mediocrity now.”

Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul play the Auckland Town Hall on April 27.

This article was first published in the April 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.