LITTLE STEVEN VAN ZANDT
The first thing you notice when you meet Little Steven Van Zandt is his eyes. He has an intense gaze that invites engagement on all things rock ‘n’ roll, but doesn’t suffer fools gladly. This isn’t an aloof rock star – this is a True Believer.
I had the good fortune of sitting down with Steven before his sold-out performance at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey. This was the first show of the tour in support of his long overdue solo album, Soulfire, and the faithful came out in force to salute the architect of the New Jersey Sound.
Springsteen may carry the mantle of “blue collar rock star”, but it’s really Steven who walks the walk. As a writer, producer, radio host, guitarist and all-around raconteur, Van Zandt has few – if any – equals. For over 40 years he has forged his own path through the rock ‘n’ roll landscape; celebrating its artistry and navigating the vagaries of the industry.
“Greatness ain’t born – greatness is developed. Greatness is WORK.”
– Steven Van Zandt
I witnessed his work ethic up-close during the soundcheck at the Count Basie Theater. Leading a 13-piece band through the usual soundcheck dance (“alright, let me hear the kick drum…”), Steven stopped mid-jam and had two police lights repositioned for maximum effect. This may sound like no big deal, but it spoke to how much the big picture is on his mind at all times. To completely stop a full jam in order to reposition two simple lights told me a lot about the way he views a rock show. It’s a show, not just a few folks hacking through the hits. Give the crowd their money’s worth.
It’s easy to miss how truly influential Van Zandt has been over the last 40+ years. The average civilian mostly knows him as an actor or as the guy who mugs for the camera in Springsteen’s “Glory Days” video, but his songwriting and production credits are insanely deep. Southside Johnny, Darlene Love, Ronnie Spector, Gary “U.S.” Bonds, Lone Justice, Arc Angels… Steven is the go-to writer/producer for artists who have a true appreciation for the organic, soulful side of rock music. Just ask Bruce Springsteen.
“My main thing is producer… I’m seeing the big picture all the time.”
– Steven Van Zandt
As a solo artist he released a series of deeply conceptual, socially-conscious albums that are overtly political but still rock like hell. His legendary 1985 single, “Sun City”, is one of the most important protest songs ever recorded – and also one of the most effective. Make no mistake: Steven Van Zandt’s song “Sun City” absolutely contributed to the downfall of South Africa’s apartheid regime. It’s an amazing achievement for a rock ‘n’ roll single and it made him a global celebrity.
“The ‘celebrity’ part of it is something I do out of necessity; not because I dig it.”
– Steven Van Zandt
As impressive as his resume as a musician is, I think his true gift is as a radio presenter and rock ‘n’ roll philosopher. Steven’s radio show, Little Steven’s Underground Garage, and the fulltime satellite channel it inspired are far and away the best thing on the airwaves. More than a throwback to the oldschool era of DJs and human programming, Underground Garage is fully committed to contemporary rock music and has been the launch pad for countless amazing bands worldwide. Keeping the flame burning seems to be Van Zandt’s prime motivation in life and he’s actually putting the work in to keep that dream alive.
Little Steven on the state of rock ‘n’ roll today:
Anyone looking to start a band would do well to heed Steven’s advice and his “5 Crafts” philosophy for making great rock ‘n’ roll:
“There was a time when rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t the mainstream, then it became the mainstream and now we’re back to being a cult again. And you know what? That’s probably where it belongs.”
– Steven Van Zandt
With the release of Soulfire, Steven has entered a new phase of his career. Now in his mid-sixties and completely comfortable in his own skin, he’s allowed himself to make an album that acknowledges both his influence and his influences. The record feels celebratory and is probably the most unapologetically fun release in his long history.
This sense of joy was on full display at the Count Basie Theater. It permeated every aspect of the performance and the crowd was absolutely rapturous throughout. Steven led the band through a gamut-running set that touched on every aspect of his career and underlined just how important soul music is in a rock context. It’s a sound Steven helped forge and he’s still its leading exponent.
Oh yeah – this happened at the show:
Springsteen himself climbed onstage and joined Steven for the final four songs of the set – including “10th Avenue Freeze Out” from Born to Run. The only thing that could have made that moment more New Jersey is if the ghost of Frank Sinatra had materialized to join Steven and Bruce on “Can I Get a Witness”. It was freakin’ awesome.
Starting with a run of shows in Europe, Steven will be on tour throughout 2017. GO SEE HIM.
Of all the artist interviews I’ve done, this one is the most freewheeling. As an unapologetic rock ‘n’ roll nerd, I couldn’t squander my time with Steven on the typical Q&A thing. This is one of the world’s preeminent rock historians and philosophers. To ask what sort of amps he used on the album or how he got the role of Silvio Dante on The Sopranos is to miss the point entirely – so I didn’t. What followed was a glimpse into 50 years of music history through the eyes of someone who not only studied it as a fan and acolyte, but actually lived it on stage, in the studio and on the airwaves. Hope you enjoy it.
– Jeff Nolan 5/31/17