4 Apr 2021

Stevie Van Zandt: 50 years of brotherhood with Bruce Springsteen

From Sunday Morning, 5:47 pm on 4 April 2021

There isn't much legendary E Street Band guitarist and The Sopranos actor Stevie Van Zandt, 70, hasn't done in the world of entertainment.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 15: (L-R) Musicians Stevie Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on March 15, 2016 i

Photo: AFP

He's been a guitarist, mandolin player, producer, radio show host, podcast host, actor and activist.

With a working relationship and friendship with Bruce Springsteen that dates back over five decades, the man formerly known as 'Miami Steve' is in the throes of completing his memoir, Unrequited Infatuations, the odyssey of a rock n roll consigliere.

He joins the Jim Mora on Sunday Morning to discuss his new book, originally being cast as Tony Soprano, and how he's only ever had three fights with 'The Boss' in 50-plus years.

The E Street Band was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014, not long after the deaths of two key members, Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons. Stevie and Springsteen debated whether the band should carry on.  

However, they decided that the band's legacy is now bigger than the band itself with music composed by Springsteen and the band's backing producing albums such as Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born in the USA and The River.

"So we decided it needs to continue ... it's something we felt was useful in continuing," Van Zandt says.

He first met Springsteen 55 years ago at the Hullaballoo Club in Middle Town in New York. First impressions weren't favourable with the singer looking at the floor a lot and a long way away from a rock god, says Van Zandt.

"If you think of a typical grunge guitar player that was him - barely spoke. It's been a remarkable transformation through the years."

They were drawn to each other because of their passion for rock n roll.

At the time rock music was not a legitimate way to make a living in the US. The country was seeing a "British invasion" with artists like the Beatles, Dave Clarke Five, The Kinks, Dusty Springfield, The Rolling Stones and many others.

Young Americans formed bands on the back of the Beatles' TV success, Van Zandt says, but soon drifted on to other things, such as going to college or joining the military "and in the end there were only two freaks left standing in New Jersey which was me and Bruce Springsteen".

Rock n roll was everything for the pair and they helped each other at a crucial time, he says.

"You went out to see bands whenever you could. Either you were playing at some high school dance or beach club or you were going to see a band that was [playing] - that was really all you did."

NEW ORLEANS, LA - APRIL 29: Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performs during the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Van Zandt perform in New Orleans in 2012. Photo: AFP

Spreading his wings

He left the band for a period in 1984 which is something he regrets. But he says he moved on to other worthwhile projects such as working to bring down the apartheid government in South Africa (with Artists Against Apartheid) and helping to free Nelson Mandela after he spent 28 years in jail.

"In a way it's art triumphing over commerce in my case, because sadly I never had any real commercial success other than my collaborations with other people, such as the E Street Band and The Sopranos and Lilyhammer."

His syndicated radio show Little Steven's Underground Garage is now heard on more than 200 stations across the US and in other countries after he started it in 2003, however, it has never made money. He's not complaining though because he says there is nothing more obnoxious than "a whining rock star".

While he has made a lot of money, he says he has spent even more. The E Street Band did not make any money until their fifth album and then the sixth, Born in the USA, was a huge hit.

But Van Zandt says he has no patience, so the money made from the latter was immediately spent on taking an 11-piece band on a worldwide tour without nailing things down in contracts beforehand.

"I'm very proud of my work ... If my choice was to be either artistically satisfied or financially satisfied I certainly would have chosen artistic."

Role based on relationship with Springsteen

At first he declined the offer of being in The Sopranos but with nothing better to do - record companies were nervous of him after his activism work - he auditioned.

He won the main role as Tony Soprano but within days the director was forbidden to use him because the HBO studio was nervous about casting someone who had never acted.

He didn't mind too much because he knew others, including his wife, had gone to drama school and worked for years to learn their craft.

Instead, the character of Silvio Dante was created for him and he agrees that he based Dante's relationship with Tony Soprano on his personal friendship with Springsteen.

"It grew into that quite quickly. I knew what it was like to be the under-boss, to be the consigliere, to be the adviser of a friend. Silvio has looked out for Tony and had that sort of same relationship.  

"My character was probably the only character on the show that didn't want to be the boss, and that's true in my real life also.

"I never wanted to be the frontman.

"I know what it's like to be the only guy not afraid of The Boss; the only guy who can bring him bad news and survive."

He says it's important that every boss in all facets of life has at least one person who tells him the truth.  

NEW YORK - MARCH 27:  Musician/actor Steven Van Zandt and Maureen Van Zandt attend the HBO premiere of The Sopranos at Radio City Music Hall on March 27, 2007 in New York City.

Stevie Van Zandt and his wife, Maureen, attend the premiere of The Sopranos in New York in March 2007. Photo: AFP

Renaissance period

He likens the sixties to a Renaissance period for music - "the greatest art being made also being the most commercial".

"One that's not to be taken lightly - those only happen every 100, 200 years and that is what was going on in the sixties."   

As well as memorable music, the decade gave birth to civil rights, women's rights, gay rights and opposition to the Vietnam War and the start of mass media which also led to the biggest generation gap in history, he says.

The true rock era lasted from 1965 to 1994 - from 'Like a Rolling Stone' to Kurt Cobain's death, at which time music became a pop era and pop will probably remain the dominant force, he says.

Stevie recalls rock n roll greats such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry, the blues with the likes of Muddy Walters and gospel turning into soul from Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and James Brown.

"Just extraordinary music that I think will be forever inspirational and motivational and I think people will learn from it and enjoy it and study it for hundreds of years to come.  

"History will refer to the sixties for hundreds of years to come as a separation point between the past and the future."

He says to some degree he agrees with the statement of Gene Simmons of Kiss who has said that "rock is dead". He points to the mainstream music business and the Grammys where rock music awards aren't even broadcast.

"Rock still rules live but in the big picture we have been reduced to a cult which is where we started in 1954 before 'Rock Around the Clock' was the first rock n roll hit..."

(L-R) US musicians Nils lofgren, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Van Zandt perform on stage during "The river Tour 2016" in the northern Spanish Basque city of San Sebastian on May 17, 2016. (Photo by ANDER GILLENEA / AFP)

The E Street Band Photo: AFP

Fractured feeling

Current technology is physically transforming people's brains, he says, which separates the younger generation from the older one.

He says the incredible flow of information these days mean that society may soon have to choose between democracy and free speech because "the lies are travelling faster than the truth can catch up to it".

"It is instructive that once Twitter banned Donald Trump it's [the US] been a much happier place.

"We are right now in this ridiculous situation in America where 50 percent of the Republican party are refusing to take the [Covid-19] vaccine... it's an extremely frightening moment."

He agrees that there is a fractured feeling worldwide.  

"I know why it's happening. It's happening because everyone worldwide is disappointed with their lives. The economic system isn't working and people are working twice as hard and getting half as much back and so they are looking for someone to blame."

He believes the E Street Band will go touring next year, with Australia and New Zealand high on the list for concerts if a tour eventuates.

"Hopefully, the vaccines will outrun the stupidity and the minute that happens we will be there."

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