By Carol Anne Szel
Batman has Robin. Superman has Jimmy Olsen. The Lone Ranger, Tonto. Well, if you’re old enough to “get it,” then you’re old enough to know rock music’s one and only sidekick par excellence. The dynamic duo of music: Bruce and Little Stevie. The unofficial leader of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s E Street Band, Steven Van Zandt. Miami Steve.
Bruce Springsteen and guitarist/backing vocalist Van Zandt first met up in the early ‘70s, became inseparable friends, and Van Zandt played with Bruce as a member of his early bands. He officially joined the E Street band in 1975.
Little Steven was the primary guitarist for Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and the “River” tours, and was credited with helping produce those albums as well. He officially left the E Street Band and Bruce for 10 years from 1985-95 to pursue some solo musical and political activism projects, and was sorely missed by Bruce who was said to have written his hit “Bobby Jean” as a farewell to his much-loved guitarist.
Van Zandt, of course, returned to the E Street Band for their 1995 and 1999 reunions and remains a driving E Street force today, yet he now shares the guitar duties with Nils Lofgren.
In 1999, Little Steven found himself under the helm of HBO’s “The Sopranos” producer David Chase when he played the stand-out role as Silvio Dante on that show. And also in that time, Van Zandt launched “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” syndicated radio show that casts him as a crusader for the history (and future) of rough, loud, and chaotic rock ‘n’ roll. The show boasts over 500 episodes and counting!
Goldmine had the chance to catch up with Steven Van Zandt as he embarked on a European tour supporting his current and sixth solo record, “Soulfire,” on which he shares a song, “Love on the Wrong Side of Town,” co-written with Bruce Springsteen. Out on his own Wicked Cool record label, “Soulfire” is Steven’s first solo album in nearly two decades.
Goldmine: Why did you stay away from your solo music for so long?
Steven Van Zandt: I really don’t have any reason. I was managing myself back then, you know, which is never fun. And it got kind of tedious and at the same time I was doing everything wrong as far as having a career. I was looking at my artistic adventure and all five of my solo albums were very different. Which is really a mistake; you can’t do that and expect to have a career. But I wasn’t thinking about a career. I was thinking strictly about having the music match whatever scene that particular album had. And you know, it was just very linear in terms of the lyrics from album to album. But musically couldn’t be more different. So in the end, it was probably a bit confusing for an audience. And then, as I said, the business got kind of tedious, and I walked away. And I got into acting, then Bruce started touring again, and before you knew it, 20 years went by! And I shouldn’t have done that. I really shouldn’t have completely abandoned Little Steven the musical artist, but I wasn’t really thinking and I got distracted. There’s really no good excuse.
GM: And what makes this release so special?
SVZ: That’s the nice thing about this album. First of all, it was just kind of spontaneous and done kind of quickly. But also I was able to pick the songs that I had written for other people who had the most meaning for me personally. And then I was able to put things on this record that I had never had. I had never put a cover song on an album before, so I put a blues thing on there, I put a do-wop song on there, I put some jazz on there, and a little bit of R&B. So I was able to put elements that I wouldn’t have necessarily done. And the theme of this record, the basic concept, was just a re-introduction of myself to me as well as to the audience. So I put in some of those rootsy elements that make up who I am on this record that I never have done before.
GM: Do you have any particular favorite songs on the new release?
SVZ: I honestly like them all. They’re all different musically as far as genres, but they’re all different production styles and there’s all kinds of experimentation going on. I know what was going on in my head at the time, and they’re all very very different, so I couldn’t pick one. It depends on your mood, depends on what you’re into at that moment.
GM: What prompted the re-introduction now?
SVZ: Well, 20 years is a long time, so you don’t want to assume that your audience has followed you all this time. So you have to try to speak to, not only who your audience was before but speak to the new people as well. So it’s kind of like a first album in a lot of ways. And it was time to do it. I’m also re-mastering the five original records, which are hard to find, at the end of the year as well.
GM: You’re a naturally born storyteller. Is there a tell-all book in the works?
SVZ: (laughs) I started one like seven years ago and it was difficult. It’s tricky, because I kind of know too much! I wasn’t sure what I should be revealing. (laughs) I felt like I was kind of ratting out the whole world!
GM: Like back to your “Soprano” days!
SVZ: Yeah, exactly! Plus I didn’t think like I had an ending, you know? I’m still waiting for that happy ending, you know? It just feels like it’s too soon. I gave the money back and said just forget it.
GM: Any plans to re-release “Sun City?”
SVZ: Yeah, I’m trying to get everything back out this year. I’m trying to get the five albums out, “Sun City,” you know. Maybe even the “Lost Boys,” which was a record that never even came out. And just the stuff that should come out. Plus I want to re-release the “Lilyhammer” score. A three-record set, you know. And that’s all the work I’ve done in forever! Yep, trying to get it all back out and have it stay out.
GM: How long do you plan on staying out on the road with “Soulfire?”
SVZ: I want to go on the road for as long as I can. Europe in June and July, the second leg in August. Then probably back to the states in the fall. I’m going to go wherever I can and fulfill my lifelong goal of breaking even! And that’s not too easy.
GM: Glad you’re headed back to the States. The only show you did in the U.S. was at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank New Jersey back in May!
SVZ: Yeah, I grew up in that neighborhood. That was my movie theater. We’ve come full circle, right? That’s where I saw “A Hard Days Night,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” the original “Nutty Professor.”
GM: You are also well known for your radio show, “Underground Garage.”
SVZ: You know, we’re the only ones who play new rock ‘n’ roll. And for some reason, they’re still doing it, putting together a band and playing live music. And even though there’s no reward for it, there’s very little chance they can make a living doing it, it just makes you want to support them even more. The radio show, my radio format, we’re around the world now. We not only get to introduce new bands but we also get a chance to thank the old bands that were just so phenomenal. I mean we’re the only ones playing The Beatles now! The Rolling Stones. Who would have ever thought it would get to that point? So it’s wonderful that we can turn people on to the greatest music ever made!
When you hear a great new song, you just get the same feeling that you always got when you were a kid. I mean it’s just amazing what can be done with the same four or five chords that everybody knows. They’re still coming up with great songs. Every single week on the radio show we find one!
GM: Is constant writing something you do?
SVZ: No, you know what, I realized years ago that it’s most satisfying for me when I write with purpose. Once in a while in the old days I would write something and carry it around for years. But it was just like a burden. So I don’t write unless I actually have a purpose. A reason to do it and an outlet for it.
Some songs in the past I carried around for like 10 years and it’s just like carrying a monkey on your back! So once they’re born they want to fly, they want to get out there in the world.
GM: You’re a busy man. How do you keep everything going — family, music, radio show, outside projects, touring?
SVZ: Well you know I don’t leave for very long. You might leave for five- or six-week intervals. And it’s not like the old days where you go out for like six months or nine months without going home. So the most is five or six weeks, and even that’s a little unusual. You’re back and forth. So you see each other, take care of the business at home. I get ahead on my radio show, you know I like to get ahead of it. Because it’s a syndicated show, I’ve got to be four weeks ahead of that anyway. And you just fit projects in where you can. Each project can be a couple of months; a couple of years in planning, but a couple of months.